How do I sue someone in small claims court for not returning a security deposit on an apartment?
I did this in Connecticut. I'm not a lawyer and certainly not a landlord/tenant expert, but I'll tell you my experience, which might help.The place was sparkling when I left. A few days after I vacated, the LL left the country without telling me for a few months after I moved out, and then took a couple weeks to return the deposit even once he got back. I sued him for return of the security deposit, plus the extra damages (equal to the whole security deposit) that CT provides for a late return. I was pissed off enough with the LL that I pursued the suit even after he voluntarily returned the deposit, and I won a judgment for the extra statutory damages plus court costs.Here's what I did:* First, I tried calling, to see if we could sort out the problem. He didn't respond because he was out of the country (though I didn't know that at the time).* Next, I sent him letters demanding the security deposit, reminding him of my forwarding address, and threatening legal action. I kept a copy for myself, hand-delivered a copy to his business (which is where I had sent my rent checks), and sent both first-class and certified copies both to his business address and to what I believed to be his home address (based on an Internet search). I kept the certified mail receipts. I might have also posted a copy on my old apartment's door, which faced the street.* Once he got back to town but still gave me the run-around about the deposit, I filed suit. To do that, I filled out the appropriate complaint form (JD-CV-40), and took it to the clerk at the courthouse where the website told me to go, and the clerk put it on the small claims docket of Geographic Area #20. (CT's venue statutes are a real mess. I just reviewed them, and I believe this was correct. In any event, my LL has now forfeited any objection he might have had to the venue.) I kept my receipts from the court filing so that I could claim them later from the LL.* Then, I reviewed my options for serving him. Either I or the court clerk (I can't remember) sent him a copy by certified mail with return receipt to his business address.* While waiting for the court date, I got my records in order, including: a copy of each check I had ever paid to him, especially the first one for the security deposit, my lease, which recited the rent and security amounts (and I think also confirmed that he had received the deposit initially), and copies of all my correspondence with him and the mailing receipts.* I also went to the Small Claims Court to watch proceedings for a couple hours one day, just so that I'd be comfortable with the surroundings and have some idea what would be expected of me.* On the court date, he didn't show up. He may have falsely assumed that I had dropped the suit after he returned my deposit. In any case, the magistrate called me, and it was very quick. I was sworn in, she read out the description of the case from my complaint and asked me whether it was accurate, I said that the security deposit had been returned, so I was only seeking the extra statutory damages plus court costs. I think she also asked how much the court costs had been. And then she entered judgment for me. (Even if he had shown up, I'm sure I would have won. I knew the relevant law, had my facts straight, and was in a frame of mind to be polite and responsive to the judge. That goes a long way in Small Claims.)* Either that day or some time shortly thereafter, I got some kind of official record of the judgment.* Collection has been hard. (To be fair, though, I haven't put much effort into it because I'm largely satisfied with just getting my deposit back.) Not too long after the judgment, he either closed or sold his business, and he lost his home to foreclosure. He also divorced. Not a good year for him. Some time later, he moved out to Northern California, and I don't know where he is now. I've been considering calling up a collections person to see if they might be able to track him down.* The one asset I know about is the condo unit that I rented. I knew he still owned the place because I looked up the unit in the town's property records on its website. (This would be with the county rather than the town in most states.) So, I drew up a document with the requisite information, and filed it with the property clerk. In theory, I could now foreclose on the apartment, but I suspect the unit may be underwater with a mortgage that takes precedence over my lien. Instead, I'm hoping that when it gets above water again and he wants to sell, he'll want to pay me once he finds that no buyer wants the property with a clouded title.* Also, every great once in a while, I check on the websites of the Bankruptcy Courts of Connecticut and the Northern District of California to see whether he's filed for bankruptcy. If he were to file for bankruptcy, I might want to file a claim.So, some key points to think about and find out are:* Is there any way at all to get the deposit back without going to court? Going to court takes a long time, is a hassle, and in the end it might be hard to collect on a judgment.* Basic facts about the LL. Address, phone number. In some states, it might be necessary to know whether he's military. And once it comes time to execute a judgment, as much as possible about his property and financial affairs.* The substantive law: What are you entitled to and why? What defenses might the LL bring up? This may require looking at the statute, that's how I discovered that I was entitled to extra damages. If you have some special situation, is there relevant case law? (This might be worth hiring a lawyer to review.) If you know where your deposit is being held, is there any process to attach the bank account before the court date?* Does your lease say anything that might affect what you're entitled to? (But also consider that some states might not give effect to some kinds of clauses that run in favor of the landlord.)* What evidence do you need to assemble in order to prove the facts that you need to prove? Examples: Evidence that you paid a deposit in the first place, and that you left the apartment in good shape. What sort of evidence will be admissible? (It seems like every episode of People's Court, some litigant tries to tell the judge that so-and-so would testify that such-and-such happened, but couldn't come to court. The response is always: too bad, that's not evidence.)* Which court to file in? Which type ‡ small claims, a special housing court, the general civil court? Which location? I'd start out by looking at a page like Wisconsin Court System - self-help law center.* How do you file a suit in that court? How must you inform the LL once you've filed?* Are you allowed to bring a lawyer? If so, is the claim big enough, complex enough, and likely enough to be recoverable that it would make sense? (In my case, my claim was very straight-forward, wasn't very big, and was probably only moderately collectable, so it didn't make sense to get a lawyer.)