A business just ripped you off. This could be a company which sent you the wrong product, or never sent you what you ordered, and now the company won’t make it right. It could be a business which sold you a defective product, but won’t make it right. It could be a landlord who won’t return your security deposit, even though you deserve it back. It could be a gym or other month-to-month membership business which keeps charging your credit card even after you cancel the membership. It could be a contractor who took your money, but never finished the job. It seems like the business always has your money, so it has all the power to do nothing and be a jerk. What can you do to remedy the situation?
If you’re reading this article, you’ve already tried the most obvious solution — contacting the business and asking them to fix the problem — and it hasn’t worked. Even though it may seem pointless, your best move is often to contact the business at least one more time. The trick is, no matter how you contacted them before, this time you contact them in writing. You’re going to want hard evidence of your efforts to get them to fix the problem — and their refusal to do so. Any prior evidence of contact, such as emails, letters, or even your handwritten notes of phone calls, should be saved immediately. You then send one more email or letter setting out the problem as clearly as you can, summarizing all of your efforts so far to get them to fix the problem, their current refusal to fix anything, and one more polite request to have them fix the problem.
Sometimes, this alone will get someone’s attention. This is especially true if you clearly spell out the remedy you want. Don’t say, “Make this right.” It’s better to say, “Please refund $X,” or “Please send me a return label so I can send this defective/wrong product back and receive a working/correct product,” or “Please confirm in writing you have stopped making unauthorized charges on my credit card and will be refunding me the $X in unauthorized charges mistakenly made to my card already.” Whatever your problem is, spelling out the concrete solution you want can make it easier for a manager to make you happy without having to spend a lot of time figuring out the problem. If it’s a shady business, it may still have a good manager who is too busy to fix all the problems, but may be willing to fix a problem where the solution has been spelled out and is easy. As upset as you are, making it as easy as possible for them to do what you want increases the chances they will actually do it.
This alone may not solve the problem, but it will give you what you need to take the next steps though. Depending on the type of business, most of the time you will have the option of turning to the Better Business Bureau (“BBB”) next. Call the BBB or check their website for specific information about how to file a complaint with them. Generally, this takes the form of you filling out some papers or writing a letter explaining the problem. Having already written the letter or email set out above makes this easy: just cut and paste it. It is also documentation of what has gone wrong and your efforts to fix it so far. This, along with receipts or other papers, will be helpful for this process and any further efforts. Now is a good time to make sure you have your side of the story gathered and ready to tell. The BBB will then evaluate your complaint. It may then contact the company to get their side of the story, and to ask for a remedy if they agree the company owes you something. The BBB has no legal power to force a company to treat you right, but their ratings can mean something to companies. Or, sometimes a letter from the BBB will wake up an otherwise lazy manager or get the owner’s attention. Then, maybe the problem gets fixed.
If the BBB declines to help you, or, more likely, their request to the business falls on deaf ears, it’s time to start thinking about your legal options. If you have an expensive problem, like a defective vehicle or fraud in the sale of a vehicle or home, this could be the time to contact a consumer rights attorney about helping you take the next steps. Most problems don’t require this, depending on the amount of money at stake. All states have a great public service option known as small claims court, which is designed to help resolve less expensive disputes. The maximum amount you can dispute in small claims court varies from state to state, ranging from $2,500 to $25,000. Nolo.com provides a chart of the amounts for each of the 50 states, which you can check here. Look up your state and see if your dispute exceeds the amount listed. If it does, you’re probably better off consulting with a lawyer about what to do next before tackling regular court. (Some states, like California, have great consumer protection laws which make it possible for the attorneys to get paid out of the lawsuit instead of charging you to fight the battle, so it can be easier to find a lawyer than you may think.) But, if your dispute falls within the amount listed, you have the option of just going to smalls claims court — and you have a lot more power than you probably realized.
What is small claims court? There is a lot of variation from state to state. All states provide some option though, and this is usually more like watching a judge show on TV than like “real” court. The judge is often not actually a judge in the legal sense of the word, and sometimes not even a real lawyer. This is because small claims court is not supposed to require all the knowledge and expertise of an unlimited jurisdiction court. It’s supposed to be a place where the average person can go with smaller disputes to have a fair, impartial person who knows the law resolve the problem (and even in situations where the judge isn’t a lawyer, a small claims court judge will know the laws relevant to almost all consumer disputes). This is a court designed especially to help you out with the very type of business fraud problem you’re facing.
