How to Win in Small Claims Court
When your old landlord — who, prior to your move-in repeatedly let you know how annoyed he was that you and your roommates are women because YOUR HAIR IS GOING TO CLOG THE DRAINS, AND YOU BETTER NOT CALL ME — refuses to return your security deposit, you gotta take him to court.
The year my two roommates and I spent in his relative “bargain” of a three-bedroom walk-up in the East Village, at $3,500 per month, was more than enough: We were not allowed to mail our rent, but were required to hand-deliver a single check to an elderly Eastern European woman named Sophie at the laundromat two blocks away. Soon after moving in, we discovered that half the burners on our stove didn’t work, and when we asked Peter, the landlord, to fix them, he responded: “Ok,,, u going to cook me dinner one night? [sic]” It took four months to get a fully functional stove. ( “Then my dinner,” he texted. “*Gritted teeth emoji* *blushing smile emoji.*”)
Then there were the mice. Everyone has mice, we rationalized, though Peter refused to send an exterminator and we continuously discovered the little guys squirming on sticky traps for the next nine months. During the winter, I slept in long underwear every night because our heat barely functioned. This is not to mention the crumbling plaster and floor in the corners of rooms, the open garbage cans that nearly blocked the first-floor hallway, or the piece of plywood that remained, despite our repeated requests, in lieu of a kitchen window during the course of our tenancy.
When our lease was up, we decided to swallow the moving expenses and get out. We found a nice place in Park Slope and on our budget — across the street from a bagel shop, no less. A few weeks after we’d moved out, we received a letter from Peter stating that he would be returning exactly $0.00 of our deposit back to us, for the following reasons:
1. Replaced of hardwood floors throughout apartment [sic]
2. Damage to bathroom
3. Excessive cleanup
We were enraged, but as liberal arts college graduates working in media, we had zero idea how to go about getting our money back. A combination of Googling and consultations with friends and family members in the legal profession informed us of the process of getting our deposit back, which I will now share with you. Disclaimer: We have yet to receive our money, though we did win our court case. More on that later.
Step one: Send a certified letter.
Before you can serve your landlord, mail him a certified letter that clearly states why you believe you’re entitled to your deposit. What’s a certified letter? You will have to request the certified mail form in-person at the post office for a few extra bucks, but with the restricted delivery option you can make sure that the USPS won’t deliver the letter unless its intended recipient is there to sign for it, and you can request a receipt that lets you know he’s read it. This will be important record-keeping if you do go to court, or, best-case scenario, it will intimidate your landlord by showing you know what you’re doing, and he’ll be willing to reach an agreement.
In this first letter, ask that the landlord provide an invoice of any repairs to the apartment that he claims were necessary as a result of the damages you inflicted. In your final sentence, let him know that if you cannot settle the matter, you are willing to bring it to Small Claims Court.
He’ll probably respond with a certified letter, for his own record-keeping. Peter included a “proposal” of work from a contractor that was actually just a Word document with a vague list of items, like “the floors throughout the apartment are irreparable” that magically added up $5,000 ($1,500 more than our original deposit).
Step two: File the motion.
If your landlord seems unwilling to come to an agreement, it’s time to bring your case to Small Claims Court. It costs $20 to file a motion in New York. If you live in the city, you’ll have to go to the courthouse in person to file your claim. The next available court date could be several months into the future. We filed in August, and were assigned a court case for early December.
Step three: Prepare your case.
You represent yourself in Small Claims Court, so it’s important to be prepared. None of us had ever been to court before, and my ideas of the courtroom environment had been shaped primarily by Legally Blonde. While I figured that our trial would be somewhat less dramatic — though we did receive a letter from a “Judge Joe Brown” producer offering to fly us to Chicago and film our trial— we would have to make our case, and have the opportunity to question the defendant. This is why it’s important to keep records of all correspondence with your landlord while you’re living in his apartment — and to take lots of photos of the condition the day you move in.
We printed out screenshots from our text exchanges with Peter and photographs of the apartment, and wrote out a statement outlining a point-by-point case for why we should receive the deposit back, which rested primarily on the point that we left the apartment in no worse condition than we’d received it in. As someone who is generally adverse to confrontation, the thought of Peter staring us down as we listed all the ways he was a negligent landlord was intimidating, and I wanted to be sure that we didn’t get flustered and miss anything.
Step four: Go to court.
Small claims court is kind of like the DMV, except everyone is more dressed up. All three of us wore black dresses, like Charlie’s Angels: Bureaucracy in Action. Like at the DMV, there’s lots of waiting. They tell you to arrive 30 minutes early, so everyone with a case to be tried in your docket spends that time milling around in the hallway, studying their papers and trying to figure out if the defendant has actually shown up.
At the appointed case time, they let everyone into the massive courtroom, and the judge calls roll. For each case called that evening, and it seemed like there had to be at least 50, the judge calls the name of the claimant, who must stand and say “Ready,” and the name of the defendant, who after announcing themselves has to either say a) “Ready,” which means he’s okay with an arbitrator trying the case, in which case he cannot appeal, or b) “By the court,” which means he would like the case to be heard by the judge — and means a much longer wait. There was a weird schadenfreude in witnessing the varying levels of combativeness as some defendants stood and barked “By the court!” almost instantly.
As we sat on one of the benches waiting to be called, we couldn’t help trying to spot Peter in the standing-room-only crowd that had filled the courtroom. We had actually interacted with him in person so few times that I wasn’t totally sure that I would recognize him at a glance. I vaguely remembered his hard face; thinning hair, and the glinting chain he wore around his neck. I looked, but furtively, frightened of making eye contact. After almost 10 minutes, our case was called; no one stood for the defendant. We all smiled in relief.
Step five: Present your case.
Unfortunately, you don’t actually win your case by default if the defendant doesn’t show. After our names were called by the judge, we were told to wait in another room before finally being called with about three other cases to be heard by a jovial arbitrator named Clive. We all sat around a small table, where Clive explained the process to us. Then we put our hands on the Bible and took the oath, and I read from our prepared statement and presented the corresponding evidence. Our presentation elicited comments from Clive such as: “I know just the kind of place,” and “I had friends who lived in the East Village, and then they moved to Park Slope — and now they’re in Jersey!” If Peter had been there, he would have then presented his side of the story, and then we would have had an opportunity to ask him questions. As it was, we were pretty confident that we had won. Clive had told us that we all had “movie star names.”
Step six: Wait for your ruling.
Again, unlike television, the arbitrator does not bang a gavel and announce his decision immediately. There wasn’t even a gavel. Typically, both parties receive the decision in the mail. About a week and half after our case, we received a letter in the mail notifying us that we’d won.
But that still doesn’t mean we have our money.
As Clive told us before the start of our case, it’s easier to win in Small Claims Court than it is actually collect your money. Peter also received a letter notifying him of the decision, and, while in theory he could send us a check, the most likely scenario is that we will have to call a City Marshal and/or County Sheriff — yes, Sheriff; their main duty is really just to serve and execute court mandates and processes — who can do crazy things like take the money out of his wages, or even seize his personal property. I called the City Marshal’s office, but in order to take any action, they need his Social Security Number, or personal or business bank account numbers. The least unlikely piece of this information is his business bank account number — but even obtaining that requires tracing our rent checks and then subpoenaing the bank they were deposited to.
It’s a whole new process, and I have no idea when the money will actually land back in our bank accounts. But, one way or another — by Sheriff or sheer luck—I’m confident we’ll get it. After all, as is stated in big block letters on the bottom of our Judgment Notice, the ruling is valid for the next 20 years.
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