Small claims court big fees

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Mike Salinero

Published December 29, 2011


Small claims courts were designed to be a low-cost way to settle disputes over small debts. Think Judge Judy.

But in Hillsborough County, where lawyers increasingly are part of the mix, filing or fighting a lawsuit in small claims court could wind up costing thousands of dollars more than the amount in dispute.

Ask George Meyer, a Tampa real estate investor and landlord who challenged a $258 plumbing bill and wound up paying more than $4,800, most of that in attorney fees.

"It's not what I thought I was getting into in small claims court," Meyer said. "It's like firing a legal howitzer at a mosquito."

In Hillsborough County, small claims courts handle monetary disputes involving less than $5,000. Last year, 12,000 small claims were filed with the clerk of the circuit court.

Ginger Laney, associate director of the clerk's county civil department, said small claims are becoming more "lawyer-driven." That's especially the case with credit card debts and automobile accidents, where an injured party assigns his or her rights to a medical provider who then sues the insurance company to recover the full cost of treatment.

Meyer is more concerned about cases such as his in which a citizen fights back when he thinks he has been treated unfairly by a service company. Meyer said he called Henry Gonzalez Plumbing to fix a drainage pipe at one of his rental properties. The first time the plumbers came out, Meyer paid, thinking the problem was fixed.

Then his tenant complained that the pipe was still clogged, and the company sent plumbers out again. Meyer, meanwhile, hired another company's plumber, who said Gonzalez improperly installed the pipe.

"I wrote a letter to Henry Gonzalez," Meyer said. "He sent me a letter back that basically said, 'You're wrong, and I'm right.' After 30 days went by, there was a lawsuit."

Meyer did not hire a lawyer when he went to mediation. He thought he would face the owner of the company or one of the plumbers, and a mediator would decide who was right. Instead, an attorney with Brett Wadsworth's law firm showed up. The amount in dispute, $258, grew to $1,100 with attorney fees and court costs.

Meyer opted to go to court instead of paying up.

"I was a damn fool to press the point," Meyer said. "But sometimes something gets under your skin and you don't want to turn loose of it."

Meyer lost and incurred more attorney fees. He asked for a hearing to challenge the amount, but Judge Eric Meyer upheld the claim. Meyer had to pay an additional fee for a consultant the court hired to recommend whether the attorney fees were fair.

Gonzalez declined to comment on two occasions, referring questions to Wadsworth.

"You've got to realize Mr. Gonzalez doesn't have isolated incidents of people not paying," Wadsworth said outside small claims court. "It's not one person once a year not paying a bill."

Wadsworth has represented Gonzalez 22 times since 2005, according to court testimony. He charges $400 an hour. Wadsworth testified that the fees include work handled by another attorney in his office at $225 an hour and a paralegal at $125 an hour.

In his attempt to get the attorney fees lowered, Meyer argued that all of Wadsworth's nonpayment cases pretty much are the same and don't require a $400-an-hour lawyer. A review by The Tampa Tribune of cases Wadsworth has handled for Gonzalez show the letters demanding payment are almost identical, as are the actual lawsuits.

"The facts are different according to statements and facts and what's presented," Wadsworth said. "I still have the same duty of care for a $100 complaint as for a $1 million complaint. My care doesn't change."

All Gonzalez Plumbing customers who were sued signed a bill that included a notice in small print that nonpayment would result in a lawsuit and liability for attorney fees. In Meyer's case, his tenant signed the bill, but it didn't make any difference in the outcome.

Another Gonzalez Plumbing customer, Linda Mitchell, said she signed such a bill without thinking. The Tampa resident said she called the company when she had a leak under her sink because she believes in using locally owned businesses. The plumber stayed a few minutes, Mitchell said, then told her he had to return to the shop to get something.

"The guy said, 'Go ahead and initial here. I'm going to go back to the shop,' " Mitchell said. He called later that day, a Friday, and said he couldn't return until Monday. Mitchell hired another plumber, who fixed the problem that day.

She later got a bill from Gonzalez but didn't pay it.

"They did nothing," Mitchell said.

The next thing she knew, she was being sued. Bogged down with an illness in the family, Mitchell agreed to settle the matter for $1,100, an amount 10 times her $95 plumbing bill.

"It would have cost me as much to get an attorney and fight it," she said.

Wadsworth said it's normal practice in contractual law for the loser to pay attorney fees if the practice is allowed by contract or state law. Besides, he said, a small businessman such as Gonzalez has to have a mechanism to enforce payment or he would lose too much money.

"People just decide it's a small amount and I'm not going to pay it," the lawyer said. "It mounts up fast and often."