No Contract, But Email Documentation - Do I have a case for Small Claims?
October 17, 2008 11:02 PM   Subscribe

I prepaid for music lessons, no contract, but no longer want the lessons - can I get a full refund for the remaining lessons - Please read on, there is more. I want to know if I have a case for small claims.

So, about a week ago, I got my boyfriend a gift for his birthday, three months of sitar lessons. He and the teacher did not mesh well, on many levels, and he decided that he no longer wanted the lessons, and we contacted the teacher to see if we could get a refund. What follows is our exact communication.

From him to me:
Hello M,
I hope you're doing well. I enjoyed meeting you when you came by. A had his first lessons a few days ago and I enjoyed teaching him.
I just got an email from him, however, saying that he lost his job. He asked me to refund the money you paid for lessons. I thought I remembered you saying that he was in between jobs at the moment and that this was a gift to cheer him up. I have never had to refund lessons before, and of course, I'm willing to do it, however, I'd like to clarify the situation. I am a professional musician. Having students pay for lessons in advance, and then ask for the money back is quite inconvenient for me, and my book keeping. Please let me know what you'd like to do.
Best,
J

To which I replied:

Hi J,
Thank you for the email making sure that we are all on the same page. Last night A and I did talk about the lessons and he did tell me that he would like to really focus on getting a new job and relevant job skills. He did tell me that he would like to drop the lessons, and that he would email you to tell you this. He does not see himself taking up the lessons again, at least not anytime soon.
I understand how inconvient this is for you, and I do apologize for that. I did not anticipate this occuring. I do remember that you said that you require 24 hours notice for cancellation, without which you would have to charge for the lesson. This seems to apply, I am just having to cancel all lessons from here on forward. I would like to have the remainder of my money refunded to me, $440.00, and I do again apologize for the confusion and inconvience to you. I would prefer to have a check sent to me at my home, if possible. (Included address)
Thank you and best of luck to you, M

Then... he replied...
Hello M,
Thank you for getting back to me. I appreciate you clarifying the matter.
I have talked this out with many other teaching musicians about this situation. None of them, including, me, have ever been asked, or had actually refunded lesson fees because of a change of heart.
I believe you misunderstood my cancellation requests- the 24 hour notice meant that you didn't have to pay for the lesson at the scheduled time. We would reschedule a lesson; I would not refund you the money. This is standard practice for prepaid music lessons.
I do not want to get in the middle of your relationship with you your boy friend- however, I have a business to run. I hope you can understand that I can't have students pre-paying for lessons and then requesting their money back- how could I make a living like that? We agreed on a service, you paid me for that service, and I scheduled lessons for A for the next 3 months. It is up to you, the consumer, to make sure that you want the service before you pay for it. I'm sorry but I do not think I can refund you the money. I have had many students pay for lessons, and then not use them- but they have always forfeited the prepaid amount. If you would like to change the time and dates of these lessons that's fine. We can do lessons twice a month, once a month, or what every works for A and his new schedule.
I have A scheduled for a lesson Tuesday Oct. 21st at 3pm. Please let me know if A will attend this lesson, or if he'd like to reschedule it.
Sincerely,
J


J, I am surprised by your response, for two different reasons. One, in your previous email you explicitly stated that you were willing to refund me my money, you just wanted some clarification. I gave such clarification, yet you are not willing to stand by your statement that you will return my money for the unused portion of the music lessons. Two, I disagree that it is standard practice to keep money for services not rendered. Neither of us agreed to such an arrangement at any point in time. In fact, a simple google search of "music lessons refund prepaid" will show you that many professional musicians across the country will and do refund any money that is remaining if a student requests to discontinue the lessons. But more importantly, I would expect a professional musician to stand by his or her word, yours being that you are willing to refund me, per your previous email. Thank you, M


