Taking someone to small claims court as an artist
A few years ago, I took some people to small claims court. This was the first time I’d done so and I haven’t done it since, so I’m by no means an expert on the process. That said, I did discover a few interesting things along the way.
Making it about money:
Even if an argument isn’t over money owed, the disagreement can usually be assigned a monetary value. In my case, the other party had promised to do something and hadn’t done it. What’s more, for over a year, they lied to me about the fact that they hadn’t done it. When they finally admitted that they hadn’t done it, they also told me they wouldn’t ever do it. It was at that point that I realized that I didn’t have to put up with that kind of behavior. If they wouldn’t be civil with me of their own accord, I could use the court to force them to take me seriously. Small claims court might not be able to make them do what they had agreed to do over a year before, but it could compel them to return the commission I had paid them when they sold my work.
Before you decide to file:
- Do you have enough of a paper trail on the people you’re suing? It’s easier to catch someone in their lies if they’ve told you them via email or other written communications.
- Do these people have a local reputation that they care about? The court cannot actually help you collect your settlement, it can only make defendants look really bad if they don’t pay after having settled.
Once you decide:
- Research the small claims process thoroughly. If you’re in Oregon, this online pamphlet from the Oregon State Bar is a good start.
- Ask for an amount that is logical, but be sure that amount is also more than you think is fair. Defendants don’t want to pay any amount, but, if you give them some room to negotiate, they’ll feel like they didn’t completely lose.
- Don’t be alarmed if your court date ends up being several months out. I was until a lawyer friend explained that it was normal for small claims.
In my case, once the people I was suing were served notice, they suddenly did the thing that they had promised to do over a year before. It was a miracle! But I wasn’t about to call off the suit at that point. For one thing, I had had to pay fees in order to file the suit, and I thought the defendants should reimburse me for that. For another, after giving me a year’s worth of trouble, I thought they owed me some of the commission I had paid them.
On the appointed day, both the other party and I showed up at court. Because the court was in Oregon, we were required to attempt to settle with the help of a moderator before the case was brought to a judge. We went into moderation, and we settled after arguing in front of the moderator for an hour. And I say “arguing in front of the moderator” for a reason. Our moderator did less than I expected her too, but what she did was effective. Once we’d argued ourselves out, the moderator spoke with each side separately. When we reconvened, I was happy to propose a compromise on the sum requested—a compromise that was equal to what I thought was actually fair. The defendants accepted.
I won’t lie. The whole experience was extremely stressful. Then again, dealing with people who make lame excuses and lie to me had caused me a lot of stress over the last year too. So, in the end, the stress of going to court was worth it. It put an end to the lying, and I had the satisfaction of watching people who never respected me as a business person squirm. That and I earned a nice settlement for my trouble!
Too often, artists are not taken seriously, both as people and as business people. We’re supposed to be irresponsible, flighty, and desperate for money without knowing the first thing about earning it. We’re supposed to be easy to cheat out of a buck because we’re not supposed to have any business sense. And while all that may or may not be true, I know one thing for certain: the defendants in my case will probably be a bit more professional with the next artist they meet.