If you live in New Hampshire, you may want to hire a contractor to handle a small-scale renovation project. Occasionally, disputes can develop between homeowners and contractors. You wanted a particular light fixture, and he gave you another one; he said he would complete the job in two weeks, and instead it’s taking two months; you asked him to fix your electrical system, and he caused a huge power surge.
How can you get your money back and get compensated for any damage that your contractor caused? For small projects like the ones above, you probably lost only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars – a lot of money, to be sure, but perhaps not enough to justify the cost of hiring an expensive attorney. New Hampshire's Small Claims Court might be your answer.
New Hampshire’s Small Claims Court permits you to sue people or businesses for up to $10,000. While the rules of “regular” litigation are highly technical, the procedure in Small Claims Court is purposefully simplified, because the court is intended for ordinary citizens without attorneys.
New Hampshire is unique in requiring electronic filing of Small Claims cases through a special program known as Turbo Court. You will need to sue your contractor in either the New Hampshire county where his office is (or where he lives if you’re suing him individually), or the county where you live.
As a plaintiff, one of your first considerations is whether your claims fall within the statute of limitations period. New Hampshire’s statutes of limitations control the time within which you can sue. The purpose of these limits is to encourage citizens to resolve claims quickly, to give individuals and businesses a sense of security from legal liability.
The most common legal causes of action against a contractor tend to be breach of contract (“She promised to renovate my bedroom, but barely did anything!”) and property damage (“He ruined my flooring when he was supposed to be renovating!”).
New Hampshire has a three-year limit under N.H. Rev. Stat. § § 508:4(I) for breach of contract, as well as a three-year limit for property damage under the same statute. Three years can pass very quickly. Be sure to act diligently in pursuing your claim.
Before filing your case, you’ll need to pay a fee. This fee is fixed by statute: $60 for actions seeking $5,000 or less, and $120 for actions seeking $5,001 and $10,000. You may pay additional fees if you want to sue multiple defendants or issue subpoenas (for example, consider subcontractors or witnesses to your contractor’s work).
Next, you’ll file a Small Claims Complaint through New Hampshire’s online filing system. You’ll need to provide names, addresses, and phone numbers for both yourself and the defendant contractor (or the business entity name). You’ll then need to describe your claim. Finally, you’ll indicate the amount of money you believe you are owed. Don’t exaggerate the amount owed to you; judges will require you to prove the full extent of those damages. If you need additional room to tell your story, use the Small Claims Addendum.
Once that’s filed, you’ll need to make sure the defendant is formally served with (delivered) a copy of the lawsuit and that proof of service is filed with the court. A court clerk can help you find a process service company to do this for you.
Next, your contractor will have an opportunity to file a document called a Response to Small Claim (more commonly known as an “Answer” in other states). Like the Complaint, this is a short form that allows the contractor to tell his side of the story.
Finally, the clerk will send both you and your contractor a notice of a date to come to court. This is when you will see the judge.
An actor wouldn’t perform a play without rehearsing. Similarly, you should not walk into New Hampshire Small Claims Court unprepared. Even for experienced attorneys, standing in front of a judge is nerve-wracking. One can easily forget dates, documents, and damages.
Practice what you will say in your limited time before the judge by rehearsing in front of a friend or family member. Omit extraneous details and time yourself, aiming for a few minutes. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see many plaintiffs every single day. Make the judge’s job easier by making the story short, simple, and to the point.
The evidence you present is another key aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim. 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 he properly performed the agreed-upon duties.
If your case is like most, your most important evidence will include: 1) written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already given him; 3) 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 workmanship.
Depending on circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
If you win your lawsuit, you’ll receive a piece of paper called a judgment. This indicates that you are owed a certain amount of money – perhaps everything that you asked for, or perhaps a percentage of what you asked for. If your contractor pays you what he’s ordered to pay you, you can file this Notice of Payment to tell the court that your case is closed. (Remember, don’t fill this out until his check actually clears!)
What if your contractor does not pay you? In New Hampshire, you’ll need to begin what are called post-judgment proceedings. The purpose of these proceedings is to be able to attach any assets (such as bank accounts or vehicles) owned by your contractor in the amount of the judgment. To begin, you can file the Motion for Contempt for Non-Compliance with Payment Order. The court will then have the contractor fill out a Statement of Assets and Liabilities, to determine whether or not the defendant has any assets in the amount of the judgment. Post-judgment proceedings are time-consuming, and you’ll need to evaluate whether they’re worthwhile, depending on the amount of money you were awarded.