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suing unpaid clients in small claims court
Old 17th February 2017
  #1
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Thread Starter
suing unpaid clients in small claims court

I recently did FX work with a supervising sound editor and now the payment is well past its due date I have yet to received anything.
He's ignoring and dodging my phone call and email and text, a friend of mine says I can take him to small claims court to get my money.

I normally would just let it go and let all my sound friends know and move on, but the fact that a fellow sound person ripping me off is pissing me off enough that I am seriously consider suing.

Has anyone have any luck getting their money through small claims court?

Last edited by dingo90; 17th February 2017 at 10:57 AM..
Old 17th February 2017
  #2
Gear Maniac
 

Small claims court does work. The drawback is, depending on jurisdiction, it can sometimes take months before you actually appear in court. There's also a small filing fee. And you will, of course, need to prove your case in court. Do you have a contract? And, if yes, is their proof that you did the work required under the contract entitling you to payment?

Also, do you have any attorney friends who would be willing to write a letter to the editor threatening to take him to court? Letters like that sometimes make people cough up once they realize you aren't just going to go away.
Old 17th February 2017
  #3
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bgood's Avatar
Can u send an invoice attached to a letter describing how this turd screwed you to every producer listed on the project?
Old 17th February 2017
  #4
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@dcoughlan
I don't have a formal contract since he was referred to me by a friend of mine and I let my guard dropped, but I do have email chain where he layout the payment and work needed and from my research, that's as good as verbal contract which will hold up in small claims. The email chain also shows he acknowledging successfully downloading my FX session and accepting my work.


@bgood
I was hired by him for FX only so I never have any contact with the production company and since the movie's not on IMDB, I can't find the production company info.

my friend did inform me that I can go through the producer's guild and find that info so I"ll have to do some digging.


Edit: find out from imdb a friend worked with him in the past and my friend told me he did the exact same thing to him. now I am more pissed then ever.
Old 17th February 2017
  #5
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Thomas W. Bethe's Avatar
At least in Ohio winning a small claims decision in your favor is not the same as getting paid. It is up to the person who lost how or when he/she wants to pay you so he/she could decided to pay you at the rate of $1.00 a month until the claim is settled. Been there, done that.

No written contact...probably best to learn from this and move on.

As another person has stated if you can find a "friendly lawyer" they maybe able to write a legally threatening letter, which in most cases, will be enough prompting for the person to pay you.

Best of luck!
Old 17th February 2017
  #6
Have an attorney immediately send a letter to all the producers, exec producers, associate producers, stating that you have not been paid and therefore your work product is still wholly owned by you, all rights and usage are wholly owned and maintained by you, and the film is NOT authorized to utilize your work product. You work product may not be used, duplicated, distributed, in any form without your written approval. Additionally tell them you will be on contact with the film agents ( if any), distributors , and other forums of playback and distribution to inform then that the film product does not have all legal rights for the materials within and they they are violating US and International Copyright laws.... etc etc... this should get you immediate attention.

cheers
geo
Old 17th February 2017
  #7
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bgood's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by dingo90 View Post
@dcoughlan
I don't have a formal contract since he was referred to me by a friend of mine and I let my guard dropped, but I do have email chain where he layout the payment and work needed and from my research, that's as good as verbal contract which will hold up in small claims. The email chain also shows he acknowledging successfully downloading my FX session and accepting my work.


@bgood
I was hired by him for FX only so I never have any contact with the production company and since the movie's not on IMDB, I can't find the production company info.

my friend did inform me that I can go through the producer's guild and find that info so I"ll have to do some digging.


Edit: find out from imdb a friend worked with him in the past and my friend told me he did the exact same thing to him. now I am more pissed then ever.
What a d-bag... Sorry, man.

Are u getting a credit?
Old 17th February 2017
  #8
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+1 Georgia's advice; it's the one I've found works best. Often, just threatening to have that letter sent gets results. But unless you're very sure of your own skills here, have a lawyer write it... slander and interfering with contracts may both be actionable on the producer's part, and sending a nasty letter can bite you in more ways than one.

This assumes, of course, you have a deal memo or they accepted a proposal where you keep ownership until paid. Otherwise it's up to your state's laws... again, see a lawyer. [Don't let the producer claim 'work for hire' on you: it doesn't take a lawyer for you to research IRS rulings on that category, which is very specifically defined. Most of what we do is not automatically work-for-hire.]

