To increase chances of getting paid, lawyers suggest researching a person's assets before suing
Peter Dobson hoped collecting on his win in small claims court would be a slam dunk.
After all, he had it in black and white — a judgment saying the contractor he'd hired to build a second-storey addition on his Nova Scotia home owed him almost $20,000 for failing to finish the job.
Seven years later, Dobson is still trying to get his money.
Legal experts warn that small claims court wins don't mean the plaintiffs will get any money, especially when the defendants refuse to pay.
"I do not have any faith whatsoever that we'll be able to collect money," Dobson told Go Public. "When you're dealing with an individual like this … small claims court is totally ineffective."
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In late 2014 Dobson hired Nelson Grosse and his company, which at the time was called Grosse Contracting, to build a second-storey addition to his Lake Echo, N.S., home — a $117,500 job according to the statement of claim Dobson filed with the court.
Dobson says after a couple of months, the work came to an abrupt stop and the contractor didn't answer his calls. That's when Dobson hired other companies to finish the work.
He says in November 2015 he decided to sue his former contractor to force him to pay what he owed.
And that's what the court did in May 2016, ordering Grosse (who also goes by Larry Nelson Grosse) to pay Dobson almost $21,000 for the unfinished work, including court fees.
All these years later, Dobson says he hasn't seen a dime. "We never heard anything from him," he said.
He won $20,000 in small claims court but can't get paid
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Featured VideoA Nova Scotia man was awarded more than $20,000 in small claims court when he sued his former contractor in 2016. More than seven years later, he says he hasn't seen a dime.
More plaintiffs can't collect
Court documents and provincial registry records show at least eight other people and companies have successfully sued the same contractor. Go Public reached five of those plaintiffs who say they haven't been paid.
Three went to small claims court and are owed a total of almost $32,000 in judgments.
The other two are owed a total of more than $140,000 after taking their cases to provincial court where plaintiffs can sue for larger amounts.
Small claims courts hear cases where plaintiffs sue for under a certain amount of money and, in theory, cases can be heard and decided quickly and cheaply, without legal representation.
The latest numbers by Statistics Canada show 565,000 small claims court cases were filed in Canada between 2018-2022. Those numbers don't include Newfoundland, Quebec or Manitoba which haven't reported to the survey yet.
Like climbing a mountain
B.C. lawyer James Legh, who specializes in civil law, compares winning a small claims case to climbing a mountain.
"When you get your judgment, you're only halfway there," he said.
"The problem is there are people out there that don't want to pay … and you really have to decide, is it worth the effort and the money and the time to pursue people?"
Winning a small claims lawsuit, according to Legh, is "just an acknowledgment by the court that someone owes you money."
He says unlike family court, which has an enforcement department that helps collect on spousal and child support, those who win in small claims court are on their own to try to collect their money.
That can be tough to do, he explains, because it requires digging up information on the person or company's financial situation — how much money they make, what property they own, even what debts and expenses they're facing.
This is information needed by the plaintiff to put a lien on the defendant's property or garnish their wages and bank accounts.
Go Public reached Grosse by phone, asking why he has yet to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars he owes his former clients.
"I have no comment about any of that right now," he said in response.
Legal game of cat and mouse
Dobson says trying to track down his former contractor's assets to collect what he was awarded in court is like a legal game of cat and mouse.
When Grosse failed to pay, Dobson took the next step recommended by the province and filed the judgment with the provincial Personal Property Registry System (PPRS), which provides information about a business's assets (like equipment and vehicles) to see if he could collect that way.
But no assets were found.
Grosse has operated under several different company names over the last 21 years, according to a Nova Scotia registry of companies.
Dobson says he also found a residential property in East Preston, N.S., with Grosse's name on the land title, but when he tried registering a lien against it, he discovered his former contractor's name had been removed.
He thought he'd finally caught a break in late 2017, when someone tipped him off that Grosse had an insurance settlement coming his way after a garage fire.
Dobson says he hired a lawyer, paying more than $600 out of pocket in order to get a subpoena forcing Grosse to answer questions, in person, about any money he had coming to him.
"He just totally ignored the subpoena," Dobson told Go Public.
Dobson could have tried to get yet another court order for contempt of court. That's where courts can force defendants to go to jail, face a fine or have property temporarily seized until they pay. But Dobson says he decided against this course of action after learning it would cost him thousands more in legal fees.
Featured VideoWe'll speak with lawyer Danielle Bourgeois about the recent changes to the increase in small claims court.
Legh, the civil law lawyer, says even a contempt of court order is no guarantee of payment.
"It's likely these people, even if you bring them into court, are going to say, 'I have nothing,' " he said. "So it's the obvious problem of why are you going to spend good money after bad?"
Nova Scotia's Department of Justice tells Go Public it posts information for small court claimants online, but has no plans for an enforcement branch, nor does it have plans to make any changes to how claimants can collect on judgments.
The case shows the "domino effect" that can happen when people and companies refuse to pay after losing a lawsuit, says civil litigation lawyer Tanya Walker from her Toronto office.
She says small courts have many cases and are a bit overwhelmed.
"So it would be great to see in the future a separate court created to help litigants with collection," said Walker.
But she warns that people who win cases may still end up waiting a long time to see their money — or could end up with nothing at all. Judgments are good for up to 10 years from the date of issue depending on where a plaintiff lives.
"Even if there is a court created to help a collection, it still does not solve the problem of someone who has five cases ahead of you or doesn't have any assets."
Like Legh, Walker suggests assessing the likelihood and ability of the defendants to pay before suing, including finding out if they own property or have any other assets that a successful plaintiff can access.
Small claims courts are run by provincial and territorial governments, so the rules can differ across the country.
Court orders 'useless'
Last month, B.C. made changes to the small claims court process by passing the Money Judgment Enforcement Act, which aims to make it easier for self-represented plaintiffs to collect judgments.
According to the B.C. government website, the new law expands what can be seized and eliminates the need for plaintiffs to apply for multiple court orders.
"Many of the powers that the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program has to collect maintenance/support payments have been granted to civil enforcement officers," a spokesperson from the B.C. Attorney General's office tells Go Public.
Dobson says he's pretty much given up on getting his money from Grosse, but not on getting justice.
"If there could be more teeth in a court order … that definitely would be helpful," he said, noting that in many cases court orders are ignored and therefore useless.
Now, he and another former Grosse customer are posting warnings about the contractor on Kijiji and the Trusted Pros website, which posts reviews on tradespeople and companies.
They are compiling complaints against Grosse, hoping the information they've gathered will eventually lead to fraud charges.
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Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.
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