Have you ever wrongfully not received your security deposit from your landlord? Yeah, me too. It turns out that a lot of people have their security deposit wrongfully withheld from them. Most people do not take legal action for several reasons like not knowing how to sue or not having the time. In my case, my landlord had a history of withholding security deposits from tenants so I was determined to not let this happen to me. I took extra precautions to protect myself, but knew that I would take my landlord to court if necessary. As anticipated, my landlord gave me back 20% of my deposit claiming they had to spend the rest “cleaning”. I had no idea how to take legal action and have my justice. After my personal experience with this I want to show you how you can sue your landlord for your security deposit and win.
Before moving out, document as much as possible
I decided to do a thorough video inspection walkthrough of my apartment before I did my final walkthrough with my landlord. This video evidence would be essential to my case later. I literally just took out my phone and recorded as I walked through my entire apartment. I documented things I cleaned, things that were already broken, and anything else that could be disputed. Having the date timestamped on my video was important to prove I recorded it when I did.
When I was finished I called my landlord to do a final walkthrough. As anticipated, my landlord told me my apartment was not “clean” and that there would be deductions from my security deposit. Although I anticipated this, it still made me extremely frustrated. I began to make preparations to sue for my full deposit whenever my deducted deposit was returned to me.
Send a demand letter
Once I received my security deposit back from my landlord with the anticipated deductions, I began the process to file suit. First, I had create and send a demand letter. There are several examples online, and here is a template that I used. In your letter, state what you want (your full security deposit) and that you will file suit if not rectified by a certain date.
This part of the process does not require anything from the court. You simply send it to your landlord. If you have a lawyer friend, I recommend sending them your demand letter and having them send it to your landlord on your behalf. This is in addition to sending your own demand letter.
After you send out your letter, if you do not receive an answer by your specified date or receive an answer that is not what you are looking for, it is time to move to filing a suit.
File a small claims case
After conducting some research, I found that I could file a small claims suit. Small claims suits are for cases that involve less than $5,000. Next, I had to go to my local court and file a smalls claim. I filled out paperwork which basically asked who I was suing, how much I was suing for, and why I was suing. This cost $125 for me to file.
Make sure before filing out this paperwork that you do research on what all you can sue for. I learned that I could sue for security deposit, my court fees, interest, and even punitive damages. I later discovered that I could have requested the landlord pay a $200 penalty to me for sending my deposit after the 30 days that I was supposed to received my deposit by. Whatever you choose to sue for, make sure you can document and clearly show why you deserve what you are asking for.
Serve your landlord
Immediately after paying the $125 to file the small claims suit, I had to pay $20 constable fee. This is to pay for the court to assign someone to serve your landlord that they are being sued. The court will tell you a date to call back by to see if your landlord has been served.
If you have a crafty landlord that knows how to avoid being served like mine, you may have to pay to have a “special deputy” serve them. You have to go back to the court to file for a “special deputy”, which has to be approved by a judge. This process could take a couple of days or weeks. Mine was approved and I paid a $20 fee.
I chose a close friend that I was confident could find a way to serve my landlord. After successfully serving my landlord, my “special deputy” had to get a copy signed and notarized. They returned the copy to me and then I took it to the court house.
Serve your landlord…AGAIN
I gave the court the signed papers showing my landlord had been served. They gave me my official court date where I would present my case to the judge. They then informed me that I would have to serve my landlord again to inform them of the court date. I reached out to my “special deputy” again and the same process took place. My landlord was served, the copy was notarized, I turned that copy into the court.
Prepare your case against your landlord
I chose to represent myself in my court case. You can hire a lawyer if you want to, but regardless you need to spend time preparing for your court date. Put all of your documentation together for the court date. This should include pictures, videos, the lease agreement, and any other information you have. The more information you have the better. It is much better to over prepare and not need information than to under prepare and not have information. It could be the difference in winning and losing your case.
Show up to court
You should plan to get to court 15-30 minutes early. Parking near a courthouse is usually challenging to find a spot, so get there early so you don’t stress over parking. To my surprise, when I showed up to court I was not the only case being heard that day. You may be one of several cases heard that day. You could be first case to be heard or the last. That being said, I would prepare to be in court for 1-3 hours that day just to be safe.
Presenting your case
A few tips for when you presenting to the judge:
1) Wear professional attire
It’s amazing to see how much your attire can impact your presentation. Dressing professionally gives the impression that you are taking your case seriously. It makes you look more confident and trustworthy as well. Every case I witnessed that day where one party was dressed professionally and the other was not, the professionally dressed won. (These are just my opinions and some observations I made that day.)
2) Remain as calm as possible
Tensions may run high in court and some people crack under the pressure and it causes them to be impolite to the judge or disrespectful in tone when responding to the judges questions. I noticed through the cases I listened to that usually the more calm and polite side won and had favorable rulings.
3) In your opening statement make sure you state everything you suing for
If you want your security deposit plus court fees, it needs to be stated. I made the mistake in the whirlwind of emotion, nervousness, and excitement of my first case to not state that I wanted the court fees covered as well. Not making that simple statement almost cost me an additional $200 in reparations.
Winning your case
After you present your case, the judge will either give an immediate verdict or will send their verdict in the mail. The judge in my case decided to send the verdict in the mail. This was to allow the landlord to send in additional information to support their claim.
Weeks later, I received my verdict… I won my case!
Money was not the goal for me. It was the principal behind everything. Landlords should be held responsible for just doing the right thing. If you have read this entire article and are personally dealing with this or know someone dealing with this, I hope you have the information you need to get the justice you deserve!