Note: We’re not lawyers, and this story should not be considered legal advice in any way. Laws and legal proceedings vary by city and circumstance and may be very different for your case. Please consult your own local laws and your own lawyer or legal adviser for guidance relating to your own situation.
A while back, I wrote a post about “What To Do If You Don’t Get Your Security Deposit Back”. It drew on recent first-hand experience: Over the course of several months, I had contacted my landlord and building manager by phone, mail, and email, with the only response being one call back that only muddied the waters.
After that post, I made one last effort to get in touch with my landlord. Nothing. I had no choice but to take my landlord to small-claims court, also known as conciliation court, which is where you file claims up to $10,000 (mine was for slightly less than $2,000). For landlord-tenant disputes, claims must be filed in the county in which the rental property is located. Here’s what I learned from the experience.
The Paperwork: Don’t just dash off your complaint—it’s key to winning your case, so make sure it’s as clear and complete as possible.
I went to my county court’s website and found a PDF of the form I needed to file. It was a short, one-page document, with room for only about a paragraph describing the circumstances. I filled every inch of that, making sure to cite the exact number of the statute that my landlord had violated. I polished my paragraph over several drafts, until it was as clear and as detailed as possible. The effort was worth it, as I would soon learn in court.
A few days later, I received my summons in the mail. I was called to arrive at 9am, and I made sure I was early. My landlord was already there, along with about fifteen other people. It turns out the court handles several cases each morning, with everyone reporting at the same time for an initial briefing. The various parties are then dismissed to the hallway and encouraged to take one last stab at resolving the dispute; if they don’t, they report back to the courtroom for their hearing.
Be on time: If you don’t show up, the hearing will still proceed without you (and you’ll probably lose)
In one case heard before mine, only the plaintiff was present, so the judge listened briefly to his case and then, with no one to present the other side, quickly ruled in the plaintiff’s favor.
Documentation is your key to success
Out in the hall, talking with my landlord and the building manager, it was clear that there was some confusion about the circumstances. They said they had not received my letters—including my initial notice to vacate—or my emails. But I had copies of everything: dated letters, emails with the Gmail header information, including dates and email addresses. The building manager and landlord remained adamant that they hadn’t seen any of my correspondence before, but conceded that my documentation clearly showed that I had sent everything. (My own hunch is that there was a breakdown in document-management on their end and my letters got lost in a pile somewhere, rather than being intentionally ignored.)
Make a timeline to show events in a quick glance
Both the building manager and I had made timelines noting our conversations and correspondence. It wasn’t until we compared our them—and saw how much more detailed mine was—that we both understood that our disagreement was largely about when and if he had received my emails and letters, in particular my notice to vacate. Once he saw the thoroughness of my timeline and documentation, the building owner offered to settle on the spot by returning the deposit but not paying any additional damages. But I said no—I knew I had a strong case, and given the time and energy I had spent trying to get in touch with him, I wanted my damages.
Know the law, and know when it’s on your side
Our hearing didn’t take long—about ten minutes total. Before we started speaking, the only information the judge had was my complaint. I was glad I’d taken the time to state the case clearly and in detail (including listing the exact law in question), because it helped put me on firm ground from the outset. The judge noted that the landlord had clearly violated the law and asked if he understood the law. It turned out he didn’t, at least not entirely.
Be calm and confident, and know the answers to obvious questions
The judge was calm, kind, and at times even casual as he tried to help ease everyone’s courtroom jitters. Listening to the cases before mine, it was clear that even people who seemed to have a strong, winning case came across as angry or unconvincing because they were nervous.
I felt (surprisingly) confident because I knew the law. I had also thought about what questions the judge might ask and what points the landlord might raise, and I had an email or other document to support my answers. When the judge asked the landlord and building manager for a copy of the lease agreement, neither had brought one—which, as the judge noted, didn’t exactly help their case.
Quit while you’re ahead
I had several documents (and points) that I never introduced, because it was fairly obvious that the judge was going to rule in my favor. Why extend the hearing and potentially add extra confusion or irrelevant issues when things are going your way?
Again: Make sure your initial complaint is airtight
In this particular small-claims court, at least, the judge does not make an immediate decision and does not keep any evidence introduced during the hearing (such as my letters and emails). That means that the only documents in his or her hand when actually writing the decision are the hearing transcript and the original complaint. This makes it all the more important to make that paragraph perfect.
If you win, the court can’t help you collect
I won. And, thankfully, I received a check from my landlord for the full amount of the judgment. But if I hadn’t gotten that check, things would have gotten even more complicated. As the State of Minnesota’s Conciliation Court FAQ points out, conciliation court “is not a collections agency,” and I would have needed to take my case to the District Court and later, potentially, the sheriff.