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How to Use Small Claims Court

1. Purpose of Small Claims Court

Since landlord-tenant laws in Washington State are largely self-enforced, Small Claims Court is one of the best ways to assert your rights in order to recover money you believe the landlord owes you. You may also have to go into Small Claims Court to defend yourself against a lawsuit the landlord is bringing against you. Before taking any legal action always write a “demand letter” to your landlord outlining what moneys you believe are due to you, and give them an opportunity to respond. Demand letters can be used for asserting your rights with your landlord in a wide variety of laws. For one example of a demand letter, see Deposit Negotiation. Consider using Small Claims Court if your negotiations with your landlord do not produce the desired result.

You can sue for up to $5,000 in Small Claims Court, but you can only recover money for specific contractual or legal violations. If you have claims against your landlord for amounts totaling more than $5,000, you can file against them in a different court. See our tenant Legal Assistance Guide for more information. Filing in Small Claims Court generally costs around $35, but you can include that in the claim amount against your landlord. Tenants cannot recover wages lost as a result of the landlord’s actions, but they can include the cost of the filing fee.

There must be a specific section of landlord-tenant law or a written agreement that has been violated in order to use Small Claims Court, and you can only sue for money owed to you. You cannot sue to force the landlord to do or not do something (called “injunctive” relief). For example, you can sue to recover your deposit, but you cannot sue to force your landlord to repaint the unit. Small Claims Court is also not a venue for tenants to sue their landlord for emotional distress, harassment, or violations of law that do not have specific monetary damages associated with them. Some sections of law designate one party as liable for a specific amount of money after committing a violation, but many laws do not have any monetary penalty associated with violating them. For a more in depth discussion of how to enforce landlord-tenant laws in Washington, see Understanding Landlord-Tenant Laws and Tools for Tenants.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare for Small Claims Court:

  • Small Claims Court is an essential tool for renters, but a positive outcome is never guaranteed, even when you followed the law to the letter and provide all the necessary documentation. Seek legal advice and assistance to get help preparing for your case. See our tenant Legal Assistance Guide
  • It’s a good idea to observe at Small Claims Court before your own court date to get an idea of how the process works. Hearings are open to the public; you can call the court clerk to find out the schedule. If you can, observe the judge that is going to preside over your hearing.
  • Your landlord may counter-sue if you take them to court. You also have the option of counter-suing your landlord, if necessary. If your landlord counter-sues you and prevails, then you will have a judgment against you. The judgment will likely appear on background checks as well as your credit report. This will likely negatively impact your credit and future ability to seek housing.
  • Whenever possible, it is a good idea to try and settle with your landlord before going to court. A settlement is an agreement with your landlord outside of court. Be sure and get your settlement agreement in writing, signed and dated by both parties. See below for more options and information.
  • Even if you are successful at small claims court and obtain a judgment against your former landlord, it is not a guarantee that the landlord will pay the amount owed. There are additional steps that you can take to try to collect on the judgment, but it may take additional time and funds.
2. Settlement Agreements & Mediation

There are many advantages to settling with your landlord outside of court. You are never 100% guaranteed to win the case. It is a good idea to at least attempt a settlement with your landlord before filing in Small Claims Court, so that you can show the judge that you tried to negotiate. Speak to an attorney for legal advice and assistance in the settlement process.

Options for settlement agreements include:

  • Contacting the landlord yourself in an attempt to directly settle the matter at hand. It’s a good idea to get anything agreed to in writing, signed and dated by all parties involved.
  • Sending a demand letter to your landlord stating your claim, citing the appropriate laws, and asking for a specific amount of money back. You can tell them that you plan to pursue a small claims lawsuit against them if they don’t return your money.
  • Initiating mediation with your landlord to have the negotiation overseen by a third party.

Mediation is often an excellent way to resolve disputes with your landlord before going to court. Work with a neutral, third party mediator whenever possible. There are Dispute Resolution Centers in most counties in Washington where you can get assistance in coming to an agreement with your landlord, usually for free or a sliding scale fee. You can work with the mediator to try and reach an agreement that works for both of you. If you are not able to come to an agreement, you can go back to Small Claims Court at any time.

