A person who has a dispute with a cell phone provider over a refund, overcharges and other conflicts can sue the company in small claims court. Before attempting this, however, they should try to settle their complaint with the provider's customer service department. Small claims court allows a litigant to spend less money on court fees, the process is quicker than in other courts, and small claims court typically doesn't allow lawyers in the courtroom.
Contacting the Cell Phone Company
Before attempting to sue a cell phone provider in small claims court, the customer should first contact their provider's customer service department to see if they can't resolve the issue without litigation. They can also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and review other complaints from consumers with that agency.
Consumers can also send a demand letter to the cell phone provider outlining their request. They should include the in the letter:
- The amount of money they believe the provider owes them and why.
- Their contact information, including where to send payment.
- Give the phone service provider a few days to respond (such as 10 to 14 business days). The customer should state that if they don't respond in that time, they intend to sue in small claims court.
Suing an Out-of-State Business
Even if the cell phone provider is not in the same state as the consumer, they can sue any organized business, such as an incorporated company or one established as an LLC, in their home state.
They can also bring suit against a business – even one not incorporated – under one of these circumstances:
- The business is responsible for injuring the consumer or damaging their property in their state, and the consumer can serve court papers on the company in that state.
- The company breached a contract with the consumer, negotiated or performed in the consumer's state, and the consumer can serve court papers on the company in that state.
- The company has an office, retail establishment, warehouse or another physical presence in the consumer's state, even if it has headquarters or is organized elsewhere.
- The company does regular business in the consumer's state by selling its services, employing a sales rep who calls on the consumer to solicit business, sending the consumer a catalog, or advertising in the consumer's state.
Small Claims Court Fees
Fees for small claims court vary, but they will typically depend on the amount the litigant sues the cell phone provider for. Nevertheless, the fees will be relatively inexpensive. For example, if the lawsuit is in California, the litigant will pay $30 to $75 to file in small claims court. Consumers who can't afford the fees can ask the court to waive them.
Once the consumer files the lawsuit, it is up to them to notify their cell phone provider of the pending litigation, also known as service, and it is also inexpensive. Small claims court allows someone to sue their cell phone provider for a certain amount of money – in California, for example, individuals can sue a business for up to $10,000 in small claims court. If the litigant is a business, it can sue for up to $5,000. The consumer who wins their case against the cell phone provider can request that it pay their court fees and service costs.
Pros and Cons of Small Claims Court
When consumers sue their cell phone provider in small claims court, they agree to waive any amount over the limit they can sue for, even if the cell phone provider owes them more. In California, for example, if a cell phone provider owes the litigant $11,000, and they sue in small claims court and win, they can only recover a maximum of $10,000.
Despite this, there are benefits for consumers to suing a phone service provider in small claims court. Small claims court filing fees are less expensive than fees in other courts. The process is generally faster in small claims court than it will be in other courts. In California, it takes about 30 to 70 days to schedule a hearing after filing the lawsuit.) Finally, small claims court doesn't generally allow lawyers, which keeps costs at a minimum.
What to Expect in a Small Claims Hearing
Small claims hearings are typically informal – most last only about 15 minutes. The consumer may settle the dispute with the cell phone provider before the hearing ever takes place. If there's no settlement, and the case goes to small claims court, a lawyer won't be part of the initial hearing, and the cell phone provider will likely have a non-attorney representative.
Before the hearing, the judge will ask the litigant and the cell phone provider's representative to present evidence for their cases. A judge will ask the litigant why they started the lawsuit and ask the cell phone provider to give their viewpoint; they may ask to keep the physical evidence or they may give it back to both parties after studying it.
The litigant will not learn if they've won right away – they'll get the judge's decision through the mail in a few weeks or months. If the cell phone provider doesn't appear in small claims court, they will likely win the case by default. The judge will verify that the litigant served the cell phone provider, no one on either side requested a postponement, and evidence exists supporting their case. The court will then award the default judgment to the plaintiff.
- Try to use all other avenues in order to resolve your problem. When on the phone with customer service, keep asking for a manager or supervisor. If they are of no assistance to you, start contacting the higher-ups within the company. Before filing a lawsuit, file a Better Business Bureau complaint (see Resources) and see if your issue can be resolved through them.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.