Hello M,
I am sorry for the confusion. I wrote that first email without thoroughly thinking through the situation. I am sorry for the disagreement. If other musicians are willing to refund prepaid lesson fees (as you claim to have found on Google), that's their business. But its certainly not standard. I have never done it, nor to I know anyone who has. As I have been a professional musician for the better part of a decade, and this has been my policy, I do not feel obligated to chance it now. Also, as a music student for the past 20 years, every teacher I have studied with has had the same policy. I studied with musicians through institutions, and privately. It has been the same. I paid for lessons, and if I did not use them, or want to use them, they were not obligated to refund me the unused lesson fees. As I have this experience both teaching and receiving lessons, I would say I am quite qualified to speak to what is standard practice for lessons and what is not.
If you were unsure whether or not A wanted sitar lessons, you should not have paid for 12 lessons in advance. You should have paid for 1 or two and taken it from there. You and A entered into a commitment with me. I am of course, willing to honor my side of the commitment.
Please let me know whether or not I should expect A this Tuesday at 3pm.
Sincerely,
J


A (my boyfriend) also wrote to J about this.


J-
> > I have been updated on the situation. I think you are acting very
> > unproffesional and wish we could resolve this amicably. I will not have my
> > girlfriend taken advantage of. If we can not reach an agreement within the
> > next day or two, I will consult a laywer and go to small claims court. You
> > can not take someone's money and not give it back with no service rendered.
> > I feel very confident in our position (and this goes beyond money now, it is
> > principle). I would like to save a lot of time but, I am not dropping this,
> > and if I don't hear back from you within a couple of days I am going to
> > follow through with legal action. Thank you.
> > -A



HI A. Please Send Me Your Phone Number And I'll Give You A Call
> Tomorrow. I'm In Seattle At The Moment And Can't Type Much. Best, J



j-
I would like to keep this all on e-mail for the record. I find it amazing how you are handling this. You took a really thoughtful gift for my birthday and turned it into a huge headache. I am assuming you are going to keep denying m her money (even when you initially said you would give it back to her) so, I will go forward with small claims court on monday. I will wait to see how that plays out and depending on how you handle this and, what the court allows me to do... I will also start posting on craigslist and other local online boards illustrating my experience with you and that you will rip off people of their money. I will be sure to let people know how you burn customers. I believe it is in my right to take action on consumer complaints web sites and radio. I don't want other people to get ripped off like you ripped off us and it will be my mission to illustrate this experience to every person who may consider lessons with you. So, I find this all very unfortunate but, I have nothing but time to pursue this and, will take any and all legal action against you. Thank you.
a



Hello A and M,
I'm very sorry it has come to this as well. I have tried very hard to always handle myself with professionalism, and I'm very sorry this situation has snowballed to where it has.
When you pre-pay for a lessons, you are making a commitment. You are paying for my time in advance, and exchange for your commitment, I offer a discount on my lesson fees. How could I possibly run my business if I have students making commitments to me, and breaking them left and right? If there was any hint of question as to whether or not you would want 12 lessons, then she should not have pre-paid for them, but rather offered to pay for one and see if it was something that you enjoyed. Please allow me to quote from M's email on Sept 28th:
"For my boyfriend's birthday, I gave him a sitar as an early birthday present. He has been wanting one ever since I have known him. In any case, I would like to have something to actually give him on his birthday (October 12th), and I thought lessons would compliment his early gift well."
Clearly she thought you would enjoy these lessons, and therefor committed both you, and me to 12 hours of instruction. This commitment was made by her paying for the lessons.
I am still willing, and actually eager to provide the service for which you paid. These lessons will not expire, and you can use them at your leisure. I also teach western music- classical, jazz, theory, blues, rock, latin and many other styles on bass and in theory. If you would like to use your lesson time in this capacity, that is fine with me.
I have spoken with every teaching professional musician I know to get counsel on this situation. Every one of them agreed that I should not refund the money- that pre-paying for a lesson is a commitment to the lessons by the student. If there is any doubt on the students end, then they should not pre-pay. Michelle came to me and offered to pre-pay for 12 lessons, and also offered to pay in cash. I would like to quote from her email again:
"I was also wondering if I could pay for 3 months of lessons in advance (or, approximately the end of December). That way he can't protest the present and say it is too much, etc, etc... I would like to have it already arranged." M to me, J, on Sept. 28th.
In the interest of ending this quickly, without further hassle, I would like to make a proposal. This is a proposal other musicians have called 'generous' mind you. I would propose that I refund 50% of the unused lesson fees. The unused amount is $435. That is equal to the full amount paid, $480, minus $45 for the first lesson, since I charge $40 for a lesson if the student pre-pays for 4 or more at a time. Since you are currently asking to back out of that pre-arrangement, my fee will be $45 for the first lesson. I am offering you $218.50 as a refund for the 11 unused lessons, with 50% the original payment as a cancellation fee. In accepting this fee, and the refund, you are waiving your right to bring me to small claims court, and also agree not to write negative reviews on any message board, forum, website, etc.
If that is not satisfactory, I am happy to try to work this out in small claims court. I feel that my position is unimpeachable, and quite standard practice in the music community. There is a phrase that comes to mined, 'All sales are final'.
If you do not want to accept my cancellation fee, and feel compelled to write about me on message boards online or elsewhere, voicing your dissatisfaction, that is fine. You are entitled to do so. I would just ask that you be 100% truthful about the situation. Your girlfriend pre-paid and made a commitment for 12 lessons for you. She was not aware that there I do not offer refunds for prepaid lessons, and after your first lesson, you decided it was not something you wanted to pursue. You and M asked for a refund. I initally offered to reund the money, but upon speaking to many other professional teaching musicians on the subject, decided it was standard practice not to refund pre-paid lessons.
If you write anything other than the absolute truth on any of these message boards, Craigslist or anywhere else, I will use it against you in small claims court and sue you for slander, liable and damages to my reputation (which, until and including now, has been pristine).
Best,
J



