Attorney Tips for Presenting a Breach of Contract Claim in Small Claims Court

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Breach of Contract may be the most common cause of action in small claims court.

A Breach of Contract claim is probably the most common basis for a small claims court case. The “Breach of Contract” claim, also known as a breach of contract “Cause of Action”, is pretty straight forward.  But representing yourself in small claims court is never easy.  Need good news?  With some preparation, you can make a basic plan for your breach of contract case that will increase the chances of winning the court trial.  Here are a few self help tips to give you that advantage, in any state.

I.  Organize Your Presentation to Establish the Liability First, Then Focus On Damages.

Sometimes, nervous plaintiffs in small claims court cases have a tough time presenting a clear claim.

You can avoid this problem by preparing your small claims trial presentation in clearly defined segments.  Whether or not the defendant shows up for the trial, you can rely on this segmented plan to give a compelling presentation to the judge.

A simple and effective organizational tool for small claims court cases is a large binder, separated into sections. In these sections, have your evidence separated appropriately.  At the front of this trial binder, put an outline with notes for how you want to present your case. Behind the outline sits your evidence in the order you need to present it.

With a good outline, you can keep going even if you get nervous or throw off track during the trial.

There are generally 2 parts to a judge’s decision on a breach of contract case.  Therefore, there should be 2 main sections for your trial binder.  They are 1) Liability; and 2) Damages.

The judge must first determine if there is “liability” on the defendant because he/she breached a contract.  If there is liability, the judge can then decide what the “damages” (or money loss) are for the plaintiff.  It makes sense then to start your presentation with liability, and then present your evidence on damages last. Organize your binder and evidence this way.

Do not jumble up your evidence on liability and your evidence on damages.  Keep these subjects separate.

Your well organized trial binder can now look like this:  1) a summary outline at the beginning;  2) a section on liability; and 3) a section on damages.

You can put your written evidence in each section in the order you want it to come out.  For evidence that does not fit in the binder, you can insert a paper reminder to add something else, like a witnesses’ testimony at a certain point, or maybe pictures of the subject problem.

Maybe you have a note in your binder to show the judge the sculpture you made, but did not get paid for in the damages section?

Follow this basic trial binder plan once you are in court, and your case will appear well organized to the judge.  A well organized trial presentation is more likely to be a winning presentation.

II. Establish Liability With Evidence of a Contract, Then Present Evidence of the Breach of Contract.

First step in proving a breach of contract is proving up the contract itself.  The second step is proving the contract was breached.  Organize your trial presentation that way within the liability section.  The existence of a contract, then the breach of the contract come before the damages section.

To prove that a defendant is liable for a breach of a contract, a small claims plaintiff must meet the required elements of that “cause of action”.  Those required elements in California are listed in California Civil Code section and the California Civil Jury Instructions for “Breach of Contract”.   The elements are simple and few, and similar in most states.

Here is an summary of California’s statutes on Breach of Contract Claims from Justia.com reprinted here for educational purposes only:

A complaint for breach of contract must include the following: (1) the existence of a contract, (2) plaintiff’s performance or excuse for non-performance, (3) defendant’s breach, and (4) damages to plaintiff therefrom. (Acoustics, Inc. v. Trepte Construction Co. (1971) 14 Cal.App.3d 887, 913 [92 Cal.Rptr. 723].) Additionally, if the defendant’s duty to perform under the contract is conditioned on the happening of some event, the plaintiff must prove that the event transpired. (Consolidated World Investments, Inc. v. Lido Preferred Ltd. (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 373, 380 [11 Cal.Rptr.2d 524].)

Here is the California Civil Jury Instruction for breach of contract claims.

California Civil Jury Instruction 303:

To recover damages from [name of defendant] for breach of contract, [name of plaintiff] must prove all of the following:

1. That [name of plaintiff] and [name of defendant] entered into a contract; 2. That [name of plaintiff] did all, or substantially all, of the significant things that the contract required [him/her/it] to do [or that [he/she/it] was excused from doing those things];  [3. That all conditions required by the contract for [name of defendant]’s performance [had occurred/ [or] were excused];]  [4. That [name of defendant] failed to do something that the contract required [him/her/it] to do; and]  [or]  [4. That [name of defendant] did something that the contract prohibited [him/her/it] from doing; and]  5. That [name of plaintiff] was harmed by that failure.

