The Missouri small claims court was established to help average people sue for money damages without needing to hire an attorney. It can be an ideal venue for resolving disputes with a contractor over small-scale home renovations. Often, such disputes are worth a few hundred or a few thousand dollars – large sums of money, but not substantial enough to make hiring an attorney cost-effective. How can you recover from your contractor, without an attorney, using Missouri’s small claims courts?
Small claims court is helpful in resolving your dispute, but going to court is time-consuming and stressful. You also risk losing at trial if the judge disagrees with your version of the events. To save time and mitigate that risk, give negotiation a try.
Nolo has some advice on the best first step in approaching your contractor to settle a dispute. Have a conversation about the issue – the sloppy alignment of the tiles, the unfinished repairs, the damage from the water pipes, or the unexpectedly high bill. Is there a reason the project went south? Perhaps, with a little more time or money, the contractor would be able to cure the problems.
If talking doesn’t help, write a demand letter to your contractor. Nolo has a helpful guide to writing these letters, which are a bit more formal in nature than a negotiation. Reference the written contract, if you and your contractor signed one, and note that you hope to resolve this matter without the need for a lawsuit. Often, the latter phrase alone will get the contractor’s attention and bring him to the negotiating table. The contractor will realize that the time and nuisance of going to court is likely not worth the trouble.
Missouri’s small claims court is specifically permitted to hear only certain types of disputes: disputes for money damages of $5,000 or less. This means that you cannot sue your contractor for anything besides money. The judge cannot, for example, order that the contractor return to your house and repaint your garage or retile your kitchen. The judge can only order that your contractor pay you for the reasonable value of these services. It will be up to you to spend that money as you wish.
Note that Missouri allows you to file a claim worth over $5,000, but with the knowledge that you’re sacrificing any potential recovery above that amount. That is, if you believe your contractor damaged your property in the amount of $7,000, you can sue in small claims court as long as you realize that you cannot recover that $2,000 above the limit.
Missouri law requires that you sue the defendant contractor either in the county court where its offices are located, or where the event that forms the basis for the lawsuit occurred – i.e. your home, the subject of the contract. Most often, it will be more advantageous and convenient to sue in your “home” county. If you are unsure of your county’s borders, see the convenient map on the state’s website.
Beyond the $5,000 monetary limit for small claims court, Missouri also has statutes of limitations on when you can file your lawsuit. The most common "causes of action" in contractor disputes are claims for breach of contract and property damage. In Missouri, there is a five-year limit under M.R.S. §516.120(1) for breach of contract as well as a five-year limit under M.R.S. §516.120(4) for property damage. If you are attempting to sue a contractor who did work on your home a dozen years ago, he will be able to argue that you’ve run past your time to sue.
Filing a lawsuit isn’t free. Different counties in Missouri will charge different filing fees, but generally (as of 2015), you should expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $80. Jackson County, for example, charges $27 in addition to $10 for each defendant.
All counties in Missouri use largely the same Small Claims Cover Sheet and Complaint, with slight variations in formatting. You can find your county’s website and download the form. You can fill it out in person (by hand) or download it, type your responses, and bring the completed version to court.
The form asks basic information about both you and the defendant contractor – names, addresses, and phone numbers. You’ll also need to describe your claim, including important dates, witnesses, and other relevant information. Finally, you’ll need to indicate the amount of money damages you are claiming. Just because you cansue for up to $5,000 does not mean you should. Remember, the court will force you to prove the extent of your damages, and exaggeration could harm your credibility with the judge.
In your complaint, try to avoid legalese. The judge knows the law, and you shouldn’t waste your precious space inserting Internet research. Your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion. What did the contractor do, or not do, compared to what he promised? A compelling answer to that question is the key to convincing the judge.
Remember, your contractor will have the opportunity to answer your complaint in writing before the hearing. He will also have an opportunity to file a counterclaim against you. A common counterclaim would be for unpaid fees, to the extent that you haven’t paid the contract balance. Be prepared for this.
Like a singer rehearsing for a performance, you should rehearse for your day in Missouri small claims court. Arguing in front of a judge can make anyone nervous. It’s easy to forget crucial information like dates, promises made, and payments. Try explaining your claim to a friend or family member, focusing on getting your statement down to roughly one or two minutes. Keep it simple and direct. Small claims court judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoiding irrelevant facts will make the judge’s job easier and potentially lead to a better decision.
A second important aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim will be the evidence you present. In the context of home improvement contractor litigation, evidence is crucial to avoiding he-said/she-said types of arguments.
The most convincing evidence will likely 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 you’ve already given him; 3) Emails or letters 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 workmanship.
In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
Assume that you’ve won your lawsuit. You will receive a piece of paper called a judgment, indicating that you are owed a certain amount of money. Most contractors will see that they’ve lost in court and will pay you what the judge ordered. If this happens, you can file a Satisfaction of Judgment to let the court know that your case is over and that you’ve been paid in full.
However, some defendants will not be so forthcoming. If your contractor does not pay you within 30 days of the order, you’ll need to fill out a Request for an Execution, Garnishment or Sequestration. Your county clerk will enter the judgment, and a notice of entry will be sent to the contractor. In Missouri, the court will not help you collect that debt. You will need to contact a collection agency for assistance.
With a correctly entered judgment, a collection company will attempt to “chase down” the money owed from the contractor – perhaps by repossessing cars, or by attaching bank accounts or other assets. You will need to pay further fees to the collection company, but unfortunately, this might be the only way that you’ll be able to recover the amount you're owed.