J,
I will be consulting with a lawyer on Monday, after which I will inform you of my next step. I have printed and copied all e-mails, and your myspace page and website - time and date stamped - to show that you do not mention any kind of policy regarding refunds for services not rendered. And, as long as we are quoting e-mails, may I remind you that in your first e-mail to me regarding this matter, written on Wednesday, October 15th, you wrote "I have never had to refund lessons before, and of course, I'm willing to do it, however, I'd like to clarify the situation." You then went on to state that it is merely "quite inconvenient for me, and my book keeping." -Not that you would not do it, nor that it was against any kind of 'standard practice.' Lastly, you asked me to "Please let me know what you'd like to do."I let you know what it was that I wanted to do (have the refund), and then you decided to disregard what you had previously stated and determined that you were not going to give the refund.
I do agree that the first lesson should be charged at the $45 level, but, at this point in time, I am not yet ready to agree to the compromise you have proposed. I will get back to you on this after consulting with a lawyer on Monday. Thank you, M



Sorry this is such a long posting, but it seemed necessary to include all the information. It seems to me that we are entitled to the remaining refund of $435, and after hearing why we no longer wanted the lessons, he decided to not give the refund, which should have nothing to do with it - particularly since he initially stated that he would give the refund.

I am serious about pursuing this in small claims, and I realize that having no contract is a problem - however, it seems as though we are entitled to the refund. Are there any lawyers out there or any one with similar experiences? Do we have a case?

Thanks so much!
posted by KoobieKitten to Law & Government (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't think you're entitled to anything. I would compromise. Maybe you can get the instructor to negotiate on the cancellation fee. Perhaps you can having your starting point be paying him the difference between the prepay amount and the normal amount, per cancelled lesson? Be willing to compromise. Don't take it personally, and things may work out.
posted by Pants! at 11:14 PM on October 17, 2008


He says, "We agreed on a service, you paid me for that service...", but he has not provided the service. Scheduling appointments is not providing service. He is being a jerk. He did agree to refund your money in the first email, then changed his mind after polling his friends.
You should not have threatened him, he's not ripping you off...yet..it's a dispute.
You will probably have to go to court, you will get most of your money back. He had no policy on cancellations and he agreed to refund your money. He should return it.
posted by lee at 11:23 PM on October 17, 2008


I only read the first couple of of your emails. It must be annoying that he said of course he would refund, at first, and too bad you didn't jump right on that and get the refund right away. Unfortunately, you only had a verbal agreement, it seems.

I think the first mistake was paying for all those lessons without the student trying one or two lessons first to see if he likes the teacher. I find it very odd (having had music lessons myself) that this teacher got you to pay the lot rather than have a one time try out to see if the teacher and student mesh. Music is supposed to be recreational and fun, in this context, and if it's not fun, well, why would anyone continue? It's hardly a change of heart as it was a first time impression. Yeah, it's a business, but music teachers aren't usually so unreasonable. I can see halfway through a change of heart would be odd. Usually once you pay, that is it. But this is just beginning, so big hairy deal about the book keeping.

