How to deal with an unstable ex-roommate?
September 13, 2012 11:28 PM   Subscribe

My ex-roommate is refusing to pay bills and threatening to sue me for having sex. What's my best course of action?

In May, I moved into an apartment with an acquaintance of mine with whom, up to this point, I had gotten along well.

Right away, we started having some problems. Namely, he didn't respect my "lifestyle." (Being a non-celibate queer woman.) In order to keep the peace, I refrained from bringing my partner home, and instead spent most of my nights elsewhere.

In August, without asking or informing me, he adopted a cat. This poses several problems: First of all, I had told him multiple times that I do not like cats, nor do I feel comfortable around them. Secondly, our lease has a clear no-pets clause. I tried to talk to him about it multiple times, telling him that he couldn't violate our lease, and he said, "I have to respect your choices, you have to respect mine." Eventually, I went to the landlord, who told him to get rid of the cat or move out.

He moved out. (Thank God.)

Here's the problem: Our water bill comes every three months, and he's now refusing to pay his half for the three months he lived in the house. We had a verbal agreement to divide bills equally, and all other utilities were handled this way. He says he feels no need to "invest" in my home when he doesn't support me or my lifestyle. I explained to him that this was a bill for services he had already used, and he had an obligation to pay for them. He responded with a myriad of unfounded personal attacks. After telling him that I would take him to small claims court, he informed me that he would only pay the money if I agreed to sign a protection order, stating that I was verbally harassing him and contributing to his mental health issues.

I don't want to sign this order. I think he is mentally unstable, and will try to invent a violation to screw me over.

At the same time, I really can't afford to be out this money. Moreover, it kills me to think that he would just get away with this behavior.

So, hivemind, am I damned if I do and damned if I don't?

What do I do?!
posted by karminai to Human Relations (44 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If he's that nuts, it'll come out in small claims court. You can't be sued for having sex, and even if you could, no juge will care. Go to small claims court. Sign nothing from him. See if you can add interest or expenses.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:32 PM on September 13, 2012 [45 favorites]

Why would you possibly sign the order? Don't. Take him to small claims as you threatened. IANAL, but it sounds like you'll win and it's set up to be fairly cheap and easy to do. Whether you'll ever get the money in the end is another issue I guess if he's this crazy and hateful, but I don't see anything to try besides small claims.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:36 PM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sign nothing, go directly to small claims court (or to the procedure that will lead to small claims court, generally sending some sort of formal notification in the mail). Crazy almost always loses in court.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:37 PM on September 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm not familiar with the laws in your area, but it seems to me that you have a pretty good case for small claims. Why don't you just take him to court and let the courts do their job?

I would advise against signing anything because he might use it against you later on.
posted by cyml at 11:38 PM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

If the cost of the water bill is notably less than the cost of going to small claims court (financially and in your time), let it go. Stop talking to him. Sorry you can't afford it right now, but maybe you can't afford court either?
posted by k8t at 11:42 PM on September 13, 2012 [49 favorites]

unless it's really a lot of money, i would just chalk it up to experience & consider yourself lucky this person moved out. dealing with mentally unstable folks can be considerably more expensive and painful.
posted by facetious at 11:50 PM on September 13, 2012 [38 favorites]

If you can possibly swallow the bill, do it. Ex-roommate sounds vindictive and prejudiced, and could use small claims court to make you miserable. Don't think of it as him getting away with not paying his half - think of it as denying him the chance to mess with you further and being free of his interference. We let go of a fairly large loan to a neighbour/friend after he began harassing us over it, and it was painful at the time - nearly a month's income! - especially when he was partying in our faces with the money - but oh man, it was worth it to be able to completely sever him from our lives and not have to deal with his crap.

If you do go to court - document everything and be completely polite and calm. If he's crazy, it will make it simpler for you.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:52 PM on September 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

Where I live, water is pretty cheap.

Don't sign anything.

