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I have a small business client who I freelanced for before getting my current full-time php development & server administration job. Let's call the client "Joe's Pizza" (not actual name). Joe's Pizza owes me about $10,000, which is roughly 1/7th of what I'm getting as a yearly salary at my new job. That debt in various outstanding invoices is much more money than I wanted to rack up over the 6 years I worked with Joe's Pizza, but it happened piece by piece, $500 invoice by $500 invoice. I actually liked the work, and the people, and didn't have many other work prospects at the time, so I continued working for them despite failures to pay.

After 6 months of no work for Joe's Pizza, and no further payment against that $10,000, I finally got a full-time salaried job instead. Now I work at a tech startup, the job is great, and they pay me a consistent salary. I told Joe's Pizza that I got a full-time job, and thus was no longer available to work on their problems.

At that point, the CEO of Joe's Pizza, let's call them Joe, who I'm still on friendly terms with, got back to me and said "I want to chat about getting the new developer I want to chat about finalizing access to the back end for our new coder" I initially responded "That process is generally more complicated than you seem to think, and you owe me a lot of money, so I would only be able to do that accompanied by payment".

Now, a week later, Joe wants to have a phone meeting "to finalize the back-end access for the new developer".

  • They may or may not be able to transition to another developer without me being involved at all. I'm sure it will be much harder for them and much harder for the new developer to have no assistance in the transition.
  • For instance, I'm the only one with ssh key access to the server. I have all the passwords for the host, the email service, github, etc etc.
  • They certainly own the servers and source code, but I have little interest in providing work for free or for peanuts to give their next developer access while they still owe me money. I'm not wealthy enough that I can even afford to take effort & energy away from my current, paying job to provide free transition work for them, either (in part because of lots of outstanding invoices).
  • I do have a contract which I created myself that I worked for them under.
  • I wouldn't like to see their business fail because they can't develop their website, their server goes down, etc, a fact that I asked them to pay to fix many times over the preceding months.

So, what should I consider doing? What am I liable to do? What tactics are most likely to be most effective here?

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    As simple as that, once you have been paid for you work, finalize it and deliver everything. Without it, you don't deliver anything. If they threat you with Small Claims Court, don't be afraid. Just tell them that you will say on the court the same "I will give everything, after I have been paid for invoices I sent". – Peter MV Aug 9 '16 at 10:24
  • So what happened in the end? – user3244085 Aug 13 '16 at 14:25
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    Actually, it seems that you are even in a position to sue them... and win. There is enough evidence that you worked for them on their request. Tell them that you will be very happy to hand them the site after full payment. It's a matter of fairness in business. – Harry Cover Aug 25 '16 at 19:26
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    You will never get your money if you give them access. – Apfelsaft Aug 25 '16 at 21:06
  • Joe wants to have a phone meeting "to finalize the back-end access for the new developer". - Your response: "No, it should be in person, and I will expect a certified check paying your outstanding balance to be given to me at the beginning of the meeting." - Do not expect to get paid for your time in handover, so keep it as short as possible. – Wesley Long Sep 4 '16 at 18:01
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Generate an invoice marked "past due". Send certified. That's all you can really do in your case, at this step, without getting an attorney involved. The $10,000 is probably more than any state's small claims process.

Other than that, don't lift a FINGER until you've been paid in full. You might hear your client trying to bargain with you, but you've already done the work and there's nothing to bargain about.

Don't ever pile up that much work over such a long duration and be waiting for payment. Never, never, never. Unfortunately, this far in, you may not see a dime :(

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Unless you receive payment, I don't believe you are obligated to do anything.

It's your fault to some degree for letting outstanding invoices "build up over time". You should never allow that to happen for any client. If they haven't paid you they don't own anything.

I would not even entertain transfer of anything until payment has been made in full. And that is what I would explain to "Joe". He is benefitting from the work you've performed... you should be compensated. You should not continue to help him benefit from the work he has not paid for.

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    Additional comment: If he refuses to pay.. I'd restore the site to the backup I created when I started working for them... or to a backup from when payments started failing. I backup webdev at every major revision. It would be a simple matter for me to restore to "March 2014" or whatever. I don't know if you could do that. – Scott Aug 5 '16 at 19:46
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Have the Phone meeting, and tell the new developer you are owed $10,000 and are not willing to help until paid. Think about the other guy about to be screwed.

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    This requires actually committing time to a phone call - which is technically more work - and hoping that nobody flakes. If someone flakes, that time is wasted. That time could be better spent doing something more direct that's actually going to induce the client to pay. – Xavier J Aug 12 '16 at 20:56
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As others have said, stand fast and don't deliver anything until they have paid you. If you give in even a little, they will have won! And remember: Unless you really need the money it can sometimes be easier on yourself to let it go.

What I really wanted to say though is this: Various comments above suggest harming the client in some way. I would strong advise AGAINST that! Don't destroy any work, don't block their website or service, don't drag their name into the mud, don't cause any harm. Don't seek revenge. If you're angry, go to the gym. Destructive action could open you up to lawsuits that far outweigh the $10,000 owed. Once lawyers get involved you will easily pay that in fees. A contract is always a two-way situation and just because the other party hasn't honored their part of the bargain, you don't have the right to break your part.

(and I also want to know what happened in the end :))

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Have a one to one meeting with the client and try to listen their prospective. We can express ourselves better face to face as compared to phone call. Also, it will help you to convince them. May be he is willing to pay and settle the things on the good note as they also know that they need your help.

Also, it's your fault that you kept on working for such a long duration without the payments. Let's consider the negative side of this as well... Client can say he does not need your work, so in that case you will loose all your money until and unless you take a legal action. So, in this case mutually settle on a Payment (not full payment, may be after any concession) so that you can at least get something than nothing.

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Put simple - nobody can force you to do attend that meeting to hand over the environment/service - asking you to do this without remuneration or paying for past effort is unlikely to look too favorable for them in front of a judge or arbitrator..

If you are friendly, don't burn bridges, find compromise. Chasing money that is owed to you over a period of six years is as much your fault as it is their problem. You should never let debt get that old.

You mention that you created a contract for the work that you had with them - did they actually sign it? Does it have an exit clause for either party?

When was the last time they paid you a cent? If it has been months, they are on very weak ground to assume any relationship is 'active' between you.

Who pays for the hosting of the service at the moment?

How to find compromise? Summarise why you think they owe you $10,000 and say you are open to reasonable offers that includes settling all bills that are outstanding, in addition to 6 or 12hours of your time handing the service over to the new person. If that displeases them, then they need to find an alternative solution that does not include you. They don't make their pizza for free, neither do you work for free.

Respect your time, and they will huff and puff, but they will have to pay more money to chase you legally thru the courts. Will they? Are they that sure of winning? Don't forget to remind them that you have a new job - it will cost you $500 to take a day, or part a day off. If they want your time, they'll have to cover that expense (you do not need to show them your payslip - no more so than they show you their payslip because you've bought one of their pizzas).

You supplied a service - you expect payment.

They supply pizza, as a service. They expect payment.

It really is that simple. No payment. No pizza. If they don't make an effort to pay you for your time, then you are unable to meet with their request.

Best of luck!

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