I think he's being unreasonable but small claims has a fee and will be a giant hassle that's not worth the $400 minus that fee.
posted by Listener at 11:31 PM on October 17, 2008


The point of pre-paying lessons is so that the musician/teacher (who often is in serious need of funds) can _know_ how much money he/she has to work with for the next several weeks or months. Otherwise, the sporadic nature of music work makes things like paying regular rent and utilities a bit problematic. Music is fun, but the lack of stable income is not.

Hence, the willingness to significantly cut costs for students - the teacher is exchanging a certain amount of money (the difference between full, non-prepaid lesson rate and the discounted, prepaid rate) for one thing and one thing only: predictability, the knowledge that, no matter what happens, at least he'll have this much money to work with over the next little while. All he has to do is honor his commitment to teach at the agreed time & place. He can count on keeping the $$ if he just holds up his end of the bargain.

Now, you're demanding your $$ back. He may have already spent the money, or have committed to paying rent or some other bill with it, or turned away _other potential students_ because you guys had that implicit contract.

I really think you're just out the money. I'd say it might be reasonable to hope for a partial refund, but now you've gotten into threats to sue, and insulting his professionalism, so he's not going to want to be nice -- that would seem to be admitting something untrue, which is your assertion that he's acting dishonestly.

If he'd had an explicit policy of refunding money for unused lessons, then you might have a case. But printing the web site to show that he _doesn't_ have _any_ refund policy? That really works to his advantage, not yours, I'd think.

Of course I'm not a lawyer. But I do kind of feel sorry for this music teacher. Even if he was a jerk to your boyfriend during his first lesson or two, there could be any number of reasons for that.

You might be able to recoup part of the $$ by finding someone who's interested in taking your unused lessons by paying you a partial rate -- but ONLY if the teacher agrees. It's not a small thing for a teacher, agreeing to spend part of every week helping someone else learn his art.
posted by amtho at 11:59 PM on October 17, 2008 [8 favorites]


I read it again, yes I am bored!! First he agrees to the refund, then he refuses to refund anything, then he makes up his policy and offers you half. I would just state this again and ask him to honor his word and return your money minus the first lesson, or else you'll sue.

It will be a hassle for him to go to court as well. If you win, I think you get your filing costs from him as well.

Here are your small claims rules.
posted by lee at 12:05 AM on October 18, 2008


While the teacher said he would give you a refund in his first e-mail, this is not necessarily legally binding.

Your lawyer will be able to tell you what to do on Monday.
posted by grouse at 12:10 AM on October 18, 2008


As someone who has given private lessons I think it is you who are being unreasonable, for reasons stated above. What's the point of prepay, from his perspective? The man has to eat, and you are now trying to take food out of his mouth because your boyfriend is a flake.

Even if BF doesn't like the learning, consider the $440 a donation in support of more sitar music in the world. Or find a friend who does want sitar lessons.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:32 AM on October 18, 2008


You need to sell these sitar lessons to someone else.
posted by hAndrew at 12:35 AM on October 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


(With everyone's consent, which can surely be had in this situation.)
posted by hAndrew at 12:36 AM on October 18, 2008


I prepaid my fitness center for a year. I never even went once. How successful do you thing I'd be if I wanted my money back?
posted by dhoe at 12:45 AM on October 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


You both are being unreasonable expecting any refund . He has even offered to settle with you for $220.

Your boyfriend has decided not to show up for lessons purchased. The teacher says he is willing to do the lessons. Pretty clear cut, and I would assume any mediator would explain this to you.
posted by dripped at 1:33 AM on October 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


At the very best, you should hope for a settlement.

You should also NEVER enter into a verbal contract without an exit, especially on something personal like a teacher/student relationship.

He should have a contract that he has you sign that basically says that refunds will be offered for the first 3 days, after which, the lessons are non-refundable.

Simply put, you're screwing over someone's cashflow here by asking for a refund. Companies that accept returns keep their sales on the books in an interim manner until the sale is completed, and you're outside of the refund period. This way, they're not booking as revenue for sales that haven't fully settled. With an individual who has bills to pay, a no-refund policy makes a great deal of sense.

