Lawsuits between landlords and tenant are usually one of two types: eviction (landlord suing tenant for possession of the property) and collection (one party trying to collect money from the other). For more information about the eviction process, see Eviction. In certain circumstances, either the landlord or the tenant may have a reason to sue the other to collect money owed. The landlord may sue to collect damages exceeding the security deposit or unpaid rent, such as when a tenant moves out before the end of the lease. The tenant most commonly sues the landlord for the return of part or all of the security deposit.
When collecting money owed, it is rarely a good idea to jump straight to filing a lawsuit. Resolving the matter informally can save a lot of time, effort, and expense for everyone involved. A party collecting money should start with a demand letter, asking the other to pay the amount owed, and negotiating if the amount owed is disputed. If the demand and negotiation is unsuccessful, the collecting party may decide to turn over the debt to a collection agency or to sue the other party in court.
If the collecting party (called the plaintiff) decides to sue the other (called the defendant), the suit may be filed in regular County Court or in the Small Claims Division. Every County Court in Nebraska has a Small Claims Division set up to handle disputes involving up to $3,500.00 in money owed or damages. Small Claims Court is designed for the parties to handle the case themselves – the rules of evidence and procedure are relaxed, and no one is represented by a lawyer in Small Claims Court (though a party can consult an attorney before the hearing). Small Claims Court also has a lower filing fee than regular County Court. Because it is cheaper and simpler, Small Claims Court may be the better option for some collection suits. However, if the plaintiff is asking for damages greater than $3,500.00, or if the plaintiff wants to be represented by an attorney, regular County Court is the better option.
A plaintiff filing suit in Small Claims Court should be aware that the case may not stay in Small Claims Court. The defendant has the right to remove the case to regular County Court by filing a motion and paying the difference in filing fees between Small Claims and County Court. If the defendant decides to remove the case to County Court, the plaintiff should consider hiring an attorney.
In both Small Claims and regular County Court, the plaintiff is responsible to prove the case – that is, to present enough evidence to convince the judge that the plaintiff’s claim is more likely correct than not. The plaintiff will present evidence first; after the plaintiff finishes the defendant will present any additional evidence the defendant has to oppose the plaintiff’s case. In disputes between landlords and tenants, the most common pieces of evidence are testimony from the tenant and the landlord or property manager, the lease, receipts and invoices for payments relating to the dispute, and pictures of the property. The nature of the dispute will determine what pieces of evidence will be helpful to prove the case. For assistance in preparing evidence, contact an attorney.