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In college kid v. big companies, small claims court key to big satisfaction

Christopher Akinyemi
Christopher Akinyemi

Christopher Akinyemi hates feeling like a company has taken advantage of him. Like the rest of us, he gets angry at what seems like a constant stream of broken products, ignored warranties, screwed up reservations, endless phone calls and unwanted email.  But unlike most of us, the 22-year-old college student in Indiana puts his anger to good use.

He takes the culprits to small claims court.

He's filed a dozen cases in the past few years, and wins nearly all the time.  In 10 of the 12 cases, he said, companies have settled and sent cold, hard cash rather than a team of lawyers to fight him in court.

"I've stood up for the average Joe since I was 18. I put my foot down," said Akinyemi. "I have a heart for justice in business. ... I'm on a mission to show you don't have to pay a lawyer $225 an hour to get your voice heard."

For a trivial court fee -- usually $76 in Indiana -- Akinyemi often gets himself settlement checks of $500 or more. He also gets something most of us rarely taste: satisfaction.

In recent months, he's obtained settlements from companies like Lending Tree, Priceline, Dell, and Hewlett Packard. He's also served as the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase -- that case was dismissed -- and has taken Bank of America, Hilton Hotels, and Sprint to court since he began his legal flourish in 2009.

"A lot of people, when they have a problem, wait on the phone and then ask to talk to a supervisor, and they just don't get anywhere. They ask to go higher, but they still are left hanging," he said. “I just try to change things one case at a time. People don’t forget me.”

Akinyemi took Hewlett Packard to court last year alleging repeated problems with a notebook computer he'd purchased. After several attempts to get the machine fixed or replaced, Akinyemi sued H-P for $1,300, plus $76 in court costs.

In June of last year, H-P agreed to pay Akinyemi $688 to settle the case, according to court documents he provided to msnbc.com. A Hewlett Packard spokesman declined to comment.

The H-P settlement also includes a "no future business" agreement, something Akinyemi is getting used to.  Most of his small claims settlements include such a provision, a rather blunt tool by corporations to rid themselves of troublesome consumers.

"I have one with Bank of America. That means for the rest of my life I can't ever do business with them, even if I live to be 100 years old," said Akinyemi. At this rate, Akinyemi may soon run out of businesses he can work with.

He sued Priceline earlier this year for $1,076, claiming the company booked a reservation for him with a rental car company that was not honored.

"I went through hell and high water trying to get that fixed," he said. There were dozens of phone calls between him, Priceline, and the rental company, but he couldn't get satisfaction until he filed suit.  His case was bolstered by extensive telephone call records.

"I'm very vigilant in these situations," he said.

In April, Priceline agreed to pay him $219 to settle the case, according to a document he provided. 

Priceline spokesman Brian Ek declined to comment about the situation.

The case Akinyemi filed against Lending Tree earlier this year is much more straightforward. He claimed that Lending Tree repeatedly sent him spam. He sued Lending tree for $3,000 -- $500 each for six unwanted messages he documented, the amount allowed under Indiana's spam law.  On April 19, Lending Tree agreed to pay him $500.

Lending Tree said it couldn't comment on the litigation, or on an individual consumer.

He also sued Dell Inc. earlier this year for trouble he was having with a Dell Studio XPS laptop he purchased two years.  In April, Dell agreed to pay him $376.

Akinyemi has lost two cases, but figures an 80 percent success rate is pretty good.  What's the secret to his success? The small claims court justice system gives him something all of us want when we're trying to get satisfaction from a big company -- a person on the other end of the phone who is empowered to solve the problem.

"When I talk to their attorneys, I try to have a conversation with them.  I'll say, 'You know you've done wrong.  Instead of paying your attorneys $225 to drive to the courthouse, why don't you talk to me right now and settle this?' They usually want to work with me," he said. 

The settlement amounts aren't enormous -- they won't pay for law school, which Akinyemi hopes to attend when he finishes his degree at Indiana Purdue University in Ft. Wayne in the fall.  But they do make a point -- and they often at least pay for his time and frustration.

"My mission isn't just to get a settlement check," he said.  "It's to make these companies do right by people. It's a principle."

Akinyemi got a taste for the ups and downs of the justice system in 2009, when he was accused of assault in Noble County, Ind.  All charges related to the incident were later dropped, his case dismissed, and his $5,000 bail money returned, but his reputation was damaged.

"A $10,000 retainer (legal fee) ... is what it cost me to prove my innocence, yet I never even got an apology from anyone," he said. 

At that point, Akinyemi had already signed on as the lead plaintiff in a case against JP Morgan Chase regarding a $100 coupon the firm had mailed to prospective new customers.  Akinyemi alleged that JP Morgan didn't honor the coupons unless consumers followed a list of unclear requirements -- including setting up direct deposit as part of the new account. Days after filing the case, JP Morgan deposited $100 in Akinyemi's account.  The lawsuit was dismissed -- a dismissal affirmed by an appeals court in May of 2009 -- because the court found Akinyemi had suffered no damages.

He did, however, get a feeling of satisfaction from using the legal system to get the attention of corporate America.  He was soon studying the ins and outs of small claims court, and began filing cases there whenever he felt mistreated by a company.

"My message to people is that no matter what your age, you don't have to be intimidated," he said.  "In my state, it costs just $76 to file in small claims court, and I know in some places, like California, it's even cheaper.  It's worth every penny, and you get justice. Every consumer should know how to use small claims court."

RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS

It's easier than you think to file small claims court cases -- in some states, you can file them online. That means if your case settles, you never even have to go to court. Here's a good state-by-state list of resources, including how and where to file.

And here's a very simple set of advice on filing successful cases. In short: Be prepared, be polite and be reasonable.  That'll get you far.

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