Chance of success
There are several questions to ask yourself before starting a court case.
- Who are you filing a case against?
- Do you have enough information to support your side?
- How much time has passed since the issue happened? You may not be able to file a case if it happened a while ago because there are statutes of limitations. In Chicago, you must bring your lawsuit to recover your security deposit within 2 years of the date your landlord should have returned the security deposit to you.
Costs of a court case
It costs time and money to file a case in court. Court cases may take several months and even a year or years to finish. Court cases often include:
- Fees to file your case, if you cannot get them waived
- Lawyer fees or your own time spent figuring out the court process and doing the paperwork
- Time spent in court, which may be time you have to take off work
Get information about your landlord
You will need the name and address of your landlord to file your lawsuit. If your building manager held your security deposit, then you will also need his or her correct name and address.
If you live in Cook County, you can find your landlord's information by looking up the property on the Cook County Recorder of Deeds' website. You will need your property's PIN. If you don't know it, you can find it on the Cook County Assessor's website.
1. Fill out a complaint
Fill out and sign the forms listed below. Make 3 additional copies of the complaint.
- Complaint: The complaint tells a person what a lawsuit is about. It also says the following:
- All of the relevant facts that support plaintiff's claims
- Laws that support the plaintiff's claims
- What the plaintiff is asking for
- Summons: Tells the other person that a lawsuit was filed against them.
You can use the following programs to help you fill out the forms:
- Security deposit complaint - Chicago
- Security deposit complaint for buildings with 5 or more units
- Security deposit complaint for buildings with 4 or less units
If you do not have money to pay court fees, you should also fill out the below application:
- Application for Waiver of Court Fees: Asks the court to participate in the court case for free if you do not have money to pay the court filing fees.
2. File your complaint with the Small Claims Court
Now that you have filled out your forms, you need to file them with the clerk. The method you are required to use depends on the county where you are filing.
- E-filing: Some counties require you to file your forms and documents electronically. See E-Filing Basics for more information.
- Paper filing: If you can paper file or have an E-filing Exemption Certificate, take your completed forms to the circuit court clerk's office in the courthouse. See courthouse locations.
The court where you file your case is called Small Claims Court. (If the apartment is in Chicago, and the amount in question is $1,500 or less, you can go to Pro Se Court instead. The rules are slightly different in Pro Se Court, and they have their forms, so you should go to Room 602 of the Daley Center, Counter 8, to talk to a Pro Se Court staff member.)
You must attach two things to the complaint:
- A copy of the demand letter sent to the landlord; and
- A copy of the lease or a receipt for the security deposit.
There is a fee to file most forms. The cost depends on the type of case you have and the county where you are filing. Contact your local circuit clerk's office for information on the fees.
If you do not have money to pay court fees, use the Application for Waiver of Court Fees program.
When you file your forms with the clerk they become part of the case. The clerk will stamp your forms. This stamp is important because it's proof that you filed the form with the court.
- E-filing: The documents you want to file with the court have to be uploaded into the system. You will need to create an account. See E-filing Basics for details.
- Paper filing: If you are paper filing bring the forms to the clerk at the courthouse in the county where you are filing. Bring all your copies and the originals with you when you file. Ask the clerk to stamp all your forms. They will keep the original. Keep at least one copy for your records. See courthouse locations.
3. Tell the other party about your case
After filing, you must send the other party or parties a summons and attach the complaint. A summons is a document that tells a person about the lawsuit and when to come to court. Here are the rules about a summons:
- You must make sure all defendants are served with a separate summons to notify them of the lawsuit.
- You can get the summons form from the Circuit Clerk. The summons forms must be given to the defendant, either by the sheriff or certified mail. If by certified mail, only the clerk can mail the summons. A fee to mail it may apply.
- If the defendant (landlord) does not sign the receipt for the certified mail, then you must have the sheriff's office serve the summons and complaint to the defendant.
Learn more about Serving a summons.
4. Landlord files an appearance
In Chicago, the landlord must file an appearance by the return date. When they do, the court will set a date for the first hearing in the case, and send a postcard to the tenant with that date on it. If the case was filed in Suburban Cook County, you may need to attend court on the return date. Please check with the appropriate clerk's office to make sure you do not have to attend court on the return date.
Before the first hearing, the landlord can file an answer, either admitting, denying, or saying that they don't have enough information to admit or deny the statements in the tenant's complaint. The landlord can also include a jury demand, defenses and counterclaims in their answer. Filing an answer is optional in cases of $10,000 or less.
Instead of filing an answer, the landlord can file a motion to dismiss, but there needs to be a good reason. For example, the case has already been heard in a different court, or the court doesn't have personal jurisdiction over the landlord. Learn more about filing a motion to dismiss.
5. Both sides must show up on the trial date set by the court
If the landlord does not appear in court, the judge will enter a default judgment giving you everything you requested in the complaint. However, a default judgment can be set aside within 30 days from the date it is entered.
In almost all circumstances, the judge will vacate or set aside a default judgment if a proper motion is filed within thirty 30 days. If the default judgment is set aside, the case will then be set for trial.
On the trial date, present all of the relevant information for your case, including:
- The receipt showing that you paid the security deposit to the landlord
- A copy of the lease
- A cancelled check or money order
- The demand letter sent to the landlord
- The return receipt green card showing that the landlord got the letter or the certificate of service from the sheriff
- Move-in and move-out inspection reports
- Pictures showing the condition of the apartment
- Rent receipts from the last year or more
If you are in Chicago, go to Courtroom 1308 of the Daley Center on your Trial Date, which is shown on the Summons. Take all the remaining copies of your forms to court, and the originals of any attachments, including:
- Your receipt showing that you paid the security deposit to the landlord
- Your cancelled check or money order copy
- Your lease, if you have one
- Your letter to the landlord asking for the return of your security deposit
- The return receipt 'green card' showing that the landlord got your letter
Arrive at court around 9:00 a.m. to sign in. There will be a list of cases on a bulletin board outside the courtroom. Find your case and write down the line number. This is the number to the left of your case name. If your case isn't on the list check with the clerk inside the courtroom. Court begins at 9:30. Sit in the back of the courtroom and wait for your case to be called by the clerk.
You may have to come back to court one or more times. The judge will decide if the case is ready for a trial or if the case must be continued (rescheduled).
Updated: January 2017