If you reach an agreement during mediation, the agreement you come to will be put in writing, signed by you and your landlord, and become a contract between you. If your landlord does not follow through with the terms of your agreement, you can take them back to court. Likewise, your landlord can pursue you in court if you don’t follow the agreed upon terms.

You can contact a dispute resolution center near you to find out more information about mediation and how it may be helpful in resolving your dispute with your landlord. Mediators will be present in some counties in Small Claims Court on the court date itself. You can still settle with your landlord even after you have filed in court. Just take a copy of your settlement agreement to the court clerk and ask them to dismiss your case.

3. Pursuing Awards in the Landlord-Tenant Act

There are only specific sections within the Landlord-Tenant Act that specifically cite penalties or awarding attorney fees for landlord misconduct. The most common are:

  • RCW 59.18.085: See Repairs. Tenant can seek relocation assistance from landlord if the unit is condemned by a government authority. Tenant can pursue in small claims if the landlord refuses to pay.
  • RCW 59.18.110: See Repairs. Tenant can seek a court order for reduced rent for unmade repairs.
  • RCW 59.18.150: See Privacy. If a landlord refuses to give proper notice to enter and the tenant writes a letter requesting proper notice the owner is liable for $100 per subsequent violation.
  • RCW 59.18.230: See Rental Agreements. If a landlord seizes the tenant’s property and intentionally refuses to release it they could be liable for $500 a day, but not to exceed $5,000 in penalties.
  • RCW 59.18.250: See Retaliation. If a tenant prevails in court based on landlord retaliation they are entitled to court costs and reasonable attorney fees. Currently there is no monetary fine for retaliation.
  • RCW 59.18.253: See Deposits. Tenant can seek up to twice the amount of a holding deposit plus court costs and attorney fees.
  • RCW 59.18.280: See Deposits. Tenant can seek up to twice the amount of their deposit if the landlord intentionally withheld the money illegally.
  • RCW 59.18.285: See Deposits. If a landlord collected a fee that was not specified as “non-refundable” the fee should be treated as a refundable deposit, and no portion of a deposit can be “non-refundable.”
  • RCW 59.18.300: See Utilities. A landlord could be liable for a $100 a day penalty for the intentional shut off of utilities, plus actual damages.

However, just because the law says you have a right to go to Small Claims Court doesn’t always mean it’s the best thing for every situation. A common problem for many tenants is the threat of the landlord counter-suing. For example, if you moved out of your unit but did not document the condition you left it in, many landlord’s will claim damages to the unit that are hard for you to refute when documentation is lacking. Even if you believe the deposit is owed back to you, if a landlord can make a credible case that your damages to the unit equal or exceed the amount of the deposit you face the threat of losing the lawsuit. Losing in small claims can have a negative impact on your credit and hence your ability to seek future housing. For this reason it is very important for tenants to weigh the evidence that they have in their favor, or against them. See Tips For Tenants for more information.

Where possible, it is often a good idea to try to settle with the landlord outside of court. That way both parties are in control of the outcome, assuming an agreement can be reached. This is where being knowledgeable of the penalties outlined in the law can be extremely helpful in your negotiations. For example, if you cleaned your oven when you moved out but still had a hundred dollars wrongfully deducted from your $500 deposit for cleaning the drip pan, you can use the penalties as leverage. The law states that if the landlord failed to give you a refund statement within 14 days of vacating and intentionally withheld the deposit you can seek twice the deposit amount.

You may not know whether a judge would award you twice the amount of the deposit and the landlord may not want to risk owing you $1,000 instead of just $500. Both parties may settle in this situation both to avoid the hassle of going to court, and the threat of losing more than what was originally at stake.

Tenants Union Tenant Counselors are not attorneys, and this information should not be considered legal advice. Please read our full Tenant Union Disclaimer.