So how do you file your claim with small claims court? Surprisingly, this may not be what you want to do next. Some courts won’t even allow you to file with them right away, but insist you do something else first. Whether the court requires it or not, it can be extremely effective to try these steps next:
1. Find your local small claims court website or instructions. (Most of the time you go to the small claims court closes to you geographically, regardless of where the business is. If there is an exception to this rule, let the business point it out if they’re smart enough and bother to make that argument. It’s not usually worth trying to figure this out on your own when, in most cases, you can file in your own local small claims court if you want.)
2. Fill out the complaint/dispute paperwork as if you are going to file a claim with the court. While it can be helpful to try to research which laws have been broken to put in the complaint, stating what you think has been done wrong or illegally is enough. You don’t have to know the exact law to get relief. All states have some form of unfair business practices laws on the books which will cover general consumer complaints and issues. The facts are the most important information you can provide.
3. Make a copy of the completed paperwork. Write a cover letter to the business notifying them you are giving them one, final chance to make this situation right, or else you will file the enclosed paperwork with the small claims court. Again, providing a specific, concrete solution may make it easier for them to give you what you want. The business won’t want to guess and pay you $1000 to stop the lawsuit only to find out you really wanted $1500 and they still have to go to small claims court over the remaining $500. Instead, they will pay you nothing. But if they know you only want $1000, and that is the dollar amount that will stop this headache, they can more readily decide if that’s worth it to them. Also, you will likely want to clearly state you believe you are owed more, but are willing to “settle” the dispute for this smaller, compromise amount (or action) now. If you have to move forward with the complaint, you will be seeking more. Not only does this keep the door open for you to ask for whatever amount ends up making sense in the small claims court (which could be more than you are asking for in the letter), but it gives the business an incentive to pay you now to avoid the potentially higher amount it could owe down the road in court. Finally, include a time limit for a response in the letter. If you send it on Monday, tell them you want a response by the following Monday, or maybe 10 days from the mailing of the letter. A firm deadline not only helps motivate them to pay attention, but it lets you know when you’ve been officially ignored if they choose not to respond. Otherwise, they could claim they were “just about” to send you a response after you file the lawsuit, making you look like you were too impatient, even though they never had any such intention. A deadline helps lock everyone in to being more honest about providing respectful, reasonable communications.
4. Once the letter is written and your complaint is copied to enclose with it, mail the letter to the business using certified mail, return-receipt requested. This does two things. One, it sends a message to the business that you are serious. Certified mail is generally reserved for proving mailing in court. Two, it does provide proof in small claims court that you gave this business every chance you could to make this right before resorting to using the court system. This makes you look reasonable and fair. You will only have a short amount of time to make an impression on the small claims court judge, who will be evaluating who seems to be telling the truth and who is being shady in the small window of time you are before the judge. Having paperwork showing your reasonableness can go a long way towards establishing you as the credible person if this gets to court.
If you get a response to this letter package, what you do next will depend on that response. Many businesses will take this action seriously, and may engage in a negotiation to resolve the dispute. If so, make sure you document of these negotiations. If the business does now finally agree to do something which resolves the dispute enough to make you happy (often, this will involve some compromise, but a bird in the hand can be better than an unknown small claims court lawsuit lurking in the bushes down the road), then celebrate. You exerted some control and achieved some justice!
If the business still ignores you, or won’t negotiate a reasonable solution, then you follow the steps from the small claims court to file the complaint. (If the court will let you, it can be helpful to include all supporting documents with the complaint, like receipts or your letters or emails, helping establish the story and the problem. This sets the stage and gives the busy court your side of the story before you even get there.) Sometimes, filing the complaint just means filing it with the court and re-sending the filed version by certified mail. Other times, you may need to file it with the small claims court and pay a company or the sheriff’s department (the small claims court should have these instructions) to officially “serve” the papers on the business. The fee for this varies, but will probably be in the $50-$100 range. This can be a pain if you’re only seeking $200, although you can often then ask the business to pay you back this amount too — assuming you win the lawsuit. You can also check the small claims court site or call them to see if they have options if this is too much money for you pay now. Sometimes there are options available for people who can prove they are in a tight financial situation. In addition, for a big business, this may mean figuring out where their official place of service is in your state. Your state’s Secretary of State is usually where corporate information like that is located. A check of their website or a call to the Secretary of State office can provide this information. If you are already having to pay a company to help you serve, part of their services may include helping you locate this information, which the law requires companies to have publicly available.
