The scales of justice tipped in his favor. Didn’t matter.

Joe Rice never got his money.

If you are a state legislator, please keep reading, because this case illustrates a significant — but easily fixable — flaw in the regulations governing Ohio’s small claims courts.

Rice, 72, a retired state worker and Vietnam vet, hired a local contractor to spruce up the kitchen of the split-level house he shares with his wife in the Firestone Park area of Akron.

Fry’s Home Improvement would paint the kitchen cabinets, change a light fixture, remove and replace certain tiles in the backsplash and replace the floor.

They agreed on a price of $1,100. To get things started, Rice had to put down $600.

The contractor not only failed to show up regularly but butchered the job.

A young assistant who was supposed to replace specific tiles not only replaced all of them but did such a rotten job that company owner Mickey Fry had to come back and redo the whole job himself. His effort wasn’t significantly better.

When workers removed wooden doors from the cabinets to prepare to paint them, they left the doors outside for several days. They got wet and warped and no longer fit.

Before Fry had a chance to ruin the floor, Rice fired him and demanded his money back.

Fat chance.

So Rice took the case to the small claims division of Akron Municipal Court. That’s where you go when you have a beef involving less than $3,000 and don’t want to pay a lawyer.

Rice won. The magistrate’s ruling was anything but muddy:

“It is clear from the evidence that none of the work was completed in a satisfactory manner, and not all of the work was even completed.

“The court finds that the plaintiffs have not received any benefit from the work performed by Mr. Fry … and are entitled to the money they paid to be returned.”

That was 10 months ago. Fry simply didn’t pay, and Rice hasn’t been able to figure out how to make that happen.

Today Rice is out not only his original $600 but another $70 he had to pay to file the suit.

“The court takes your money, walks through the process with you, grants you a verdict and does absolutely nothing to help you get your money,” he says. “Nothing!”

If the defendant didn’t work for himself, Rice could take a copy of the court decision to the defendant’s workplace, and a percentage of each paycheck would be withheld until the debt was paid.

If Rice knew where Fry does his banking, he could take the document there and the bank would remove the amount owed from Fry’s account (assuming enough money was in it). But Rice doesn’t know that information, and the court won’t help him find it.

Akron Municipal Court Clerk Jim Laria says Rice’s situation is not unusual.

“It’s very hit or miss from a collections standpoint,” Laria says. “There’s no question. That’s why I always say civil lawsuits are a crapshoot. You’ve got to hope you get a judgment, No. 1, and then figure out a way to collect if you prevail.”

A defendant who has his own business complicates the equation.

“If you’re self-employed and you go from job to job,” Laria says, “it’s pretty tough for the guy with the judgment to try to figure out where the [defendant] is next.”

When I asked Fry about his debt, he replied, “That has been to court and it’s over with.”

Yes, it went to court, I said, but Rice says you still haven’t paid him. Is that not true?

“OK, OK, I’ll call him,” Fry said immediately before hanging up

As of this writing, he hasn’t called.

The clerk of courts says most people who lose in small claims court voluntarily pay because they don’t want to ruin their credit rating. He says credit bureaus check court records daily.

“If you want to get a car loan or some kind of credit, if you’ve got [an unpaid judgment] on your record they generally won’t give you a second look until that is cleared.”

But other defendants simply refuse to pay. And in those cases, wouldn’t it make sense for the legislature to tweak the law to require basic financial information be made available to the court for the benefit of the victor?

“That would be a great help for those who are filing,” Laria said. “It would give a lot more teeth to the judgment. …

“I think you hit it on the head. Right now, to me, it’s still in the favor of the defendant [because if they don’t have] a steady job somewhere, it’s really hard to satisfy the judgment.”

Seems like a relatively easy fix for an ongoing problem.

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31