Imagine that you hired a contractor to perform targeted renovations on your Georgetown, DC home – maybe a new slab in the crawl space, retiling of the mud room, or a new garage door. Now imagine that the contractor failed to perform what he was supposed to do. He used low quality concrete, unevenly installed the tiles, or installed the garage door so that it creaks and squeaks. Or perhaps he simply did a no-show, never finishing your project. If your losses add up to only a few hundred dollars, you might need to “write off” the loss as a lesson learned. But if we're talking a few thousand dollars, taking further action -- including legal action -- may be worth your while.
Small claims courts are generally a good mechanism for dealing with these mid-range disputes. Such courts allow litigants like you to pursue legal claims against businesses or individuals without needing to hire an attorney. Suing in small claims court is also typically faster than litigation in the state’s regular court of general jurisdiction. How should you pursue such claims against your contractor in small claims court in the District of Columbia?
In a dispute with your contractor, running to court is not -- as even most lawyers will agree -- always the best first step. Your better bet is likely to start by talking to your contractor about what's going – the inferior quality of the materials, or the shoddy or unfinished work. After reminding your contractor what was promised (and pointing out the relevant portions of the written contract, if you have one), ask him to explain his take on the situation. Is the job more expensive or complicated than anticipated? Does the contractor need more time (and if so, exactly how much)? Is there an issue that the two of you can work out and perhaps compromise on?
If this softer strategy doesn't get you satisfactory results, put your concerns in writing. Your letter to the contractor should explain what was promised (again with reference to any written contract). Such a letter carries more weight than a mere phone call or in-person complaint -- especially if you add a sentence at the end stating that you reserve all your legal rights and remedies.
What's more, sending such a letter is a wise strategic move if you might eventually go to court. It will serve as evidence that you did your best to avoid taking the dispute to court. Sometimes called a “good faith letter,” it demonstrates to an overworked small claims judge that you made reasonable efforts matters amicably before burdening the justice system. It thus helps make you look like the “good guy.” You wouldn’t, after all, want the contractor to be able to tell the judge that your lawsuit was the first time he'd that there was a problem with the work; judges generally prefer litigation to be a last resort.
While many – maybe most – disputes with contractors can be solved through negotiation, yours may not work out this way. You may find you have little option but to file a lawsuit. People can represent themselves in DC’s small claims courts (officially called the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch) without hiring a lawyer; there are also no juries. Instead, small claims court judges resolve lawsuits for money damages not exceeding $5,000. Below, let's review a few important things to keep in mind when you begin your lawsuit.
One of the most significant limitations on small claims court -- in Washington, DC and elsewhere -- is that your claims cannot exceed $5,000. The primary relief requested must be monetary – that is, you must be seeking money, rather than some other form of relief, like a court order mandating that your contractor replace the shoddy materials or do further work on your home.
DC also has statutes of limitations on how long someone can wait before filing suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (three-year limit under D.C. Code § 12-301(7)) and property damage (also a three-year limit under D.C. Code § 12-301(4)). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period.
To formally begin your case, you can file a Statement of Claim and a one-page Information Sheet in the DC clerk’s office. Your Statement of Claim should include a sworn statement laying out the facts of your case. You can frame it as a story, starting from the moment you and your contractor first agreed to the scope of work and outlining what transpired after that. Avoid legalese or lots of citations to statutes and legal treatises. In Small Claims Court, it is the judge’s job to know the details of the law; your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion.
Once you've filed the Statement of Claim, the court clerk will send a copy to the defendant 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.
Filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court is not free. For claims up to $500, the fee is $5. For claims between $501 and $2,500, the fee is $10. And for claims between $2,501 and $5,000, the fee is $45. The clerk will charge additional fees to serve your Statement of Claim on the defendant(s).
In DC, all small claims cases are automatically scheduled for mediation. This will involve sitting down with your contractor and a trained mediator – a third-party neutral – to attempt to work out a settlement in advance of trial. If you can, in fact, work out an agreement, you will not need to proceed further; if you cannot, you will need to prepare to go before a judge.
When you appear in court for your trial date, it is crucial to be prepared. You'll be more relaxed if you've planned ahead and rehearsed exactly what you'll say. (Speaking off the cuff is a risky idea -- it's common to become nervous when speaking to a judge, especially with the defendant standing next to you.)
A good way to rehearse is to ask a friend or family member to play judge. Deliver your statement at least once to that person, trying to get it down to roughly one or two minutes. Keep it simple and direct. Ask your friend for suggestions and to raise questions. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoiding irrelevant facts will 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 are at loggerheads over whether or not he properly performed the agreed-upon duties.
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 his performance, and the payment amounts you agreed upon; 2) Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already given him; 3) Emails or letters you’ve sent to the contractor regarding requests to fix the job, finish the job, or otherwise deal with 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, or ask experts, such as another contractor, to provide a written affidavit.
One of the most frustrating aspects of small claims court is that even if you “win” your case against your contractor, you receive only a piece of paper (called a judgment). The judge won't actually make the losing contractor pay up, and neither will anyone else. Honorable contractors will see that they’ve lost in court and will pay you the amount the judge ordered; this is especially true if the contractor is local, and knows that it needs good word-of-mouth in your community and to protect its reputation with local banks. But not all contractors are so wise. It will be largely up to you to enforce that judgment if the contractor doesn’t willingly pay. Enforcing a judgment can be time-consuming and costly.
The DC Superior Court 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. DC’s Small Claims Court can award a so-called “writ of attachment” that can attach assets in your contractor’s accounts. Note that pursuing your rights under your judgment will cost additional fees.