December 22, 2007

Baby I Got My Money!

I've been keeping a little quiet about my exploits in the New York small claims, civil, and county courthouses because I didn't want to jinx myself. And I didn't want my debtor to catch wind of what I was doing to get my money from them, in case randomly somebody were to forward my blog to them.

But now that I've got my money, I can tell the story. As briefly as possible.

I had done some freelance work for a couple of years for a record label, who always kind of seemed sketchy - but as long as they were paying me, I kept working with them. When my monthly payments started to come only three times a year, I didn't mind so much as long as they came. When they stopped coming, I would have to withold services and stop working until they sent a check. Eventually, they stopped caring and didn't need me to work for them anymore. The problem? I was still owed four months' worth of payment.

So after years of trying to be nice and get it directly from them - and even having a friend try on my behalf - I took them to small claims court, and won a judgment against them. The only problem? I still had to get my money.

There are a lot of spammy companies out there who will try to collect your judgment for you, for a hefty percentage, but I was determined to do it myself. Of course, the process is long and arduous, so I actually procrastinated several months before I even started.

There are a bunch of things you can do, but there's really no one resource of information, so you've really got to do your research. I suppose I could have approached it in a variety of ways, but first I sent an information subpoena to the debtor's representative in their Department of State listing. Unfortunately, their rep returned it to me blank saying that they didn't represent the debtor. I tried to hold them in contempt of court, which is totally within my legal rights, but I got caught in a tug-of-war between the small claims clerk and the civil court clerk, each of whom thought the other should handle it. Apparently people don't do this very often. I gave up, even though I wanted to hold every person involved in contempt.

I also sent an information subpoena to the company itself. If you get one of those things in the mail, you have to send it back within seven days under threat of contempt as above, so I could think of nothing better than actually holding my debtor in contempt. Unfortunately, the company had moved and left no forwarding address, so the letter got returned to me. If I didn't even know where they were, how was I going to find them to get my money?

More investigative work resulted in copious Googling of the company to try to find a current address. In a random yellow-pages-like listing online, I found one address on Fifth Avenue that I'd never seen before, and since it was on my way home, I decided to walk by there myself and take a look. They weren't listed on the outside directory, but when I went inside and tried speaking English to the night security guard, I noticed the building directory hanging behind him, the letters that spelled out my debtor's name reflecting dollar signs in my eyes. Gotcha!

But I still had to figure out how I was going to actually get the money from them. The best way to do it, of course, is to get a bank account number or a list of assets like real estate, cars, etc., but this was New York - they were likely to rent and not have a car. This might take a while.

In my research, I realized that I could file a transcript of judgment which would basically remain on the company's permanent record and make it really difficult for them if they were to try to purchase real estate or sell off anything really significant. I also realized that if two other people had filed transcripts of judgments that remained uncollected, I could sue for triple damages. Big money! No whammies!

So I asked the small claims clerk if they had any other uncollected judgments on record. They said no, and asked me if I was an attorney. I giddily said no, and  I didn't stop there. I ventured into to the basement of the county court, to the dusty records room with the broken copy machines and the Wargames-era DOS computers, and find every court case on file against a defendant. Edith and I were like Cagney & Lacey, digging through files and finally uncovering a hilarious $20 million lawsuit - as yet untried - that claims fraud, conspiracy, extortion, money laundering, and operating "sham enterprises" that apparently was a much bigger problem for them than my little four months' worth of pay.

The best part was that the supreme court brief - which had clearly been written by a New Yorker with strategic use of quotation marks around words like "expertise" - gave me some ideas of more people to subpoena. In fact, I went subpoena crazy.

Fortunately they don't limit how many subpoenas you can send out, so you might as well send out as many as you can. In my case, I sent one to their record distribution company, their digital distributor, the company that was suing them, and finally - in a stroke of Googling genius - the management company of their office building. Shortly thereafter I got the golden ticket from them, the information subpoena back with a bank account number.

But again, it doesn't just stop there. You can't just call the bank and say "Give me my money." Number one, there's no way of knowing if the bank account will even have enough funds, but your biggest fear is that the debtor will find out what you're doing and close or move the account. And then you've got to start over again.

So as quickly as I could, I went down to the Sheriff's office and filed a request for execution, which basically empowers a sheriff to go to the bank in person and get your money. But of course, with all this bureaucracy, nothing's immediate, so the bank has 90 days to even respond - but by that time, you've at least made things uncomfortable for the debtor, and there's nothing they can do.

Those sheriffs may be slow, but they get your money. Deputy Lopez promised that I would have it, and lo and behold the check arrived in the mail today. Even better, they had accounted for some of my legal fees AND interest, adding up to a total that was definitely more than I expected.

So was about $4K worth all the hours of running between courthouses, poring over legal documents, and searching terribly uninformative court websites? Maybe not in terms of the total hours spent on this project, but justice has been served. I do feel vindicated, and all it really took was a lot of diligence and patience.

It's too bad because most people who have cases in small claims don't seem like they're of the fortitude to be able to actually ever get their money. From what I observed, many don't speak English well or at all, most are in some kind of service industry or blue collar work, and I think nearly all of them just wouldn't have the time to dedicate to the endeavor. And yet they're the ones who probably need those small amounts of money the most.

For me it was more about ego. And I had enough interest in the legal system to not go crazy. And I did it all myself, without the help of an attorney (except maybe the budding one inside of me).

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