Vermont is known for its charming New England homes. But many of those homes are decades old, requiring the occasional upgrade. As a homeowner, you might want to hire a contractor to perform a small-scale renovation of a kitchen, or re-carpet the living room, or renovate the HVAC system. These types of projects might cost a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. What if you pay your contractor this sum, and he fails to complete the job? Or if his performance is otherwise faulty or deficient? At these prices, hiring a lawyer might not be cost-effective. Fortunately, Vermont residents can handle their contractor conflict in the state’s Small Claims Court. Vermont's small claims court hears matters worth less than $5,000, without the need for plaintiffs to bring a lawyer.
No one likes litigation. Whether from the standpoint of a busy homeowner just trying to complete a renovation project, or a contractor trying to run a small business, lawsuits create headaches and uncertainties. Therefore, if you can speak to your contractor and work out a solution between the two of you, this is often preferable torushing to court. Explain the situation to the contractor, state in no uncertain terms that you are considering litigation, and see whether a resolution can be reached. Maybe the contractor needs more time, or slightly more money, to finish the project. Or maybe you both need to discuss the scope of the original plans. Communication can often solve a conflict.
If this approach doesn’t get the contractor's attention, try sending a demand letter. This letter tells your contractor that, unless a solution can be negotiated, you intend to sue. Sometimes, putting this in writing will get the attention of a defendant in a more meaningful way than a simple oral complaint would. You are clearly willing to invest the time and energy it takes to write a professional letter. This might bring the contractor to the table.
When talking and writing letters don’t bring about a resolution, you might need to actually file suit. There are a few important things to keep in mind before you take that step.
The first of those are the statutory limitations that might affect your claim. One of the most significant is that your claims cannot exceed $5,000 (that's why they call it a "small" claim!). If it does, you will need to either forego your damages over that amount or file in an alternate court, where it is more common to have a lawyer.
Vermont also has statutes of limitations on when you can file suit regardless if which court you file in. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (six-year limit under 12 Vt. Stat. § 511) and property damage (three-year limit under 12 Vt. Stat. § 512(5)). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period. Don’t delay in filing your claim!
Filing a lawsuit in Vermont is not free. If you are suing your contractor for under $1,000, the cost of the lawsuit (as of 2015) is $65. If you are suing for between $1,000 and $5,000, the cost will be $90. Regardless of the size of your claim, it would be prudent to set aside a few hundred dollars for court fees.
There will be additional costs if you want to sue multiple defendants (such as subcontractors or designers), if you need to serve subpoenas, or if you need to serve additional paperwork along the way. These small costs are annoying, but consider them to be an investment in your overall recovery.
You’ve considered the applicable statutes of limitations and monetary limits, and paid your filing fees. What now? You’ll need to fill out the Complaint form, which comes with clear instructions. Essentially, you’ll be asked to provide the name and address of your contractor (and any other defendants you wish to sue), and a brief statement describing your lawsuit. Why are you suing? How much is owed to you? Frame the narrative in a convincing fashion.
You will then mail two copies of the Complaint to the court, with the filing fee as well as a self-addressed stamped envelope.
When you receive the Complaint back from the court, it will have an official docket number. You’ll need to mail a copy to the contractor, along with an Answer form (which is the contractor's opportunity to refute your arguments). He has 30 days to file an Answer. After that, the court will set a hearing date, when you will both appear in court and present to the judge.
Whether you are arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC or a local small claims court judge in Burlington, court can be stressful. Rehearsing beforehand is key. Set aside some time well in advance of your court date to practice your statement with a friend or family member, trying to get it down to roughly two minutes. Keep it simple and direct. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoid irrelevant facts and details.
You should bring a copy of your Complaint to court. You may also bring any relevant evidence that you’d like the judge to consider. Common types of evidence that will be persuasive in this type of case include: 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 given over; 3) any emails or letters 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 incomplete work.
The Vermont judiciary warns that, “though you may receive judgment in your favor, the court cannot guarantee that you receive the money. The defendant may be unable to pay or there may not be a reasonable way to enforce the judgment.” Still, certain post-judgment procedures exist to assist you in collecting the debt.
Ultimately, however, it's your responsibility to enforce the judgment if the contractor doesn’t willingly pay what's owed. Enforcing a judgment can be time-consuming and costly. If 30 days have gone by 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 a Writ of Execution, which can allow you to seize non-exempt personal property or money held by the contractor. While the clerks can assist you, you may need to hire a third-party collection agency to collect on the Writ. This can cost more money, and there is unfortunately no guarantee of recovery.