If you are a homeowner facing a dispute with a contractor, Utah’s Small Claims Court provides a convenient possible way to adjudicate your case. This specialized court hears cases where the amount in controversy is $10,000 or less. With many small-scale home repair projects, such as kitchen remodeling or painting, the amount your contractor owes you might be outweighed by the cost of hiring an attorney to litigate. Fortunately, in Small Claims Court, the amount of paperwork is greatly reduced and an attorney is not necessary. Ordinary people can, with appropriate preparation, litigate their own cases.
Imagine that you are a contractor operating a small business in Salt Lake City. The last thing you want is litigation. It takes away from your budget, creates uncertainty, and steals time in the form of dealing with subpoenas, paperwork, and court appearances.
Keep this in mind as you begin to negotiate with your contractor; he would be much happier if you did not sue him! This gives you a certain bargaining advantage. Besides, court isn’t always the best first step. More often than not, you should begin by having a conversation with your contractor about the color of the paint, the quality of the materials, or the shoddy work – whatever the problem is. After reminding your contractor what was promised, listen with open ears to the explanation. Is the job more complicated than anticipated? Does the contractor need more time to finish the work? Is there an issue that can be worked out?
If the initial conversation doesn’t lead to a resolution, try sending a demand letter. This letter tells your contractor in no uncertain terms that, unless a solution can be negotiated with haste, you will sue. Sometimes, putting this in writing will get the attention of a defendant in a more meaningful way than a simple oral complaint.
Talking has failed and writing a letter has failed. You might now need to file a lawsuit. There are a few important things to keep in mind before you do.
The first are the statutory limitations on time and money. One of the most significant limitations on small claims court is that your claims cannot exceed $10,000. If the damages are worth more than that, you can still sue in small claims court, but you waive the amount over the $10,000.
Utah also has statutes of limitations on when you can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (six-year limit under Utah Code § 78B-2-309(2)) and property damage (three-year limit under Utah Code § 78B-2-305(2)). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period. Note that these limitation periods are slightly shorter than found in most states, so homeowners should act expediently to preserve their rights.
Filing a lawsuit is not free. If you are suing your contractor for less than $2,000, the cost of the lawsuit (as of 2015) is $75. If you are suing for between $2,000 and $10,000, the cost will be $185. There will be additional fees if you want to sue multiple defendants (such as subcontractors), or if you need to file subpoenas. You should consider reserving a few hundred dollars for these sorts of court fees, and consider them to be an investment in your case.
First, you’ll need to select the county for your lawsuit. In Utah, that can be either the county where you live or the county where your contractor is based. Utah’s Judiciary provides a convenient list of locations for its courts, with a drop-down menu where you can find contact information.
You will need to file an Affidavit and Summons, which will also need to be served upon your contractor through a process server. This can be filled out online, but must be physically brought to the clerk. These documents are the equivalent of 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. You might also read this helpful checklist on the process for filing these documents.
After filing and serving the Affidavit and Summons, the defendant will have 15 days to file a document called an “answer,” which allows him to state his version of the case. He will surely refute whatever allegations you make, and possibly assert other damaging allegations about your conduct. The clerk will also send a “notice to appear” in court on a specified date to both of you. That will be the date when you each orally present your case to a judge.
Whether you are a lawyer arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court or a homeowner arguing for $10,000 in front of a Salt Lake City Small Claims judge, preparation is the key to success. Court is a stressful environment – especially with the contractor standing next to you. 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 and make the judge’s job as easy as you can.
Remember to bring important documents with you to court, including: 1) any written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for his performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already given him; 3) any 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.
The fact that you win your lawsuit does not mean that your contractor will immediately pay you money. It remains your responsibility to enforce that judgment if the contractor doesn’t willingly pay.
Enforcing a judgment can be time-consuming and costly, as well as stressful. If 30 days have elapsed since the judgment and the contractor has still not paid you, you’ll need to return to the court and speak with the clerk. There, you will fill out Writ of Garnishment, which can allow you to seize non-exempt personal property or money held by the contractor.