Small claims doesn't need a lawyer. If you're well spoken and well documented, you can win by yourself. But payment is another story: make sure the entity that you're suing actually has assets. Production companies can be shells, created just to limit the producers' liability.
Old 17th February 2017
  #9
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by georgia View Post
Have an attorney immediately send a letter
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay Rose View Post
have a lawyer write it
This. OP, if you're going to send any kind of written correspondence to anyone beyond the producer, please have an attorney draft it for you.
Old 17th February 2017
  #10
Hard to prove.... your word against theirs even with a contract. Best thing is to tell your sound friends.
Old 17th February 2017
  #11
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Thread Starter
@georgia, great idea, I look into this.
@jayrose, great advice, thanks!
@bgood, at this point, I don't care either way, don't want to be associate it with him.
@crescentmoon, if he claims he already paid me, then all he has to do is produce the cashed check from his bank.
Old 17th February 2017
  #12
Gear Head
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by dingo90 View Post
@georgia, great idea, I look into this.
@jayrose, great advice, thanks!
@bgood, at this point, I don't care either way, don't want to be associate it with him.
@crescentmoon, if he claims he already paid me, then all he has to do is produce the cashed check from his bank.
Georgia's path is on the money, but following it would depend on what I'm owed. You don't want to spend 2500 on an attorney to claim 1000 payment. Sorry if I am stating the obvious to you.
Old 17th February 2017
  #13
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Farmboy presents's Avatar
In New Zealand the email path would be enough to prove a contract of sorts and the small claims court system does work. Takes time though. I found it satisfying to win in my case and have the judge tell the other guy off and explain to them the consequences of continuing their bizzare life choices. In this case he was a synth repair man who would not repair them nor would he give them back. He had many stories until he just stopped answering the phone or emails. Took 3 years to resolve with maybe the last 6 months involving the small claims court.
Old 18th February 2017
  #14
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bgood's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by crescentmoon View Post
Hard to prove.... your word against theirs even with a contract. Best thing is to tell your sound friends.
I don't think you read the OP very closely....

Are you saying that even with a contract it's not that important that one gets paid? This is weird to me
Old 18th February 2017
  #15
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IANAL, but as far as I know a signed written contract trumps 'your word against theirs' every time. That's what contracts are for.
Old 18th February 2017
  #16
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Ive won a small claims case (dude didnt show up). Did it all myself. Hard part is collecting if you win. Did a wage garnishment after i found out his employer-owe that to social media! Handful of paperwork but doable.
Old 18th February 2017
  #17
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Wyllys's Avatar
 

I had to do SCC once. Filing fee at the time as $6.00, but for an extra $10.00 a uniformed State Trooper would hand deliver the summons to the offender. I just followed the trooper and he paid on the spot...no court at all.

Best $16.00 I ever spent.
Old 18th February 2017
  #18
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Thread Starter
Quote:
Originally Posted by Wyllys View Post
I had to do SCC once. Filing fee at the time as $6.00, but for an extra $10.00 a uniformed State Trooper would hand deliver the summons to the offender. I just followed the trooper and he paid on the spot...no court at all.

Best $16.00 I ever spent.
Thanks Wyllys, I'll try that if my final collection/threaten certified letter doesn't do the trick.

but honestly, if he makes me go through with it, I am going to suing for more than the owe amount for time I took to file the paper and all fee associate with it.
Old 18th February 2017
  #19
He could say he paid you in cash....
Old 18th February 2017
  #20
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by dingo90 View Post
Thanks Wyllys, I'll try that if my final collection/threaten certified letter doesn't do the trick.

but honestly, if he makes me go through with it, I am going to suing for more than the owe amount for time I took to file the paper and all fee associate with it.
FYI, you are generally limited to recovering the amount owed under the contract. If you win, you should be awarded fees (filing, service if necessary) in addition to this amount, but you will not be able to collect compensation for your time.
Old 18th February 2017
  #21
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charles maynes's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by georgia View Post
Have an attorney immediately send a letter to all the producers, exec producers, associate producers, stating that you have not been paid and therefore your work product is still wholly owned by you, all rights and usage are wholly owned and maintained by you, and the film is NOT authorized to utilize your work product. You work product may not be used, duplicated, distributed, in any form without your written approval. Additionally tell them you will be on contact with the film agents ( if any), distributors , and other forums of playback and distribution to inform then that the film product does not have all legal rights for the materials within and they they are violating US and International Copyright laws.... etc etc... this should get you immediate attention.

cheers
geo
yeah....

what Georgia said will definitely get the right sort of attention for you. Brilliant advice here.
Old 18th February 2017
  #22
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Brent Hahn's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay Rose View Post
Small claims doesn't need a lawyer.
In California, it's not even an option. Strictly DIY.

