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Help! Do I have grounds to get my money?!

Is emailed acceptance of proposal legal in WA State?

5:00 pm on Mar 11, 2004 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

A web site client just backed out of their (nearly)$3000.00 web site project. It would be a no brainer if I required the client to sign a contract, but instead I emailed the web site proposal to them, specifically stating the project (web pages, features, number of photos, etc.), payment arrangements and pay schedule. The client replied by stating '...that was more than I was expecting, so yes, I would appreciate making the payments. Please get started for us!...'

So we met and they paid me a 25% deposit. I built the entire web site, and it went on line. The first month's payment came, even earlier than my due date. They exclaimed how much they loved the site. The second month came and the payment was 2 weeks late. I finally heard from them with a sudden nasty email with "all sorts" of twisted & reworded accusations and issues, stating that I should consider their debt being paid in full.

I took the web site down. However, I worked hard and built the entire web site, which is what the amount owed is for, whether it was online or not. The site was built and finished.

Not only is it terrible for something to go wrong with a client, but I'm out almost $3000.00.

Does anyone know if that type of acceptance of proposal is legal in the state of Washington when it comes to getting your money?

5:59 pm on Mar 11, 2004 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

ddesign, sorry to hear about your situation, but one thing I do know is the state of Washington will not recognize legal advice you take from a web discussion forum :).

That said, here are a couple of articles that may encourage you, although the applicability of these cases to your specific situation is best left to the opinion of a legal professional: "Can e-mail seal a sales deal? [realestate.boston.com]" (Boston Globe 16/Mar/2002) and
"An e-mailed contract is legally binding, too [baltimoresun.com]" (Baltimore Sun 29/Feb/2004).

10:16 pm on Mar 11, 2004 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

If all of the work you do is in the beginning, you should collect more of the price in the beginning (not all at once, but I'd say within the first 1-3 months). Otherwise spreading the amount out over a period of time after the goods/services are delivered is called financing, and financing involves risk.

Try to find out why they are unhappy. If you sue (the only way to really force them to pay you) you'll have to 1) pay a lawyer and 2) it generates bad publicity and bad word-of-mouth. Only the laywers win in such cases. However, if you can fix whatever they have a problem with, even if it takes you 20 hours of work, it could be cheaper in the long run (how much do lawyers ask for retainer and per-hour these days?), and if they like it, they will tell other people.

If they only want something for nothing, you'll have to accept that and move on, cutting and/or recovering your loses (collection agency, law suit, etc.). You can't please everyone.

(IANAL -- I Am Not A Lawyer)

7:43 am on Mar 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Yeah, you need an Attorney. But for $3,000 it is hardly worth it, other than proving a point. Small claims would probably take care of it, so might collections. But either way it is a bunch of aggravation!

I don't like payment plans. Period!

50% or so upfront, and 50% on competition is okay. But, nothing goes live at their domain name until all payments are made and collected in full, backed by a contract.

If they don't have the money (red flag), they shouldn't have you as a web designer. If they want cheap and cheerful let them go there....prospective clients get what they pay for!

9:23 am on Mar 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Thank you all SO much for your replies and suggestions!

Thanks ALOT for the articles 'Can e-mail seal a sales deal?' & 'An e-mailed contract is legally binding, too'. I appreciated having them to read.

Wow, did I ever learn that 'financing' does indeed involve risk.... I was thinking I was helping my client make the payments while also getting some regular income for myself and family throughout the year.

<"Try to find out why they are unhappy.">
It was a major shock to me that they were unhappy. I think they were just trying to get out of the bill because they ended up not having any money. About trying to find out why they're unhappy, everything was great. I never heard anything from them except for how much they loved the site. Then all the sudden the 3rd payment was due in February and I never got it. They wouldn't reply to any of my emails or phone calls, then I finally heard from them on the 8th of this month with a nasty email! I couldn't believe it. They were accusing me of all sorts of things. A couple of the rediculous 'issues' they all of the sudden had was that a few people she knows tried to buy items and use the shopping cart. She opted to use PayPal so it opens a new window when you add an item to the cart. She complained that 'some of them have been blocked as they have pop up blocks installed on their computers and have not been able to add items to their shopping carts. So that is a issue also.' I can't control the fact that some people may have pop up blocks installed on their computers! That has nothing to do with the Shopping Cart or the web site I built.... she's also furious because "I have her account information". WHAT!? I AM THE ONE WHO WAS PROVIDING HER WEB SITE HOSTING, AND THE ONE WHO CREATED HER ACCOUNT! I just read her email with my mouth open. I couldn't believe all of the accusations and twisted accusations she has.

