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Legal advice for small claims court? Here's my situation.

Hi B&B,

I worked as a tutor for a small business that provides after-school lessons. I taught and created lesson plans, they provided the teaching space, took payment, and gave me a cut of the lesson fees, paying me as a contractor. When I left two months ago, after giving them two weeks notice, some of the students wanted to keep studying with me. My bosses asked me about it on my last day and I told them about it, we shook hands, and I left--everything seemed fine. They said they'd mail me a check.

Almost a month later, after contacting them a few times about where my check was, they finally emailed me back saying that what I did (take 3 students with me) was unacceptable, they were unsatisfied with me as a worker there, and they refused to pay me the wages from my last pay period (over $400). I explained that we never discussed the issue of students leaving with teachers (verbally or in writing), so I had no idea that I couldn't do that, plus they didn't say anything about it when we discussed it in person. I gave them a two week deadline to pay before taking them to court.

Finally, two weeks later (yesterday), they emailed me saying they were taking extra "collection fees" from me for every lesson I taught, AND taking the credit card fees from me for students paying by card, bringing the grand total of what they'd send me to be a little over $100. They had never charged me any extra fee like that during the year and a half I worked there. Also, some of the students' parents didn't pay the school for their last month of lessons there, so the school isn't paying me a dime for the hours I drove there and taught those kids.

They said that they discussed it all with a lawyer, particularly regarding the extra $5 collection fee per lesson (for over 20 lessons), but I have a feeling they're bluffing.

I can't accept their $100 offer, so it looks like I'm going to small claims court. I don't know too much about the process--all I know is that's where I'm supposed to go for a dispute of this much money, and I'll be representing myself in court. If I do that, I want to know what the maximum is I can ask for to compensate for the long process that lies ahead. Some of the parents are very upset that I'm not getting paid for lessons they paid for, so I may be able to have witnesses.

I have records I kept of lessons taught (confirmed via email by parents), and an email from the school saying how much I'm paid per lesson. I should have known to stay away when they asked me my political beliefs in the interview, but I needed the money and couldn't turn down the job.

Any advice is welcome...thanks in advance!
 
If small claims court in Michigan works the way it does where I am, neither party to the dispute can be represented in the court hearing itself by attorneys (of course, an individual attorney can self-represent). If you can, attend some small claims court hearings to see how they work.

As to the merits of the case, although I have an opinion, I will refrain from stating it.
 
I think the small claims court would be on your side.
The company was unsatisfied with your work? So why did students want to continue with your lessons even after you left?
Since the company failed in their responsibility to collect the fees I think they were unsatisfactory, not you.

Unless the written contract gives them specific rights to take the actions they took, they are surely in breach of contract. I doubt they would even turn up to the hearing.
 
Let the court decide.

Once they get served don't be too surprised to get a check in the mail for the full amount owed.
 
Lots of business have a contract with employees stating they will not work for or as a competitor with them for an agreed upon time after employment is ended with said company. Since you didn't mention it, it would seem to me you are open to do as you wish, and they owe you your money in full.
 
Do you have a copy of your independent contractor agreement? This will go a long way in determining if they can deduct "reasonable expenses" and "unpaid services" from your check as well as whether or not you're in violation for "stealing customers."

That being said, good luck either way, small claims court is a simple process and it's likely they won't show up, granting you a judgement. The downside is it is then on you to try to collect the money, which may or may not ever occur.
 
In Wisconsin you would be scheduled for mediation sessions after the first hearing. Then you get to hash it out face to face with a mediator and perhaps work out a compromise.

One thing that I've learned over the years is, there's the law and then there's reality. The two often intersect in strange places. Just because the law says one thing, and may very well be on your side, doesn't mean that's how it will pan out in court.

Also, beware of the downside of filing any action against an employer, (doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't, but consider it very cautiously), as any future employer may easily be able to view this information (depending on what state you live in) and hold it against you for hiring purposes. Of course they won't tell you that's why they won't hire you, but the reality is employers are at huge risk, why should they take a chance on hiring someone who has a track record of legal action against employers?
 
Seeking legal advice from an Internet forum is not the best way to go.
+1. Especially since we don't know the laws in your area. That being said, I'm going to recommend:

1. Bring a copy of your signed employment contract - This will let the court see exactly what your employer specified for the terms of your employment.
2. Bring all pay stubs if you have them and/or bank statements - This will allow the court to see your pay rate and hours for a pay period
3. Bring one of your clients if any able to attend - He can testify regarding his experience with you as a tutor.

