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Winning a Contracts Case in Small Claims Court

What you must show to convince the judge you're on the right side.

To win your case for any contract, you must show:

  1. That there was a meeting of the minds, a basic understanding of the agreement between the parties.

  2. What the terms of the agreement were, the time, place, and manner of performance, and when it was supposed to be completed.

  3. That the other party broke its promise (breached the contract).

  4. That you were damaged in a particular amount because of the broken promise.

For defendants, if any one of these elements is not or cannot be proven, you win.

For either side, plaintiff or defendant, to help you decide how strong your case may be, ask yourself:

  1. What is your understanding of the agreement? What should have happened?

  2. Did everyone act the way you expected them to? Actions still speak louder than words. Because the precise meanings in most contracts are assumed (you wouldn't care if the carpenter you hired drove nails right- or left-handedly) or implied, the judge will especially want to know what people did about it. People mostly act in an intentional manner, especially when they have some expectation about how it will affect them later on. So even though there may not be a written or "formal" agreement, the judge can find one based on what everybody did to further the enterprise. The parties and witnesses can testify to what happened.

  3. Is there any evidence of the agreement besides what the witnesses say? If there is anything written, look at it-a repair order or laundry claim ticket, any notes taken during a telephone conversation, any letters written or exchanged in the middle of the contract, handwritten bills, or drawings of how a project was supposed to look.

    Prior agreements about similar transactions will tend to fill in the blanks concerning the intention about the newer ones. If you have transacted business repeatedly with another and established a fixed pattern of dealing with the person, an implied agreement can be found based on this course of dealing.

  4. How did the other party fail to live up to the promises made to you? There may have been more than one way. For example: "Not only did he not paint my house the color I wanted, but he painted it in a two-tone version of the wrong colors! Then he billed me twice the estimate."

  5. How much did you lose as the direct result of the failure(s)? You need to be able to show how much you lost because of your failed expectations. If you paid for something that was worthless, you should be able to recover the purchase price. If you had to pay, for example, a second plumber to fix a first plumber's botched job, you should ask for what you paid the second plumber to complete the work. This is true even though you may have had to pay the second plumber more. You have a right to the full benefit of your bargain.

    Look at the financial position you were in before you entered into the contract. If you win, the judge should put you back into that position as closely as possible, as if the bad contract had never occurred.

    If your property was damaged beyond repair, you may be able to recover its full value at the time it was damaged. Not replacement value, but fair market value at the time the damage was done. Once you have used something, it is not worth what it was new. A car salesman once told me that the minute you drive a car off the lot, it depreciates 25 percent in value. But if you show that you purchased your mink coat for $3,500, for example, and wore it only three times before the dry cleaner misplaced it, you should be able to get close to the full value, as if it were new. If you wore it 20 times, it would be helpful for you to be able to place a specific value on it at its depreciated value. If you expected to wear it 200 times over the life of the coat, it would be depreciated 10 percent. You should recover $3,150 for its loss. You can be creative in your demands and proof of your damages, as long as you are reasonable. The judge must have a "reasonable basis" to award you a specific sum of money.

Defendants, if you are sued on a contract and do not agree with the plaintiff's point of view (and who would expect you to?), you can assert several defenses to prevent having the contract enforced against you. Here, too, a strong defense is your best offense. Assert one of these successfully and it will do away with the plaintiff's claim.

  1. There was no agreement. Contracts do not exist at all if there is no meeting of the minds as to any part of the proposed agreement. For example, no rate of pay or contract price, no description of what each of you will do for the other, or no exchange of promises at all, actual or implied. You are saying, "I never agreed with the plaintiff about this at all!" You may have had negotiations preliminary to making an agreement, but no accord was reached.

  2. There was an agreement, but it was different than the one the plaintiff claims existed. Show by testimony and other evidence what the real agreement was.

  3. You did not violate the contract. Or if you did a little, the plaintiff disregarded it altogether.

  4. There was a contract, but you entered into it by mistake. If you had known what the true facts were, not your mistaken ones, you never would have entered into the contract in the first place. So, it is unfair that you be bound by it.

  5. There was a contract, but you were lured into accepting it by deception and trickery. Therefore, you should not be bound by it.

  6. There was a contract, but:

    1. Before it started, you and the plaintiff changed your minds and agreed to different terms.

    2. Before it started, you and the plaintiff agreed not to go forward with it.

    3. After it began, you and the plaintiff agreed to different terms and a new contract.

    4. You or the plaintiff acted totally different than you had originally agreed. Your contract was changed by actions that were not accepted by one of the parties to the agreement.

  7. You had a contract and you broke your promises, but the plaintiff wasn't damaged in nearly the amount he or she claims.

  8. There were two contracts. The second one changed everything.

  9. There was a contract, but it required one of you to do something illegal or immoral. Therefore, you cannot be bound by it.

  10. There was a contract, but it became impossible to perform. Something unforeseen happened, making the contract impossible or worthless. For example, you agreed to paint the plaintiff's house, but then before the job began, the house burned down.

  11. There was a contract, but you didn't have to do anything under the agreement until the plaintiff did something first, and he or she never did it. In this one, there is a condition that must be met before the other party is required to perform his or her promise. You might argue successfully with this defense: "Yes, I agreed to paint the plaintiff's house as soon as he got the paint. He never did."

  12. There was a contract, but when it came time for you to perform, the plaintiff said you did not have to. Your performance was excused.

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