Not every lawsuit is worth tens of millions of dollars, or even tens of thousands of dollars. Many are worth just a few hundred or a few thousand, especially when homeowners need to sue negligent or faulty contractors for work on small-scale home renovations. In the context of painting, retiling, or electrical repair, the service contract prices often are small – at least when compared to a full-scale home renovation or construction project. For disputes of this size, it is often not cost-effective to hire an attorney. If you’re a Nebraska resident, your preferred option may be to sue the home contractor or business in Small Claims Court for $3,600 or less.
Court should be a place of last resort. Not only is suing someone stressful and time-consuming, but judges can be unpredictable. Whether arguing before a Nebraska trial judge or a federal appeals court, the most experienced lawyers will tell you that litigation leads to uncertain outcomes. If you want to be more certain of the result of your conflict, a negotiated settlement is your best solution.
This will mean both conversation and compromise. After reminding your contractor what was promised (perhaps with reference to the written contract, if you have one), provide an opportunity to explain what the problem is. Is the job more expensive or complicated than anticipated? Does the contractor need more time? Is there an issue that can be worked out between you?
If this strategy gets you nowhere, put your concerns in writing with a formal demand letter. This should explain to the contractor what he promised (again, with reference to any written contract). Such a letter often carries more weight than a mere oral complaint, especially if you include a sentence at the end stating that you reserve all your legal rights and remedies.
Moreover, sending a demand letter serves strategic purposes, in case you eventually litigate. It can become a form of evidence, showing a a busy small claims court judge that you did your best to avoid court. Sometimes called a “good faith letter,” it demonstrates to the judge that you made reasonable efforts to resolve the dispute amicably before burdening the justice system. You'll come across as the “good guy” in the whole dispute. You wouldn’t, by contrast, want the contractor to be able to tell the judge that your lawsuit was the first time he ever heard that there was a problem with the work; judges generally prefer litigation to be a last resort.
While many disputes with contractors can be solved through negotiation, not all can. Sometimes, talking and letter writing will fail and you’ll need to file a lawsuit to get any sort of compensation.
Litigants can represent themselves in Nebraska’s Small Claims Courts; there are no lawyers. There are typically also no juries. Instead, judges resolve lawsuits for money damages not exceeding $3,600. There are a few important things to keep in mind when ready to begin your lawsuit.
One of the most significant limitations on Nebraska Small Claims Court is that your claim for damages cannot exceed $3,600 and the relief requested must be solely monetary – that is, you must be seeking money, rather than some other form of relief, like a court order that your contractor must correct the sloppy work on your home.
Nebraska, like all other states, also has statutes of limitations on when you can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (five-year limit under Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 25-205(1)) and property damage (four-year limit under Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 25-207(2)). Some plaintiffs make the mistake of waiting to file suit until years of negotiations back and forth have gone by, or until they really need the money. Be careful not to get precluded by Nebraska's limitations periods.
Procedurally, you must first select the Nebraska county in which you will sue. State law requires you to sue in the county where the defendant contractor resides or is doing business, or in the county where the cause of action arose (most likely the county where your home is located, where the construction project occurred).
Next, to formally begin your case, you must file a Claim Form in the small claims clerk’s office. Your Claim Form is a sworn statement regarding the facts of your case. You can frame it as a story, beginning from the moment you and your contractor agreed to the scope of work. Do your best to avoid legalese or citations to statutes and legal treatises. There is no expectation that you know the details of the law. Rather, in small claims court, it is the judge’s job to know the law; your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion. A small claims court plaintiff who attempts to write a detailed legal brief with Internet research on legal precedent and statutes will most likely confuse the judge rather than illuminate the important facts.
Once you've filed the Claim Form, the clerk will send a copy to the defendant contractor, along with a summons to appear in court on a specified date. That will be the date upon which you each orally present your case to a judge.
Filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court is not free. You can generally expect to spend about $30 (as of 2015), though the rates change each year. Nebraska’s judiciary publishes a fee schedule where you can check the costs for different services, such as serving subpoenas or docketing a judgment. It is generally wise to set aside a few hundred dollars for various court fees, just in case.
When you appear in court for your trial date, it is crucial to be prepared. You’ll want to review Nebraska’s helpfulGlossary of Small Claims Terminology so that you’re familiar with the lingo. It’s normal to feel nervous when speaking to a judge – especially with the contractor standing next to you. Practice is key. A good way to rehearse is to explain your claim to a friend or family member, trying to get your statement down to roughly one or two minutes. Keep it simple and direct by avoiding irrelevant facts or expressing unnecessary emotion or speculation.
A second important aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim will be the evidence you bring. In the context of home improvement contractor litigation, evidence is crucial to avoiding a he-said/she-said situation, where you and your contractor simply disagree on whether or not the contractor properly performed the agreed-upon duties.
Typically, 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 handed over; 3) any emails or letters you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your dispute; and 4) photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy or incomplete workmanship.
In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Small Claims Court, in Nebraska and elsewhere, is that even if you “win” your case against your contractor, you essentially only receive a piece of paper called a “judgment.” While most small businesses will pay their judgments, some will not. While the Nebraska court system provides guidance and resources on its website, and you can speak to the local clerk, it is ultimately your job to enforce your winning judgment.
If the contractor fails to pay you, you will need to return to court to file additional paperwork known as Garnishment Forms. This can allow you to “attach” assets in your contractor’s accounts, or seize some of his property, though you will need to hire a judgment collection company for this action. Often, the stress and cost of pursuing a judgment from a deadbeat contractor is simply more trouble – and expense – than it is ultimately worth.