Quote:
make sure the entity that you're suing actually has assets. Production companies can be shells, created just to limit the producers' liability.
Not only that -- make sure you're suing the right entity. If a production company hired you on behalf of another production company, and that first production company is actually a sole proprietorship (just a guy, in other words) things can get murky. You want to have this clear in the deal memo you didn't do, which is why you're suing.

Something else -- before you decide to go through with suing someone, go spend a morning in a small claims courtroom and get a feel for how it all goes down. If nothing else, it's a few hours of free if very slow-paced entertainment.
Old 18th February 2017
  #23
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In California, [using a lawyer to pursue small claims] is not even an option. Strictly DIY


But unless you've got skills and experience with the legal stuff, it's still worthwhile to talk to a lawyer before you file, or before you send any letters to third parties (like the producers' clients). At the very least, do a lot of research at places like nolo.com... Gearslutz, while a wonderful meeting place for audio engineers, is not the best source for legal advice.

Also be aware: in some states a small claims defendant CAN use a lawyer in court, even though you as plaintiff can't. So if the producer is actually pissed off at you enough to do damage, and has assets to bring an attorney (or has traded producing a TV spot with a law firm), you could be screwed.
Old 19th February 2017
  #24
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Thomas W. Bethe's Avatar
Again in Ohio I cost me over $60.00 in legal filing fees. I won the small claims judgement (the other party did not show up) and I had all the information and documentation that was needed for me to be declared the winner. I got the judge's ruling on paper but that was as far as it goes. I had to serve the papers myself with no support from the court. I contacted the police in the town where the person lived and I drove over and the police came with me to serve the notice but when we got to the house it was vacant and the person, who we were serving, had moved to the Southwest a week before. I had a judgement for $1800 and no way to get the money. I contacted a company that provides money collection services throughout the US and they wanted 60% of the money collected and did not guarantee results. I finally wrote off the amount as noncollectable debt. Winning a small claims judgement, at least in Ohio, is not really something that means anything. I suggest the OP find out all he can about what a small claims judgement means in his state before he files. I like Georgia's idea the best. FWIW.

Last edited by Thomas W. Bethe; 20th February 2017 at 12:10 PM.. Reason: Spelling
Old 20th February 2017
  #25
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Henchman's Avatar
Also, if you win, and they don't pay, it's a tax deduction on your taxes at the end of the year.
Old 20th February 2017
  #26
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soundboy's Avatar
I recently had to deal with this, for the first time. I did not go to court, but threatened to. I also let them know that until they paid, they would not legally own the work I did in the project. I think what convinced them was that I also threatened to send a letter to all of the film festivals they were submitting to, saying they did not have the legal right to use the existing sound track in the film because they hadn't paid for it.
Old 20th February 2017
  #27
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celticrogues's Avatar
 

One studio I work out of includes this text at the bottom of all of their invoices:

"Title to all materials is to remain in our name until invoice is paid in full"

I think this is a good idea to cover you in the future.

-Mike
Old 20th February 2017
  #28
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Brent Hahn's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Henchman View Post
Also, if you win, and they don't pay, it's a tax deduction on your taxes at the end of the year.
Kinda sorta, but not really.

If you do your accounting on an accrual basis, you'll enter income into your books as soon as it's earned, not when it's collected. Most people and businesses don't do this.

On the other hand if you run your books on a cash basis, you only record income when the cash is actually in hand. This is what most folks do.

Example: You're operating on an accrual basis and you invoice someone but they don't pay you. That income still goes on your books and you pay taxes on it. If you decide that the deadbeat is never going to pay you, you can write off the bad debt in that year or a later one, but only up to an amount equalling the income you put on your books but never actually received. A wash, in other words.

But can you operate on a cash basis -- the usual m.o. -- and write off bad debt? No.

Last edited by Brent Hahn; 21st February 2017 at 06:21 PM.. Reason: precision of language
Old 21st February 2017
  #29
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+1 Brent. AFAIK, a cash business can also deduct out-of-pocket costs of pursuing a bad debt (filing fees, notaries, constables to serve, etc), even if the money never gets collected.

If you're running a business, sit down with an accountant at least a couple of times. You'll learn a lot.
Old 21st February 2017
  #30
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Brent Hahn's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jay Rose View Post
+1 Brent. AFAIK, a cash business can also deduct out-of-pocket costs of pursuing a bad debt (filing fees, notaries, constables to serve, etc), even if the money never gets collected.
Of course. You can expense that stuff whether you collect or not, and regardless of how you keep your books.
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