Author Topic: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?  (Read 10116 times)

Gen Y Finance Journey

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Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« on: September 05, 2014, 02:55:33 PM »
tl;dr - is it worth it to take someone to small claims court over $1750 just because you feel that they should have to deal with the repercussions of breaking the law?

Full story:

A few months ago, the owner of the house my husband and I rented fired her property manager, hired a new one, and gave us 60 day notice so she could have the house remodeled. The new property manager has been a complete pain in the ass (he let himself into our back yard on two occasions without giving us the required 24 hour notice), and now he has neither returned our security deposit nor given us an itemized list of deductions. CA allows 21 days for the landlord to do this, and his time has expired. My husband sent him a demand letter telling him to send the security deposit in full, and just received a call from the guy today, who basically screamed at my husband about all the things he has to deduct (my husband had lived in the house for 15 years, so I'm pretty sure anything he wants to deduct wouldn't be permissible). As I understand the law, he's outside of his 21 days, so he doesn't have the right to deduct anything any more, and has to give us the full security deposit. But he hung up on my husband, so it's unclear whether he's planning on giving us anything at all.

The amount of money in question is $1750. If the guy had been polite and cordial throughout this whole process and just never sent us the money, we wouldn't even pursue it, it's not worth $1750. But my husband is a little hell-bent on making this guy pay for breaking the law and just generally being an asshole. We are allowed to take him to small claims court for up to 3 times the security deposit, plus additional damages if we choose to do so, as long as it's no more than $10,000. My husband wants to sue him for the full $10,000 because of the fact that he had already broken the law before by entering the property twice without notice. I'm a little sketchy on whether we'd really be able to sue for $10,000 or if the max would be 3x$1750=$5250, and I don't know what we'd be likely to get in any case.

My husband already filed a formal complaint against this guy with the CA department of real estate, but who knows if anything will come of that. We really don't want to let this guy off the hook, but part of being happy in life is accepting that sometimes you just have to let go of anger and resentment and move on, even if it means the wrongdoer doesn't see any repercussions from his actions. So we could do nothing and kiss the $1750 we were expecting to get goodbye, or we could take him to small claims court for some amount between $5250 and $10,000. Losing $1750 isn't worth the effort of court, but the prospect of being granted $5250+ and having this guy pay for his actions is pretty tempting.

What do you all think?

ncornilsen

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #1 on: September 05, 2014, 03:00:35 PM »
I'd only go for the deposit and legal aid costs. Cali will likely be far to lenient on the tenant than is reasonable, but you may as well get what's yours.

Unfortunately, getting the judgment is only 1/10th the battle. Collecting can be another thing entirely.

Cassie

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #2 on: September 05, 2014, 03:02:00 PM »
I would definitely do it!  Also I had something similar happen a few years ago & we were only allowed to ask for 3x's the owe being owed so I doubt you can ask for more then that.

Gen Y Finance Journey

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #3 on: September 05, 2014, 03:12:56 PM »
Unfortunately, getting the judgment is only 1/10th the battle. Collecting can be another thing entirely.

I had thought about this as well, and given this guy's actions so far, I'm sure collecting would be a nightmare. Would anything else happen to the property manager beyond owing us the money? Ie, would his name show up in a database somewhere publicly available, would you be able to find information about our case if you do a Google search, etc? It's one of those scenarios where this guy has just been such an asshole to us that we feel very strongly that he should have to deal with the consequences of his actions, and I don't know if filing the complaint with the department of real estate will do it.

Field123

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #4 on: September 05, 2014, 03:13:45 PM »
I'm not familiar with the specifics of California law, but I have some experience with these types of issues in Chicago. Here, we have a Landlord-Tenant Ordinance that specifies that in order to withhold money from a security deposit, a landlord must provide the tenant with written and documented support of any expenses to be deducted within 30 days. If they fail to do that, they lose the right to withhold any portion of the security deposit. Period. Further, here in Chicago, a landlord has 45 days to return the security deposit plus interest, otherwise they automatically owe double plus attorney's fees and court costs.

If I were you I'd do some research to look up California's (your city may have one too) law governing Landlord-Tenant matters. If you look at your lease it will surely cite the applicable law in a rider. Assuming your local law is similar to Chicago's (and it sounds like it is with the 21 days and 3X deposit) then you have a winning case and by all means should pursue it.

I think you could file and succeed on the claim representing yourself if you do the proper research, but I would recommend hiring an attorney if at all possible. I would especially recommend doing this if your jurisdiction has a clause that the landlord will be responsible for legal fees, as Chicago does.