And it's unfortunate that you didn't ask about a refund policy or get something in writing, but it's an unreasonable expectation on your part. If he's offering to settle, take it.

Here's why: Your small claims case will almost certainly be deferred to mediation. The mediator will encourage you to take the settlement. You can avoid the waste of time with this.

Also, raking someone through the mud who has a relatively expected policy isn't ideal in any circumstance, nor fair.

This is why contracts exist. We had a web design client with whom things just weren't going to work out. Since this was realized early on, and before the terms shifted, they were refunded half of their initial payment, as per the terms of our contract. This let us book the other half as guaranteed revenue.

Otherwise, what, he's supposed to hold your payment to him until the very last of your lessons has been completed? Not everyone is as liquid as they'd like to be, and he probably used that money already. In absence of a contract, he's upholding his end of the verbal agreement and a refund is not implicitly guaranteed, to my knowledge.

Take the settlement, and next time, make sure that you understand the refund policies.
posted by disillusioned at 2:37 AM on October 18, 2008


You wanted to pre-pay so that your boyfriend couldn't back out...right?

I would, at this point, just take what he has offered. It seems fair.
posted by sondrialiac at 3:00 AM on October 18, 2008


I find it inconceivable that, if you take this to small claims court, you will end up with a better deal than the 50/50 split the teacher has offered you. You'll waste your own time, have an unpleasant argument with the teacher, and you might have to pay costs too. By far your best bet is to accept the offer, and put this behind you.

I sincerely hope your boyfriend does not go ahead with his threat to sully the teacher's reputation on craiglist. Yes, you are disagreeing about the fees, but that does not make the teacher a rip-off artist. That message is highly aggressive, and the teacher's reply is far more reasonable than I would have managed.
posted by beniamino at 4:43 AM on October 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


Threatening to harm the teacher's reputation is way out of line. I like dhoe's fitness center analogy. You paid for access to an ongoing service and then changed your mind. You should have tried the instructor out with some individual lessons before buying a package. The mistake was yours, and punishing the instructor for it is unprofessional. Accept his offer gracefully.
posted by PatoPata at 7:05 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


you absolutely have no right to your money back. I'm amazed that he has offered what he has to be honest. Unless he was unprofessional in his lessons or a terrible teacher, then you have no cause for complaint.
posted by nunoidia at 7:21 AM on October 18, 2008


Take the $220 and chalk it up to experience or sell/transfer the lessons.
posted by fixedgear at 7:27 AM on October 18, 2008


The teacher has more to lose in small claims court than you do, i.e. his professional reputation versus your money. He may very well fight the case as far as you take it to preserve that. The tone of your communications are increasingly aggressive and threatening tone; I think you could very well end up much poorer (due to legal fees associated with your loss in court) and looking foolish (due to your demeanor). I'm surprised you've managed to negotiate him to a partial settlement - take it.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:39 AM on October 18, 2008


I imagine the legal fees incurred and the time to go to court etc. will be a lot of trouble and you may not end up recovering the full amount. I would take it as a lesson learned and perhaps try to recover 3/4 of the fees by selling the lessons at a discount to someone on Craigslist, or if someone's birthday is coming up, re-gift them?
posted by perpetualstroll at 7:39 AM on October 18, 2008


Can I just add - a verbal contract is a contract made with words, so a written contract is also a verbal contract. I think you most of you guys mean an oral contract.

Just one of those things that bugs me. Like flags being at half-mast. Arg. Carry on.
posted by ericc at 7:40 AM on October 18, 2008


You probably wouldn't have much luck in Small Claims Court.

I think you're probably pissed because it sounded like he intended to give you a full refund in the first email and then didn't follow through. My reading of it is he actually did intend to give you a full refund, but only because he was under the impression that your boyfriend lost his job and you needed the money. After you clarified the facts -- that you both just had a change of heart and wanted your money back -- the situation changed.

Purchasing lessons from someone isn't the same as buying a pair of shoes from a store; you can't just change your mind and expect a full refund. Chalk this one up to experience and move on.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:42 AM on October 18, 2008


He may have already spent the money, or have committed to paying rent or some other bill with it, or turned away _other potential students_ because you guys had that implicit contract.

