Should I sue for a $500 web-development bill?
April 28, 2010 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Someone I met online begged me to build a website for his software idea and then stiffed me for the second and final payment even as he gushed about his delight with the site. Is it worth the trouble to go to small claims court or should I take this as a painful lesson and move on?

He has no complaints about my work but got angry when I was unavailable to listen to him carry on about his personal life. Probably this was part of what he thought he was paying for and yet I have several emails in which he clearly states our agreement. The final payment is $500. In our state the amount could be doubled by a sympathetic judge. The jerk lives in another state but even if he showed up I have a very strong case. I've never sued anyone before and would be especially interested in the perspectives of others who've been through this kind of thing.
posted by Pamelayne to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I take it you have some proof of your original arrangement, right? Emails, letters, stuff like that.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:10 PM on April 28, 2010


"Probably this was part of what he thought he was paying for and yet I have several emails in which he clearly states our agreement."

I'm guessing, yes, he does.
posted by 4ster at 9:16 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


or "she does."
posted by 4ster at 9:17 PM on April 28, 2010


My opinion: Not worth it. You've got to work your way through bureaucracy (fun!) file a lot of paperwork (correctly!) pay the filing fee, probably hire a process server in another state, etc. And when you get a verdict in your favor it's not like the money magically gets transported to your account, they guy still has to pay you. And he clearly doesn't want to do that, so then you need to go through the trouble of collecting which is a giant pain. There's a good chance you'll end up selling the debt to a collection agency for something like 10% of what you are owed. Plus you get to remain pissed off at the person the whole time, which isn't healthy or fun.

To me, clearly not worth $500 (or $1000), but YMMV.

I'd send them a registered letter with an invoice and a big red due date and past due notice, along with a printout of your work agreement. Also mention that if the due date comes and goes without a successful resolution, other methods of collection will be employed. (Nice and vague, eh?)

If this new due date comes and goes without any response, see if you can have a friendly lawyer write a nastrygram.

And then if he doesn't pay come back here, post the name of the deadbeat and his software, and then forget about it and move forward with a lesson learned about how to do business in the future.
posted by Ookseer at 9:40 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


It really depends on the opportunity cost of your time. If you have other billable work that you could be doing, then it might not make sense to do much more than send out a few nasty letters and blacklist him for life.

But if you're more or less sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, playing the Small Claims game might be the most profitable use of your time, even if it works out to sub-minimum wage by the end.

Also you might not necessarily have to file anything in another state. It might be that the small claims court where you live has jurisdiction, if that was where your agreement with him was executed and where the work was performed. Stuff like that gets complex but you could try calling the small claims court (or going down in person) and asking. I have heard that (at least in some places) they are quite helpful and willing to explain the process, since it is designed to be something you do without a lawyer. In some places they're not, but you never know until you ask.

Five hundred isn't exactly couch change so it might be worth a bit of time, unless you'd be putting off other work in order to do it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:54 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am building a working relationship with a web developer who I found because he had written up a blurb about not getting paid by a client of his (I was googling that specific client).

I told this guy how I found him and he replied "oh, that job? I had completely forgotten about that!"...this was about 2-3 years after the fact.

I got in touch with him because he was still doing web development, and I felt pretty sympathetic.

So I agree with Ookseer -- post the guy's name somewhere. Write about your experience. Write that it's too bad that the sum isn't higher because it means you'll probably never see the money.
posted by circular at 11:20 PM on April 28, 2010


I would sue him w/o attorney in small claims court.

In some places (like DC) you can submit a small claims case for $25. I have a writer friend who sues anyone in the DC area that does not pay him. It is worthwhile because if you continue to freelance,you WILL be suing someone in the future, eventually.

You won't make much money off this current lawsuit, but think of it as an education for when you really need to sue.
posted by Spurious at 11:53 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


You probably won't even need a process server, sending something via certified mail is usually enough.
posted by autoclavicle at 12:36 AM on April 29, 2010


It is worthwhile because if you continue to freelance,you WILL be suing someone in the future, eventually. You won't make much money off this current lawsuit, but think of it as an education for when you really need to sue.

I was going to say this, but with a lot more words.

And when you get a verdict in your favor it's not like the money magically gets transported to your account, they guy still has to pay you. And he clearly doesn't want to do that, so then you need to go through the trouble of collecting which is a giant pain. There's a good chance you'll end up selling the debt to a collection agency for something like 10% of what you are owed.

That is if he knows or is told he can ignore it and be perfectly safe. He may not, and the official letter may be enough to scare him into paying. Or he may figure (or be advised) that while he could probably safely ignore it, $500 isn't worth the risk that it might cause him problems in the future and it's better to pay it and put it behind him.

Plus you get to remain pissed off at the person the whole time, which isn't healthy or fun.

So don't focus so much on getting it back or not. Sue him now to learn how to do it, so that one day in the future when you do have to do it, when you have a better chance of seeing the money, when the money matters more and when you're too busy to teach yourself as you go you will be able to go through the process with speed and confidence.
posted by K.P. at 1:13 AM on April 29, 2010


IANAL. I'm just going through the same kind of hassle: the work was translating for a new online magazine in English and Italian, plus an article of my own. The total came to around $4K. The publisher has repeatedly emailed "OK, maybe next week" or similar. I've sent increasingly firm emails (and kept copies of the whole correspondence). Now we're at the point where the publisher no longer replies, and I've seen somebody else's (terrible) translations start to appear on the site.

