I went to small claims court with my boss, Max, yesterday. We finished a project for a local business owner who didn’t pay us our retainage. Retainage is that 5% or 10% amount that a property owner or general contractor holds to make sure that you complete your work in a timely, workmanlike manner. It is usually paid 30 days after the property owner accepts the job, but that didn’t happen this time. Since we were the sub of a sub on this job with nothing more than a verbal agreement, we used the JP court to try for the collection.
I know better than to start a job without a written agreement. I gave the contract to Max so he could get it signed, but his words: “He’s a good guy. He’ll pay us.” That’s sort of like saying “Things could be worse” or “My child would NEVER do that.”
In fairness to Max, we were doing a $600K subdivision for this fellow and he was paying us regularly. Unfortunately, Max and this fellow, whom we shall call Gordo, had a disagreement and things ended ugly. When it came time to pay out the $3,000 owed on this little project, he didn’t come through with the money. Since we got dead-beated by Gordo, Max says things like “Now don’t forget to get a contract this time, Margaret.” (“Yeah. I’ll keep it in mind. Don’t forget to get it signed.”)
I tried collecting the money. I find it a little funny that my deadbeat self has the job of collecting for Max. I have been a deadbeat through design and through circumstance; the truth is that a deadbeat is a deadbeat is a deadbeat. Might not be as pretty smelling as a rose or as fun to ride as a horse, but it is what it is.
As a first year business entity, Max’s company has gotten 1 large job and about 20 small jobs which have kept the crews busy building and me busy collecting. When Gordo decided he didn’t want to pay, he told me in a string of obscenities that I’m pretty sure I’ve never been called. At least not to my face. The “FU, Margaret” morning was the day I decided to try the claims court process.
I don’t know how it works in any other county or state, but in Nueces County, you can file your claim in any JP court. The reasons I picked our judge were racial and political. I have much more in common with a Hispanic Democrat male than an Anglo Republican woman. So Henry Santana got our business. We filed this suit in late August and got a letter a couple of weeks later setting the date for 11/3. The letter said to be in court 15 minutes before the appointed time of 9:30 and we were almost late.
I think Max gets hives if he makes it to an appointment on time which makes us a bad pair. I have the same problem. Hey! I’m an estimator. I know how long it takes to get somewhere. In perfect conditions. If the car has gas. And it’s running right. And I don’t stop really, really quick for a to-go cup of coffee. And I don’t spill anything on my shirt.
Maybe you can see why being on time is a flexible concept for me. You know that “you spot it, you got it” saying? There’s nothing that irritates me more than for someone to make me late which Max does habitually. The pair of us are in a 3-legged race to arrive anywhere on time.
We found a place to sit right in front of Gordo. Gordo looked like he could be renamed XL-Gordo; he also had the flush of a man who drank his last 4-5 meals, washed them down with tequila, and finished off the meals with a couple of shots of rum for dessert. He was wheezing and shuffling papers, giving us a glare that resembled Gollum when he beheld the ring on Bilbo’s finger.
The courtroom got crowded as plaintiffs and defendants rushed in to make the 9:30 deadline. Judge Santana walked in right at 9, called us to order, swore us all in, and sat down. There were 10-12 cases which mostly involved evictions and repossessions. Budget Auto and Ajax Loans won their cases by default as did a couple of the evicters.
The evictees were an interesting lot. When the judge asked one of the women if she had anything to say in response to the evicter’s claim that she hadn’t paid any rent, she said, “I just need a date so I know when to move my things.” She swept out of the courtroom waving the signed eviction notice in her hand and tossed a grand thank you to Judge Santana.
When the judge called Max, Gordo and me to come up, Max hissed, “You are going to do the talking, right, Margaret?” I nodded and gave my little recital of facts, omitting any reference to Gordo’s dirty mouthed response to my payment request. Gordo gave his little recital of facts (as he had fabricated them). He had an affidavit signed by his bookkeeper that said he’d paid some bogus charge for Max not doing something on the job. Note that he did not have a cancelled check, just the affidavit. He also had a letter from the GC that had a close but different typeface on the paragraph that said they wouldn’t pay $1,500 for change order work that hadn’t been approved. And he had sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In small claims court, each side gets 2 times to speak. No more, no less. Max had started raising his hand shortly after Gordo started talking; midway through Gordo’s speech, Max looked like a beached goldfish. Finally, the judge told Max “not to worry. You’ll get a turn to say something when he finishes talking.”
As soon as the judge got “It’s your turn” out of his mouth, Max started machine gunning his recitation of facts. English is not Max’s first language and the more agitated he gets, the less easy it is to understand what he’s saying. There is no court reporter in small claims court, but if there had been, they would have run screaming out of the courtroom.
The good thing was that when it came time for Gordo to give his 2nd speech, he couldn’t say anything because he hadn’t understood what Max was talking about. Heck, I’m used to translating Max’s English to my English and I didn’t understand enough to do back-up.
I don’t know how the judge will rule. He nodded and listened intently to Max and eventually told us that he would send us his ruling by mail in 10 working days. That’s probably so animated personalities can’t make a travesty of his small claims justice. Or maybe it was to avoid having Gordo flounce out of the courtroom, tossing a “Thank you” over his shoulder.
The three of us silently walked out; I would say Gordo was slinking but that might be my prejudice. He tried to distance himself from us, but the light at the cross walk trapped us together on the same side of Leopard Street. I stood between Gordo and Max while Gordo pretended like his consciousness had teleported to another star system and Max loudly ranted about his day in court and “SOME people who don’t tell the truth.”
Could the light have taken any longer?