Newfound Faith in the Court System

Last year when I left my contract job to go work for the Clark campaign, I terminated a subcontractor agreement with the company I was working for. The company somehow decided that this would be a good opportunity to try and screw me over. They put a “stop payment” order on the last check they’d issued me and failed to pay my last invoice. The amount they owed me was in the neighborhood of $4000, too much money for me to roll over and ignore.

After 8 months of trying to collect on these invoices, with excuse after excuse given but no sign of a check being issued I filed a Small Claims Court lawsuit against my former employer in the County of New York. The court date was set for 6:10 PM on August 12, 2004 — two days ago. The filing fee was a mere $20. I showed up for court last Thursday fully expecting my former employer to be there to contest my claims, but there was no sign of them. When a defendant in a lawsuit of this kind fails to show, the case automatically goes to an arbitrator, typically a lawyer who is volunteering their time to handle excess cases so the judges can focus on the cases where both parties in the lawsuit are present.

After waiting for about an hour I went into a small room to talk with the arbitrator and show him my evidence: the check with the “stop payment” stamped on it, my bank records indicating a history of the employer paying me, a copy of the subscontractor agreement, printed email correspondence with the employer indicating that they promised to pay me earlier this year and copies of the invoices had I emailed, mailed (certified mail) and FAX’ed. After about 5 minutes of looking at my evidence, the arbitrator filled out some paperwork and said I would be notified by mail of the judgment. One thing to note is that an arbitrator’s judgment is final and cannot be appealed.

And sure enough today I received a letter from the Civil Court of New York saying that the arbitrator had ruled in my favor for the entire amount I was suing for, plus accrued interest and a repayment of the $20 filing fee.

The next step is for me to contact the former employer and arrange for payment of the judgment. If they fail to pay after 30 days, I then have to go to the Sheriff or one of the City Marshals with information about the employer’s assets so that they can sieze those assets. Hopefully it won’t get to that point, but I will do whatever it takes to be paid what I am owed.

One final note about this whole process. While I was waiting for my case to be seen by an arbitrator, some guy started yelling at two other guys in the waiting room calling him an asshole and something about their falafels putting him in the hospital. This guy was pretty upset but he was creating such a scene that the court bailiffs had to physically separate these two parties. It made me realize thatI did the right thing by keeping all of my correspondence with my former employer civil, restrained and polite. I never once got upset and even went to meet with them when I arrived back into New York back in March before I went to D.C. for the summer. It would have done me no good to get angry, since this was purely a matter of not being paid for the work I performed.

The process for filing a lawsuit was fairly painless. The drawback is that you have to appear in person for your case to be heard. For me, this meant that I had to fly back to NYC from Portland where I am relocating. In the long run, filing a lawsuit was worth it because of the amount that was owed me. Had it been for only $1000 or less, I would have written it off as a loss.

This was a great learning experience for me and I encourage everyone to go through this process at least once to understand how it works.

Posted by Cameron Barrett at August 14, 2004 02:42 PM

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