I went yesterday to the legal advice office of the major Italian labour union CGIL; they looked at my emails and said I've got a good case, and they'll take it on and send demand letters - free - which in their experience usually shakes the tree. And I'm not even a card-carrying member! (Of course, I offered to pony up the annual membership fee for self-employed members.)

My point is there may be similar pro bono services available to you somewhere in the US, too, if you look around for them. And if there are, they'll have the experience to know how to make it stick better than a d-i-y claim-chase. Do your labour unions have legal advice counters? Do you have Citizens' Advice Bureaux? I'm aware we Europeans have a more "socialist" (!) system, but there may be something out there.

(And I love the idea of name-and-shame if I don't win this one.)

Good luck!
posted by aqsakal at 1:49 AM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would try (and have tried) a collection agency first. On the downside, you'll lose a portion of what you're owed (about 25%, typically). On the other hand, you only have to provide them basic info about the debt owed and the person's whereabouts, and they'll do the rest of the legwork for you. If this guy is simply trying to ignore the problem rather than actually having gone bankrupt, closed up shop, and/or owing thousands of dollars to other suppliers (in otherwords, simply uninterested in paying, rather than unable), then I'd think your chances are fairly decent of scaring him/her into paying via the collection agency route.
posted by drlith at 4:02 AM on April 29, 2010


I would like to second the lawyer's letter; it'd be a small, up-front investment that allows you to show you're serious and provides you an opportunity to show you cannot be stiffed, even if you're a small operation.
posted by Hiker at 4:28 AM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you have admin access to the server would you be within your legal rights to pull your work off the site? (wouldn't be too effectual of a scheme if he's got it backed up, but people can be pretty terrible about backing stuff up)
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:33 AM on April 29, 2010


If you have admin access to the server would you be within your legal rights to pull your work off the site?

This is almost certainly a bad idea and would really ruin any chance of eventual payment. It might also veer dangerously close to being a computer crime, unless the right to take down the site for nonpayment is specifically stated in the SoW (which it probably isn't). Also, it's unprofessional as hell and might seriously scare off future clients if word got out; not because they're deadbeats, but because nobody wants to work with a contract programmer who's going to sabotage production if the relationship goes squirrely. It's just not done.

There's a right way to do things like this. Yes, the process is obnoxious, and it can be expensive (although small claims generally isn't), and it's time-consuming. But that's how things work. Digital vigilantism — which is what you'd be engaging in — isn't any better than real-world vigilantism, satisfying though it may be.

That said ... it would be kinda fun (though you'd want to get a lawyer's opinion on this first) to send them, or send their ISP, a DMCA Takedown on the grounds that they're violating copyright, since they didn't pay you for the software and thus never completed the transaction, meaning that they don't own it. I've never heard of anyone doing that as a remedy for a nonpaying client (generally because programmers want money, not just to have the site taken down), but I don't see why you couldn't.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:09 AM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is worthwhile because if you continue to freelance,you WILL be suing someone in the future, eventually.

Really? Maybe I've led a charmed life, but I've been freelancing for over 20 years, and the one time I've been stiffed, it was on a $25 invoice. I've had some clients that were slow-pay, and some I was worried about, but so far, so good.
posted by adamrice at 6:48 AM on April 29, 2010


I'm a terrible stickler about unpaid invoices; it doesn't happen to me often, because I'm choosy about who I'll work for -- three times in a dozen years -- but when it does I'm willing to spend more than the invoice amount to get them to pay up, just on general principle.

Small claims court is a huge hassle and basically useless; you still have to get the guy to pay up afterwards, even if you win.

I'd let the client know, in writing, you're turning him over to a collections agency if he doesn't pay up within X days. Collections agencies are exceptionally polite and easy to deal with, if you're the one who wants something collected. They charge between 25% and 50% of the amount to be collected, but in my experience just the threat of it has always been enough to get the client to pay up immediately -- lots of people aren't afraid of lawyers, but nobody wants their credit report screwed up.

If you have admin access to the server would you be within your legal rights to pull your work off the site?

No. Terrible idea.
posted by ook at 6:50 AM on April 29, 2010


My opinion: Sue him in small claims court. People who screw small businesses just because they can are @##&*(3? and should not get away with it. Wanna screw MegaGlobalCorp? Okay. Screwing Pamelayne over lack of ego-stroking is intolerable.
posted by theora55 at 7:34 AM on April 29, 2010


It shouldn't be hard to find an attorney to write a demand letter for $25 or $50. If you want to move on and forget about it, then send it to a collection agency. I've recently had dealings with these guys and they seemed effective and decent.
posted by ajr at 12:49 PM on April 29, 2010


you WILL be suing someone in the future, eventually.

I think this must vary by person, industry and location. In 17 years of full-time freelancing I've never had to sue anyone. I've been stiffed exactly once and that was by a company that fell into bankruptcy. I decided it wasn't worth the hassle to just get in line for a small piece of a small the pie.

But do write the threatening letters. A great many people don't know the difference between a lawyers's letterhead and a legal court filing, and the times where I've had reluctant clients it's been all it takes to get 'em to pay up.

(One time I did get a (final) check from a company and was advised that I cash it as soon as possible since their bank account wasn't going to honor all the checks written against it. But I got to the bank in time, so it doesn't count.)
posted by Ookseer at 1:10 PM on April 29, 2010


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