Taking a client to small claims court — the good, the bad, and everything in between

taking a client to small claims court // a little creative

If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you might have seen my recent post about taking a client to small claims court. The case is closed, so now I can share all the gory details with you. Make sure to pay close attention to the warnings where I demonstrate where and how I fucked up and what you should definitely NOT do should you find yourself in a similar situation.

It began in May of 2017, when my husband started networking with a gentleman (if you can call him that) in his industry (biotechnology). He hosted monthly industry meetups as well as an annual conference that my husband was considering sponsoring on behalf of his company. Said gentleman needed design help updating his conference materials, so naturally my husband recommended me.

Warning 1

Working with family, friends, and friends of friends can get weird.

Go into these relationships cautiously and make sure you have your process buttoned up tight and all your terms documented and signed by both parties. I fucked this up royally right from the start. My husband spoke very highly of this man so I let my normal process and contract fall by the wayside.

Forgoing my processes and without a contract, I made some small updates for him, delivered them and was paid. Overall it went pretty smoothly despite some glaring red flags that I later chose to ignore. Like Warning 1, BIG MISTAKE.

Which brings me to…

Warning 2

Don’t ignore red flags — EVER.

If something in your gut is saying things are off, listen like your life depends on it. Because the project just might. From my initial conversations with this gentleman, I was put off by the way he communicated. He was quite condescending and talked a lot about how much “exposure” this work could bring me and how much more of it there would be. All empty promises in my experience.

The way he communicated told me that he didn’t really understand the value of design. He showed little respect for the process or my schedule. Yet, because I am not a smart person, I set those things aside and worked for him anyway.

I met him in person the following month at one of his meetups, where he again promised all kinds of additional work but with no actual commitment or detail on scope or time. He expressed a need for ongoing support, so following the event I emailed him with the details of my retainer services, specifically designed for those who need long-term help.

I got no response. Not even a, “Hey, cool – thanks. I’ll take a look and get back to you.” I could say that the email just disappeared like a fart in the wind, but I use a system that shows when someone opens the email, so I know he received it.

That was in early July. Fast forward a month later to early August when I receive a voicemail on a Thursday afternoon from said gentleman with an urgent plea for immediate work (his annual conference was to take place that following Monday – as in FOUR DAYS from then).

Since I work on the computer all day and often get into flow, I didn’t take the call. I emailed him later, asking he send me the details of his request electronically. I also expressed that since the request was for work to begin immediately — which would also take place over a weekend, outside normal business hours — I informed him that my hourly rate was double what I had previously communicated and what he had previously paid.

I was very polite and factual in my communication, simply stating,

“I’m happy to help but please note that with my current schedule, rush requests are billed at twice my typical rate given I will need to push other client’s work in order to accommodate yours.”

The response I got back was slightly less polite or factual,

“Your kidding right. You set up the original document. We need it edited and done. You  want to charge me more for this? No way!”

Um, yes, I do want to charge you more. More work = more money.

After a few more similarly rude emails, he agreed to send me details electronically and to pay my 2x rate.

Warning 3

Red flags have now turned into HIGHLY likely, VERY threatening risks to the project, which require extra attention, contract clauses and in most cases — money!

Any smart person would have immediately buttoned up their contract, including very clear language about payment and communication and sent it right over. But of course, that’s not what I did.

Actually, any smart person would have said some polite goodbyes and no-thank-yous and run for the fucking hills!

However, me: not a smart person.

The following day the client sent over the project information I requested (3 hours later than promised and in no less than 5 separate emails). Between noon and 7:30 that evening, we exchanged a total of 18 emails about the project and the work, which I sent over in my final email before shutting my computer down for the night.

Warning 4

NEVER (like never EVER) send physical deliverables before payment.

This is something I have clearly outlined in my contracts and something I am typically adamant about. The keyword being typically. Again, me: not a smart person.

The next day I tallied my time and emailed him an invoice for the work — 6 hours total as I took a break to walk my dog.

That following Monday, I received an incredibly rude response from him, stating my time and rate were outrageous, he didn’t understand my attitude, and that he was refusing payment.

So once again, I sent him a very polite, very factual email, restating the terms of what we had agreed to and the circumstances under which the work was performed. And for good measure, I knocked an hour of time off the invoice, thinking it would show good faith and the whole thing would be quickly put to bed.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

A week went by without payment. I sent an overdue invoice notice.

Another week went by without payment, which at that point, I didn’t expect to arrive anytime soon.

At that point I had a choice to make — I could either let the situation die quietly, never receiving any money, or I could push it and take him to small claims court, with the hopes of receiving something. And maybe proving a point that you just can’t be that kind of client.

So I chose the latter and sent him a final email stating that if payment was not received by X date, I would be pursuing legal action.

Like clockwork, on X date, I received another email from him, this time a VERY lengthy diatribe accusing me of all kinds of bizarre and untrue things, including my husband in the mix, and using his personal situation (which I knew nothing about) as something that should have garnered special treatment (which I have very strong feelings about).

After that email I went straight to the local courthouse and filed suit against him.

