Most small-scale home renovations cost between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. Minor projects, like repainting a garage or installing a new sink, can go a long way towards increasing the value of your home and improving quality of life. They also usually involve hiring a contractor or subcontractor. This can sometimes result in disputes over payment or workmanship. Since these disputes are worth only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, they are generally not worth the cost of hiring a lawyer, especially if the lawyer has a significant retainer or hourly rate. Fortunately, Wyoming’s Small Claims Court makes it possible for you to recover monies without the need for a pricey attorney.
Wyoming’s small claims court allows you to sue other individuals or businesses for up to $5,000. This can allow you to sue your contractor for flaws or failures in performance. While you have a right to hire an attorney to represent you (as does your adversary), most small claims court litigants do not bother, since the amount in controversy is sometimes lower than the cost of a lawyer’s fees.
You can sue your contractor under different “theories of liability,” which is just a legal way of saying that you can sue for multiple wrongs. Perhaps the contractor breached your written contract by giving you a lower-quality kitchen tiling than promised. Perhaps he also flooded your basement, causing property damage while he was supposed to be fixing your air conditioner. Your lawsuit can spell out all of the various ways that your contractor damaged you, so long as those damages (or the amount you hope to be compensated for them) add up to no more than $5,000.
Even Wyoming trial lawyers will tell you that settlement has many advantages. The relatively simple procedures of the small claims court are stressful and time-consuming, and judges can be unpredictable. Lawyers will also tell you that even when they are “sure” of their case’s merits, they can never be certain that the judge will agree with them. If you and your contractor can negotiate – determine a new construction schedule, a payment plan, and so forth – you will both be better off than having to slog through the litigation process.
Trying to talk doesn’t always get a contractor's attention, however. Try sending a demand letter, which tends to be taken more earnestly than an oral complaint, particularly if you note that you are “reserving all legal rights should a resolution not be worked out.”
The letter serves a dual purpose: It can later be used as evidence that you did your best to avoid court, which busy small claims judges will appreciate. You gave your contractor a reasonable chance to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than burden the court system. And it can lay out the dispute in a way that the judge will readily understand.
Statutes of limitations are laws that restrict the amount of time a plaintiff has in which to file a lawsuit. Their purpose is to give certainty, so that folks know when they’re “off the hook” for legal liability.
As a homeowner, however, it’s important that you remember to file your claim within Wyoming’s limitations periods, or your contractor will be able to evade responsibility.
The most common legal causes of action against a contractor are breach of contract (“She told me she would repaint my garage blue, and she repainted it green!”) and property damage (“The contractor broke my heating system when he was supposed to be doing water repairs!”). Wyoming has a ten-year limit under Wyo. Code § 1-3-105(a)(i) for breach of contract and a four-year limit under Wyo. Code § 1-3-105(a)(iv)(B) for property damage. Do not make the mistake of waiting until it’s too late.
After you’ve tried to settle the case through negotiation and considered any applicable statutes of limitations, it is time to consider actually filing your lawsuit. Each of Wyoming’s 23 counties has a slightly different process for filing. You can sue your contractor in either the county where you live (that is, the location of the home on which the contract work was performed) or the county where the contractor's office or place of business is located. (If you are unsure of either county, check this official county map).
You will begin by going to the clerk’s office in the relevant county where you choose to sue. There, you will be asked to fill out a Small Claims Affidavit. As an example, check out Teton County’s version of the form. This is the key document of your small claims filing. 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 and state the amount of money you believe you are owed. Remember not to bloviate; the judge will force you to prove the extent of your damages, and if you exaggerate, you will lose credibility with the court.
Next, you’ll need to serve the defendant contractor with a Summons and a copy of your Affidavit. Usually this is done through a process server, who will hand deliver your lawsuit papers.
Depending on your county, there will be fees associated with all of this paperwork. In Laramie County, for example, you can expect to pay between $50 and $70. You may also incur other fees if you decide to subpoena witnesses, like subcontractors or designers.
Small Claims Court typically will involve you and your contractor telling different versions of a story to a single judge. This makes it crucial for you to practice your narrative, beyond the details of what you wrote in your Small Claims Affidavit. The trial before the judge is typically scheduled within two months of your filing of papers in Wyoming, at which point you will be given the opportunity to present your case.
You’ll want to practice your narrative presentation; grab a few friends and family and go through the story, from the moment you found your contractor to the moment that the problems arose.
In addition to your oral presentation, both you and your contractor are permitted to bring evidence to court. Generally, in home-improvement litigation with a contractor, the most important evidence will include: 1) written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already paid; 3) 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.
The best case scenario in Wyoming Small Claims Court is that the judge will agree entirely with your version of the story, and will award you 100% of the amount you were suing for. The second-best case scenario would be that the judge agrees with most of your story, but believes at least some of your contractor’s defenses; in this situation, the judge might award you some smaller percentage of what you asked for.
Either way, you’ll want to make sure that your contractor actually pays you whatever the judge orders. Typically, reputable contractors and businesses will pay their judgments immediately. They want to have credibility with banks and lenders, particularly if they operate within a small community in Wyoming where reputation matters.
However, some contractors will not be so forthcoming. If 20 days have elapsed since your judgment, and you still have not been paid, you can return to the county clerk’s office with a copy of the judge’s order and ask for a Writ of Garnishment. Depending on the county, this may require an additional hearing and notice to your contractor to give him one final chance to pay. Otherwise, this document would allow you to hire an outside collection agency to collect various assets owned by the contractor. Unfortunately, the process for collection can be time-consuming, but eventually, the contractor is in a weak position because of the judgment you have against him.