Write it off, cut a deal with the water people and move on. Crazy might always lose in court, but is it really worth your time?
posted by cedar at 11:52 PM on September 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I wonder if he's thinking that if he loses in small claims court that he'll have some kind of choice about whether he's going to pay you or not? If you take him to court and you win, he'll be paying you whether you sign his silly document or not (you shouldn't) - the court will garnish his wages if they need to.
posted by LionIndex at 11:59 PM on September 13, 2012

Disengage from this person. Pay the water bill (and in the subject line, write "Lessons Learned"). He has made the choice (sadly, his mental-health issues may be driving the stagecoach here) to antagonize you, and the more you let him, the more he wins. You're not letting him "get away with this behavior" -- imagine how much it cost him in money and time to find a new place to live and move there. You will spend far more than that in money, time and psychic stress by continuing to go after him for the water bill.
posted by Etrigan at 12:12 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you take Crazy to court he'll be in your life and occupying your time for much longer than you want. I'd chalk it up to a loss. Yeah, it blows, but dealing with him through small claims and the possible fallout after may be much worse.

Stop talking to him. It's a lesson learned. Sucksbut it's happened to all of us.
posted by Sal and Richard at 12:13 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I doubt his bill is more than $100. In this case, it's usually not worth going to court over. Small claims charges $40 where I live, then collection is left to you. I know this is difficult, but in my opinion, it's best to let this go and celebrate being rid of this person forever. Even if you took him to court, you're going to be out more money before possibly getting paid back several months from now.
posted by plaintiff6r at 12:37 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

What are the total in bills this guy owes?

Depending, there is your answer.
posted by jbenben at 12:41 AM on September 14, 2012

What jbenben said. There's what's Right and then there's what's right.

Sometimes, doing what's right is better for one's sanity than doing what's Right.

If the dollar amount is manageable, pay and consider it spent on not having to deal with crazy person's crazy any longer.

If it's not manageable, you may win in Small Claims, but it will take time and energy.
posted by zippy at 1:03 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

The filing fee is going to be something like $30 in LA, not terribly expensive (especially compared to three months of water), and you can add that to your damages along with any late fees you were charged. It isn't going to be fun, but small claims court isn't insanely expensive, and you don't need a lawyer. Bring the other utility bills and copies of checks you were given, as well as your lease agreement, the water bill, etc, so you can lay out clearly, 'He paid X in rent, half of the electric bill, half of the cable bill, half of the whatever bill, but he won't pay the water bill. Yes he lived with me then, here are checks he signed that say RENT on them.'

Crazy and homophobic don't fly in CA courts, and the judge won't listen to anything he says that isn't related to your water bill anyway. This is what small claims court is here for. The LA Dept of Consumer Affairs website has some good resources.

Be warned though, you can't collect the money until at least 30 days after the decision is made, so this isn't a quick way to get your money back, just a reliable one.
posted by Garm at 1:15 AM on September 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

Pay the bill. He can't sue you (he has to be able to prove damages - and he needs lots of money - and it's patently ridiculous. I feel ridiculous typing this). Don't sign anything.
posted by mattoxic at 1:37 AM on September 14, 2012

As mentioned above, shortest path to getting the crazy out of your life is to pay the bill yourself and move on. Considering how bad it could have been, you got off lightly. In the UK a utility company will work out a payment plan with you if you got stuck with a bill like this, but I don't know about the US.

I would say document this stuff though, just in case it continues. And if it continues, get the police involved.

(Sign? Really? Hope you laughed in his face.)
posted by Leon at 2:13 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pay the bill and don't think about it again. You can't afford it now, I know, but in the long run the money will make zero difference to your life.

It's kind of annoying that you have to pay this guy's share of the bill, but every now and again this kind of situation will come up and you have to learn when you should make a fuss and when you should keep cool. Here you should keep cool. This is not the sort of money worth getting yourself stressed about, and though you might not like to let your roommate off lightly, remember that he still has to go through the rest of his life as his asshole self and he will get what he deserves.
posted by cincinnatus c at 2:36 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Trust me, living his life is going to counter (over and over) any satisfaction he gets from getting out of half the water bill. Just pay it, stay in and eat ramen for a week, and get the crazy out of your life. It will be so, so worth it to move on rather than to keep this person in your life.
posted by Kimberly at 4:18 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I see a lot of answers here about how water is cheap and it can't be that much money and the money can't be worth dealing with him, but the OP explicitly mentioned that she "really can't afford to be out this money." Maybe we should take her at her word.