Good luck!

Field123

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #5 on: September 05, 2014, 03:15:48 PM »
Unfortunately, getting the judgment is only 1/10th the battle. Collecting can be another thing entirely.

I had thought about this as well, and given this guy's actions so far, I'm sure collecting would be a nightmare. Would anything else happen to the property manager beyond owing us the money? Ie, would his name show up in a database somewhere publicly available, would you be able to find information about our case if you do a Google search, etc? It's one of those scenarios where this guy has just been such an asshole to us that we feel very strongly that he should have to deal with the consequences of his actions, and I don't know if filing the complaint with the department of real estate will do it.

The judgment will be against the owner, not the property manager. Thus the owner of the building would have to pay you. I wouldn't worry too much about collecting because worst case the court would put a lien on the property making it impossible for the owner to do anything with it (such as sell, refinance) without paying the judgment.

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #6 on: September 05, 2014, 03:19:07 PM »
Unfortunately, getting the judgment is only 1/10th the battle. Collecting can be another thing entirely.

I had thought about this as well, and given this guy's actions so far, I'm sure collecting would be a nightmare. Would anything else happen to the property manager beyond owing us the money? Ie, would his name show up in a database somewhere publicly available, would you be able to find information about our case if you do a Google search, etc? It's one of those scenarios where this guy has just been such an asshole to us that we feel very strongly that he should have to deal with the consequences of his actions, and I don't know if filing the complaint with the department of real estate will do it.

The judgment will be against the owner, not the property manager. Thus the owner of the building would have to pay you. I wouldn't worry too much about collecting because worst case the court would put a lien on the property making it impossible for the owner to do anything with it (such as sell, refinance) without paying the judgment.

Ah ok. Does this mean we need to send a demand letter directly to the owner then? My husband sent it to the property manager, so I have no idea if the owner is even aware any of this is going on.

bacchi

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #7 on: September 05, 2014, 03:19:52 PM »
Nolo has a book on California small claims court. I used their Texas version to successfully win against some tenants.

luke713613

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #8 on: September 05, 2014, 03:21:12 PM »
My family was recently in a situation where the landlord was procrastinating in reimbursing our deposit.  My wife's mother was able to get the lawyer that she works for to right a letter to the landlord demanding payment by a certain date, threatening to file a suit if payment was not received.  In AZ, we could have sued for 2x the deposit amount plus lawyers fees.  In this particular case, the letter was enough to motivate the landlord and we promptly (5 months after move-out) received our deposit (minus some utilities).  If he had not paid, we certainly would have filed suit for double the original deposit amount.

Simply getting a lawyer involved may be enough to let the landlord know that you are serious about the matter and you may get your deposit back with minimal additional hassle.  Of course it helped in our case that we knew a lawyer and did not need to accrue any fees for the letter written.

GizmoTX

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #9 on: September 05, 2014, 03:23:32 PM »
Send the demand letter to the owner, with a copy to the property manager.

Field123

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #10 on: September 05, 2014, 04:00:14 PM »
Unfortunately, getting the judgment is only 1/10th the battle. Collecting can be another thing entirely.

I had thought about this as well, and given this guy's actions so far, I'm sure collecting would be a nightmare. Would anything else happen to the property manager beyond owing us the money? Ie, would his name show up in a database somewhere publicly available, would you be able to find information about our case if you do a Google search, etc? It's one of those scenarios where this guy has just been such an asshole to us that we feel very strongly that he should have to deal with the consequences of his actions, and I don't know if filing the complaint with the department of real estate will do it.

The judgment will be against the owner, not the property manager. Thus the owner of the building would have to pay you. I wouldn't worry too much about collecting because worst case the court would put a lien on the property making it impossible for the owner to do anything with it (such as sell, refinance) without paying the judgment.

Ah ok. Does this mean we need to send a demand letter directly to the owner then? My husband sent it to the property manager, so I have no idea if the owner is even aware any of this is going on.

Yes. Everything is between you and the owner, so accordingly all correspondence should be sent to the owner. The property manager is simply an agent working on the owner's behalf. Definitely send a demand letter. The best format would be to first restate the facts, (how much the security deposit was, when you moved out etc), then cite the applicable law, then state that if you will be forced to file suit if you do not receive the money within 14 days.

The demand letter is critical because although it won't say it in the law, judges will not enforce punitive measures such as the 3x security deposit without proof that you provided amble notice and made effort to resolve the issue prior to going to court.

