A small-scale home renovation might cost only a few thousand dollars. Perhaps you lined up a contractor to replace your kitchen counters, put in new landscaping, or repaint your home interior. If the contractor messes up the project, or fails to perform, you won’t want to hire an expensive Portland lawyer to sue him. The cost of the lawyer could quickly exceed the amount your contractor owes you.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up that money. How can you recover from your contractor, without an attorney, perhaps using Oregon Small Claims Court?
Oregon requires that parties make a “good faith effort” to resolve disputes before burdening the court system. In other words, the mere fact that you have a disagreement with your contractor doesn’t mean you should run to Small Claims Court.
Nolo has some advice on the best first step when considering your options. Have a conversation with your contractor about the problem – the sloppy alignment of the countertops, the unfinished landscaping, the damage from paint drips, or the unexpectedly high final bill. Is there a reason the project went wrong? Did the contractor misunderstand the assignment? Or was it harder than initially expected? Perhaps, with a little more time, the contractor would be able to cure the issue.
If talking doesn’t help, write a letter to your contractor. 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, this latter sentence alone will get the contractor’s attention and bring him to the negotiating table. Also, sending a letter is strategically smart if you eventually litigate, serving as evidence to a judge that you gave your contractor every opportunity to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than burdening the justice system.
What’s the purpose of having a “small claims” court as opposed to a “regular” court? The justice system recognizes that while many disputes can be solved through negotiation and mediation, some need a judge to achieve a resolution. Further, the justice system recognizes that some disputes are simply too small to make it economically practical to hire an attorney. In Oregon, what distinguishes Small Claims Court from standard court is that Small Claims Court only hears disputes worth $10,000 or less. There are no lawyers needed or legal training required – you are permitted, even expected, to represent yourself.
Oregon 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, which was supposed to be remodeled or repaired. Most often, it will be more advantageous and convenient to sue in your “home” county.
Beyond the monetary limit for Small Claims Court, Oregon also has statutes of limitations on when you can file your lawsuit. Most commonly used in contractor disputes are claims for breach of contract and property damage. In Oregon, there is a ten-year limit under Or. Rev. Stat. § 12.080(1) for breach of contract and a six-year limit underOr. Rev. Stat. § 12.080(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.
Pay Your Fee, File Your Claim
A small claims action begins by paying the clerk of the court a filing fee and filing a Claim and Notice of Claim form.The fee in Oregon is $158 (2015 figure), regardless of your county. (Note that if you decide to sue for more money than $10,000, you would not be able to file in Small Claims Court, and the fee would increase).
All counties in Oregon use largely the same Claim and Notice of Claim 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 can sue for up to $10,000 does not mean you should; you can only sue for the amount you were actually damaged.
In your Claim and Notice of Claim, be sure to avoid legalese. In Small Claims Court, the judge knows the law but the plaintiff's main job 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 likely confuse the judge rather than illuminate the important facts.
Once this paperwork is filed, the clerk will send a copy to the contractor, along with a summons to appear in court on a specified date. That will be the date when you each orally present your case to a judge.
The contractor has two weeks to respond to your claims. He should file a form called the Notice of Defendant's Election, which is essentially an opportunity to tell his version of events. The contractor can admit everything, deny everything, or admit some of your accusations (for example, that he finished work late) but deny others (for example, that he used low-quality materials). Sometimes, a contractor will never reply to the Claim and Notice of Claim; in that case, you can apply for a Default Judgment. This is essentially an automatic win based on the other party's failure to respond.
Like a singer rehearsing for a performance, you should rehearse for your day in Oregon 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. However, others 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 Judgment form. Your county clerk will enter the judgment, and a notice of entry will be sent to the contractor. In Oregon, 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.