I really think you're just out the money.


I am a music teacher and I have been a music student and I agree with this.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:52 AM on October 18, 2008


I don't think you are entitled to a refund. The music teacher seems more than reasonable and your threats seem out of line. I understand that you are upset about having made this mistake, but it was your mistake and not his. Your thinking that the teacher's willingness to work with you and discuss the situation is somehow legally binding him to refund you your money in full is misguided.

You should definitely find someone else interested in the lessons, if possible, and sell your lessons to them for a discounted rate, maybe $300? This would get you more than the teacher has offered and the teach would still be able to retain the full amount, as well as the new interested party getting lessons at an excellent discount. Everyone wins!
posted by doomtop at 7:58 AM on October 18, 2008


How on earth will the instructor "lose his professional demeanor" by taking the OP to small claims court? In my eyes, he's actually enhancing his professional demeanor by enforcing his policies. One post on the internet saying "i asked for my money back and he wouldn't give it to me!" isn't going to hurt his business if he's a good instructor. if he's a crappy instructor, that will get around and will hurt his reputation.

You don't need a lawyer to go to small claims court and neither does he. The filing fees for small claims court are minor and reasonable, and cases are generally heard in the evening, so as to allow people the opportunity to use the court system without having to take time off work. As others have posted, it is unlikely you will actually go in front of a judge but instead go in front of a mediator, who may or may not decide in your favor, but will encourage you both to work out a settlement.

As a private instructor, whether for music lessons, english lessons or anything else similar, it is indeed common practice that students pay up front. otherwise 80% of them would never show up. it's not even just a cash flow issue. how can a teacher book their time efficiently if every day was a crap shoot? compare that to someone who's bought and paid for tuesdays at 10am as opposed to having to set up a different schedule every day.

i'm not sure how much i buy the whole 'the teacher didn't mesh well' bit. Learning sitar is HARD. everyone thinks they can be george harrison or ravi shankar but it is VERY HARD and takes a lot more discipline than people imagine and someone who just wants to learn it for a lark might not enjoy going to lessons where someone actually wants their students to learn and progress. personally i think it's pretty sleazy for your boyfriend to ask for the cash because he's hard up. you bought him a thoughtful gift.
posted by micawber at 8:05 AM on October 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


nthing he does not owe you a cent. you paid for a service, which he is willing to provide, and than lost interest in the service. unless i am misreading things, your boyfriend was less than truthful in the initial email. if i were in the instructors situation i would not go out of my way to help people who lied to me either.
posted by phil at 8:19 AM on October 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


I don't understand why your boyfriend lied about his reason for not wanting the lessons any more. If he had explained that he thought the he and the teacher weren't a good fit, the teacher might have had something to go on and could possibly even have made arrangements for a sitar-teaching colleague to take over the lessons, who knows? As it is, in the above email exchange I think that the teacher comes across as very professional, and you and (especially) your boyfriend, not so much.

The teacher has made it clear that he wants to give the lessons, and failing that he's prepared to refund half your money. Nobody has said anything to him about the arrangement not working out, so he's completely in the dark about that. I think that you would be better off dealing with big companies/businesses in the future, not dealing with individuals who are clearly just trying to turn an honest buck and instead are getting stuffed around by clients who don't know what they want, won't say what the problem really is, and expect others to pay for their indecision/mistakes.

I find it especially ironic that you are angry with the teacher for changing his mind about what he would do - when that's exactly what you have done!
posted by different at 8:39 AM on October 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


I his opening letter he is pretty clear that he is not agianst refunding money in principle but would like to clarify this situation to see if he feels it warrants a refund.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:13 AM on October 18, 2008


When he first thought that your boyfriend might have lost his job and been facing significant sudden financial hardship, he was willing to be a nice guy and offer you a refund he otherwise wouldn't. But it didn't jibe with what he'd already been told and once he realized that your boyfriend flat out lied to him in an attempt to finagle a refund he wasn't really entitled to, he decided to play hardball.

This question reminds me a bit of this Consumerist story. I had no idea there were so many people out there in the world who don't understand the concept behind pre-paid package purchases of services, and think that they should be able to get both the discount for buying a package and all the flexibility of buying their services as a one-off.

