007: Give Them a Penny and They’ll Want a Dollar

Stella Case No. 007, Originally Published: 2 October 2002

Wendy Ehringer of Seattle, Wash., took some friends out for burgers. Her $15.02 check to the restaurant bounced, so the restaurant turned the debt over to its collection agency.

When she got the notice from Associated Credit Service demanding the full amount plus $40 in fees, Ehringer says she thought to herself, “I thought I better take care of this,” and mailed a money order to ACS for the full amount. She didn’t think a thing more about it until several months later when she was notified she had been sued.

The company’s slogan: “debt collection made easy”. Collection, maybe. Payment, maybe not so much.

While ACS’s lawsuit showed she had a balance of “$0.00”, it claimed she was a day or two late in getting the money order to them. The suit was filed get the interest on the supposedly late payment — 18 cents.

“When I saw I was being sued for 18 cents, I was outraged,” Ehringer says. In addition to the 18 cents, the collection agency was demanding $311.26 in attorneys fees and other costs. It was war. “At that point, I knew there was no stopping this train,” she said.

Ehringer, a paralegal, knew plenty of lawyers, so she asked one to help her. Attorney Amanda Lee sent a letter to ACS, but when they ignored it Lee filed a countersuit. “Once they cashed that check, they didn’t have any basis” to claim more fees, Lee said. “You can’t file a lawsuit if you’re not actually owed the money.”

The collection agency wouldn’t budge, and the case came before Judge Eileen Kato in Seattle District Court. Judge Kato ruled that ACS had violated the Consumer Protection Act and the Collection Agency Act, and threw out the 18-cent suit. She also ordered ACS to pay Ehringer $500 in damages, and ruled the collection agency would have to pay Ehringer’s attorney for her time — a total of 36 hours’ worth, Lee figures, for a total of over $7,000. A hearing was set to assess the exact total.

“The $500 in damages might not get their attention,” Lee said. “But if they have to pay attorney fees, it might.”

There are plenty of deadbeats out there, and collection agencies play a vital role to keep innocent businesses from being victimized by them. But when a slimy agency tries to pull a fast one, they deserve to be slapped down. Hard. A tin-plated 18-cent Stella Award goes to ACS. And official Stella Kudos to Ehringer and Lee for fighting back, and to Judge Kato for upholding justice.

Sources

  • “Suit over 18 Cents Redefines ‘Small-Claims’ Court”, Seattle Times, 26 September 2002.

Case Status

Decided in defendant’s favor on countersuit.

Letters

A reader sent a blistering e-mail to the agency castigating them for their actions, openly copying me. I really, really wish you wouldn’t involve me in your campaigns against others, in part because the collection agency responded to this reader (with a copy to me): “You have contacted the wrong company. The company you are looking for is out of the state of Washington. We are [in New England]. I have no idea what you are referring to.”

On the other hand:

Max in California: “On the radio today the morning talk show was doing a piece on extreme lawsuits. The DJs, Mark & Brian, were complaining about how terrible such lawsuits were, yada yada yada. After listening for just a couple of minutes, I recognized the lawsuits [they were discussing were] the very cases you present as FABRICATED on your web site. So I called in and told them that these very lawsuits were not true, and mentioned your site as a source for verification. They blew me off. Was I out of line with this one? I thought that radio (indeed, media in general) had an ethical responsibility to promote truth rather than contribute to rumor and innuendo. Is it possible that they simply didn’t know that they were presenting as fact information that can easily be determined to be false (or, at the least, suspect)? It’s gotta be just me.”

No, it’s not you, it’s Mark & Brian (a very popular morning show team on KLOS in Los Angeles). I know this because your quick mention on the air brought DOZENS of new subscribers! It just goes to show that Mark & Brian underestimated their own audience — people are very interested in this topic, and want accurate information! What’s the point of using made-up cases to argue about a very real problem? Especially when there are so many true cases you can talk about? So yes: when you hear the bogus cases being read yet again, please do call in and set the lazy hosts straight! Radio hosts who want to actually inform their audiences should know too that I’m available to be on the air to talk about this stuff.

Anne in Western Australia writes, “Your site specifies [you’re reporting] only U.S. cases at present. I guess because it’s easier for you to validate them. However, while the U.S. may have been a trailblazer for these sorts of cases, the disease is spreading fast. Do you plan to extend your coverage to non-US cases in the future? I’m sure there are many similar cases in other countries.”

It isn’t really a “verification issue.” While I’m sure that there are cases of lawsuit abuse — or seeming abuse — in other countries, I need to be realistic in what I can tackle. This is an American publication written by an American author. I’m a reasonably knowledgeable lay person (read: not a lawyer) who has something to say about the problems I see around me. To fairly discuss the legal systems in other countries would require at least cultural-level knowledge about the legal system in each of those countries. I have said all along that I’m talking about the U.S. Justice System and that will remain so for the foreseeable future, with minor exceptions possible (such as Americans involved in foreign courts). I do know from my mail, however, that readers in other countries are finding the cases most interesting and entertaining.

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

This one’s so abusive it feels great to see the defendant win — but it should have been more than $500. Amazingly, the “family owned” collections agency still seems to be in business today. Following the previous suit that was about pennies, it’s amusing that this one followed directly, but coincidences happen!

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2 Comments on “007: Give Them a Penny and They’ll Want a Dollar

  1. My guess is that the debt collecting agency would routinely do this and probably gets a fair number of victims paying out of fear.

    And if you think that might be a common tactic in the industry: Bingo! -rc

    Reply
  2. I had a similar case over 15 years ago, though thankfully did not have to go to court. We were renting at the time, and it was the only place we lived in the last 20 years where we didn’t have a Fort Knox mailbox (addressed that right afterwards). Someone stole our mail, including blank checks. Someone created a forged drivers license and passed a few around town.

    We invalidated the checks with the bank as soon as we found out. One store suspected the license was fake, called us (our number was on the checks), asked if we were at the store buying something, of course we weren’t. The store didn’t stop the transaction though, and when our bank properly refused to pay the check, the store submitted the check to a collection agency (even though they knew it was a case of fraud). I submitted copious documentation to the collection agency (including a copy of the police report), they refused to give up and kept harassing us. My late father, an attorney, had a chat with the collection agency and helpfully explained the law about fraud to them. The credit agency immediately gave up. I wonder how many people just give up and pay the agency.

    Too many. -rc

    Reply

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