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Solving Contract Disputes
in Small Claims Court

Apr 25, 2017
by Debra Newby, Newby Law

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DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me at debra@newbylawoffice.com. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Dear Miffed Monet:

I am a local artist who makes pottery and “funky creations” like wind chimes and the like. A few months ago I entered into a contract with a store owner to sell my art. The Owner would keep 60% (for overhead and effort) and I would receive 40% once the art sold. The good news is that ALL of my art sold. The bad news is that when I dropped by the store, the Owner proclaimed that she was broke and refused to pay me. What are my options?

Signed: Miffed Monet

Dear Miffed Monet:

Hummm…sounds like the proverbial “robbing Peter to pay Paul” story. Managing money is a basic skill set for any business owner. Perhaps the Store needs a refresher course.

You mentioned that you had a contract with the Owner. Hopefully, your contract is in writing, as oral contracts are not worth the paper they are written on. The most obvious first step is to re-approach the Owner with a firm yet polite reminder of the contractual obligations that were made. If the Owner continues to delay and balk at their responsibilities, you may consider filing a lawsuit against the Owner in small claims court. Below is a short checklist of some of the features of small claims court, so you can determine if you qualify:

• The damages you seek must be $10,000 or less.

• You should make sure that your complaint is timely filed, meaning that you have complied with the statute of limitations. If your contract is oral, you must file within two years from the date the other party broke the contract. If you have a written contract, you must file within four years of the breach of contract.

• You should file the action in the county where the defendant (i.e. the Owner) resides or in the county where the alleged injury/damages occurred.

• NO ATTORNEYS are allowed in small claims court, so be prepared. Bring copies of any key documents to prove that you have been wronged and that damages/monies are due.

Your matter will be heard by a Judge or trained attorney sitting for the bench. The hearings are very quick—15 to 20 minutes. Preparation is key. The process can be intimidating for the “newbies”, but have no fear. Here in Sonoma County we are lucky to have a Free Small Claims Clinic staffed by 3rd and 4th year law students at Empire College School of Law. The law students are supervised by a licensed attorney and are well versed in the small claims process, what forms you will need, how much the filing fee is, how to serve the defendant, how to prepare for your hearing, etc. Check out their link atSonoma County Small Claims Advisory Clinic

The Empire Law School Small Claims Clinic is open for walk-in hours on Mondays and Wednesdays from 3:30-6 pm. Telephone hours are on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30-6 pm. Call 707-521-6534.

Small claims court is a viable alternative for disputes that are valued at $10,000 or less. The process is a lot cheaper and quicker than a full-blown lawsuit. Often the dispute is resolved within 1-3 months after filing your small claims action.

We are so lucky to have a local law school that offers this free clinic to the public. Next month I will address the other valuable and community oriented clinics offered byEmpire Law Schoolall free. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I hope you can resolve your dispute with the Owner. Artists should be honored and revered. Without art—painting, sculpting, music, writing, creating—we would have no cause, no reason to explore our inner sanctuaries. Art enriches our lives. As the French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, quipped, “On certain occasions, art can shake very ordinary spirits, and whole worlds can be revealed by its clumsiest interpreters.”

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