The eager client. The persistent client. The difficult client. The know-it-all client. The cooperative client. There are countless types of clients an entrepreneur will encounter in his or her lifetime. But perhaps the most abhorrent client of all is the client who doesn’t pay when the bill becomes due -- not to mention circumventing calls and not responding to emails. Unfortunately, these types of clients are almost unavoidable. So what legal options do you have to collect on a past due bill? One is to sue.
Small claims court is an inexpensive legal resource that entrepreneurs could take advantage of more often. Small claims court is a state court that resolves disputes involving relatively small amounts of money. A small claims judgment has the same effect as does the judgment of any other state court, meaning that if the client loses the case and fails to pay the judgment voluntarily, normal collection techniques, such as property liens and wage garnishments, can be adopted.
Not requiring a lawyer. Many entrepreneurs are under the faulty assumption that they must hire an attorney to represent them in small claims court. Yet most small claims courts encourage self-representation. So if the ghastly costs usually associated with attorney fees have deterred you from filing a lawsuit thus far, don’t let that be the case any longer.
A few states, such as California, bar individuals from being represented by an attorney in small claims court. In California, representatives who are not attorneys such as staffers at debt collection agencies or insurance companies cannot represent a person in that court.
Specifying recovery terms. Every small claims court places a limit on the amount a plaintiff can sue for.
A few states, though, have set the recovery limits quite low ($2,500 for Kentucky and Rhode Island).
Some states permit plaintiffs to sue for higher recovery amounts such as the following: $25,000 in Tennessee and $15,000 Delaware, Georgia and North Dakota.
If your client owes you more than you are permitted to sue for in your state you can still sue in small claims court but you give up the right to collect the amount over the state limit. If your client owes you $10,000, say, and you sue in small claims court in Kentucky, where the limit is $2,500, you will only be able to recover $2,500.
Most small claims courts also place a limit on the number of suits you can file per year. In Missouri you can file no more than 12 claims in small claims court in a calendar year. Therefore, if you have several unpaid invoices, you would be wise to file claims for the ones with the highest amounts before exhausting your lawsuit limit for the year.
Filing the initial lawsuit and undergoing the trial process may be the easiest part of the small claims court process. Julie Phillippi-Whitney, owner of the Phillippi-Whitney Communications public relations firm in Cincinnati, once sued one of her clients for an unpaid bill of $5,000. While she represented herself and was victorious, the most cumbersome component of the process was that she was solely responsible for collecting the money owed. With the assistance of court clerks and bailiffs, Phillippi-Whitney exhausted all her collections options. After unsuccessfully attempting to garner her client’s wages and place a lien on his house, she finally threatened to send the bailiff to his house -- which finally scared him into paying.
If you do prevail in a small claims lawsuit, be prepared to undertake the collections process yourself.
Entrepreneurs hoping to avoid suing clients should be sure to have their clients sign an agreement before beginning work, delineating all the fees and the cost structure. Also consider using late or penalty fees. After Phillippi-Whitney’s experience with her delinquent client, she now invoices bimonthly at the middle and end of the month (as opposed to monthly), an arrangement she finds beneficial.