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Small Claims Process

The person initiating the lawsuit is the plaintiff, and the person being sued is the defendant. Neither plaintiff nor defendant may bring an attorney into Small Claims Court with them; all parties in Small Claims Court represent themselves. However, you may consult an attorney to get legal advice to help prepare you for court. 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. Speak to 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.

1. Who to Sue

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 considered to be 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. You may want to consider the location of any potential landlords before filing as their residence will determine which county you can file in. For example, if the owner of the property lives in a different county than you but the property manager lives in the same county, you may want to consider filing against the property manager. For more information on how to find a correct mailing address for the property owner, see Researching Your Landlord.

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 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.

2. Filing

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. (You can also file against out-of-state landlords under the state’s “long-arm” jurisdiction statutes: RCW 59.18.060.) 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.

Ask clerk at the district court for a Notice of Small Claim. Each county has different rules for how the form must be filled out, so contact the proper district court, even if you use the form provided online. Some courts require that the form be signed in front of the court clerk in order to be valid. You will state the name of the person or people you’re suing, how much you are suing for, and provide a brief description of why you’re suing them.

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. You do not have to be a US citizen to use Small Claims Court.

3. Proof of Service

You must obtain proof that a copy of the Notice of Small Claim has been served upon your landlord. You can mail the form certified mail, return receipt, or you can have the notice hand served by someone other than yourself. It is a good idea to hire a county sheriff or a process server to deliver it for a fee to ensure documentation of proper service. You can also ask a neutral third party adult deliver the form. Whoever serves it must have the landlord sign a Certificate of Service verifying that they received the paperwork on a specific date and time. It’s also a good idea to have the person who served the paperwork fill out an affidavit of service that is signed before a notary public. The notice can also be served on another adult within the household, or the managing agent of the corporation or business that owns your property.

4. Court Hearing

On the day of court, bring all documentation you have, including all written attempts at settlement. Bring extra copies of all your documentation to provide in court. You should have at least three copies of every document – one for you, one for the landlord, and one for the judge. If you have pictures, you must print them out; you cannot show the court the pictures on your phone or camera. You must show all documentation you will use in court to the landlord before the suit begins. Be sure to also bring your proof of service. If you cannot prove in court that you properly served your landlord, you cannot proceed with the case. You can also 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.

If your landlord has brought suit against you in Small Claims Court, bring all documentation you have in your own defense with you to court. You must show it to the landlord before the suit begins. You can still try and work to settle with the landlord before the court date, either with the help of mediation or without. It is a good idea to get legal assistance to help you prepare. See Legal Assistance Guide for information and referrals.

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