Although there are no jury trials in a small claims court case, the same laws apply to both civil and small claims court for contracts (in general).  The current jury instruction for a breach of contract cause of action in your state is a good guide for organizing your trial presentation.

If you are not in California, you can find your state’s breach of contract elements the same way, in the civil jury instructions.  It’s a good trick for quickly looking up the law anywhere – check the jury instructions.

Using the legal elements of a contract as your road map, you can breakdown your liability section of the binder into the following 3 subsections.

A. Prove There is a Contract First.

Obviously, there can be no breach of contract liability if there is no contract.  The plaintiff has to prove up the contract before there is any chance of a win.

Establish the contract with your evidence.  If there is a real written contract, it can be presented in court as plaintiff’s evidence.  If you have a written contract, tell the judge immediately at the start of the trial, and offer it into evidence.  Make sure important sections of the contract are highlighted, or noted with piece of tape or tag.

What if there is no written contract?

Some oral contracts are enforceable, but the plaintiff must show that all of the elements of a contract are present with some kind of evidence. Emails, texts, and witness testimony are all types of evidence that can prove up an oral contract.

The elements of a contract generally include:  1) an offer of some kind; 2) acceptance of that offer;  3) an exchange of consideration (money or value).

EXAMPLE OF SIMPLE ORAL CONTRACT ELEMENTS:  A basic example of an enforceable oral contract could be:  “I offered to wash her car for $10.  She accepted that offer. I washed the car.

After establishing that the car was washed in that example, the plaintiff can move on to proving a breach of the contract.  You must establish the existence of the contract first, then rpove up the breach of that contract, then move on to damages last.

The more complex an oral contract sounds to a judge, the less likely the judge is to enforce it.  Therefore, if you are suing on an oral contract, make sure you make the elements of that contract easy for the court to understand.

There are elements of a contract that cannot be missed if you want to win.  Here are a few – When was the contract made?  Who were parties to the contract?  What was exchanged for the contract?

With a written contract in evidence, the judge can see the terms of that contract on its face, if it is complete.  If you are suing on an oral contract, be ready to present evidence on the elements of the contract.

B. The Terms of the Contract Must Be Clearly Presented to the Judge.

Do not just assume that if you have a written contract in evidence that the judge will be able to understand the terms as you do.

If the judge cannot understand what the terms of your contract are, there is no possibility of winning the case.  A plaintiff in a contract case must be able to show evidence of all the material (important) terms of the contract before moving on to explaining how the defendant breached the contract.

C. Plaintiff Must Prove There Was a Breach of the Contract.

What went wrong with this contract? That is what the judge wants to know.

You must explain to the judge, with supporting evidence that there was a breach of the contract.  To get to that point, you will have to know exactly what term of the contract you feel was breached.  Was it the payment term?  Was it failure to comply with the date of completion?  Was it the quality of work?

Find the term or terms of the contract that you feel were breached, and focus on those terms.

In a well organized breach of contract the plaintiff will first establish liability through these elements, and then move on to prove up damages.

III. Establish Damages With Evidence After Proving Up the Breach of the Contract.

The evidence of damages should almost always come last.

From a judge’s point of view, they want to see evidence for the damage claim that is certain in value.  Be prepared to show your losses in some way that can be pinpointed in value.

Did you have to pay for repairs?  Bring the receipts.

Did you lose rental value?  Bring evidence of market values to court for your trial.

Did the defendant’s check bounce?  Bring the check and statements showing bank charges.

If you lost use of an item or of property, be prepared to show the exact duration of the loss with whatever evidence you have.

A vague description of your damages will not be successful in a small claims court trial.  Fill the back of your trial notebook with as much real evidence of damages as you can.

You can use expert witnesses to help you establish damages.  For example, you can bring in an expert on classic cars to prove your damages claim on a collision where your classic car was totaled. The expert, once qualified in court as an expert, can provide an expert opinion on the value of a vehicle beyond simple repair estimates.

Of course, these tips cannot cover the enormity of this subject.  But following this suggested plan of organization and presentation to the court, you may be able to gain an advantage over the unprepared.

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