You’ve just moved into a home in Biloxi, Mississippi and you decide to upgrade the bathroom. You find a contractor who agrees to retile it, install new cabinets, and fix the water pipes. You sign a contract for a few thousand dollars, including all labor and materials. The contractor finishes the job, but within a week, you notice that the water pressure is weak, the cabinet wood is a lower quality than what you agreed upon, and the tiles are cracking. He refuses to fix the work or refund your money. The phrase, "I'm going to sue this guy" may be going through your head.
Because the cost of this project was relatively small – at least compared to new construction or a full-scale home renovation – a lawyer could cost as much or more than you could recover from the contractor. So what can you do? Mississippi's Small Claims Court (sometimes called Justice Court) makes it possible for you to recover monies without the need for a pricey attorney.
Mississippi’s small claims courts allow people to sue individuals or businesses for up to $3,500. This allows you to sue your contractor for any deficiencies in performance whether you hired him in his personal capacity (i.e. “Bob”), or whether he owns a formal company, like an LLC (i.e. “Bob the Builder, LLC”).
You can sue your contractor for multiple causes of action, the most common of which are breach of contract and property damage. For example, your contractor may have breached your agreement by giving you lower-quality materials than promised, or perhaps caused physical damage to your home in the course of trying to make repairs. Your lawsuit can explain all of the various ways that your contractor damaged you, so long as those damages add up to no more than $3,500 (or you're willing to waive any damages higher than that amount).
Many plaintiffs think that offering to settle their dispute makes them look weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. Negotiation is usually the smarter and stronger alternative to litigating, since your contractor is likely afraid of being sued. Even the relatively simple procedures of the small claims court are stressful and time-consuming. Your contractor has a business to run, and telling him that he'd better come to the bargaining table or face legal consequences might actually be a strong move.
First, try talking before you file the lawsuit. Call your contractor, explain the situation, and state that you will sue unless a deal can be reached. Talking doesn’t always get a contractor's full attention, however. You might also send a demand letter. Such a letter tends to be taken more seriously, and can later be used as evidence that you did your best to avoid court, which busy small claims judges will appreciate. You gave your contractor a reasonable chance to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than burden the court system.
If neither talking nor sending a demand letter results in an acceptable response, you may file your lawsuit and then continue to negotiate. Being served with a lawsuit can be intimidating, even for an established contractor or business, since the outcome can be unpredictable. Serving your contractor with a lawsuit might be enough to bring him to the negotiating table.
Don’t negotiate forever! If you delay too long before filing your case, you might find your lawsuit precluded under Mississippi’s statutes of limitations, which restrict the amount of time that a plaintiff has to sue. The idea is to give defendants certainty that they aren’t liable forever.
The most common legal causes of action against a contractor are breach of contract (“They said they’d install a fancy refrigerator, and instead they installed a terrible one!”) and property damage (“The contractor broke my electric system when she was supposed to be fixing a fan!”). Mississippi has a three-year limit under Miss. Code § 15-1-49 for breach of contract as well as a three-year limit under Miss. Code § 15-1-49 for property damage. Do not make the mistake of waiting until it’s too late.
Each of the 82 counties in Mississippi has its own Justice Court that hears disputes. Judges are elected to four-year terms, and hear a range of disputes valued at $3,500 or less. These commonly include employee-employer disputes, landlord-tenant disputes, or neighbor disputes. Under state law, you can sue your contractor in either the county where you live or the county where his office or place of business is located. If you are unsure of the location of your county’s courthouse, Mississippi’s Judiciary provides a full directory with the relevant addresses and phone numbers.
You will begin your filing by going to the relevant county courthouse. You will speak with a clerk (a civil servant who is not a judge), and will fill out the Small Claims Declaration. The Declaration form differs slightly from one county to the next; most counties have the forms online, and Hinds County’s form is a good example. This document includes the names, addresses, and phone numbers for both yourself and the defendant contractor (or business entity name).
You’ll then need to describe your claim and state the amount of money you believe you are owed. Do not exaggerate, since the judge will make you prove your damages. Don’t damage your credibility by saying that you are owed $3,000, when really you are owed $2,000.
Once filled out, this document will need to be formally served on your contractor. Usually this is done through a process server, who will hand-deliver your lawsuit. Proof of this formal service is a requirement.
There will be various fees associated with filing your lawsuit. Again, these will vary by county. In Hinds County, for example, you can expect to pay (as of 2015) a $65 filing fee for the Declaration, although you’ll pay an additional $10 for each defendant you sue (for example, if there were multiple subcontractors involved).
Small Claims Court tends to be less formal than “regular” court (i.e. Mississippi’s Circuit Courts or County Courts). The rules of evidence are relaxed, as is the overall environment. You will probably stand beside your contractor, and each have a chance to explain your side of the story to the judge.
Not surprisingly, the two of you will probably have very different facts and stories. The judge’s job is to sort it all out, and determine who makes a stronger case. Effective communication is critical. Smart plaintiffs will practice their narrative with a few friends before the trial, reviewing the central documents, facts, and dates involved.
You will also want to anticipate the counterarguments your contractor is likely to make. For example, he might say that you never paid in advance for certain work as promised, or that you told him to use lower quality materials to save money. Consider your responses to such statements in advance, so that you won’t be surprised in front of the judge.
In addition to your oral presentation, both you and your contractor are permitted to bring physical evidence to court. Generally, in home-improvement litigation with a contractor, the most important evidence will include: 1) Any written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already paid; 3) Any emails, letters, or other correspondence you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your dispute; 4) Photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy or inadequate workmanship. In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
Be mindful of your appearance. While suits are not required (you’re not a lawyer!), you should also avoid sloppy jeans or ripped T-shirts. Court is a staid environment and, even if appearances shouldn’t affect the outcome, first impressions do matter. You want the judge to see you as serious, trustworthy, and professional.
If all goes well, your judge will believe your version of the events and award you some sum of money – something between $1 and $3,500, depending on the nature of your claims. The next step is getting your contractor to write you a check. Most reputable contractors and businesses will readily pay their judgments. They want to have credibility with banks and lenders, particularly if they operate within a small community in Mississippi. Deadbeats will not be able to secure lines of credit, for example.
However, some contractors are more difficult and will not pay you without additional collection efforts. Once again, each county has different procedures. Generally, though, if the defendant does not pay the judgment within 21 days, you can bring an action for garnishment. This will cost additional filing fees (usually another $15) and will likely also require a collections agency to help collect the money from assets or property held by your contractor.
Contact the clerk of the county where you brought the lawsuit for further instructions on the specific enforcement mechanisms available in that county.