Recently, I went to court after being sued by a disgruntled client - my first ever. We really work hard on our customer service and are proactive in taking care of potential issues before they become problems. But, as with any business, there occasionally comes along a client who just can't be satisfied. Here's our story and some lessons learned.

My associate shot a client's wedding in 2010. She was happy with the images but wanted something "artsy" for her album. My designer spoke with her about her desires and suggested that the client pick out her favorites for us to work into the design.

Months go by and no photos from the client so we went ahead and designed the album without her input. We rarely get input from clients so this is our standard operating procedure. We send out the proof but months go by with no word from the client. Every few weeks we reach out to her, but nothing.

Finally she responds. She's doesn't like our design and image choices, but, lucky for us (insert rolling of eyes here), she's designed her own album on Picassa - that she wants us to match. Of course, it's a disaster. We invite her into our studio so that we can work with her on the album. She declines. She begins demanding a refund - to which we say "no way" (although we do offer her a credit towards framed prints she might wish).

Not long after, a small claims lawsuit shows up at our doorstep. Ugh. On the day of the trial, I'm out of town (on a job) so she gets a default judgment. With great cheer and no small amount of gloating, she calls up the studio to ask when she gets her money - which is just over $3,000 for the price of the album plus costs.

Of course, I'm not going down without a fight so I appeal the default judgment to the small claims court. A month later, sitting in court, my heart sank when the judge announced that she was going to deal with the "quick ones first" and then called my case up as the first one up. The judge had me out of there in about 45 seconds as she denied my appeal.

Disheartened but not deterred, I then appealed my case to the Superior Court - the last option for me. So, with no small amount of trepidation, I trudged to the main courthouse downtown for my hearing. Since the appeal was adjudicated in the Superior Court, not small claims, there was no crowd of people waiting to have their names called. It was just the defendant, judge, stenographer and I.

Right away, the judge agreed to hear the case. Whew! I say silently as the client-now-plaintiff explained her case. I then explained my side. Because we weren't in small claims, the judge wasn't trying to rush through the process. She took her time and considered everything that was said.

After listening to both of us, she told the plaintiff, "Wedding photos are important. You are going to want an album. What you need to do is work this out with Mr. Mireles so you can get your album. I'm going to leave the room and see if you two can work this out." With that, she got up from the bench and walked out of the courtroom.

I offered to do the album in cooperation with the client, but the plaintiff wasn't interested in settling the issue. So back came the judge and the case continued. In my closing remarks, I said that "This is a case of buyer's remorse. What's at issue here is that the client purchased her own album for much less money than the one she purchased from us. There's no way we could make her happy - in fact the reason we couldn't settle this just now - is because she wasn't interested in the album - she just wanted her money back." I added that it's in our contract that we don't offer refunds because all the work we do is custom.

After a couple more questions to me about whether I could still deliver an album to the client ("Yes!"), the judge then looked at the plaintiff and said, "Essentially, your case boils down to claiming a breach of contract on the part of the photographer. However, you did nothing to mitigate your damages. You just walked away from the photographer and then sued." And the next words were magic to my ears: "I'm going to find for the defendant."

Insert happy dance here!

Here's where I went right:

- I avoided as much of the extraneous details as I could and just stuck to the facts that were relevant to the case.

- I had my exhibits all in order and easy to find. I had copies ready for the plaintiff and judge so it was easy for me to reference supporting evidence as I spoke.

- I brought a printout of the client's album design as well as a sample album that she looked at during her initial meeting with us. The judge spent a lot of time looking at these two items. The album proof demonstrated that we'd done our job while the sample album demonstrated that the work we performed was consistent with what she hired us for to begin with.

- Being in Superior Court meant that the judge could take the time to consider the details of the case and not just split the difference.

- I made it clear that I was willing to work to make the client happy, but it was her refusal to cooperate that made that impossible. ("It's unfortunate that the client couldn't be bothered take an hour to sit with us to work on the album, yet she has the time to take us to court.")

- I had a signed contract with clearly spelled-out terms which allowed the judge to quickly review it and accept the terms as binding. (Surprise, surprise, I used my Toolkit wedding contract.)

- I never attempted to interrupt the plaintiff. I remained cool and courteous throughout. The bailiff even complimented us and said that usually the litigants are arguing and talking over each other in court. Being rational, reasonable and professional in appearance made it easy for the judge to side with me.

So I walked out of the courtroom happier than a clam. There's no appealing the decision and I don't owe her a dime. Yes, I was happy to have won and to not have to fork out thousands of dollars, but I also got that warm rush of satisfaction from knowing that I'd wiped this unreasonable client's smug smile clean off her face.

John Mireles

(Photos from my Pacific Magazine cover shoot)