Long version: My relationship with the company maintaining my rental property, which had been unsteady for many months, deteriorated sharply after they provided crappy service in late 2010--which ended up killing several of the plants and shrubs in the garden. The garden is a huge part of the curb appeal of this place, so I take it pretty seriously-- enough to fire the company and not pay the final invoice for the last two months' worth of service.
The timeline was, roughly:
- Got the invoice for November 2010 work in early December 2010--the amount was 3-1/2 times that for the prior November (Nov 2009). I was surprised, but with holidays approaching I didn't have time to investigate. I figured the aberration would be evened out and reflected on the next invoice. I didn't pay.
- Company notified me via email on Dec 17 that service would be suspended for January and February and would resume in March. This was a departure from prior years, in which they worked right through the winter.
- Company left a notice at the house to the effect of "No more work to do! We did it all! See you in March!" around Dec 30.
- Got the invoice for December 2010 work in early January 2011--the amount was 4 times that for the prior December. I was surprised at the amount, but in light of the notice and email, it made a bit of sense--they were cramming 4 months of service into 2. The total for the 2 months was $560.
- I didn't pay--I should note that I have a good payment history with this company, and have in the past let payment go for a month or two before paying in full--they've never complained.
- Instead I inspected the place. There was still lots of pruning and dieback removal yet to be done, and dead (fallen) leaves and debris had not been cleaned out of many of the shrubs. I started to get mad.
- Over the next two months, figuring we were in the dormant season and nothing would be growing, I got three companies to give me quotes for monthly service and an initial cleanup to finish the pruning and remove any plants that were dead or too far gone to make it (and replace some smaller ones).
- In early March 2011 I finally contacted the landscaping company and explained my position and why I hadn't paid, and offered to pay (1) the amount of the prior year's work for Nov and Dec, minus (2) the amount of a cleanup/replacement.
- For the next month we went back and forth. Dude insisted I pay full value despite my complaints of defective work and damages. He denied any damage to anything. He made a big deal of my delay and said I was out to profit by nailing him with a "cleanup" fee that far exceeded the amount of the invoice. I tried to explain the reason for the delay, the nature of the cleanup, and the damages. He kept insisting that the proper thing for me to have done, essentially, is pay in full and then dispute.
- Finally he said he'd settle for his out-of-pocket cost ($420) and no lower. This was still twice as much as I thought was fair. I countered with the offer of taking his out-of-pocket cost as the "value" of the services, and subtracting the cleanup fee from that. He refused, but did mention that since his "collections lawyer" told him it would cost upwards of $200 to pay, he'd settle for $360. Still way north of what I thought was fair.
- No response for a month. I needed to pick a company to start maintenance and do the cleanup. I chose the cheapest, because I was trying to be fair. Cleanup fee was $200. $420 minus $200 is $220, so I sent a check for that amount and let him know it was on the way.
- Received a letter from his attorney the day after sending the check, demanding the amount in full. This was May 14.
- Contacted the landscape dude, asking WTF. Turns out this is against the ethics rules, and it was a dumb mistake; got a wrist-slap from the attorney over that.
- Over the next month, which I think is necessary to wait under the relevant statute that allows you to sue under a breach of contract theory, I discovered Oregon has a "timber trespass" law that allows recovery of up to triple damages for damage to plants and trees. I got a quote for tree and shrub replacement for not only the plants that were damaged during the final two months of service, but also during the entirety of the service. Came to about $4200, not including transportation and installation. I mentioned to the attorney that I'd counterclaim for that, as well as defend with breach of contract theories of my own. Didn't seem to have any effect.
What's frustrating me is the stupidity of this. Not that I'm entitled to anything, but I can see absolutely no wisdom in going straight to court over $300 rather than discounting a fee for a disgruntled client.