Tenant Disputes: Everything You Need to Know About Michigan’s Small Claims Court
As landlords, we often have to deal with tenants’ disputes and disagreements. If you’re arguing over something worth $6,500 or less, you have the option to file a case with the Small Claims Court. This division of the District Court is an excellent resource for resolving disputes without going through a costly and time-consuming lawsuit.
We’ll discuss the basics of small claims in Michigan, including eligibility requirements and the process for filing a claim. If you’re considering using Small Claims Court to resolve a dispute with your tenant or another party, read for more information.
Who Hears Your Cases in Small Claims?
A District Court judge or attorney magistrate can hear your case and decide on its outcome. There are no juries to hear you out in a Small Claims case. If a judge hears your case, you won’t be able to appeal the decision.
By contrast, if a magistrate hears your case, on the other hand, you can still appeal within seven days of the results. A District Court judge will then review the case and update you on the concluding result.
What Are the Kinds of Small Claims Court Cases?
The Small Claims Court handles civil cases where the amount in controversy is no more than $6,500. Money is the only reward in these cases. If you want something else that’s not monetary (like having something stolen returned), you’ll have to file for a claim and delivery.
Moreover, $6,500 is the maximum reward amount from the Small Claims Court. You can still file cases that are worth more than the limit, but you’ll lose the right to any extra amount above $6,500. You won’t be able to sue again based on the same dispute once the judge or magistrate makes a decision.
Here are common landlord-tenant disputes that you can file as a Small Claim case:
- Disputes on the return of the tenant’s security deposit
- Damages that exceed the value of the security deposit
- Changing, setting aside, or performing a contract or lease agreement
- Recreational trespassing is where someone trespassed on your land while engaging in an activity
- Dishonored checks are where the renter gives you a check that the bank didn’t pay
There are many different issues you can file in the Small Claims Court that aren’t related to landlord and tenant disputes, too. Note that you can’t file your case in the Small Claims Court to sue someone for fraud, slander, libel, assault, and other intentional harm or damage.
Can a Lawyer Represent Me in Small Claims Court?
No, you have to represent yourself in the Small Claims Court, you can’t have a lawyer do it for you. You’ll have to speak in front of the judge or magistrate and your opponent, present all your evidence, and tell them your reasons for demanding the money.
Alternatively, you can move your case to a regular district court where your attorney can represent you, and you’ll be the defendant.
What are the Steps to Filing a Small Claims Court Case?
Here are the steps to filing your case in a Small Claims Court in Michigan:
- Fill Out the Form: File an Affidavit and Claim in the Small Claims Court. You can use online DIY tools to get these forms, or go to the district court and ask a clerk for the forms. Remember to leave the signature line blank, as you’ll have to sign it in front of a court clerk or notary public.
- File Your Claim: File your claim with the district court clerk, either where the dispute happened or where the defendant works or lives. The filing fee is $30 for claims up to $600, $50 for claims from $600 to $1,750, and $70 for claims of more than $1,750. You can get the filing fee back if you win the case. Alternatively, you can ask the court to waive the fee if you can’t afford it.
- Telling the Defendant: The court will then “serve” a copy of your claim to the defendants involved. You’ll have to pay for the cost of this service. Just tell the clerk that you want it done by personal service ($26 plus mileage) or by certified mail (only $15).
- Wait for the Defendant to Respond: Once the defendants see the case, they’ll either settle out of court, remove the case to the district court, appear in Small Claims Court for the hearing, or ignore the case altogether (where the case will default on the hearing day).
If the defendant offers to settle the case before going to court, you’ll have to put the agreement in writing, get the signatures of both parties, and ask the judge to enter it as the judgment. If the defendant (or you) removes the case to the general district court, you’ll have to file a Demand and Order for Removal before the hearing starts.
- Prepare for the Hearing: Be proactive and think of what the judge or magistrate needs to know. Collect your evidence (e.g., sales receipt, lease, reports, photos, witness testimonies, etc.) and see if you can get any witnesses to appear in court. Talk to your lawyer for more options.
- Go to Court: Attend the hearing and present your case. Be prompt, dress neatly, and sit by the judge’s bench so the clerk or officer will know that you’ve arrived. Have all your evidence on hand, bring your witness with you, and follow the same rules lawyers do in court.
- See Who’ll Show Up: If the Plaintiff and Defendant both show up, the judge or magistrate might recommend mediation (where the hearing only begins if the parties won’t agree), someone might remove the case to the regular district court, or the hearing might proceed. If the Plaintiff doesn’t appear, they’ll dismiss the case. If the Defendant doesn’t appear, they’ll issue a default judgment based on the Plaintiff’s case.
- Present Your Case: Follow the judge or magistrate’s instructions, answer their questions, and have your witness give their testimony. Remember to present your case in a clear, chronological order. If the Defendant is present, they’ll also get a chance to speak.
- Wait for the Results: You’ll have to wait for the judge or magistrate’s final decision. They’ll either give the answer immediately after the hearing or take more time to make a conclusion. Once the judge or magistrate decides, the court will ensure that all parties receive a copy of the order.
If you lose the case and the Defendant presents a counterclaim, you might have to pay the Defendant. If you win, however, you’ll collect your money from the judgment debtor. If the debtor avoids paying the judgment, ask your lawyer for more help with the collecting process.
Consider Your Chances Before Filing Your Case
Of course, it’s important to consider your chances before filing to a Small Claims Court, as you won’t get your filing and service fees back if you lose the case. Filing your case to a Small Claims Court isn’t the answer to all common tenant disputes, but it’s a necessary solution for some situations.
Do you need more help with tenant management? Our team of expert property managers has been in the business for more than two decades. Get in touch today.