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Articles > Landlord Tenant Disputes > Security Deposit Against Landlord or Management

Filing a Small Claims Court Suit for Security Deposit against Landlord

By : David Smith
Published here : Nov 04, 2015
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A majority of the landlord-tenant disputes that end up in small claims courts are over security deposits. Typically, these small claims court suits are brought by tenants against landlords who withhold the deposit money that is due to them for various reasons or simply fail to return the deposit. Small claims courts make it easier to resolve such disputes. Let’s look at how it’s done.

Know Your State’s Rules for Returning Deposits

Before filing a small claims court suit, get to know the details about your state’s security deposit rules on how and when landlords must return security deposits. In California, for instance, landlords must return the security deposit within 21 days after the tenant vacates their premises. The landlord can use the security deposit for unpaid rent or utility charges, cost of repairing the damage caused by the tenant to the premises other than ordinary wear and tear, cleaning the premises in order to achieve the sort of cleanliness that existed at the start of the tenancy. The landlord is now allowed to deduct cleaning costs if you’ve paid a separate cleaning fee for it. 

Request Your Deposit in Writing

If your landlord fails to return your security deposit by the deadline as mandated by your state, or has taken deductions that you consider to be unjustified, send a letter asking for the return of the security deposit. Your letter should have stated the facts of the case and what you’re looking for as well as your legal rights as a tenant. You should state your intent to file a case in a small claims court if required to. Your letter would serve as a useful documentary evidence later, when filing a lawsuit in the small claims court. You may file the lawsuit immediately if the landlord fails to respond satisfactorily to your letter. 

Suing Your Landlord in a Small Claims Court

It doesn’t cost much to sue your landlord in a small claims court – just $50 or so. You don’t need a lawyer to sue in a small claims court; indeed, many courts don’t allow you to have one. You can sue for the full amount of the security deposit as long as it is under the state limit. In California Small Claims Court, this limit has been set at $10,000. The judge usually decides the dispute in a month or two after the case has been filed. 

Gathering Evidence for Court

Let’s look at the types of tangible evidence you’ll need to prove your case against the landlord in a small claims court. 

#1: A simple statement stating how much money your landlord owes you and penalties, if any.

#2: A copy of the letter sent to the landlord asking for the security deposit to be given to you, as well as a copy of all correspondence between yourself and the landlord.

#3: A copy of the signed leased or rental agreement.

#4: A copy of the state security deposit law.

#5: Any receipts of the fees paid by you to the landlord or cancelled checks, if any.

#6: Clear photographs that show the condition of the rental property at the start of your tenancy and at the end.

#7: Any disinterested witnesses who are familiar with your rental unit and are willing to testify that the place was in a decent condition when you left it. 

Presenting Your Case in Small Claims Court

You don’t have to be a legal expert to present your case in a small claims court. You only need to state the facts of the case as clearly as possible. Don’t get into an emotional argument with the landlord and never speak out of turn. It would help to watch a few small claims court cases to get an idea of what to expect.

Practice your presentation with a friend a day before the hearing. Ensure that all the documents are close at hand and have enough copies made to hand one to the court, another to the defendant and keep one for yourself. Point out your witnesses to the court, summarize the testimony you expect from them and ask the court’s permission to call them. Your entire testimony takes no more than 15 minutes.

A decision will be taken by the judge in the courtroom itself or will be sent to you by mail within a couple of days. If you don’t agree with the court’s ruling, you’re allowed to appeal it.

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