She could have called me with any issues, I would have worked with her and she could stil have her web site online, but I still think she just didn't have the money.

<"Yeah, you need an Attorney. But for $3,000 it is hardly worth it, other than proving a point. Small claims would probably take care of it, so might collections. But either way it is a bunch of aggravation!">

So true. I met with an attorney this morning, and bottom line is, the emailed acceptance of proposal just isn't strong enough. You can imagine how I am kicking myself. I never perform work without a signed agreement. My other 30 clients and other customers have all signed agreements, whether it's for a site project or site management.

The attorney was great to talk with, but he said it would cost $5-10,000.00 if I took her to court. I could take her to small claims court, but if she fights that, it could go to Magistrate, last I could turn her into collection, which I hope I can do. I need to find out first, if she tried to fight that, I don't want her to sue me then I'll have to go to Magistrate court anyway, and pay everyone's court costs! I am sick that I lost my money, but I have to admit 80% of it now is to prove a point.

So sad that to a small business owner $2000 is alot of money, but to the court, it's nothing.


3:09 pm on Mar 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Obviously your attorney knows best. And I am definitely not an attorney. However, if you decide to pursue it in small claims, it would seem that their having paid the original down payment as outlined in the email DOES indicate their acceptance of the terms. Contracts do not always have to be written down. It is simply true that a written, signed contract is hard evidence. Your email, when combined with their intitial compliance to the terms in it, is also evidence of the contract.
3:31 pm on Mar 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

A few suggestions about releasing websites. One of the things I have done in the past is put a site in an obscure directory buried on my own server for client review. I'd usually give them a few days to review and approve. Then, when I get paid the site goes up on their domain.

It gives a chance to work with the customer and make changes and get them satisfied. It also protects my work until I get paid. Fortunately, I've never had a customer object to this idea.

2:07 am on Mar 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I'm not sure how the state of Washington is, but I took a client to court over $500. For the person that told you that $2000-3000 is not worth the aggravation, sorry... but that is 3 house payments paid for me and it would be worth it. I would take a person to court over $100 because they tried to screw me over. It is the point and no one is going to get away with not paying for all the hard work I did for them.

That rant being done. Since you have a lawyer, have your lawyer send a letter to your client and tell them that they have to pay the $$ by a certain date. This type of letter was $250 from my lawyer. Lawyer fees are different, so it could be less. If they do not pay by that certain time, take them to small claims court. You have proof that you finished the work and that they agreed to the payment arrangements. Yes, you did a stupid thing by not having them sign an agreement (I did the same thing with the client above and my other clients have signed it!), but you will hear a short lecture from the judge and then he/she will get on with it. If your client doesn't show up, you get a default judgement and go through the garnishment process. I'm not a lawyer, but when you have that email proof, I don't see how that wouldn't be a case in your favor. Maybe find a new lawyer that actually specializes in the tech industry?

Good luck and let us know what happens!

2:13 am on Mar 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Be prepared to see the site you designed put up on another domain.

It wouldn't be the first time that has happened after someone's client reneged.

2:23 am on Mar 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Couple points: if your client is web-savvy, yes she might put the site up elsewhere. Unless you have some way of tracking her referent-points as far as name, logo, or other "tells" (poker-parlance....) you won't necessarily know if she does that. If she does, and you know it when she does, you may have a legit claim for breach of copyright if nothing else, as long as you can prove your creative input process in the site itself. (Only her self-owned logos, copyrighted descriptions etc. should be excluded.)

Also, if nothing else you can write this off as a loss on your taxes, which while not returning the whole of the owed amount will at least absorb some of the damage and maybe a bit of the pain.

2:29 am on Mar 19, 2004 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

I would double-check with an accountant on writing this off as a loss. Some losses cannot be written off.

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