The most important being #1.
 
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Gruder

Moderator Emeritus
Gents, let me echo the posters above -- B&B is not an optimal forum for solicitation of legal advice. While we've no problem letting the thread stand as it represents interesting fodder for discussion, at the end of the day the OP should be aware that attorneys are unlikely to give advice here owing to their own ethics rules, and those giving advice away are, well, unlikely to have full knowledge of case law and statutes in your locality. In other words, B&B suggests consulting a professional.

Best of luck resolving the case.
 
In California, I found the small claims court procedures daunting. As an individual, I was going up against a business, and felt outgunned. I learned that the state Department of Consumer Affairs maintains a telephone hot line staffed with people who are eager to provide guidance on the process. They helped me make sure all my documents were perfect prior to submitting them, that I followed the correct procedure for serving the other party with notice, etc. I don't know the reason, but after I filed and served them, they agreed to pay what I was asking.

Perhaps your state has a similar resource.
 
Thanks for the responses so far, guys. While I know B&B isn't the best place for legal advice, some of the posts so far have already given me an idea of what I'm getting myself into. It's easy to get biased and emotional about it, so I welcome the perspectives of others.
 
IMHO, and having a little bit of experience with something similar, the company you worked for has to pay you for the hours worked. The court will side with you there. However, taking customers with you when you left was unethical. Don't be surprised if there is some flak in the court room over that issue.

Your employer screwed up by not making you sign a "non-compete" agreement when you started working for them but if they asked your political beliefs, they aren't very familiar and/or care about doing things the right way.
 
There is a very good chance that you will get paid once you file an action . . . could be they are just seeing how far they can push it since they are obviously honked off with you leaving. When faced with a day in court (and they can't hire an attorney to represent them) they may cave in and write a check.

You mentioned that they paid you as a contractor, and yet you mention them as "employers" and refer to a "boss." If you were paid as a contractor, you were not an employee. If they withheld income tax and Social Security/Medicare tax, you were an employee. Be careful if your case makes it before a judge not to call them your employer if you were in fact a contracted service provider.

In most states, an employee who leaves a job must be paid in full for all hours worked at that point, plus any commission-based pay for sales or services rendered at that point. A small claims action is not the proper venue for an employee action - that would fall under your state department of employment security, who can make life a living hell for a former employer if they fail to settle up properly. (In New Hampshire, they pay a penalty of three-times the amount of pay owed!)

If it is, in fact, a contractor situation, it would be like any other "unpaid bill" by a client of yours . . . if you can prove that they owe you a certain amount of money based on certain actions on your part, the judge should find in your favor. If your proof is unclear, or if there was no written agreement, you could be in for a hard time proving that they owe you anything! Did you ever render a bill, or did they just pay you based on their records? Did you keep records to compare to their payments?

The other question here is if the process and costs involved are worth the potential gain? When you add up the cost of filing, the time spent in preparation, plus the time actually in court it may not be worth it even if you win!

Good luck . . . be sure to let us know how it plays out!
 
Brad is on the money. There are big differences in procedures, and recourse, depending on whether you were an employee or contractor.

Laws vary by state, but if you were an employee, then the labor board would handle the dispute, and in California, if you are not paid within 72 hours of "walking out", or when you went out the door if fired or if you gave more than 72 hours notice, then they would be liable for waiting time penalties, accrued at the "normal" salary rate... IE, if you worked 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, and you had to wait 3 weeks to be paid, they would owe you an additional 3 weeks pay over and above the withheld wages.

As a contractor, that does not apply.
 
as stated most of this will be frowned on by any future employers and even credit rating agencies. I would make an offer to them to take 1/2 ($200) and they never bad month you to any future employers and you never bad month them and call it a day.
And get that settlement agreement in writing with a provision that it is full and final in respect of both the claim itself and any attendant tax liabilities, and that it can be pleaded in bar in the event of any further claim.

I don't like the sound of these people you've been dealing with. I wouldn't trust them as far as I could spit.

I reckon you file and serve, and if they don't settle at the door or prior, you'll settle at procedural mediation (if provided for in your jurisdiction). Often commercial reality prevails and the cost of proceeding to a full blown trial (or worse) on a little claim isn't worth it for most parties. Of course, if they're perverse, then just cut and run, take what you can and get on with your life, lesson learned.
 
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