Suing Home Contractor for Construction Defects in Small Claims Court in Oklahoma

Dissatisfied with repair or remodeling work on your Oklahoma home? Small claims court offers a possible place to seek redress.

All states, including Oklahoma, have small claims courts. These courts allow average citizens to bring legal claims without needing to hire an attorney. In Oklahoma, you can seek up to $7,500 in small claims court. If you have a dispute with your home contractor, particularly over a small-scale renovation project, small claims court can be an invaluable resource. How can you recover this money from your contractor, without an attorney, in  Oklahoma Small Claims Court?

Negotiate First!

Contractor disputes are common, and not every dispute is necessarily worth suing over. You have to consider the time and stress involved in a lawsuit, even in small claims court where the procedures are relatively simplified. Sometimes, it makes more sense to either negotiate with your contractor or simply cut your losses. These decisions will be personal, depending on the amount of money at issue.

If cutting your losses and taking the financial hit isn’t appealing, make your best effort to negotiate with the contractor. Have a conversation with your contractor about the problem – the color of the tiles, the incorrect paint, the delays, or the increased price. Was there a misunderstanding? Or was the project harder than initially expected? Give the contractor a reasonable opportunity to cure the problem.

If this basic conversation doesn’t help, send your contractor a  demand letter, following Nolo’s writing guide. A demand letter tends to be taken more seriously than an oral complaint, especially if you note that you are “reserving all legal rights should a resolution not be worked out.” This can serve as a useful wakeup call to the contractor.

Moreover, sending such a letter is wise in case you ultimately sue, because it can become evidence to the judge that you did your best to avoid court. You gave your contractor a reasonable opportunity to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than burden the court. And a well-written letter will summarize the dispute in a way that the judge will appreciate reviewing.

Statutes of Limitations in Oklahoma for Contractor Disputes

Statutes of limitations are a barrier to many plaintiffs’ claims. The goal of these laws is to provide legal certainty to potential defendants after a certain period of time. But for homeowners, they mean that you cannot delay indefinitely in filing a lawsuit.

The most common legal causes of action against a contractor are for breach of contract (“She said she would fix the tiles in my bathroom for $2,000 and she didn’t!”) and property damage (“He broke the water pipes in my bathroom!”).

Oklahoma has a five-year limit under  Okla. Stat. § 12-95(A)(1)  for breach of contract and a two-year limit under  Okla. Stat. § 12-95(A)(3)  for property damage. If you are attempting to sue a contractor who did work on your home seven years ago, you are likely precluded – even if the contractor really did damage your home and take your money in the manner that you allege.

How to File Your Claim in Oklahoma Small Claims Court

First, you need to figure out where to file your lawsuit. Oklahoma requires that you sue the defendant contractor either in the county court where its offices are located, or where the event that is the basis for the lawsuit occurred – that is, your home. You can find county contact information on  the government’s website.

Oklahoma, like all states, charges fees for filing a lawsuit. These fees vary from one county to another. In Oklahoma County, for example,  filing the lawsuit  costs $53 (as of 2015) if you are seeking less than $1,500 and $158 if you are seeking more than $1,500 in money damages.

Note that the clerk will charge you additional fees if you sue more than one defendant (e.g., a subcontractor or material supplier), or if you seek to subpoena witnesses. These small fees can add up, so you should budget a few hundred dollars in court costs.

To officially begin your case, you’ll need to file an Affidavit, Summons and Return form. All counties in Oklahoma have variations on this form.  Tulsa County's form  is a good example of what you might be expected to fill out. You can fill it out in person or download it from your county’s website and bring the completed version to court.

The form asks 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.

Resist any temptation to exaggerate your claims, saying that you suffered more financial harm than you actually did. Be sure that you can actually  prove  the full extent of those damages. Remember, there is no “pain and suffering” for these sorts of cases.

When writing your Affidavit, avoid legalese. The judge knows the law, so the plaintiff doesn’t need to get into the fine details. Your main role is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion. A small claims court plaintiff who tries to come up with a detailed legal brief with Internet research on legal precedent and statutes will often confuse the judge rather than illuminate the important facts. That said, if you feel that you would like legal guidance on small claims court procedure, the Oklahoma State Bar Association provides  helpful resources.

After these documents are filed, the clerk will send a copy to the contractor along with a notice to appear in court on a specified date. That will be the date when you each orally present your case to a judge.

Get Ready For Court: Practice Makes Perfect

Like a singer rehearsing for a concert, you cannot go into court cold. Even experienced lawyers will practice their oral arguments for days or even weeks ahead of time. Arguing in front of a judge is stressful, especially since the contractor will be standing right beside you – probably vigorously shaking his head after every sentence.

You’ll need to practice so that you can easily remember dates, documents and details. Rehearse by explaining 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. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day.

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 a he-said/she-said situation, where you and your contractor simply disagree on whether or not he properly performed his duties. Typically, the most important evidence will include:

  • Any written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for his performance, and the payment agreed upon.
  • Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already paid out.
  • Any emails or letters you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your dispute, and
  • Photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy workmanship.

Depending on the circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.

Enforcing an Oklahoma Small Claims Judgment After You Win

If all goes well, the small claims judge will agree with your version of the facts of the dispute. If you win, you will receive a piece of paper called a “judgment,” indicating that you are owed a certain amount of money. This might be everything you asked for, or it might be something less than what you asked for (if, for example, the judge believes that the contractor has some viable defenses or offsets to your claim).

Let's say that, based on the judgment, your contractor now owes you money. If your contractor does not pay you within 30 days of the order, you’ll need to return to court and fill out an  application  for a “garnishment” with the clerk. The clerk will walk you through the process, but basically, a garnishment will allow you to use the power of the court system to “attach” assets that the contractor has in the state, such as bank accounts. This will require another investment: you’ll need to hire a third-party collection company. The process is annoying, to be sure, but it might be the only way to collect what you are owed.

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