It's been a long year...one passed in a cramped space with leaky pipes and a landlord from "you know where." Twelve months later, you've finally found your dream home and can't wait to fix it up. On moving day, you find out that security deposit from your apartment won't be going towards your decorating efforts. But, how can this be? It turns out your ex-landlord has no plans to return the money. In fact, he claims he's entitled to keep it to repair the damage you did to his property. Wait? What? You left the place just as you found it! You even fixed a few things with your own money. Well, it sounds like a case for small claims court....
Security deposit disputes are one of the most common issues brought before small claims judges. As the name suggests, small claims courts settle cases about...you guessed it, small amounts of money. Costs vary from state to state, with the maximum anywhere from $3500 to $25000. The best part is that you can file for as low as $25 or less.
Unlike most cases, generally, you must represent yourself in a small claims case. The only hitch is that not having an attorney means you will have to put in a good amount of work on your own.
Filing Your Claim
The first step to initiating a small claims action is filing your complaint. Remember, you have a time limit, or a statue of limitations, within which to file. So, it is best to check with your state to find out how long you have - as it can vary between states.
Assuming your former landlord and the property are in the same state as you are, you always have the option to file in the district closest to your landlord's home. However, you may have other filing options as well. For example, you can sue in the court closest to where the property is located. Again, each state has it's own filing rules, so be sure to contact the small claims clerk for further details.
Now that you have handled the technical details, it is time to write down why you are suing, otherwise known as the claim. This paragraph is basically a short narrative explaining to the judge what exactly happened.
But what should it include? You should take this opportunity to tell your side of the story. But, first things first. Take some time to investigate the law of security deposits so that you can figure out what you are actually entitled to under the law. It would be a great waste of time if you went to court only to find out your landlord was entitled to the whole thing.
Once you have finished researching, explain what your landlord may have done wrong - nicely. This is not the time for meandering rants on the cracked concrete in your apartment parking lot. Use this complaint as an opportunity to put together a solid argument using any related evidence or documents you have.
By the way, make sure you include the legal name and an updated address for the defendant. After you've turned everything in, you'll get a case number and trial date. The other party will receive a notice from the court in the mail. Or for an extra fee, you can arrange to have them served by a process server.
Now, On To Court
So now that you have filed, it is the perfect opportunity to get your case together. Collect any receipts, work orders, photos or diagrams that document work done or not done on the unit. If you did any repairs or paid for any repairs while you lived in the apartments, make sure you can produce receipts. Also, try to find any written requests you may have made for repairs, especially if the repairs weren't done.
Next, review your rental agreement, particularly any portions that address repairs, wear and tear. Look for words clarifying what you as the tenant were responsible for during your lease term. Typically, tenants are not responsible for normal wear and tear and deposits cannot be used for this type of work. For example, if the landlord replaces carpets in the entryway because they were worn; this does not come out of your deposit. But if he or she replaces the carpet because it was filled with tears and spots from your dog Spot, you are responsible for the damage. Try to present how well you took care of the apartment and what condition you kept it in. Prepare pictures depicting how the apartment looked while you lived there. If you were neat and clean, this could help disprove the landlord's claim you damaged the property.
If you have witnesses, they should also make their statements quickly and clearly. One note, in small claims court, it is preferable that key witnesses attend the court session. However, witnesses do not always have to testify in person. They can write a letter to the court about your case. In the letter, they should anticipate any questions a reasonable person would ask, and answer them. For instance if you anticipate being asked if you'd damaged the property or made a certain repair necessary, they should explain why you aren't. If you have these letters, present them with your other paperwork.
Stepping Into Court
Now that you are actually in court, remember, the amount of evidence you have is as important as what you say to the judge. Quickly explain why you believe you are entitled to your deposit back. Make sure you can back up any statements you make with documents. Keep in mind the person sitting on the bench will have a full caseload; many of them with stories just like yours.
So what do you take away from all of this information....
Small claims court is a great way to protect your rights. It is relatively quick and painless. Remember, the more effort you put into preparing your case, the more you are likely to get out of it while in court.