by: Sanford R. Altman, Esq., retired
Jacobowitz & Gubits, LLP

I recently hired a contractor to do some work on my house but, after I made the final payment, he never finished the job and I never saw him again. Is it too complicated and expensive to sue him?

Every Town, Village and City in the State has a local Court with a Small Claims part specifically designed for individuals to have their grievances heard. There are several steps to follow to bring your case to the Small Claims Court.

First, calculate how much in money damages you are looking to recover. If you have a project which is incomplete or inadequate, you must have a second contractor give you a written estimate for completing the job properly. In the event that you gave your contractor money and nothing was done, your measure of damages will also be an estimate from a second contractor. This is true, even if it’s more money since that is what it would now cost you to have the job completed. The monetary limit for Small Claims Court is $3,000.00 for Towns and Villages and $5,000.00 for City Courts. Small Claims Courts only cover money damages, not such things as “pain and suffering” or “mental distress”.

If the amount of damages is within the range of Small Claims Court (or you are willing to settle for an amount in that range), visit your local Court Clerk who will help you with filling out the paperwork to get started. A lawsuit is started by serving a Summons with notice or a Complaint. If the contractor used a trade name or corporation, the Summons should use his individual name as well. It is important to note that a Summons for Small Claims Court may only be served within the County – another reason for using local contractors.

Once you have your Court date, you must bring with you all of the evidence and witnesses to make out your case. First, bring with you any documents including written estimates from your original contractor, proof of payments such as cancelled checks and photographs showing incomplete or inadequate work performed. Bring additional witnesses if you have them so that it will not be a case of “your word against his.” Proof of damages must be either new estimates or, if you have already had the work done by someone else, a paid receipt.

The procedure followed in Court is not too different from that which you may have seen on television. First you, as the “Plaintiff”, must present your testimony and evidence. Tell the Judge your story briefly and in chronological order starting with the date that you first contacted or received an estimate from the contractor, what he promised to do for you, how much it would cost and move on to what he actually did and any efforts you made to contact him to complete the job. Offer his original estimate into evidence along with your proof of payments and photographs. Finally, offer your two new estimates as proof of damages or your paid receipts. This makes out your entire case. Be succinct and organized – the Judges love this. Additional witnesses to support your testimony may be helpful as long as they are not totally repetitive of your testimony. If you are claiming an inadequate job, the support of another contractor may be vital.

After each witness, the contractor you are suing or his lawyer will have the opportunity of to asking questions (cross-examination).

Then it will be the contractor’s turn to give his side of the story after which you will have the chance to cross-examine him. It is best to prepare some questions in advance for this purpose. Then you will have the opportunity to give the Judge a summary of your evidence and to ask for a judgment in the amount that you’re seeking for damages. This “summation” is optional but, as Plaintiff, this gives you one last chance to quickly give the Judge your point of view. Often the Judge will reserve his or her decision and you will be contacted by mail.

Sometimes, the Judge will try to settle the matter by having the contractor promise to come back and finish the job. Decide beforehand if this is acceptable to you. If so, ask for a specific time limit and ask that, if the contractor does not complete the work within that period, the Judge automatically gives you a judgment for the amount of the damages sought. If the contractor fails to appear in Court at all, ask the Judge for a default judgment in your favor. The Judge may ask you to give some testimony especially regarding your damages which will be your new estimates or paid receipt and possibly testimony of your supporting contractor, if you have one.

While the procedure is relatively simple and straight forward, as you can see, being prepared gives you the best chance of success in Small Claims Court.