Rhode Island might be a small state, but it boasts an excellent court system. If you are a homeowner in a dispute with your contractor over a small project, Rhode Island’s Small Claims Court (sometimes called District Court) might provide the solution. Often, these types of disputes are not worth the cost of hiring an attorney to litigate on your behalf. In small claims, you can litigate yourself, without the need for an attorney.
Unlike in some states, Rhode Island allows you to have your attorney represent you in small claims court. However, it is more common to represent yourself, and the court is set up so that average citizens can fill out the forms without an attorney’s assistance.
Even though your dispute might be frustrating, consider the dollars involved compared to the cost of an attorney. If you can find an attorney who will take the case on contingency – that is, accept a percentage of whatever he or she recovers – it might be worthwhile. If not, small claims court can save you that cost. Remember, the court staff can provide general information, but will not provide you with legal advice. If you’re comfortable reviewing the court rules and working with the court staff, you should be fine without needing an attorney.
Just because you can go to court doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Before you march off to see a judge, consider negotiation and mediation. Negotiation simply means that you attempt to discuss the situation with your contractor. If you can negotiate an arrangement without proceeding to court, you will both save time and money.
Remind the contractor what was promised, and inquire as to the problem – are materials more expensive than originally thought? Is the job more complex? What would the contractor need in order to complete the project as originally intended? Perhaps you can compromise.
Demand letters are another effective strategy to jump-start communication. Businesses often regard letters more gravely than oral complaints. Your letter is even more likely to get the contractor's attention if you note that you are “reserving all legal rights should a resolution not be worked out.”
Letters can later be used as evidence that you did your best to avoid going to court, and gave your contractor a reasonable chance to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than burden the court system. (This will carry weight in court -- judges don't favor people who rush to litigation.) They're also helpful in summarizing the dispute for the judge.
If negotiation and mediation fail, you may need to proceed to litigation.
One of the first factors to consider is the statute of limitations; these laws limit the amount of time a plaintiff has in which to file a claim. The most common legal causes of action against a contractor are breach of contract (“He said he would put new pipes in my sink, and instead he removed all of the pipes!”) and property damage (“He caused a huge flood in my kitchen!”). Rhode Island has a ten-year limit under R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-13(a) for breach of contract as well as a ten-year limit under R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1-13(a) for property damage. These are generous time limitations, compared to other states, but you should not let the decade pass without filing.
After that consideration, you’ll need to go through the full filing procedure. First, you must 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 – in other words, your home, where the contractor was supposed to do the work. Most plaintiffs prefer to sue in their home county, since this is more convenient and provides a certain degree of “home court advantage.” You can view a list of all of the county courts in the state, along with their contact information, here.
The county clerk will charge fees when you file your lawsuit. These are subject to change, but are generally about $80. Check on Rhode Island’s fee schedule. Note that you will need to pay additional fees if you want to subpoenawitnesses, or sue additional defendants (such as subcontractors).
Next, you’ll file a Small Claims Notice of Suit and Complaint with the clerk. You can fill out that form in person or download it and bring the completed version to court. (A typed version will look more professional and be easier for the judge to read). 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 of damage, since judges will require you to prove their full extent.
Some plaintiffs make the mistake of filling their complaints full of legalese and Internet research. But judges tend to be more convinced by a clean presentation of the facts of your case. It is their role to know the details of the law.
Once this paperwork has been 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. You must file with the court an affidavit of service, proving that the defendant was served. The contractor will also have an opportunity to send an Answer to the court before the trial, which is similar to the Statement you wrote, except from the contractor's perspective. He will likely deny, or recharacterize, the story that you’ve written.
You should come to court knowing your case backwards and forwards – the date of each email, the amount of every invoice, and the day-to-day events that resulted in the breakdown of the relationship with your contractor.
Practice what you will say in your allotted one to two minutes when speaking to the judge, by rehearsing in front of a friend or family member. Keep it simple, like a story. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoid irrelevant facts or speculation about things like the contractor's motives.
You should also bring physical evidence to court. In home-improvement litigation with a contractor, the most important evidence normally includes: 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 money you’ve already paid; 3) any emails, letters, or other correspondence 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 or inadequate workmanship.
In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
“Winning” your case could mean that the judge awards you 100% of the damages you asked for, or it could mean that the judge awards you a portion of those damages. Either way, you’ll receive a judgment, which is essentially an order that the defendant contractor pay what the judge determined he owes you.
Typically, business owners pay judgments fairly quickly, in part because they fear negative relationships with banks and lenders, and bad press in the community. However, your contractor might not be so forthcoming.
If the contractor fails to pay you, you’ll need to return to court and fill out more paperwork, called a Notice and Motion for Attachment. This will allow you to “attach” (i.e. collect upon) assets held by the contractor in bank accounts, to the extent that he has any. Note that you will need to hire a private collection agency for this process. You will need to make a financial decision about whether the money is worth pursuing, if your judgment is relatively low.