Small claims is probably your best bet, but if you have any legally-inclined friends who might be willing to write a nastygram letter for you, that might be enough to scare him into just paying it. I've gone that route in the past and was surprised when it actually worked. Otherwise, go for small claims, it's fairly painless and quite cheap. If he's that unstable, he might not even show up.
posted by miskatonic at 4:26 AM on September 14, 2012 [12 favorites]

IAALBNYL. There is a saying that is not well-known enough, "anyone who says he wants his day in court has never been there before."

If you can't afford to be out the money for the bill, I do not see how you can afford the costs of filing a small claims action and having it served, plus the value of the time required for the small claims pre-trial conference, trial, and any other hearings in between. I imagine that every proceeding with take place during your work hours, assuming you work first shift; I suspect that you are an hourly worker, so you will have to consider that cost as well. Once the trial is over and assuming you win, there are also collection costs. And, there is the aggravation of the court process.

I cannot imagine that his portion of the bill is more than a few hundred dollars. It will cost you more than that to prosecute it by a fair sight. If this is truly driven by financial concerns, I recommend letting it go.
posted by Tanizaki at 4:44 AM on September 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'm really sorry, and I know you said you 'really can't afford' it, but I think that for your own peace of mind you should just pay the water bill and drop all contact with this guy --- he sounds nuts. Do NOT sign anything he demands you sign; just cease all contact and disengage entirely: don't return his phone calls, don't accept his texts, send any emails (unread) to a folder --- basically, stalker rules.

And if you haven't already, get his name off your lease and change your door locks.
posted by easily confused at 4:53 AM on September 14, 2012

Tanizaki makes the most convincing detailed case for letting it go, but does not give the same detail about the "collection costs".

Someone else said,
>the court will garnish his wages if they need to

The court will not do it. The OP will have to file the paperwork to do it, serve it on the bank (if you know which one) or the employer (if you know where he works), and wait for money to dribble in. Wage garnishment is limited to 25% of pay, so it may take a while.
posted by yclipse at 5:20 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your ex-roommate sounds crazy. Nobody in history has ever benefitted by signing documents proposed to them by a crazy person. (Maybe there are a few exceptions here and there, but I can't think of any.)
posted by wolfdreams01 at 5:33 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

You think you can't afford to let this go, but you really can't afford to not let this go. Your worst case scenario is if you win and now have an insane person as your mortal enemy.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:41 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

You've heard of Rent Parties? Have a Water Bill Party.

And celebrate that this issue is so totally and completely out of your life.

Your friends will be more than happy to chip in to help you out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:51 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

As others have stated, give the water company a call, explain that a roommate skipped town and stuck you with the bill (leave out all the crazy stuff) and they are likely to work out a payment plan.

Even if you decide to go to court (be sure to add in the filing costs, travel costs to the courthouse, lost work hours, etc. to the amount you are suing for) it will take some time for you to collect if you prevail, so you may as well get a payment plan in place now.
posted by mikepop at 5:53 AM on September 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

I am sorry that I didn't go into much detail on collection costs, but there was some discussion of garnishment, so I thought I would amend to address that.

Wage garnishment is limited to 25% of pay, so it may take a while.

Close, but wage garnishment is 25 percent of the employee's disposable earnings, or the amount by which an employee's disposable earnings are greater than 30 times the federal minimum wage ($217.50/week). Also, garnishment is a creature of statute, not common law, and it does not exist in all states or is at least not always available. I found this out the hard way when I had a judgment domesticated in North Carolina. And, if the OP's state has a garnishment statute anything like my state's, a garnishment has a filing fee of about $200. Also, in my state, a wage garnishment is only possible if the debtor has agreed in writing to have his wages garnished. There is no such agreement in this case.

