Imagine that you hired a contractor to perform renovations on your Bucks County home – maybe new pipes in the kitchen, retiling of the bathroom, or repainting of the garage. Now imagine that the contractor failed to perform his duties. He used low-quality piping, unevenly installed the tiles, or used the wrong color paint. Or perhaps he failed to complete the project entirely, leaving before the project was complete.
If you had spent only a few hundred dollars, perhaps you would “write off” the loss as a lesson learned. But the scale of home renovation projects, while not huge in the grand scheme of residential construction, still will likely cost you a few thousand dollars. That loss may be too large to take lying down.
Small claims courts are generally 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 also typically proceeds faster than litigation would, in the state’s regular court of general jurisdiction. How should you pursue such claims against your contractor in small claims court in Pennsylvania?
When you have a dispute with your contractor, even most lawyers will agree that running to court isn’t always the best first step. Ordinarily, you should begin by having a conversation with your contractor about the issue – the color of the paint, the quality of the materials, or the shoddy work. After reminding your contractor what he promised (perhaps with reference to the written contract, if you have one), give him an opportunity to explain what's going on. Is the job more expensive or complicated than anticipated? Does he need more time? Is there an issue that can be worked out?
If this softer strategy gets you nowhere, put your concerns in writing. Write a letter to the contractor explaining what he promised (again with reference to any written contract). Often, a letter carries 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 strategic if you eventually litigate, because it can serve as evidence to a judge that you did your best to avoid court.
Sometimes called a “good faith letter,” this 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 time he ever heard that there was a problem with his work; judges generally prefer litigation to be a last resort.
While many – maybe most – disputes with contractors can be solved through negotiation, not all can. Sometimes you’ll need to file a lawsuit. In Pennsylvania, “small claims court” is called Magisterial District Court. Each county has its own unique forms and procedures, but generally speaking, you should begin by finding your county’s courthouse. You can file suit in any county where the court has jurisdiction. Typically, for a home repair, that would be the county where your home is located. Filing a lawsuit costs $65.50.
One of the most significant limitations in Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court is that your claims cannot exceed $12,000 (not including any interest that you might ask for on that amount). If you want to recover more than $12,000, you must file your lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas, which is Pennsylvania’s court of general jurisdiction. Note that in Magisterial District Court, judges are empowered to award only money damages; they cannot order injunctive relief, meaning that they cannot force your contractor to complete work on your home.
Pennsylvania also has statutes of limitations on when you can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (four-year limit under 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5525(7)) and property damage (two-year limit under 42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524(3)). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period.
To formally begin your Pennsylvania magisterial court case, you’ll need to file a Civil Complaint with the clerk’s office. This form can be filled out online, but must be physically brought to the clerk.
Your affidavit is a sworn statement regarding the facts of your case. You can frame it as a story, 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. There is no expectation that you know the law. Rather, in Magisterial District 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. More often than not, a 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 the complaint is filed, the clerk will send a copy to the defendant 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.
When you appear in court for your trial date, it is crucial to be prepared. Court is a stressful environment, and it’s natural to be 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. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoid irrelevant facts. Make the judge’s job easier.
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:
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 Magisterial District Court is that even if you “win” your case against your contractor, you essentially only receive a piece of paper (called a judgment). Honorable contractors will see that they’ve lost in court and will pay you what the judge ordered; this is especially true if the contractor is local, and knows that it needs to operate in your community and have relationships with local banks.
But not all contractors are so forthcoming. It will be your responsibility to enforce that judgment if the contractor doesn’t willingly pay. Enforcing a judgment can be time-consuming and costly.
Pennsylvania’s Bar Association provides resources on collecting judgments. If the contractor fails to pay you, you will 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.