The “Getting Paid” Series: How I Decided to Take a Case to Small Claims Court

I did it.  I took a rogue client to small claims court and won a favorable judgment.  It was kinda awesome.

Though I’m enjoying my moral victory, I still have yet to see a dime of what the court of law decreed I’m owed.  Not to mention, I’ll never earn back the value of the time I spent preparing to present my case in that court of law.

Still, I believe the effort was worth it in my situation.  I also acknowledge that, had some things been different, it would not have been worth the time or mental energy the process demanded of me.

Here are the key factors that helped me decide to file claim.  If you’re dealing with a non-paying client or customer, compare notes with me, and see if these points help you make a decision to take action.

I deserved to get paid what I was owed. I did a really strong job on this month-long assignment.  I went the extra mile…or two or three…to get things done.  In the midst of the business, the client had relied on me profusely and praised my “professionalism” and “responsiveness.”  My work brought positive results that I had fully documented and presented to the client.

Why does all this matter?  It mattered because I knew I could stand in a court confidently.  Sure, the client would’ve owed me even if I’d simply met expectations; that’s how these things are supposed to function: you work, you get paid.  Yet knowing full well that I’d exceeded expectations bolstered my fortitude.

It was just enough money to be worth the effort. While I’d earned every dollar owed to me, I knew the process of filing claim and following through was going to be time and energy consuming.  I had to really assess if the amount I’d potentially receive would be worth the effort.  I determined the owed amount was substantial enough to pursue, yet not enough to retain an attorney to help acquire it.  I opted to go it alone in attempt to get what I was owed.

The rogue client starting falsifying information. During much of the collections process, the non-paying client was very apologetic about the delay.  She stated her apologies, asked for my patience and even claimed to have a check in hand for me at one point.  However, the nature of her messaging abruptly changed as time went on, from apologizing to denying.

When I received an email that contained outright fallacy, I knew I’d never-ever see a penny if I didn’t take legal action.  While she was still being truthful, my patience was thin, but I was prone to baby-step the collections process.  At the point she began fabricating information, my urgency spiked, and I knew the situation had broken loose of parameters of rationale and interpersonal correspondence.

I exhausted all other reasonable methods of collection. I handled my collections process by the book.  I invoiced promptly, followed up soon after terms weren’t met and then escalated my correspondence to match the increasing age of the invoice.  I was consistent and clear but always very polite.  Even when I grew weary trying to get resolution, I still ended my messages with “thank you,” kept an even tone and kept my emotion and frustration out of my correspondence.

My last message before filing was a ‘demand letter’ in which I openly, clearly stated my next course of action if payment was not received by a certain date.  I sent this message by email and by registered mail with delivery confirmation.  I followed through when no response was received by deadline.

It was the principle of the thing. Trust me, I didn’t think filing a claim would rock the world.  Yet I felt sincere motivation to take action on behalf of all independent business people who work so hard.  While I knew it would be a time crunching effort, I knew I could put in the weird hours it would take, and I wanted to do it for all us “Small Biz Big Timers.”

***- I knew I had a solid case. Notice the asterisks before this one?  That’s because this is the most important point.  I knew I had enough documentation and evidence to prove my case.  If I had not been able to substantiate my case adequately in front of a judge, I would have had to file this situation as a lesson learned the hard way.

I was certain my files and email trails thoroughly conveyed the truth.  I knew I could organize them effectively to present in court, and I felt assured I could offer rebuttal to any false claim the rogue client might attempt to make in court. Let me repeat a key phrase here”  “I knew I could organize…”.  All my evidence would not have helped me if I hadn’t been willing to arrange the documentation coherently and succinctly.  The court has no time for fumbling, bumbling.

Thank goodness I relied on this standard in taking my claim to court, as ‘she’ showed up with a lawyer the day of the hearing.  The judge let me know I was at a disadvantage without representation.  Nonetheless my case withstood the test.

Learn from others

I watched another case while waiting for my turn in court that day.  The plaintiff was representing himself against a defendant who had a lawyer.  The plaintiff had come to court with three witnesses willing to testify and a briefcase full of documentation.  Unfortunately, he had not organized any of it into a coherent case.  When called to the stand, the plaintiff took his briefcase with him, and began to unload piles of papers.  His disarray was spread out over the edge of the witness stand walls and onto the edge of the judge’s desk.

The judge asked some questions and really did his best to give the plaintiff room to state his case.  The fellow didn’t even  know exactly what dollar figure he was seeking from the defendant.  He couldn’t locate key pieces of evidence from his mish-mashed stacks.  Though it appeared he had a real case in there somewhere, the judge’s hands were tied.

“You’re not ready to be in court,” the judge said with surprising patience. “How can I make a judgment when you aren’t sure how much money you are owed?”

Case dismissed.

Observing that incident, I was very relieved that I’d taken the necessary hours to put together an orderly booklet of evidence with page numbers and sections.  I truly believe that helped the judge take me seriously from the start.

Your turn on the stand…

Have you been to small claims court?  How’d you make the decision to go for it, and did you win?  Please share your own experiences and insights over on our Facebook Group, where we’ve assembled a jury of your peers.

Thanks for reading!!!

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