I think his current offer of refunding you half of your remaining balance is more than generous under the circumstances, and that he's making it only because the hassle of answering a small claims filing (and thus having to reschedule all his actual, interested students who are willing to pay him for that day) isn't worth it to him.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:20 AM on October 18, 2008


I think the question is whether the court will favor the OPs Buyer's Remorse over the teacher's Offer Remorse. It might be a big gamble.

1. I think the court might consider that neither side thought about the issue of what happens if it doesn't work out. The teacher has no stated refund policy - or more to the point -hadn't really thought through what their policy was. On the other hand, the OP never asked what the policy was. Both just assumed it would work out or better yet never come up.

2. The teacher's failure to think through what their policy was meant that they have been giving conflicting, confusing messages. So I can see why the OP feels poorly done by. The teacher's letter does clearly state that they would give a refund. Regardless of all the 'what is the standard, who didn't tell the truth, who escalated', I understand how the OP feels there's a bit of bait and switch, because the teacher did not intimate that there was anything about wanting a clarification that would alter his statement that would change is mind. Also, the teacher is also trying a powerplay (saying he's checked with his musician friends - he should have done that before he responded to the OP - and pointing out that THEY think his 50% offer is reasonable, as if that should sway the OP). It's more subtle than the OP's threats of a lawyer, but no less eyebrow raising. But in the end, the question is will small claims court look at this question narrowly, and only focus on this point.

3. I don't know. The court could decide that the OPs buyer's remorse is equal to the teacher's offer remorse, because clearly the teacher wishes he hadn't said that he'd give the refund.

4. I would worry that the court would consider itself in a mediator's role because, well: A. The industry standard on refunds could go either way. B. the OPs boyfriend may have lied about the reasons for wanting the refund. So they didn't 'negotiate in good faith', but attempted to either play on the teacher's sympathies or also don't like conflict and tried to avoid it. C. They escalated quickly - threatening a lawyer and public shaming. Certainly both are tools, but invoking both at the same time is often a powerplay used by people who feel awfully powerless. Ironically, the teacher attempting to compromise at this point rather than before, just reinforced to the OP that continuing to put the squeeze on him might get them back the rest of the amount. It might be legal, but it makes the teacher sympathetic, encouraging a mediated decision.

5. And since mediation is at it's core, compromise - the 50/50 split that the teacher offered is probably where this will all end up. Unfortunately, it also means the OP won't feel the 'fairness' of this decision because they will come out with something that was already on the table. They wont feel as if they 'gained' anything. (It the teacher offered $100, and they came out with $200, they might have)

6. Hopefully neither will cling to their position, and consider that both sides wish that they had handled it differently. The psychic/health toll on this is always higher than the money cost in situation like this, I think - particularly when people dig in their heels. But from now on the teacher will probably have a stated policy and the OP will always ask about one. But good for you, OP, for feeling angry, but still being willing to turn to your community to consider more perspectives, and more advice, possibly even to consider taking the $200. That's hard to do when people feel done wrong, harder when the other side won't acknowledge that their actions were part of the problem. Who knows if the teacher's colleagues are pointing out how he could have handled this differently - because he could have. He might never acknowledge that now, seeing how this has escalated on both sides. But good luck in moving forward.
posted by anitanita at 9:39 AM on October 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Even assuming you would win in small claims, which I doubt, is it really worth the hassle and karmic entanglement for $200? Take the refund he has very reasonably offered and move on with your lives.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:47 AM on October 18, 2008


I think the double standard here is that, because he's a single person with a name and a face, rather than an impersonal institution, you somehow feel entitled to a refund. As with the fitness center analogy above, try buying a bus pass and then asking for half your money back on the 15th of the month.

(Full disclosure: I've been a professional musician for 15 years, although I have never offered pay-up-front terms such as his for the inverse of this situation -- I value the ability to drop, immediately, any students who view my job with the lack of respect you seem to view his.)

The teacher offered a totally reasonable proposition: Pay $X per lesson up front, or more than $X per lesson one at a time. As others have noted, your discount is the price he pays for a stable income, and is an exchange service providers around the world (bus lines, fitness centers, you name it) make all the time.

