By Juliana Timko Tindall – Associate
Understanding the Process of Suing for Unpaid Fees for Services Rendered
For the sake of making things easy, let’s say you are the owner of a landscaping company and someone hires you to do work around their house.
You are obviously a sophisticated business owner, so you put your scope of work in writing, and have your customer sign your quote. Furthermore, you wisely included language in your written quote that requires your customer to pay you for your services when the work is completed.
However, after the landscaping is complete and you’ve sent several invoices, your customer either ignores the invoices or informs you they do not intend to pay any or all of the bill. This injustice cannot stand, but what’s your next step?
A Few Options to Recover Unpaid Fees for Services Rendered
You have a number of options at your disposal.
- You can send another strongly worded letter to the customer,
- or if you are within the statutory time frame to file a mechanic’s lien, (60 days from the last day of work on residential projects, and 75 days for commercial), you can lien the property.
- Or you can cut right to the chase and file a lawsuit.
If the amount is less than $6,000 you may want to consider filing your case in small claims court.
If you are operating a business, or if your claim is in excess of $6,000 you should seek out a lawyer to make sure the process moves along smoothly. Once you obtain a judgment, your attorney will also be able to facilitate the collection of your fees.
The Litigation Process
Filing a Complaint
A lawsuit starts when your attorney files a complaint with the court typically in the jurisdiction where the services were provided. The complaint will detail the amount owed and the services provided. A copy of the contract the customer signed and any other written evidence should be attached to the complaint in support of your claim.
Of course, breach of oral contracts are actionable, but they require more evidence than written contracts and can end up in more complicated litigation, so having a written contract even for the smallest of services is smart.
The clerk of courts will then send a copy of the complaint and summons to the customer. The delivery of a complaint and summons to a defendant is referred to as “service”, or what is colloquially known as “being served.”
The Case Management Conference
Once the customer is served with the complaint, the court will set a date for a case management conference or hearing.
At the case management conference the parties will discuss the issues of the case, and the court will set a case management schedule governing the amount of time the parties have to conduct discovery, file dispositive motions, and when the trial will take place.
The trial is where the case will be heard on its merits.
This hearing will take place at the courthouse where the complaint was filed. At that hearing, each side will have the opportunity to present or refute evidence pertaining to the claims in the lawsuit. If the case is tried to the judge, once the hearing is over, the judge will take the case under advisement and make his or her decision by issuing a written decision. If the case is tried to a jury, at the end of the litigants’ presentations the jury will immediately deliberate and issue a verdict.
Appealing the Decision
Once a decision is entered, either by judge or jury, both sides will have the opportunity to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals.
Back to our landscaping example, if you receive a decision or verdict in your favor ordering your customer to pay you for your services, that is referred to as a judgment, and you are now a judgment creditor, and your customer is judgment debtor.
Collecting Your Judgment
The next step is collecting on your judgment.
There are a number of tools at your disposal to collect from your judgment debtor, e.g. garnishments, levies, execution on real property, the filing of judgment liens. Sometimes the best tool you can use to collect is the filing of an “Aid in Execution” or what is commonly referred to as a debtor’s exam.
When you file for a debtor’s exam, your customer/judgment debtor will be served by the clerk of courts with a summons to appear to be examined about their assets.
At the debtor’s exam, your attorney will interview him or her to determine what assets, monies, etc. the customer has, and so they may execute on them and apply the proceeds towards your unpaid judgment.
The debtor’s exam is taken under oath and can be repeated every 120 days, as needed. If the debtor refuses to appear, they can be held in contempt of court, and in extreme cases, a bench warrant can be issued for their arrest.
Retaining Expert Legal Counsel
This is a very basic outline of the litigation process. Everyone’s case is unique, so this outline may not be applicable to your situation.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have not been paid for services rendered, I encourage you to reach out to your attorney as soon as possible so they can develop the best plan to address your needs.
The information presented in this post is not legal advice and does not form a lawyer/client relationship. Laws and circumstances can differ and change.
Please contact us for a personal review of your situation