The Power of Small Claims Court

Dec 11, 2015
Shai Harary

small claims
Sometimes we find ourselves cast as David against a corporate Goliath.

You might not recognize the battle as such, but believe me, we all unwittingly (or sometimes perhaps knowingly) enter the ring all the time when we sign on the dotted line or even just click on the “accept” box on a website’s Terms & Conditions to procure things that we need in our every day lives: loans, mortgages, lines of credit, Internet service, insurance, phone service, other utilities, etc.

Remember how I told you that you always need a contract? Well, nobody has to remind big businesses to make sure they have their legal ducks in a row, which often includes putting their customers in positions to sign away some crucial and even fundamental rights.

As a practical matter, these huge monolithic organizations are generally not interested at all in truly servicing your needs, despite what their marketing may say. If you have a problem – for example, your Internet or phone is down, you need a credit, you’ve been charged for something that makes no sense to you, etc. – and you think you’re going to get some relief, all I have to say is… fugetaboutit.

First off, contacting the company in question is almost always near impossible, and worse, it’s intentionally difficult. In many cases, finding the customer service phone number on your bill or on a website is like looking for a proverbial needle in a haystack. All signs will often point to you to find what you’re looking for in their “knowledge” base or somewhere in their frequently asked questions (FAQs), which is a time consuming venture, to say the least.

Meanwhile, your problem has nothing to do with a lack of knowledge about how to use their product or service; it’s usually centered on the notion that the product or service has failed to work in the way intended or promised.

The next nightmare is the phone tree. “Press one if you already have what you need but would just like to say hello. Press two if you would like to speak to our billing department because we’re assuming you owe us money. Press three if you don’t mind holding for the next 20 years…”

And so it goes, until if you’re very lucky, you finally get a real, live person on the line.

Don’t get your hopes up, though – that individual most likely won’t have any real authority to help you.

I know this from personal experience, as not too long ago my Internet and phone service went down, and stayed down, for a period of ten days. My practice almost ground to a halt. I found myself taking my laptop to the local Starbucks to use their free Wifi and diverted all calls to my cell phone.

It was my worst nightmare – and I’ll bet it would be yours, too.

When everything was finally back up and running, I called my service provider, Time Warner Cable (there, I said it), and asked for a credit to offset the cost. I wasn’t seeking any damages to my business. I was simply wanting them to give me a credit on my bill. Needless to say, the “customer service” rep was not authorized to help me, although he did express an overwhelming amount of sympathy and a seemingly heartfelt desire to provide me with “excellent service” that day.

A sweet sentiment, but ultimately the only reaction it arouse in me was thinking, “Are you #$%E^ kidding me?”

Wondering what to do next, I figured it was time to pull out the old legal “nastygram” — “Please be advised that this firm represents the interests of… well, me.”

That had to get a response from someone, no?


This is how I became David to Time Warner Cable’s Goliath.

Seeing no other option, I decided to I decided to escalate the deal. Being a lawyer, litigator, and someone who has spent 20 plus years advising people how to resolve disputes, I decided that this attorney needed to represent himself, and I sincerely hoped the old adage wouldn’t hold… and that he (I) wouldn’t have a fool for a client.

It was time to sue Time Warner Cable in small claims court. I could find no other way to get their attention, and at this point, I was certainly not willing to let it go.

Thus I did what any self respecting NYC street kid would do… I shifted my tactics and decided to come out swinging. It was  “go time.”

One of things that happens when you file a small claim is that you immediately escalate your complaint so it moves out of the hands of the customer service representative or supervisor that you were dealing with and onto the desk of a lawyer who is trained to deal with these disputes professionally. No emotion (scripted, like the “sympathy” I got from the first rep I spoke to, or otherwise). No customer service authorization limits (e.g. I can give you a $10 credit, sir – $1 a day for lost productivity and opportunity – does that work for you?) No nonsense about company policy.

Once you file, becomes about only one thing: how they can give you what you want so that you can save them money.

Keep in mind that large companies like Time Warner Cable get a multitude of suits filed against them in any given week, so they are incentivized to find a way to resolve your pesky issue quickly and efficiently.

When you file a small claim, it triggers a legal process that comes with tight time constraints and deadlines. The other side must hustle to respond. It’s no longer a matter of “we’ll get to it when we can.” So the complaint gets served, comes across a lawyer’s desk, and boom! You now have his or her attention. It’s no longer in the hands of the powerless agent who promised to provide you excellent service but who failed in all respects.

Once a lawyer is in the mix, the push to solve the issue as easily as possible — ideally via a simple phone call — grows exponentially, as the last thing a big corporation wants is to have to put custodian of records on a plane to come out to testify in a small claims trial. It just doesn’t make fiscal sense for the company at that point.

Filing in small claims court like having a slingshot – it’s not a big weapon, but it can easily hit the target right where it counts. I’ve used small claims several times in my career to expedite a suitable and fair response to a legitimate grievance, and it’s always been a successful tactic. Not once has the claim actually gone to court, but invariably, once the complaint is served, I get a call from the corporate lawyer asking what I want – and then I know I’m in control. I always keep the demand in proportion to the claim in order to get the result I want (e.g., credit an account, reinstate an account, take a credit ding off an account, etc.)

By being reasonable, I help the corporate lawyer get me what I need, fast. On more than one occasion I have heard, “Is that it Mr. Slade?”

To that I always reply, “Yes, that and some respect.”

And that’s exactly what I get. The response is usually “Of course, I will draw up a release, and we will reinstate the account/ provide the proper credit/remove the negative credit ding. And we’re sorry for the inconvenience.”

In the case of my Time Warner Cable dispute, they wiped out my entire bill (about $300), removed the credit hit, closed my account and promised never to solicit me again (not so much on that last one).

From their perspective, they resolved one more problem for the day that they don’t have to revisit again. So they consider that a win for them.

And by simply by filing a little ol’ complaint, I know for sure I won.

In my opinion, the size of my victory was more of a Goliath to their David.

And now you know the secret to leveraging the power of small claims court to take down the big bluster of a cold and uncaring corporate entity: all it takes is one precise, little shot right where it counts.