Emboldened, I filed a small claim against the discount ticketing Web site for $4,924.88. This would cover the cost of my flights, the rental car plus gas and lost revenue from the canceled Berlin show. And, since the maximum small claim in the District is $5,000, I couldn’t ask for much more.
Filing was relatively easy: I gathered my receipts, filled out a form at 510 Fourth St. NW, paid $56.50 and got a court date less than a month away. The hardest part was figuring out the correct mailing address for the company I was suing. More than 20 percent of D.C. small claims filed last year were dismissed for bad service — a plaintiff’s failure to tell the court the right place to deliver a complaint.
A settlement and Round 2
I was contemplating wardrobe choices for my court appearance a few days before my date with justice when the online agency’s in-house counsel called. After some intimidating phone calls — conversations with a real lawyer made me realize that I was no Perry Mason — we settled for $1,000.
I call this a win. Whereas prevailing in small claims court is no guarantee that a defendant will pay promptly, I had a check in my hand within a week. As a traveling musician, I’ve been pushed around by discount ticket retailers with intractable fine print and airlines with unreasonable excess baggage fees for more than a decade. Using the judicial branch, I’d made the company that refused to right its wrong pay attention, and I’d recovered 20 percent of my travel budget.
If more air travelers used small claims instead of looking to our toothless “Passenger Bill of Rights,” wouldn’t airlines and discount ticket retailers have to improve?
Maybe not. Flush from my win, I tried suing Delta, which I considered equally culpable for the Thanksgiving debacle, in January. When the company didn’t respond, I thought I’d easily win a summary judgment. Weeks later, a small claims judge made it clear that I’d thought wrong.
The problem? I hadn’t paid Delta for my tickets — I’d paid the online company I’d already settled with. Since I hadn’t given Delta my money, it didn’t owe me any unless I tried to prove emotional distress. This isn’t easy.
“If you wanted to assert pain and suffering or intentional affliction of emotional distress, you can, but you have a challenge proving them,” said Faith Mullen, a law professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law whose students sometimes staff the small claims assistance center. Paying a psychiatrist to testify about, say, my paralyzing fear of booking future Delta flights isn’t convenient or cost-effective when seeking limited damages. “Because small claims are often self-represented, I think it’s harder,” Mullen said.
In Round 2, I’d fought authority, and authority had won without even throwing a punch. Really, I’d been lucky there’d been a second round at all. In the fast-paced world of small claims, plaintiffs who assume that a court will be sympathetic may be disappointed.
“Their understanding of the legal process is based almost entirely on ‘Judge Judy,’ ” Paci said. “They think they can go in front of a judge like her and explain their case and they’ll win because they are on the side of truth, justice and beauty. That’s not the way it works.”
Sure, truth, justice and beauty might be too much to ask. But given the choice to plead my case before a judge or an airline customer service representative, I’ll take the judge every time.
Moyer is an editorial aide at The Washington Post.