Part Two: Big Debt, Small Claims
After 90 days of absolutely no communication with Mr. Wilson, the board of my previous employer decided to sue him. In Civil Court a company can bring a suit against a private individual for amounts up to $25,000. However, lawyers must be hired which significantly raises the upfront costs. While the contract Mr. Wilson signed did stipulate he would be held liable for all legal fees resulting from non-payment, the large, up-front expenditures necessitated answering one very fundamental question: Was it worth it?
Lawyers are expensive, and their fees would quickly eclipse the amount of money Mr. Wilson owed us. So winning would mean what? A moral, but expensive victory for contract law? Could Mr. Wilson even pay? Suppose we did successfully sue him in Civil Court, then what? Did he own property to put a lien on? We doubted he possessed any assets to seize. Still believing in the court system and its ability to right a wrong, the company's board opted for another, cheaper option: Small Claims Court. Unfortunately, Small Claims Court had a $5,000 ceiling, much lower than what Mr. Wilson owed. However, representation was not required which would save on the up-front costs. I believed at the time getting $5,000 from a deadbeat would be preferable to not trying and receiving nothing at all. I remained hopeful.
The Small Claims Court of New York presides in a very large, wood paneled room in Lower Manhattan. For some reason the court staff kept the internal temperature at 65 degrees. Angry New Yorkers -- a lot of them -- filled the room's several rows of long, wooden pews. The judge took the bench and gave everyone in the room two options. One, we could go to binding arbitration and a volunteer arbitrator would hear and decide our case tonight. Two, we could have the court hear the case. Unfortunately, due to the backlog of cases there was no chance our case would be heard that night. This meant I would have to come back daily until our case eventually came up. Looking around, I noticed Mr. Wilson opted to not attend.
In Civil Court the expensive lawyers would find a way to serve Mr. Wilson in person, thereby making sure he was aware of our suit and the court date. In Small Claims Court the rules weren't so strict. The court served two notices, one via certified mail and another via first class mail, to the defendant's address. Quoting from The New York Court's webpage, “If the notice sent by ordinary first class mail is not returned by the post office within 21 days as undeliverable, the defendant is presumed to have received notice of your claim, even if the notice of claim sent by certified mail has not been delivered.” Did Mr. Wilson ever get served? Probably not. If he did, he ignored it. I opted for arbitration.
Not surprisingly the arbitrator found the absent Mr. Wilson in breach of contract, and wrote up a judgement saying he owed my employer $5,000. Noticing the original, signed contract, the arbitrator said, “So, you knocked it down for small claims, eh?” I meekly nodded. “Huh,” he said, never glancing up. I immediately got the impression this happened a lot. We sat in silence, surrounded by more oak paneling and dingy fluorescent lighting, while he finished. Tearing off the top copy and handing it to me, he said, “Getting him to pay will be ...” He stopped short of completing the thought, a look of pity on his face. Will be what I thought? “Well, good bye,” he said, ignoring the unfinished thought. The entire process took an hour.
I now possessed a piece of carbon paper telling the world what I already knew: Mr. Wilson owed money. Now New York State agreed with me, but agreeing with me was all New York State was prepared to do. In movies and television, once the court decides something in a climactic, final scene the show generally ends. Nobody ever films the next step. What does one do with a judgement? So, I Googled it.
A list of judgement collection agencies appeared on my screen, some local and some national. I reached out to two national companies and one local company. The local company called me back first and scheduled a meeting for the next day. I trucked over to 6th Avenue in the July heat for my appointment, judgement in hand, full of hope and optimism this would soon be resolved.
The company's name was something ridiculous like, We Collect Judgements, or, Judgements R Us. They occupied a small office on a large floor, populated with other small companies occupying other small offices. A knockout brunette -- 4” heels, designer clothing, a perfect tan, with hair, makeup, and jewelry fit for the red carpet at the Oscars -- greeted me at reception. Until that moment, I didn't think women like that even existed in real life. She shook my hand and offered to take me back to their office, a tiny 15' x 7' room overlooking the street. On the way she flirtatiously complimented my shirt; I awkwardly thanked her, not comprehending why anyone dressed like her would notice me or my ill-fitting, Macy's off-the-rack pink button-up shirt.
I met the owner, a skinny, Jewish man wearing a yamaka and a crisp, white dress shirt six sizes too big. It billowed voluminously at his belt. Looking at her and then looking at him, it was hard to understand how the two could co-exist in the same room without exploding like anti-matter and matter. Four desks awkwardly fit into the tiny office, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. I sat down and got the pitch, which amounted to a lot of tough talk and a hefty price tag. He wanted half of the $5,000 as a fee. “We'll draw a circle around this guy and nail him,” the owner said at one point. I got the vague impression their methodology wasn't strictly by-the-book.
At one point the owner gestured to the other offices, implicitly implying through not explicitly saying the entire floor belonged to his company. I knew better, this tiny closet and a website was their entire operation. The other offices were other, independent companies. Shared office space like this is common in Manhattan. It then occurred to me Truth in this industry of judgement collection might be open to interpretation. My urge to flee this odd man and his weirdly gorgeous assistant slowly grew. As I got up to leave, she asked to photocopy my judgement -- I'd almost forgotten I brought it given all the pageantry -- and several, painfully awkward moments passed in this tiny little room while she struggled with the fax machine's copy function. I walked back to the office, unsure of what exactly had just transpired. I never heard from them again.
Eventually the national companies I requested quotes from called me back. With one I explained the circumstances, and the rep hung up on me. I sat holding the phone, sure I had heard laughter right before the line went dead. Hours later the other called and, again, I explained the circumstances of the judgement. He let out a long sigh, and told me in thick, mid-western accent, “What you have there is an un-collectable judgement. Even if we do find this Mr. Wilson, which I already looked and there's no record of him at the address you gave, he can just say, â€˜I never received the summons,' before the court which would probably mean the judgement would be thrown out and the case re-tried. You're holding a worthless piece of paper.” I'll never forget that last line, “... a worthless piece of paper.” My efforts and those of my colleagues, from the very beginning to this very moment -- worthless.
I didn't know what to say. After several seconds, the rep did something very kind. “Well,” he said, breaking the silence, “I'll try again and see what I can find. I'll call you back if we get a hit.” He didn't have to say that, but he did and I appreciated the gesture. I thanked him for his time and perspective. He never called back.
Later it occurred to me the arbitrator's meant to say, impossible. Getting him to pay will be impossible. I think the arbitrator didn't want to say what the gentleman from the mid-west told me, even though he knew at the time he had handed me, “... a worthless piece of paper.” Whether by malice or sheer ineptitude, Mr. Wilson would never pay what he owed. No force on Earth had the power to compel him.
Part 3 continues next week. Follow this link for Part 1.