A garnishment is pretty much like a mini-lawsuit that springs from the final judgment, complete with service a writ, an answer from the garnishee, and other such matters. There is a common belief out there that getting a judgment is like getting a check, but it is not nearly as simple as "the court will garnish his wages". Having a judgment is great, but I have a stack of judgments that will never be collected.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:24 AM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

+1 on the calling the water co, explaining, and then asking for some sort of payment plan.

At best, the court thing will take months, and even longer before you get any money out of it.

Solve the problems you have no choice in, and walk away from the problems that you do.
posted by Blue_Villain at 6:43 AM on September 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

What mikepop said. Utility companies are often more helpful/reasonable to deal with than other entities that send big scary bills. The principle of "if you lend somebody $20 and never see them again, it was worth it" applies here.
posted by lily_bart at 6:45 AM on September 14, 2012

Reality check- you're not going to extract one red cent from this guy. Figure out a way the bill and move on.

Lawsuits (and restraining orders) are widely misunderstood here on MeFi. Assuming you win in court, there will not be a check that magically appears. What you wind up with is a valid legal claim to money, not the actual money. Getting wages garnished is no trivial affair, and will be a long process, assuming this guy even has a job you can garnish from. Meanwhile, he's all but guaranteed to keep up the antagonism toward you, if not escalate. It's not worth it.
posted by mkultra at 6:49 AM on September 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

I don't understand where the "threatening to sue you for having sex" comes into play. A protective order isn't a lawsuit.
posted by item at 6:50 AM on September 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Having taken someone to small claims court (in Los Angeles), it IS a pain in the ass. And it really depends on your jurisdiction as to the options available for obtaining the judgement. Frequently (it seems) they won't allow you to toss fees on top of it. I ultimately got my money owed by writing a threatening letter that pertained specifically to my situation. The amount I was going for was $1,800. At the time, that felt enormous but I'm not sure I'd do it again.

A legal looking letter requesting repayment that also outlines the consequences of no payment: small claims court + garnishment of wages (include a copy of the bill with the dates clearly noted -- get a quote from the water company with specifics) may get you your money. Send it registered mail.

Simultaneously, call your water company and work out a payment plan. Because if the amount is small, it's not worth it. I got a small amount of joy seeing the judge scoff at the guy who owed me but seeing him in court was really creepy. Blegh. You've shed this dipshit, have a house cleansing party (take donations!) and move on.
posted by amanda at 7:37 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

IANAL, but I have a friend who recently went through the small claims court experience because of a a landscaper who refused to redo the mess he'd made of her backyard. The amount in question was several thousand dollars.

It was absolute hell: time-consuming and utterly frustrating because Lousy Landscaper was determined not to pay. In the end she was awarded an amount less than her claim. LL paid statements for a few months, then stopped. My friend found she'd have to start the whole process over again, from scratch.

You say that you "can't really afford to be out this money." I'm concerned about the potential cost to your mental health.

Your ex-roommate is hostile, homophobic and (very importantly) either ignorant of the law or deliberately ignoring it with by requesting you sign a protection order. He may be highly motivated to devote a lot of energy to fighting you, including actions that don't have a chance of succeeding in the long run but may cause you a great deal of stress and distress.

Please reflect on Tanizaki's advice, and consider speaking with friends and acquaintances who may have had experiences with small claims court and people similar to your roommate. This will give you information to help you make whatever decision you choose.

Meanwhile, you will not get any money anytime soon - so do call the water company, explain the situation, and arrange whatever payment plan you can.

Finally, consider starting a diary and recording everything that happens with your ex-roomate, and keep copies of all communications, emails, save voicemail messages, et cetera, as a precaution. If you choose to continue and he harrasses you - or harrasses you even after you disengage - you may need to involve the police at some point.

I'm sorry if I come across as negative and pessimistic. I completely sympathize with your desire not to let him get away with it. I've simply seen that sometimes (often?) the cost of such a struggle in time, stress (and sometimes money, if you lose time at work) isn't worth it.

Good luck.
posted by Schadenfreudian at 7:50 AM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't know where you are, but three month of water is, what, $150 at the top end? I can definitely understand not having $75 to spare, but that sounds to me like a cheap price to pay for never having to speak to or think of this idiot ever again.

