Small claims cases cause big headaches for some people trying to collect their money
A woman who successfully sued an 'immigration consultant' for $25K but can't collect
Even though Golrokh Amirpour Dolatshahi won her small claims court case and was awarded $25,000, she says she lost because she can't collect the money.
"It took a year and four months. It was stressful, very disappointing, depressing and time consuming constantly, and at the end, what I got was a useless piece of paper named, 'Judgment,'" said Amirpour, who filed a plaintiff's claim in small claims court in 2014.
She had sued Angelina Codina, who had represented herself as an immigration consultant. Codina charged Amirpour $24,000 to help her younger brother and his friend immigrate to Canada from Iran, but failed to deliver any services.
The small claims court ordered Codina to pay the medical secretary $24,000 and $1,000 in costs. Shortly after the judgment, Amirpour filed a writ of seizure on Codina's downtown condo. A writ of seizure occurs when a creditor pays a fee to compel the sheriff to sell land owned by a debtor so that the money can be collected.
Last October, Codina's condo was sold by a mortgage corporation for nonpayment. After the mortgage, real estate and legal fees were paid off, $1,392.31 remained in trust. Amirpour didn't see a dime.
"I feel anger, very outraged and very feeling betrayed by the justice system," said the Iranian-Canadian. "Mostly I see the government is responsible, because she can do that, because she's been allowed to do that."
CBC News had previously reported that Codina had been sued by dozens of clients in small claims court but has never paid back the money she owes.
The province doesn't keep statistics when it comes to enforcing civil judgments.
"In Ontario, the courts are not responsible for the enforcement of judgments. It is up to the successful party (the creditor) to determine the best way to enforce their judgment if the unsuccessful party (the debtor) does not voluntarily comply with the court order," Sean Driscoll, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General wrote in an email to CBC News.
Dougall Grange, a retired paralegal who worked on small claims court cases for more than two decades, said it's extremely common to do business with people who are "judgment proof."
"At the end of the day, collecting from these people can be extremely difficult, if it's possible at all," he said.
He described people who are judgment proof as those who lease a vehicle rather than own one, don't own a property in their name or may have property but don't volunteer that information to the courts.
"You're supposed to be entitled to ask, 'Where do you work? What's your assets? How are you going to pay?' If people are not that fond of telling and if you're self-employed, 'I'm self-employed and I can't afford to pay you back' is an answer you hear all the time, whether or not it's true is a completely different matter," said Grange.
"It's really difficult for a judgment creditor on their own to know whether any of this stuff is true."
Finding the information you need to collect a judgment from someone is difficult and expensive, he added.
For those reasons, Grange often told clients not to bother going to small claims court.
"It's not just the money that you have to pay to get a judgment and to pay process servers and private investigators and everybody else," he said. "It's so hard on your head to go through the process. People find it emotionally draining and they really feel victimized for a second time."
Name and shame
The small claims court system works when both parties in a dispute are honest.
"But you get a real SOB in the mix who's prepared to lie and cheat and the system can't deal with it," said Grange.
He started a website called publicexecutions.ca, — an execution is a judgment in legal parlance — in 2013 to try to help. For a fee, people frustrated at not being able to collect what's owed to them in a civil suit can "name and shame" those who won't pay up. Grange posts the location, court file number, name of the judgment debtors and the amount awarded to the plaintiff. He won't take down the information until that judgement has been paid.
"I think the attorney general should be running this website, not me."
59 year-old Angelina Codina has been in custody since May 2014. She's facing six Immigration and Refugee Act charges. She'll be back in court on Feb. 1.
She was convicted of grand larceny in New York State in 2000 and sentenced to a minimum of nine years in prison. Two years later the Law Society of Upper Canada disbarred her for stealing $20,000 from the province's legal aid plan.
Amirpour has given up on helping her brother immigrate to Canada and is still paying off the money she borrowed to pay the alleged immigration fraudster.
She's also given up hope of ever collecting the money Codina owes her and said she will never take anyone to small claims court again.
"I just spend money. Too much stress and I can't do that again. I can't go through that."