Eric

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #11 on: September 05, 2014, 04:08:46 PM »
Before sending the demand letter, I'd call the owner directly and let him/her know what's been happening.  The owner could have no idea.

Gen Y Finance Journey

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #12 on: September 05, 2014, 04:13:11 PM »
Ok, we'll definitely send the demand letter to the owner as well.

My husband has never had any contact with the owner in the 15 years he rented the house, and I don't think he has a phone number for her. We're going to have to do some research to even find a mailing address for her. But if we can find a phone number, we'll definitely give her a call.

Sblak

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #13 on: September 05, 2014, 06:00:00 PM »
As a lawyer I have to say that going to court for revenge is always stupid.  That attitude makes us lawyers rich.  Get your husband to first give up the "out to get the other guy" attitude. 

Then investigate your options and make a decision on whether you want to go to court to get the money.  Going for money can be successful as long as you know what you are doing.  If you do the simple math, as a financial move, the amount of time and effort you spend to recoup a couple thousand dollars may not be worth the emotional pain.  If it takes a couple weekends and nights, time away from work, and at the end twenty or forty or sixty hours of work, your reward is a few thousand dollars, you may not get your effort's worth.  Essentially decide now whether you want to  working a second job.  Be sure you get your money's worth from your new side gig.  Sometimes court is worth it.  Sometimes not.  Be smart. 

Honestly I would try to contact the owner.  The manager should know who the owner is right, or you can just look it up (most property records are public and with good internet skills you can figure it out yourself).  See if you can work it out amicably without going to court.

rocksinmyhead

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #14 on: September 05, 2014, 06:07:15 PM »
if you can't find contact info for the owner, check your county's property tax assessor website. ours has at least a name and address for every parcel in the county.

Field123

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #15 on: September 05, 2014, 06:30:07 PM »
if you can't find contact info for the owner, check your county's property tax assessor website. ours has at least a name and address for every parcel in the county.

You shouldn't have a problem finding the owner. Start with your county's tax assessor, you should be able to run a search on the address. However, it may well be the property/manager who's name comes up as the tax assessee. In that case, save the tax PIN number and go to your county recorder's website. You should be able to run the PIN and pull the deed which will have the owner's name and address. Once you have his name use whitepages.com to get a phone number and address.

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #16 on: September 05, 2014, 09:49:36 PM »
We once gave a $2800 deposit for a house we didn't even rent. They claimed ownership of the 2800, for the one day it was off the market. This was illegal. We didn't pursue because the owner was a complete jerk about keeping the money. We're just glad we didn't end up living there. He was a high paid Wallstreet banker and would counter sue for time lost during court. In the unlikely event that he would win, he would take us for far more than $2800.

You have to pick your battles.

The 24 hour thing, in most states is not a requirement but a 'suggestion.' In Texas for example owners can come by at any point without notice.

What does the lease specify?

It doesn't seem worth it, honestly.

Eric

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #17 on: September 06, 2014, 03:36:02 AM »
It doesn't seem worth it, honestly.

Fuck yes it is worth it.  They're 100% in the right and it's $1700!

SnackDog

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #18 on: September 06, 2014, 04:00:35 AM »
You need to read your lease contract and brush up on CA law on deposits.  Then file your small claims paperwork.  You will need proof of a lease and deposit agreement, proof you paid the deposit, proof you ended the lease, any communications in writing regarding the deposit return, and some indication you did not receive it back.  They will require a full name and address to the defendant in order to serve them papers. Filing is very easy. There are some fees involved.  On your day in court, insist the Judge read your filing information and legal basis for the claim and request he make a legal ruling (some like to play mediator instead).  Be sure you know the law and are ready for any issues.

I would completely drop the so-called trespass. Do not mention it in court or otherwise. Your husband is sort of being an idiot on this, particularly since it was only the back yard.  And don't imagine that winning this suit will cause the agent to change into a new person or teach him a lesson, it will likely only make him more awful. But you deserve your deposit back, assuming you left the house in good condition (did you? if not, the first thing the defendant will bring is photos of the damage you left) and should fight that on principle.

electriceagle

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #19 on: September 06, 2014, 08:38:50 AM »
Unfortunately, getting the judgment is only 1/10th the battle. Collecting can be another thing entirely.

I had thought about this as well, and given this guy's actions so far, I'm sure collecting would be a nightmare. Would anything else happen to the property manager beyond owing us the money? Ie, would his name show up in a database somewhere publicly available, would you be able to find information about our case if you do a Google search, etc? It's one of those scenarios where this guy has just been such an asshole to us that we feel very strongly that he should have to deal with the consequences of his actions, and I don't know if filing the complaint with the department of real estate will do it.