If him "getting away with it" is a big problem for you, just remember that you don't have to do anything at all and he still has to stew in the life he's created by treating people like this.
posted by cmoj at 8:09 AM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have dealt with a crazy ex-roommate in the past. He owed me a far, far more substantial amount of money than a few months of a water bill, and eventually I realized that my sanity was worth more than the money owed. I stopped speaking to him and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Unless this is a crapton of money that you absolutely can't live without, write it off and move on, and cease communication with this guy. Otherwise, go to small claims, with the understanding that it will likely unleash more drama from him.
posted by bedhead at 8:27 AM on September 14, 2012

We had a nasty and unstable ex-roommate who sued us in small-claims court over a microwave. Seriously. My husband got served with papers at work.

It caused huge amounts of hassle and stress before the court date (he dropped the case the day before, fortunately), which meant he was a thorn in our side for far longer than we wanted.

Another vote for paying the water bill (can you ask to pay in installments?) and not thinking about this guy ever again.
posted by vickyverky at 8:30 AM on September 14, 2012

Don't bother with small claims court. Even if you win, there's no guarantee you'll actually get the money. In your case, the filing fees for all of it will probably eat up more than the judgement would be for in the first place.

You might try to have a local lawyer write a 'pay up or else' letter - it won't have any teeth but you can hope he won't know that.

Otherwise, let it go.
posted by zug at 8:58 AM on September 14, 2012

3 months of a water bill isn't worth this drama. How much money are we talking? $50 dollars? Pay the money yourself and never look back.
posted by Justinian at 11:02 AM on September 14, 2012

An Ex and I had a housemate who turned out to be pure hell to live with, and the $400+ share of the phone bill she ran up was only one of the bills she left us with. (She also left us a room with mold literally growing in the carpet and on the walls. Ick!)

The Ex, to his credit, took on most of the financial hit because I'd been too sick to work for the previous year. While he initially tried to get her to pay her share, he ran into difficulties similar to what you describe.

Ultimately, despite it meaning a hard few months for him, he chose to let it go as the price for getting this woman out of his life, rather than having it drag on and having to put up with more of her crap. We were both unimpressed by her behavior, but he chose not to invest any more of his time and energy in trying to get her to do the right thing.

If you can persuade a lawyer to write something on your behalf, that sounds like a good option to investigate. But it's worth considering that the toll this is taking on you isn't just financial - what is it costing you in time, heartache and effort to pursue this?
posted by Someone Else's Story at 3:08 PM on September 14, 2012

Going to court sucks giant donkey balls. This guy is a douche but he's going to get away with it this time. It isn't fair, I know, but court will not only train your time and finances but your will to live.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:12 PM on September 14, 2012

Oh my gosh, I would totally come to a Water Bill Party.

But this isn't a water bill - it's the price of removing someone who is creating a lot of chaos from your life. The cost of getting rid of 'Bob' or whoever he is $250 or whatever that bill is. Bob's not getting away with anything in the big scheme of things if he has a head that is screwed on in a way that actually conceives that he lives in a world where he thinks this is why protection orders were created. He's not right in the head, God bless him - something that's more costly than that water bill.

Always pay money to take care of yourself. Getting away from Bob's not stable behavior is taking care of yourself. So I vote for taking care of yourself.
posted by anitanita at 3:34 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

tell him you'll sign his little document after you get the money. then, don't sign anything. he's already established that verbal agreements with him are not binding. though, i doubt he'll follow through. it would just be a shot in the dark kind of thing. your money is gone, figure out some other way to pay your bill.
posted by cupcake1337 at 5:12 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also had great luck with a threatening looking letter that I paid someone to send for me. It cost $20 and the debt was repaid almost immediately with no further argument. There was no way for me to take that person to small claims court, so I was really psyched that the letter worked. Just a data point. I think that the answers saying 'just pay it and move on' have a valid point, but at the same time I know how it is to feel the white-hot flame of righteous moral indignation, and I really would love to see you get what you're owed from this jerk.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 3:21 PM on September 15, 2012

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