Small claims court is court of last resort for many in NH
MANCHESTER - Marianne Egan is becoming an expert on New Hampshire small-claims court.
It's been a tedious, frustrating series of lessons as Egan tries to recoup a $650 deposit she and her husband gave a contractor to replace some windows more than two years ago.
She has a one-inch file full of paperwork - including district court judgments in her favor - but none of the money.
"It's an unending battle," she said. "The frustrating part is the waiting."
It's likely to continue.
Contractor Don LaBrie maintains he was burned in the deal with Egan and her husband, Mike, spending the deposit on custom windows then eating the cost. LaBrie says the dispute has become personal and accuses the family of making it a vendetta by taking the case to court after turning down a cash offer to pay back a chunk of the $650, with the rest still to come.
"They just want to drag my name through the mud," said LaBrie, whose record includes two convictions on theft by deception charges. "I offered them the money. Now I don't have it."
The matter before the civil court is bitter, personal and a good example of one of the biggest lessons of consumer economics: It's much easier to hang onto money than it is to recover it.
"It's hard to turn back the clock if they've sent the money out the door," said James Boffetti, a senior assistant attorney general and bureau chief of the New Hampshire Department of Justice Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division.
Sometimes, it's impossible.
Ed and Cathy Davis of Manchester nearly learned that costly lesson last week after answering an online ad for two Siberian husky puppies for sale by a Portsmouth family. The ad, complete with adorable pictures of a tiny husky, turned out to be bait. They were willing to overlook a few red flags, but when the "sellers" said they needed $600 to be wired to an account in Africa, the Davises had heard enough.
Ed called police and the Attorney General's Office with the wild details of an online ruse that stretched from Portsmouth to the nation of Cameroon.
"I just don't want other people to get burned on this," Davis said.
Boffetti said calls like the one Davis made to the Consumer Protection hotline average about 10,000 per year - along with about 5,000 written complaints.
"We deal with them all year long. It's pretty much a 365-day-a-year enterprise," Boffetti said. "These people are extremely creative. They definitely find ways to get people."
Boffetti said all the complaints are reviewed, but the state doesn't have the resources for a formal investigation into each, and not every case warrants criminal charges.
Small claims court
Cases like the Egans' can wind up in small claims court if the sum involved is less than $7,500. The idea is to provide a legal channel for people and avoid the cost of hiring an attorney.
But even the smallest claims can be far from simple, something the Egans found out early on in the long and winding process after they filed a complaint in 9th District Court in Manchester on Dec. 27, 2011. A month later, the court ruled in their favor when LaBrie failed to respond to the civil claim. That also got no response, prompting a motion Marianne filed in March 2012 seeking periodic payments from LaBrie. That generated another court hearing, but not until Dec. 14 - almost a full year after the initial complaint was filed.
The day before, LaBrie went to the Egans' home with the cash payment offer, which was denied. He repeated the offer of $300 - the Egans recall it as $200 - just before the hearing.
"We were afraid to take the $200 because we thought it would be the first - and last - payment we saw," Mike Egan said.
The judge ruled in favor of the Egans again, ordering LaBrie to make $150 monthly payments until the $650 and subsequent court costs of another $171.73 are covered.
The first due date was Jan. 15, which came and went with no payment.
LaBrie said he didn't have the money and grew more resentful when he learned Marianne had filed another motion, likely adding another round of costs to his tab, when he was technically only a month behind in his payments.
The next hearing is scheduled for April 19.
Seeing it through
While the allegations are similar to the two cases that led to criminal convictions for LaBrie in 1997 and 2002, both of those cases ended in plea bargains. LaBrie said he didn't want to plead guilty, but felt he had little choice to avoid larger penalties; he acknowledged making mistakes in his past.
"I've had thousands of customers and I've gone out of my way for almost every one of them," he said. "I just happened to have two who used the power of the law to get what they wanted and it wasn't just."
Boffetti said disputes between contractors and customers are often among the complaints filed with his office. Marianne Egan filed one before going the small-claims court route, but received only a letter acknowledging it had been reviewed and would be kept in the Consumer Protection files.
As frustrating as her campaign has been, she has no plans to back off.
"If I had been older, I probably would have given up," she said. "I'm determined to see it through."
Boffetti said sometimes the legal process takes patience.
"When you work through the courts, that's the way to do it," he said.
The Consumer Protection hotline is 888-468-4454.