Bee Investigator: Small-claims win won't get you paid

snowicki@modbee.comSeptember 8, 2013 


Modesto resident John Huey sits in his 1996 Jaguar convertible outside his home Thursday September 5, 2013. Huey was scammed by a local mechanic who was supposed to fix his 1941 Ford truck, after winning a small claims settlement and receiving a few payments the man stopped paying. He sent his truck out of state for his longtime friend to restore.

ANDY ALFARO — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

    alternate textSue Nowicki
    Title: Columnist, Faith & Family reporter
    Coverage areas: Weekly consumer column, plus features and news stories
    Bio: Sue Nowicki has worked at The Bee since 1982. She earned a Bachelor of Journalism degree from The University of Missouri, Columbia, and enjoys answering readers' questions and telling their stories.
    Recent stories written by Sue

— John Huey of Modesto has a personal problem, and I usually don't cover those in this column. I say that upfront so you won't start sending me your own financial problems or hassles with a business. (I actually had someone ask me to check into a bad dating service — after she had dropped thousands of dollars into one. Sorry; I can't save you from yourself.) I also won't take on borderline psycho neighbors. Instead, gather with your good neighbors and find a creative, legal way to motivate that loud, tire-squealing, aggressive, weed-growing (not the puff kind), shack-living, no-good guy to find another place to live — preferably Nevada.

But I digress.

John paid someone in advance — first red flag — to do some automotive work, and it never was done. So John took the man to small-claims court in 2010 and won a judgment, but the money wasn't repaid. So John went back to court last year, won another judgment and to date has not collected a single dollar.

In fact, the guy basically thumbed his nose at John.

"He told me he has no intention of paying me," John said. "He's told me there are many people who have sued him and have been waiting for years to be repaid. He claims to have no job, doesn't file income taxes, is broke and he'll outlive me, so there's nothing I can do to get my money back."

The man does does have quite a list of Superior Court appearances, several in small-claims court. I checked back with John to see if he'd been paid since he first wrote to me a couple months back.

No, he said.

"I drove by the private residence where he does auto repairs on Del Rey Avenue, and he was there this morning, working on cars," John said. "Previously, I reported him to the Bureau of Automotive Repairs, but after minimal effort, it was concluded that he only works on vehicles belonging to friends for no fees. That's nonsense, of course, as he is working at that address almost every morning. The owner of the house has several old cars and told me he allows the man to work on cars at his home in exchange for him servicing his cars."

I asked John the question you might have: Why would you pay someone for a repair before it's completed? He laughed ruefully and said it was stupid, that he got taken because the mechanic was recommended to him by a longtime acquaintance.

"I paid him money to rebuild my 1941 Ford pickup truck," John said. "He took it out and painted it and did other things, but he never rebuilt it."

What frustrates him the most, John added, is that "the small-claims court makes decisions that no one else enforces. A major concern of mine is the impotence of the court when it comes to crooks with no identifiable assets on which to place liens. He faces no penalty for dishonest business activities."

Other people have complained about not being able to collect on a small-claims judgment, so I asked the Stanislaus County district attorney's office for help on this matter. What can folks like John do?

"We cannot assist someone with collection matters — those are civil issues — but we can and will refer information to state agencies where appropriate to consider taking action," said District Attorney Birgit Fladager.

She sent a couple of helpful online links with practical information. One, on the state's website about small claims under "collect your judgment," is 1014.htm. And this one, she said, also gives good information on the subject:

John already tried some of that advice, but I gave him further information that he is going to pursue. He'll let us know how it works out.

Meanwhile, he's sent his old Ford to Oklahoma, where a good friend is restoring it for him — pay as you go this time, he said with a laugh. He's learned his lesson.

Send questions to Sue Nowicki at, fax to (209) 578-2207 or mail to P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352-5256.

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