What if my landlord is out of state?
Washington State has “long arm” jurisdiction over out-of-state property owners (RCW 59.18.060). Landlords who live out of state still have all the same obligations under the Landlord-Tenant Act. If they violate one of the provisions that describes the duties of landlords, they are deemed to have submitted themselves to the jurisdiction of Washington State courts. Tenants may serve notice of Small Claims Court upon them in the same manner of any landlord living within Washington State, as long as it is served in accordance with Landlord-Tenant Law. Out-of-state landlords who are served notices of Small Claims Court in Washington State are entitled to not less than 60 days to appear and answer. You may want to consider if there is an appropriate party in-state that you can file against in order to make service easier.
Where do I file if my landlord lives in a different county than the rental property?
File your small claims suit in the district court of the county where the landlord resides. If you cannot locate the landlord’s address, you can file in the district of their place of employment. You can file suit against both the owner and the property manager, or just one individually. If you are filing against both the property manager and the owner, you can file in any district where any one of the defendants lives. Carefully consider who you want to file against as you may want to strategize regarding what county you are filing in. You can find a list of the district courts in Washington State at the Washington Courts Directory site. If you are unsure what district court is appropriate to file in, contact the court office and ask them to check the address for you.
Do I file against the property manager or the landlord?
RCW 59.18.030 states that the definition of landlord includes anyone designated as a representative of the owner, lessor, or sublessor, including but not limited to an agent, resident manager or property manager. The owner of your property is the person, people, or corporation named on the property title. Many owners hire property management companies to handle the daily business of running the rentals. Anyone designated by the landlord to be acting as their agent can also be considered a landlord, and is also responsible for following all the obligations set out in the law. Thus, more than one person may be considered your landlord and can be taken to Small Claims Court. You can file suit against both the owner and the property manager, or just one individually. You must have correct addresses for each in order to file. For more information on how to find a correct mailing address for the property owner, see Researching Your Landlord.
Can I get a lawyer to represent me in Small Claims Court? Can my landlord bring a lawyer?
Neither plaintiff nor defendant may bring an attorney into court with them unless the Judge allows it; all parties in Small Claims Court represent themselves. However, you may consult an attorney to get legal advice to help prepare you for court.
How much can I sue for in Small Claims Court? What if I want to sue for more than $5,000?
You can sue for up to $5,000 in Small Claims Court, and 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 try to file against them in a different court. See our Legal Assistance Guide for more information. Since it can be very difficult to find an attorney to file a civil suit against your landlord, you may also choose to sue your landlord for only $5,000 of the money they owe you so that you can still use Small Claims Court. You cannot split the difference and sue the landlord both in small claims for the $5,000, and again in a different court for the remaining amount.
How much does it cost to file in Small Claims Court?
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.
Can I sue in Small Claims Court for emotional distress or lost wages?
No. 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 something. 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. Tenants cannot recover wages lost as a result of the landlord’s actions, but they can include the cost of the filing fee.
Can I bring witnesses with me to Small Claims Court?
You can ask witnesses to speak in court on your behalf. For example, you can ask a neighbor who witnessed you vacating the unit on a certain day to come and speak for you in court.
Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to use Small Claims Court?
No, tenants do not have to be a US citizen to use Small Claims Court.
Can I sue a roommate or neighbor in Small Claims Court?
Yes. Small Claims Court can be used to resolve any monetary dispute below $5,000.
I am not a native English speaker. Can I get interpretation in Small Claims Court?
Some courts will provide interpretation for non-native English speakers, to both plaintiffs and defendants. You can request interpretation at your court date when you file the case, or when you file your answer to the case if you are being sued.
If I lose in Small Claims Court, can I appeal the decision?
In some cases, decisions can be appealed to the Superior Court. However, appeals are costly and may not guarantee positive outcomes for the tenant. For detailed information on the appeals process, see Small Claims Court in Washington State.
Can I take my landlord to Small Claims Court while I’m still living in the property?
Yes, though carefully consider how taking your landlord to Small Claims Court during your tenancy may impact your ability to carry out a positive landlord-tenant relationship with them. It is likely best to wait until after you have vacated the property in hopes that you can secure a neutral or positive referral when you vacate the premises. There is also concern that your landlord may attempt to retaliate against you, like not renewing your lease. While retaliation is illegal under the Landlord-Tenant Act (RCW 59.18.240, RCW 59.18.250), it can be difficult to enforce these legal protections. Speak to an attorney for information and advice on the best strategy for dealing with your specific problem.
How long do I have to pursue a small claim suit against my landlord?
Generally, tenants have two to three years to file in Small Claims Court against their landlords. Lawsuits involving contract violations have a six year statute of limitations. See an attorney for more information. It’s a good idea to file the suit as soon as possible to avoid loss of information or documentation that would make the case stronger.
If I’m owed more than $5,000 can I sue my landlord in small claims and then sue again for the difference in a different court venue?
No, only one court venue must be chosen. If you are owed $7,000 you can only sue once for the $5,000 in small claims, and forgo your claim on the remaining amount, or sue for the total $7,000 in a different court venue.