The fact that you grant him less respect, as a professional, than you would grant a clerk at the train station is particularly frustrating to professional musicians. He has likely spent his entire life training for this job, which rewards him with unpredictable income and unsteady employment (think for a moment about when someone might start training to be a doctor or a lawyer -- this teacher has likely been training for this job since he was seven). The least you can do is treat his policies as seriously as you would treat the signs on the bus.

Please don't take this to small claims court; it's beneath all of you. Although he has no business reason whatsoever to offer a refund, I can totally understand why he would. Professional music is hard enough without having to deal with unpleasant, unreasonable clients -- at this point it's probably worth $220 to him just to make you go away.
posted by range at 9:55 AM on October 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


The small claims court will analyze this as a contract. The contract contained no provision re you get money back if you cancel early. So you don't get to add that provision into the contract after the fact (unless there is a state law that requires such a provision).

The court will look at the first email to decide whether there was a modification of the contract -- an exchange of the balance of the contract ($$) for a release of the obligation to provide lessons. The email states that he is "willing" to refund the money, with a "however." Now he's not willing. If I were the judge, I would rule that the contract was not modified. Maybe you'll be lucky with a judge who rules the other way.

Side note re fairness/mitigation/karma: Let's say you still owed him money on the contract, your boyfriend had stopped taking the lessons, and the instructor was taking you to court to get the balance. The court would ask the instructor if he had taken steps to mitigate his losses. Dude. He's a sitar instructor. It's not like he's booked from 9:00 to 5:00 with lessons. There's no way to mitigate the loss. He could have accommodated your boyfriend and any additional sitar student who came through the door.

I think half the contract fee is a really good result, and you should accept it happily.

Also, you seem like a really nice person who is involved with, and influenced by, an angry and aggressive person.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:47 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think you should accept the 50/50 agreement, and find a way to apologize gracefully. It's not the teacher you should be pissed at, it's your boyfriend, who besides wasting your birthday gift is escalating the situation.
posted by bettafish at 11:01 AM on October 18, 2008


You had no reason to expect that the payment would be refundable (unless the teacher was unable to provide what you paid for).

I don't think you'll get anything in small claims court.
posted by winston at 11:19 AM on October 18, 2008


Alternately: Take the remaining lessons and learn something new.

(As opposed to learning something new about small claims court and the legal system, which as others have siad, you won't learn anything to your advantage.)

He's still offering the lessons, you don't want them any more. That's not his problem. I ordered a pizza for lunch but stopped eating after one slice. If I called up the pizza place and demanded a 5/6ths refund they would think I'm crazy.
posted by Ookseer at 12:22 PM on October 18, 2008


Oh wait, the teacher did in fact admit his contribution of the confusion. He wrote:

"I am sorry for the confusion. I wrote that first email without thoroughly thinking through the situation. I am sorry for the disagreement."

In this case, perhaps with all of the responses you've received, you'll also rethink the situation, OP.

good luck....
posted by anitanita at 3:18 PM on October 18, 2008


The vast majority of answers are coming from a business/social perspective; there is very little legal analysis here for the obvious reason that most people—aside from a few vague ideas about signatures and so forth—don't fully understand contracts. One common misconception (at least here in Australia): outside of a few specific sorts of contracts, there is no requirement for a contract to be in writing. A verbal contract can indeed be a contract.

All of this is to say that you want to speak to a lawyer about this if you are determined to get your money back. However, prima facie, it appears it mightn't wendell for you; you should consider taking the partial refund and learning from the experience.
posted by oxford blue at 6:18 PM on October 18, 2008


As another professional musician, I'm with range. Though it's unfortunate that you both didn't hash out the policies before entering into a series of lessons that you weren't sure your boyfriend would like, threatening (the teacher) with public shaming and court action seems particularly sleazy. If this amount of money was/is difficult for you to lose, you should have started with one lesson first. And if the teacher insisted on a package before trying him out, that's bad business on his part. But this is different than shaming a corporation that has given you bad service, and frankly, odd. This is someone who has likely trained his whole life for this, and would lose if he were constantly subject to these types of cancellations. I hope that both parties learn to be more specific in the future when entering into a contract like this.
posted by FlyByDay at 8:53 PM on October 18, 2008


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