Imagine that you hired a contractor to perform targeted renovations on your Columbus, Ohio home – maybe installing new copper pipes, updated flooring in the family room, or drywall and shelves in the gardener's cottage. Now imagine that the contractor failed to perform his duties. He used low quality piping, unevenly installed the flooring materials, or lined the shelves up unevenly. Or perhaps he failed to finish up the project, leaving a construction zone that's less usable than before he arrived.
If you had only spent a few hundred dollars, perhaps you would chalk it up to experience, and take extra care in finding a reputable contractor the next time around. But the scale of these types of projects, while not huge in the grand scheme of residential construction, might still cost you a few thousand dollars. That loss is too large to overlook.
Small claims courts can be a good mechanism for dealing with these types of disputes. For the most part, such courts allow litigants like you to pursue legal claims against businesses or individuals without needing to hire an attorney. Litigation in small claims court is also typically faster than litigation in the state’s regular court of general jurisdiction. How should you pursue such claims against your contractor in small claims court in Ohio?
When a homeowner has a dispute with a contractor, even most lawyers will agree that running to court isn’t always the best first step. More often than not, you should begin by having a conversation with your contractor about the issue – the quality of the materials, the shoddy work, or the failure to finish up. After reminding your contractor what was promised (perhaps with reference to the written contract, if you have one), provide an opportunity to explain what exactly is going on. Is the job more expensive or complicated than anticipated? Does the contractor need more time? Is there an issue that can be worked out?
If this gentler strategy gets you nowhere, put your concerns in writing. A letter to the contractor laying out exactly what he promised (again, with reference to any written contract) may carry more weight than a mere oral complaint. This is especially true if you include a sentence at the end of your letter stating that you reserve all your legal rights and remedies.
Moreover, sending a letter is strategically wise if you eventually litigate. It can serve as an "exhibit," or evidence to a judge that you made every effort to resolve the matter without going to court. Sometimes called a “good faith letter,” it demonstrates to a busy small claims court judge that you made reasonable efforts to resolve the dispute amicably before burdening the justice system. In other words, it can serve to make you look like the “good guy.” By contrast, you wouldn’t want the contractor to be able to tell the judge that your lawsuit was the first he ever heard that there was a problem with the work; judges tend to prefer that litigation be a last resort.
While many – maybe most – disputes with contractors can be solved through negotiation, not all will work out this way. You may have little choice but to file a lawsuit. Litigants can represent themselves in Ohio’s small claims courts without the need for lawyers; there are also no juries. Instead, the Ohio small claims courts have “magistrates” – in most cases, lawyers from the community who are appointed to resolve lawsuits for money damages not exceeding $3,000. There are a few important things to keep in mind when you wish to begin your lawsuit.
One of the most significant limitations on Small Claims Court is that your claims cannot exceed $3,000. This is one of the lowest monetary limits of any state. The primary relief you request must be monetary – that is, you must be seeking money, rather than some other form of relief, like a court order that your contractor must do further work on your home.
Ohio also has statutes of limitations on when someone can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (15-year limit under Oh. Rev. Code § 2305.06) and property damage (two-year limit under Oh. Rev. Code § 2305.10(A)). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period.
To formally begin your case, you can file a Complaint for Money Only in the clerk’s office for the appropriate county. Note that each Ohio county uses a slightly different form for its Complaint; Cleveland County’s form is a good example of the information you would be required to provide.
The appropriate county could be where the defendant contractor is based, or (more likely) where your home is located, since that’s where the harm occurred.
Your Complaint should include a sworn statement regarding the facts of your case. It's often most effective to present it as a story, starting from the moment you and your contractor first agreed to the scope of work. Try to avoid legalese or citations to statutes and legal treatises. The judge doesn't expect you to know the letter of the law in the same way a lawyer does. It is the judge’s job to know the statutory cites; your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion. More often than not, a small claims court plaintiff who attempts to write a detailed legal brief with Internet research on legal precedent and statutes will confuse the judge rather than illuminate the important facts.
Once you have filed the Complaint, 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 when you each present your case, live and in person, to a judge.
Filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court is not free. Ohio Legal Services offers this convenient resource for locating your county’s clerk to ask about the appropriate filing fee. In Cleveland, for example, the fee is $37 plus an additional $7 per defendant.
When you appear in Ohio small claims court for your trial date, it is crucial to be prepared. Going to court can be stressful, and it’s natural to feel jittery when speaking to a judge – especially with the contractor standing next to you.
Good preparation and practice will make all the difference. Ask a friend or family member to listen as you present your statement, trying to get it down to around one or two minutes. Keep it simple and direct. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoid irrelevant facts and editorializing or speculating about things like the contractor's motives. Make the judge’s job easier.
A second important aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim will be presenting solid, authoritative evidence. This helps avoids a he-said/she-said situation, where you and your contractor simply disagree on whether or not he properly performed the agreed-upon duties.
The most important evidence in a home construction case 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 agreed-upon payment amount and schedule; 2) Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much you’ve already given him; 3) Any emails or letters you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your concerns and the basis of 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.
One of the most frustrating aspects of a small claims court suit (in Ohio or elsewhere) is that even if you “win” your case against your contractor, you essentially receive only a piece of paper (called a judgment). Reputable contractors will see that they’ve lost in court and will pay you what the judge ordered; especially if the contractor is local, and knows that it needs to operate in your community with high customer ratings and maintain trust-based relationships with local lenders.
But not all contractors are so honorable. It will be your task to enforce that judgment if the contractor doesn’t willingly pay. Enforcing a judgment can be time-consuming and costly.
Ohio’s Bar Association provides resources on collecting judgments. If the contractor fails to pay you, you may need to return to court to file additional paperwork. The judge might set a schedule for payment that will be reasonable for the contractor (for example, if cash flow is an issue). Alternatively, the judge might order that the contractor’s bank accounts be garnished.