Once the complaint is served, follow the court’s instructions about what to do next. The court will walk you through the basics. Generally, this just means the court will set a hearing date, anywhere from a few weeks to a few months down the road, although there may be a request for additional paperwork.
As a word of caution, if the business has any complaints about what you have done, or could be seeking money from you, it can now file a cross-complaint with the court asking you for money. It might let this other problem go if you don’t sue, but once you sue, it may feel the need to press real — or even spiteful, imaginary — claims against you in the same suit to try to defend itself. Be aware this is a risk of pressing the issue to this level. If the business’s claims against you really have no merit, most judges will see right through this tactic, but not all judges. If the claims might have some merit, be ready to explain why they don’t matter, or why you still deserve some money after all the claims are resolved. If the business’s claims against you have some merit and are more expensive than your claims against them, you may want to avoid filing a suit at all. Once the lawsuit is filed, even if you drop your part, the business can continue to sue you for their part and you have no choice but to defend yourself in small claims court. For example, if you owe your landlord $3,000 in unpaid back rent, even though the landlord is illegally refusing to give you back your $600 security deposit, you may want to just walk away. If you sue for the $600 security deposit, even with laws giving you treble damages for wrongful withholding (some states do not allow landlords to use security deposits to cover unpaid rent, but must still return that amount, and give you 3 times the value of the deposit if the landlord breaks this law), you only get $1800 — and that’s only if you win. The landlord will probably counterclaim for the $3000, and you end up out $1200. Even if you drop your part of the suit for the security deposit, the landlord can keep going for the unpaid rent. If the landlord sued you first, you can be the one to counterclaim for the security deposit money. But if the landlord has decided to just write off the matter, it can be best to not disturb the hornets’ nest and just walk away.
If you did go forward with a complaint in small claims court and have a hearing date, on that date, dress as formally as you can. If you have a suit, wear it. If you don’t have a suit, where whatever you have that looks professional. Dress pants are far preferable to jeans, and t-shirts should be avoided at all cost. If necessary, Goodwill should have dress shirts available for $2-8 and it’s worth it to get one to make you look professional. Fair or unfair, looking professional will make the judge take you more seriously. Then you take all your paperwork and documentation you were organizing and keeping if you followed all the steps up above, and go to the court. Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes early, preferably 45 minutes. Parking around public buildings can be tricky. Sometimes finding the right room can take time. Many public buildings which house courts of any kind now have security and there can be security lines. Even when you get to the room, there may be check-in procedures which take time, or you may need to search out a bathroom two floors above you. There are many ways you will lose time, but it is important to not be late for your hearing. Even a great case can be accidentally destroyed if the judge thinks you don’t care or aren’t a responsible person because you weren’t there on time.
There is always a chance the business won’t even show up. This can be for many reasons. If the business doesn’t show, the judge will probably still want you to explain the problem before deciding what to do. If the business shows up, most states require a business person to show up for them — they can’t send a lawyer on their behalf. They can in a real court, but small claims court doesn’t allow either side to hire a lawyer in most jurisdictions. It will be you and another human from the business. The judge will walk you through what he or she wants to hear from both sides, often like the judge shows on TV.
The judge may issue a decision on the spot, or the judge may tell you he or she will consider the dispute and give your a ruling soon. In that case, you will receive a written ruling from the court about its decision either by a date set by the judge, or whenever the court sends you something. Hopefully, this will be soon after the hearing, but it may depend on the court’s caseload. If a few weeks go by and you haven’t heard anything, it is considered acceptable to call the court and ask if a ruling has been issued yet (maybe it got lost in the mail). If one hasn’t been, sometimes a gentle reminder call will motivate a busy court to get to that file next. With luck (and good documentation), you will get a ruling in your favor, and justice will be served.
At a minimum, taking any or all of these steps will give you back some of the power you lost when you paid money to a business that didn’t treat you fairly. You don’t have to let the bullies win all the time. David won against Goliath, and you can too.