This story discusses how to use the small claims courts to resolve disputes. My story here involves domain names. If you didn't know, a domain name is a thing like "KURO5HIN.ORG". It is the name, a series of words that you buy that you associate to a computer on the internet. That name can run a website. You can buy them, if no one else has it, or you buy it from someone else willing to sell it. Here is my story. I have lost probably about 10 different domains because I have not paid the bills. If you don't pay the bill every year to re-register the names, they go back into the public space where others can get them. In this story I paid the bills but my domain names were lost anyway.
In March, 2006 I have been paying my bills and one of my registars says I own eight domain names, or domains, all expiring in six months. You see, I use several different registars. I use dotster.com, register.com, and another cheap one called registerfly.com. Those are three different companies that do business in this realm. So anyway I have a lot of domain names. I have to keep track of when they expire. Looking at my account on register.com, they say I am ok. Good deal right? You don't want them to expire.
Not so! No, two of the domains actually expired in January and were transferred! I was never sent an email, and their system showed I have them with expirations of December this year. Basically their system had some programming problem (bugs) that caused this. So the way I see it, the company had a programming error that caused me to lose the domains. Four domains all together, but only two of them were taken up by someone else how had already setup portal websites with them. The shock set in and I was furious. Raging mad that my idea, my names I had thought up using my creativity, are now gone from my possession, probably forever.
After several calls the company told me they are "looking into it". After not hearing from the company for a week, I posted some questions on the internet about the case. Several said I had no chance and unless the domains are worth thousands, I should give up. Huh? I wasn't about to give up. I figured each domain was worth $500-2000 dollars, so I thought that was something for small claims court. Small claims court where I live is under $5000.00
I decided to sue them (register.com) in small claims court for $3000.00 and see what happens. First I called them and gave them 24 hour notice. Talk to me and we can work it out, or I go to court. You can guess what happened. I never heard from them. So off to court I went.
Filing a small claims court in Riverside California is surprisingly easy. You go to the court website and are sent to a company website where you fill out the form. After you input the information, just hit the print button!
In less than 45 minutes I had the form. That counts researching register.com, where they lived, who I needed to mail and the address where the company headquarters is. That was it, and then I had the form to give to the court. On a Thursday morning I stood in line for 2 minutes, gave the cute and friendly girl clerk the form, and $75.00 in cash needed to file a claim of that value. This was too easy!
A few things about small claims courts here. You as the person suing, you give up your right to appeal if you lose. That sucks, but it's the way it works. What really sucks is the person being sued (register.com) has the right to appeal if they lose! So when fighting a big corporation with possible unlimited legal representation, you need to keep that in mind. What if they appeal? Do you want to continue the fight in superior court? Do you have the time and is it worth it? And of course, as the person suing, if you lose the case, that is it. Keep your options open and look for alternatives to court if you think you may lose.
Laws vary from state to state on what you can sue for. One of the first parts in a legal action is you need to tell them they are being sued. When you file a small claim, you have to serve (notify) the person being sued. This can be done through registered mail, from the court for $10.00 dollars, or you can pay someone to go serve them personally. That costs $50-$300.00 depending on location. I used the ten dollar option of certified mail as I figured someone at the big company would sign for the letter. It's cheaper but less reliable.
After filing my case, I waited. A week goes by, then two weeks. Checking the court website shows no return receipt. Why is it taking so long, hmm. . .what to do? Finally three weeks later the court gets the receipt. Court is on and scheduled for Monday! Charge!
A few days go by, and two days before big Monday, the attorney calls and wants to settle for $500.00. Bingo, we are in the game of settlement, and at the last minute as it often goes.
She is a nice lady who doesn't work for register.com, only represents them. She agrees that I seem to be a nice person that wants to settle this without going to court. She is smart for doing so. Court was scheduled for Moreno Valley and it's miserable summer heat we would be in. She says the company will offer $500.00. Cary the attorney seems genuine and we discuss details.
"Did you know they lost four of my domains? They re-registered two of them for free. That is free, I'm helping your case if you didn't know that". I say.
"Actually I didn't know that. They do seem to be a good company." Cary says. She then tells me something I didn't know that would help my case she says. Again I like the way this is going so far.
"I don't think $500 is enough for my loss." I say.
She soundly answers. "Well you know that it will make it more expensive for consumers if they pay people like you large amounts like that."
I'm not convinced. I ask her some questions about the contract I "clicked" on. The click is a legal equivalent of a signature in this case, she says.
"So you are telling me that because of what it says there, register.com is not liable for losing my domain? That is ridiculous. What am I paying them for? I don't think a judge would buy that." I said.
She replies with a slight tremble in her voice. I think she is unsure at this point.
"Usually $500.00 is the maximum awarded in these cases. . .but yes we are not liable for the loss, that is in the contract."
At this point I'm a little worried. Could I actually lose in small claims court? I couldn't decide what to do. . .should I take the $500 at this point?
I decide and tell her that I want at least $1000.00 for loss of both domains, tell me you can pay that and I will think about it.
That night I head home, wondering what would happen. Before I head to my room, I get an idea. I think again about another option. I call Cary for a last minute discussion.
"What if instead of $1000.00, they offer $500 in cash and $500.00 in services from the company. That way they continue to keep me as a customer." I say.
"Oh, i'm working on the case right now. But that might work. I'll stop working on the case and I'll ask them. We will talk in the morning." Cary replies and we hang up.
I think she was bluffing and not working on my case. My guess she was sipping on a martini watching 7th Heaven. But anyway, I was a little worried. I slept that night wondering what would happen. If you like poker, you probably like litigation. If you try to settle an agreement before court, it is sort of like playing poker. Unlike court, it is like poker in slow motion, for the evidence is hidden to some extent. You discuss events and issues, try to come to agreement without showing the other side all the cards you have to battle with. It's good to really do your research before you get to this step. With some civil legal matters, it starts in court but you really don't want to go there unless necessary.
The next day I get a voicemail from Cary. They agreed on my offer. I get the fax and send it in, signed and dated. Now I have a check in the mail for $1000.00
The entire experience was painless and actually a little bit fun. I hope you all stand up for your rights next time someone causes you grief. Remember that small claims court is not for everyone. Issues involving a small company or one person suing another person may be better solved using other means. There are groups like the Better Business Bureau that might help resolve disagreements. In my case I had felt I had no other choice.
In the battle of team consumer versus team corporate, you need to be aware of all your available resources.