How to Complain

Get Organized
Get Help
Get an Attorney
Going to Court
Collecting a Judgment

Contact Us Newsletter Credit Cards Rent to Own Current Issues Suits NJ Legislature Congress Heroes and Zeroes Consumer Complaints Links CLNJ History Civics Lesson

Due to insufficient funding/staffing, the Consumers League cannot function as your attorney or advocate to help you solve your individual problem. However, from our experience, we can tell you how and where to complain, and how to take simple problems to Court. We are, of course, very interested in consumer problems, and you may send us a letter describing your complaint, but we are more honest than most agencies in admitting we do not have the staff to work on your problem. Consumers League helps consumers in the Legislature, in Congress, and by providing consumer education.

First, Get organized

The first step is to keep and organize all the papers, contracts, and receipts which relate to your problem. Write down an outline of what happened, starting with the very beginning. You are going to be telling your story to people who have not heard it. It really helps to get to the key points: Who did what? What happened? Where? When? (Dates?) Why are you complaining? What relief do you want? How many dollars will it take to fix the problem? If you cannot answer these questions quickly, and come to the point (what do you want?), first, no one will listen to you, and second, you won't get what you want.

Always get the name, title, and employer of persons to whom you speak on the phone, immediately when the person answers the phone. If a business makes a promise, get them to put it in writing. If they make a promise over the phone, send them a letter confirming that on such a date, you promised to do such a thing for me. It is a good idea to send important letters by Certified Mail, return receipt requested, so you have proof you sent the letter, and proof the business received it. Later on, a letter sent early might prove that a problem existed.

Think proof. How are you going to prove your story to a stranger such as a Judge? Your testimony (what you and other witnesses, saw) is proof, but it helps to get photos, and to get reports from expert repairmen and estimates of the cost to fix it, repair it or otherwise make the matter right.

When you consult an attorney or an agency, bring all the papers and proof with you. An attorney can't give you an opinion about a contract which she has not seen.

Be Persistent

Don't take "No" for an answer from a business. Talk to a supervisor, then call and write to the President, CEO, or the Attorney for the outfit. Write often. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Be polite, summarize your facts, and make it very clear what you wish the business to do for you.

If the business will not give you what is rightfully yours, you must be prepared to continue to complain. Shady businesses count on the fact that most consumers will give up at this point. Don't give up. But understand that if you are not willing to work on your problem, no one else in the world is going to either. There is no magic wand to solve consumer problems.

Get help

Your choices in getting help are: complaining to the government or the Better Business Bureau, or getting an attorney, or suing "pro se" (meaning you act as your own attorney). The drawback in seeking help is that you will not know whether the agency is going to help you. The advantage of help is that the more agencies which contact the business, the more the business may feel pressured to settle with you.

The Better Business Bureaus are more useful to contact before you enter a large money contract such as a home improvement or car sale. The BBB will tell you how many complaints have been filed against a business within the last few years, and whether the complaints were "resolved."

Government agencies have power to sue offenders, or revoke their licenses. However government agencies are often swamped with a high volume of complaints. Some act only when a "pattern" of multiple complaints develops against one company. It is a good idea to send in a complaint to the government, and to the BBB, if only to register them as warnings to the next consumer.Some government agencies to which you may complain are:

Most government agencies have a website now. If unsure of where it is, try searching with Google or AltaVista.

When complaining, remember to be organized, get to the point, and send in copies of the important papers or evidence which proves your case.

But don't take the attitude of "letting George do it." You are the one with the incentive to start work on your problem right now. The government might not get to it for a while, perhaps not for a very long while, if ever. Sad to say, most of the time you complain to a government agency, you will be disappointed. But nothing ventured, nothing gained-- sometime the extra pressure of the goverment will help settle a case..

Finding an attorney

Every County Bar Association in New Jersey (and most other places too) has an Attorney Referral Panel, and you get a referral to an attorney semi-randomly. There is a small fee for the first consultation, then you must agree on a fee with the attorney. It helps a lot to find an attorney who is knowledgeable about consumer law, because such an attorney is more likely to take your case. If you have a low income, you may be eligible for free legal aid from the fourteen local "Legal Services" offices.

Going to Court

In New Jersey, if you wish to sue for $2,000 or less, you may sue in the Small Claims Court, which is a part of the Special Civil Part. To sue for over $2,000 to $10,000, go to the "Special Civil Part." The Judiciary provides helpful hints about Superior Court's Special Civil Part. Each county also has a law library in its Courthouse. Suits for over $10,000 go the "Law Division." Suits for divorce, etc, go to the "Family Part." There is more information at the N.J. Judiciary website.

If you are outside New Jersey, the names of the Courts (and their jurisdiction) will be different, but these basic ideas may help you too.

Before suing, go to the County Clerk, and look up the actual "Business Name" of the company-- it may not be what you think! If you sue a "fictitious name," you won't collect any money. For a corporation, you should contact the N.J. Secretary of State to find the registered agent of a corporation.

A lawsuit is started by filing a written "Summons" and a "Complaint" (which explains why you are suing). The "Plaintiff" is the person who sues, and the "Defendant" is the person who gets sued. Many Court Clerks have sample forms of the Summons and Complaint.

A Small Claims suit proceeds right to trial or mediation. In other suits, both sides get the right to send each other written questions (called "Interrogatories") and Requests for Admissions. If your adversary sends papers to the Court, you must respond in writing (and send a copy to the opposing attorney). A "Summary Judgment" motion is an attempt to end the case without a trial. You must send in your own papers, explaining your facts and proof, and why there ought to be a trial (otherwise you will lose).

The Court may schedule your case for arbitration (before an attorney standing in for the judge) or trial. The person losing the arbitration has the right to ask for a trial before the judge. You have the right to ask for an Interpreter.

Collecting the Judgment

The case or the trial ends with a "judgment," which is the decision-- who won, and how much money was awarded. The judge does not order the loser to pay up. You must find out the assets or income, and ask the Court Officer to "levy" on those assets. For example, the best way to collect is to seize the defendant's bank account. (Look on the back of the check you gave him to find his bank.) A business may have tangible assets to seize. The judgment winner may ask that the salary or income of the defendant be "garnisheed." A judgment is good for 20 years, and Special Civil judgments may be "docketed" in the Law Division, where they become a lien on real estate.

The lawsuit process is a long one, but be persistent! If you don't keep on complaining, you won't get what is rightfully yours.

CLNJ has provided the above general information about the Courts with the understanding that CLNJ is not providing legal advice, and not acting as attorney. Please consult an attorney for advice specific to the facts of your case.

CLNJ Home Page | Join CLNJ | Contact CLNJ | Newsletters |
Credit Cards | Rent to Own | Current Issues | Suits |
NJ Legislature | Congress | Heroes & Zeroes | Top of How to Complain
Consumer Links | History of Consumers League | Civics Lesson

Copyright 1999 by Consumers League of New Jersey, All rights reserved.