If he is an individual or sole proprietorship, there might be a judgment on his credit report.

okashira

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #20 on: September 06, 2014, 10:53:40 AM »
We once gave a $2800 deposit for a house we didn't even rent. They claimed ownership of the 2800, for the one day it was off the market. This was illegal. We didn't pursue because the owner was a complete jerk about keeping the money. We're just glad we didn't end up living there. He was a high paid Wallstreet banker and would counter sue for time lost during court. In the unlikely event that he would win, he would take us for far more than $2800.

You have to pick your battles.

The 24 hour thing, in most states is not a requirement but a 'suggestion.' In Texas for example owners can come by at any point without notice.

What does the lease specify?

It doesn't seem worth it, honestly.

Good thing you didn't pursue, because it sounds like he had you beat before you even knew it.

socaso

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #21 on: September 06, 2014, 01:15:30 PM »
My friend had to take a CA landlord to small claims court and she won her case and collected the settlement. She had lots of documentation of what the landlord was doing and paperwork to back up the claims for money she was asking for. I think it could be worth it if your husband is fired up about it but you will likely only collect money for the deposit and legal expenses and maybe missed wages. Your husband can ask for more but small claims court doesn't seem to be a place that pays out for emotional distress.

TomTX

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #22 on: September 06, 2014, 09:21:44 PM »
I'd only go for the deposit and legal aid costs. Cali will likely be far to lenient on the tenant than is reasonable, but you may as well get what's yours.

Unfortunately, getting the judgment is only 1/10th the battle. Collecting can be another thing entirely.

The guy is a thief.

If the owner doesn't cough up the deposit after getting notified directly, I would go to the local police station and see what charges can be filed.

If I went to small claims, I would definitely ask for the triple damages + fees. The reason for the triple damages is to penalize thieves who prey on renters by failing to return the deposit in a timely manner.

Also, does he owe you interest? In some locations, interest on deposits is supposed to go to the depositor, not the owner's pocket. 15 years of interest adds up.

Example: http://www.yourlegalcorner.com/articles.asp?cat=land&id=102

Greg

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #23 on: September 07, 2014, 10:32:44 AM »
Send a copy (if you have it) of the first demand letter via certified return-receipt mail to the property owner, with a new demand letter explaining the problem and the attitude of the manager, and with a deadline for them to make contact with you, say 10 days. Be sure to include your preferred contact method info. In very clear but polite terms state that if contact isn't made, you will file in small claims for the deposit and interest.

I would also consider sending the same letter to the manager, but not sure if that would help.  In either case if they call you, or the manager does, tell them to mail the check and not to call anymore, phone calls are annoying stall tactics.

If you have any lawyer friends they might be able to help it look serious, folks suddenly find the checks when the letters come from lawyers.

kite

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #24 on: September 07, 2014, 02:01:42 PM »
Totally worth the effort to recoup the money you are owed. 

arebelspy

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #25 on: September 08, 2014, 03:33:42 PM »
You may also be able to get free legal aid offered to tenants in some tenant-friendly states, like CA.

Here in NV, if I don't provide an itemized deduction letter within 30 days they can sue me for double the amount of the security deposit.

So you might not just be getting 1750, but $3500.
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$200k

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #26 on: September 08, 2014, 05:58:44 PM »
There are a lot of good resources on the California Department of Consumer Affairs and Small Claims websites for suing your landlord.  You should read them and become familiar with the process. 

Just so you know, you only get 3x deposit amount if you can show that the security deposit was withheld in "bad faith."  The manager is a jerk, but that is typically not bad faith.  It sounds like the manager is taking his time with the deduct and repair process, which does not sound totally unreasonable, since the place has been rented for the past 15 years. 

Just so you know, this is the basic outline:

1 - send demand
2 - file complaint against owner
3 - serve owner with the complaint
4 - prepare for your case
5 - go to trial
6 - wait for a judgment
7 - serve the notice of judgment
8 - send a demand for payment of the judgment
9 - file a lien
10 - start debt collections process

All that said, I would not hesitate to go after them.

frugaliknowit

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Re: Is Small Claims Court Worth The Effort?
« Reply #27 on: September 09, 2014, 10:36:51 AM »
I believe that if you left this house in appropriate condition and:

1.  Send a demand letter, certified mail to the rightful owner, demanding your deposit within 10 days, with the threat of a suit.
2.  Follow up with a phone call around the time the letter arrives.

I would bet "dollars to doughnuts" she will pay you right there and then.