Small Claims


Q: I recently had the pleasure of spending my entire morning watching small claims cases come and go, while waiting for my own. The more I watched, the more I realized that it is a highly “subjective” area, and prone to a lot of “creative” testimony. Needless to say, by the time my case was called my confidence level had been reduced several notches. I guess I did ok, at least better than most, but I’m not sure what I could have done that would have helped. Can you give me some pointers that will help me out next time?

If landlords and tenants are meeting in small claims court, it usually is because the tenant is suing the landlord over a security deposit, or the landlord is suing the tenant over damages done to the unit over and above the security deposit, or some combination of the two. Whatever the underlying cause of action, there are many things a landlord should do that would greatly reduce the chances of being brought into a suit or if a suit is brought, will greatly increase the landlord’s chance of prevailing. Proper tenant screening at the inception of the tenancy will effectively weed out the “habitual” litigant. By verifying past tenancies, many former landlords will volunteer past disputes and their outcome with you.

Using the proper rental agreement will also aid you in a future lawsuit, by clearly identifying rights and duties of all parties during the tenancy. A properly completed move-in inspection form signed by the tenant establishes a baseline in which to determine future damage. Proper documentation recording requests for repairs, actual repairs made, defining the cause of the needed repair, and correspondence documenting any alleged breach by the tenant, such as over-crowding, failure to clean or maintain or other misuse of the premises. Upon the tenants moving out of the unit, it is important to carefully prepare a move-out checklist detailing any and all damage to the unit such as excessive damage to walls or carpets covered with pet stains or ground-in dirt and oil.

Remember that you are required to properly account for the security deposit within 21 days of receiving possession, charging the tenant only for damages and cleaning in excess of ordinary wear and tear. Stay away from any “standard cleaning fee”, only pass on proper deductions. If the tenant damaged it, don’t be afraid to charge him for it; conversely, if the tenant left the premises in the same condition as when he got it, then refund the deposit. Make sure that you attach copies of all receipts including the name, address and phone number of the vendor doing the repairs to the security deposit disposition statement. One last thing, if you go to court, be prepared, be organized and be truthful.


This article is presented in a general nature to address typical landlord tenant legal issues. Specific inquiries regarding a particular situation should be addressed to your attorney. The Duringer Law Group, PLC, one of the largest and most experienced landlord tenant law firms, and has collected over $155,000,000.00 in debt since 1988. The firm may be reached at 714.279.1100, toll free at 800.829.6994 or 877.387.4643. Please visit for more information and to sign up for our periodic newsletter.

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