It has been longer than 10 years since I wrote a column about suing a client (as opposed to being sued by a client—a subject for a future column). But a recent incident in which I found it necessary to take a client to court to get paid should provide readers some food for thought.
I thought I had seen and read it all when it comes to the arrogance of non-paying clients—no, I won’t use the expression "dead beat"—until recently when I had to deal with a refusenik who not only didn’t want to pay a lawful bill (which was actually less than I should have billed) but also vilified and insulted me by writing the most unprofessional letter that I have ever received. I hesitate to include any of it in this column, but the correspondence I received from the client was so vile that I would be doing a disservice to our profession if I did not alert other consulting engineers to what can happen if you are not careful, or even if you are careful.
The three times in my career that I went to small claims court did not involve private businesses controlling significant assets, but a law firm, another engineering firm, and a healthcare professional.
My first-ever application for payment involved a law firm (believe it or not), which refused to pay a relatively small amount in the $1,000 range. I had to sue in small claims court in a neighboring county. I presented my case in just a few minutes; the defendant firm had a staff lawyer appear in court who did not speak. After hearing my side of the story, the judge suggested that I sit down with the lawyer to see if we could mediate our differences. We met for 15 or 20 minutes in the courthouse, but I refused to budge. The lawyer offered about half of what I was asking for. I decided that I wanted all that was due me, and the judge finally awarded the full amount.
There is an interesting twist to this outcome. Although I had been paid for some of my time, which was not in dispute, I had failed to make a photocopy of the check I had received earlier. Bad mistake! If you come away with anything useful after reading this column, it should be the conviction that whenever you work for a new client, always make a photocopy of that first check. Why? Because when I tried to collect the thousand or so dollars awarded to me, the law firm wouldn’t pay.
I learned from this experience that when lawyers don’t want to pay a bill, they tend to ignore, not only you, but also the small claims court judge. What you can do is place a lien on the your antagonist’s bank account. But, if you don’t have a copy of a check, you have no way of knowing where to go for your money.
I ended up putting a lien against the law firm’s office furniture—so help me, this is a true story—and a court officer went there each month for a partial check. I finally received payment in full, but it was a pain in the neck for everyone concerned.
The second time I went to small claims court the judge again ordered me to sit down with the defendant (an engineer) and try to work something out. The defendant offered to pay half (which was about $500). I was busy at the time, didn’t need the hassle, and decided that a bird in the hand is worth a grand in the bush. The engineer was more honorable than the lawyer in the earlier case and—if I remember correctly—handed me a check for the amount right in the courthouse. Based on my experience with the time it took to collect in the first case, I thought it prudent to accept his offer.
My third date in small claims court involved a medical professional who refused to pay the full amount of my final bill, but offered to pay about 25 percent of it. In a letter to me, I was accused of "playing a weak hand with bravado." My efforts to get paid were called "bluffing" and I was told "you have been hanging out with the wrong crowd and in doing so learned some of the more nefarious aspects of the legal profession." The two-page, 837-word tirade ended with, "You are not very adept at playing the role of a crook," and "the not-so-kind insulting remarks that I have directed at you are also on tap for the two attorneys who hired you." (Two of them had been fired before the end of the case.)
I was amazed that a professional of such a high order would be so callous as to bestow such vitriol on me! Again, we met in small claims court and had a mediator for company. I settled for about half of what was due me because I could not take even another minute in the company of my non-paying client.
There may not be much useful in the material above except to advise engineers to photocopy all checks, be careful about who you accept as a client, and make inquiries into the character of those you work for. You should also be prepared to fight for what is due you—at least once in a while.
Readers’ comments and personal experiences are welcome. If there are enough suitable responses concerning this subject, I’ll write a follow-up column based on the material.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 201-441-9719; or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.