Check out Toledo, Ohio personal Dale Emch’s most recent “Legal Briefs” column in the Blade. In addition to personal injury, Attorney Emch handles workers’ compensation, medical malpractice, dog bites, truck accidents and ATV accidents.
Dear Dale: Over the winter, I rented a condominium for my family in Key Largo, Fla., through an agent based in Pennsylvania. The agent informed me that I’d have to put up a $300 refundable deposit, which I did. The condominium was fine and we had a good trip. However, when I contacted the agent to get my deposit back, he said he would mail it to me, but he never did. I’ve left messages on his phone and sent e-mails, but he’s ignoring me now. What are my options?
ANSWER: You have a few options, but they depend on how much time and money you want to put into collecting $300. Maybe this guy scams people out of deposits all the time, figuring most people won’t bother pursuing him for a relatively small amount of money.
If you want to pursue it, you could file an action in small-claims court. The question is: Where would you file your action? It would make the most sense to file it in Pennsylvania, where the guy lives, but it obviously would be a lot more convenient if you could file it in Toledo.
However, a problem could be that if you filed locally, the defendant might challenge venue and you’d be stuck trying to convince a judge that venue was proper because the activity giving rise to the claim happened here through the phone contact, or some similar argument. I wouldn’t feel great about my chances of prevailing on that issue, but you never know.
Nonetheless, you could file the claim here to see if that shakes the money out of the man. Just filing suit sometimes does the trick. The safer approach would be to file it where he lives or does business.
Regardless of where you file it, small-claims would be the right place for you. In Toledo Municipal Court, for instance, cases in which the complaining party does not seek more than $3,000 can be filed in Small-Claims Court. The filing fees aren’t expensive and it’s not a particularly complex process to figure out, so you wouldn’t need a lawyer. The cases are heard by a magistrate and some of the typical rules of evidence that would require some technical knowledge don’t apply.
But even if you win your claim, your problems may not be over. You still have to collect on your judgment. Assuming the agent actually appears to defend himself, it’s unlikely that he’ll pry open his wallet and hand you the money on the spot. So, if he continued with his deadbeat ways even after a successful judgment, you may be stuck trying to garnish his wages or using some other method like a lien to collect your money.
As you can see, you could be looking at exerting a fair amount of energy and time trying to collect your money by seeking a civil remedy.
That said, you might try another avenue that could be more effective. Why don’t you call the local police department or prosecutor – or both – where he does business and explain your problem? Some people simply have no shame when it comes to ripping off people, and they aren’t particularly concerned about some small civil action. But a criminal charge tends to get a person’s attention, even if it’s just a misdemeanor.
I’ve represented people in criminal cases who have taken money up-front to perform work that never actually got done. After the people became frustrated enough with my clients’ lack of response, they finally went to the police and the police filed theft charges. My clients were all too happy to cough up the money to make the charges disappear, or at least get them reduced. It all depends on whether you get a sympathetic officer or prosecutor on the other end of the phone, but it’s worth a shot.
Finally, you might want to see if you can get a lawyer to write a letter to the agent or make a phone call on your behalf. Sometimes that’s what it takes for the person on the other end to realize that you’re not going to let the situation drop.
All in all, it’s a lot of hassle to go through for $300. Still, it’s your money and you’re entitled to it. If you’re up for the fight and it’s worth it to you, don’t let the guy off the hook – he’s the one being unreasonable here and I don’t blame you for being upset. Wouldn’t it be nice if people just did the right thing?