I had had enough of the crazy and was feeling bullied and angry. The final step after that was to serve him a summons, which had to be done by a third party, in person.

Communication went dark at that point, until 3 weeks later when he sent an email offering to pay for 2 hours of time (what he felt the work should have taken to complete), equal to about ~40% of the total that was owed. Knowing he would be served the following week, I refused his offer and reminded him of the legal action I was pursuing.

Crickets.

One week later, he was served with a summons, with a scheduled court date in October.

Now it’s October, the Friday before our court date on Monday. I receive a FedEx envelope from him containing a typed letter requesting postponement. It was stapled to an official court form, but wasn’t stamped or signed with anything to confirm it had been processed by the court.

I head to the courthouse on Monday as planned, first stopping in the small claims office to inquire about the request. The court official said it was a legit form but it had not yet been processed into the system and I should proceed to the courtroom as planned.

So I did, the client was a no-show, and the judge began his proceedings by reading the request for postponement, saying we were going to need to reschedule.

seriously?!

malarkey!

So now we wait. I was ready the first go-round, with printed copies of all our communication as well as an overview summary of the whole situation. Now I just had to sit on it for another month and hope another postponement wasn’t filed.

Warning 5

This one is less of a warning than it is a reminder to check-in with yourself about how far you’re willing to go.

What they tell you before you enter small claims court is that the majority of cases don’t get resolved. Regardless of what the judgement is, there is no legal support to help enforce the judgement and pursue the settlement. It’s up to whichever party the judgement is awarded to to pursue what they’re after, and most of the time, it never comes to fruition the way it should.

Before I filed suit I spoke to a small claims advisor who told me that because I had email documentation agreeing to my hourly rate, it was a suitable substitute for an official contract. So I felt like I had a case (of course not realizing in the moments of how NOT SMART I was behaving). As a female I wanted to prove a point that we are not to be taken advantage of and I was hopeful in seeing this through that I could save another equally not smart person from suffering the same distress.

Should you ever find yourself in this situation, be real about how far you’re willing to go and how much time and effort you’re willing to invest. It’s a lengthy and inconvenient process.

Fast forward again to the postponed court date, this time mid-November. I showed up to court to find the defendant already present. It was go time. Here’s how it went down.

  • After a brief wait in the hall, everyone whose case was being heard was called into the courtroom.
  • The judge came in and we stood and swore to tell the truth…
  • Our case was called first and myself and the defendant moved up to a table closer to the judge.
  • Any evidence or documented support we had was provided to the bailiff who then gave it to the judge.
  • After a brief look at the evidence the judge gave us each an opportunity to provide an overview of the situation from our own perspective.
  • After which, he asked questions and we were given an opportunity for rebuttal.
  • We were then excused. Over and done.

Similarly to how he had communicated with me from the start, my client was rude and disrespectful, often shaking his head and interrupting me to disagree every time I spoke. He did it so many times that the judge had to call him out on it and ask him to be quiet and wait until he was called on.

The judge tried his best to understand the situation in the short 10-15 minutes we were there. His immediate assessment was that though my rate was agreed to by the client, there was a lack of detail or agreement in regards to not only the expectations, but also the estimated time it would take me to complete the work.

Duly noted and understood, especially looking back on it all now.

The judge thanked us, said he would continue to review the evidence, and provide final judgement by mail within a couple of weeks. And that was it, we were excused. Five months of headaches for 15 minutes of court time.

I left feeling confident that the judge would decide in my favor, perhaps not for the full amount, but at least a percentage. I was also secretly hoping the client’s outburts demonstrated his overall behavior and would weight the judge’s decision on my behalf.

They didn’t.

About a week later I received a judgement form in the mail stating that the defendant was ordered to pay me $X, equal to the 40% he had initially offered. But as the court officials said, it was now up to me to pursue the settlement on my own.

So just like before, I sent the client another another email stating I had received the official judgement, had attached it for reference, and was once again requesting payment, this time in the amount decided by the court.

It’s been nearly 4 months since then and I’ve heard nothing from him. Nor have I received any money.

As you can plainly read, this story does not have a happy ending. There were additional asset forms the client should have filed when the judgement was rendered, which I could now pursue. However, doing so will require additional fees and additional court dates; both of which I’m tired of for such a small sum of money. So like the court officials said, rarely do these cases end up the way you like them to.

But it hasn’t been for nothing. I am determined to be a smart person.

I now know what the whole small claims court process entails so I’m informed if this kind of thing ever happens again (God forbid). I also know that I won’t be making the same mistakes I did throughout this process. Those were hard lessons I don’t need to learn twice!

I also know that it’s just generally good life advice to not be a dick. I never attempted to swindle this client or overcharge him arbitrarily for time I didn’t actually work. And I think that’s what stings the most. Had he been a nice person, with a willingness to have an honest, respectful conversation from the start, I think things could have turned out very different. But alas, that’s not the case.

Live and learn, friends. Live and learn. 

If you’ve got stories of being an equally not smart person, lay em on me. It would help to know I’m not the only dummy who’s made these kinds of mistakes.

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