Imagine that you wanted to upgrade the garage roof on your Nashville, Tennessee home. The contractor quoted you $3,000. The job appeared to be complete, on schedule, and the contractor departed with your money. Two weeks later, it rains, and you quickly realize that the job was not as complete as you thought. Your garage floor is covered in rainwater; the new roof was shoddily put together.
How can you get recover? For only around $5,000 in damages, it hardly makes sense to hire an attorney. Fortunately, Tennessee’s General Sessions Court (more commonly known as small claims court) allows folks like you to sue for up to $25,000. How can you use the General Sessions Court to recover against your contractor?
Even lawyers will tell you that court is often not the best venue to settle a dispute. It can be more cost-effective and time-effective to try to resolve your dispute through negotiation. So, when you recognize that a significant disagreement has arisen between you and your contractor, do not run to file a lawsuit in General Sessions. Instead, have a conversation with your contractor. Firmly inform him that you will exercise your rights and proceed to court unless a deal can be struck. See if you can explore alternatives. What would the contractor need in order to complete the project as originally intended? Is the job more complex than expected? Perhaps you can compromise.
Demand letters are another effective strategy with which to begin a dialogue. Contractors often take these letters more seriously than oral complaints, since they indicate that you are willing to put time and effort into documenting your concerns.
If negotiation and letter writing fail, litigation is the logical next step. An initial factor 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 (“She said she would paint my house green, but she painted it orange!”) and property damage (“He caused a huge flood in my basement when he was fixing my pipes!”).
Tennessee has a six-year limit under Tenn. Code § 28-3-109(a)(3) for breach of contract and a three-year limit under Tenn. Code § 28-3-105(1) for property damage. Be mindful of these deadlines when considering your lawsuit; waiting too long could bar your claims, even if all of your allegations are deemed true by the judge.
When ready to file your lawsuit, you’ll need to determine which county you want to sue your contractor in. Tennessee law requires that you sue either in the county where the contractor lives (or where the company’s offices are), or where your home is (since your home was the location where the contract was to be performed). If you are unsure of the appropriate county, Tennessee’s court system website offers a helpful list of all the clerks' offices and locations.
Tennessee’s counties are fairly decentralized. All of them will charge plaintiffs a slightly different amount when filing a small claims lawsuit, but you can generally expect to pay $50 to $90, depending on the number of defendants (e.g. subcontractors) whom you are suing.
Next, you’ll file a Summons 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 will also 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 his 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 claimed, since judges will require you to prove the full extent of those damages.
Many plaintiffs make the mistake of filling their complaints with legalese and Internet research. This is a mistake. Rather, judges will be more convinced by the facts of your case. It is their role to know the finer points of the law.
Once this paperwork is done, you will send a copy to the contractor and then file an affidavit of service with the court. The clerk will then send a notice to appear in court on a specified date to both you and the contractor. That will be the date when you each orally present your case to a judge.
Even the most advanced lawyers will tell you that rehearsing is crucial to success in court. You should come to trial knowing your claims backwards and forwards – the date of every email, the amount of every invoice, and the day-to-day events that resulted in the breakdown of your relationship with your contractor.
Tennessee’s court system offers a convenient guide for preparing to court. It's a good idea to practice what you will say in your one to two minutes in front of the judge by rehearsing in before 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.
Words are not enough. You should also bring physical evidence to trial. 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; 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.
If all goes well, the judge will agree with your side of the story and will award you the amount of money you asked for in the complaint. If this happens, you’ll receive a "judgment," which is essentially an order that the defendant contractor pay what the judge determined you are owed.
Most reputable business owners pay judgments immediately, in part because they fear negative relationships with banks and lenders, as well as 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 an Execution of Garnishment. This will allow you to “attach” (i.e. collect upon) assets held by the contractor in bank accounts in Tennessee, 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 amount is relatively low.