Long backstory: So one of my roommates is the account holder of the utilities since she lived there since the last lease, and NOT ONCE have my other roommate and I seen a PDF or copy of the owed bills. She would literally just make decisions on the account and tell us to pay. We also signed a roommate agreement stating that we would pay 1/3rd of the bills and our respective amounts for rent. My issue is that the agreement also spoke about how to behave/interact with one another respectfully and my actual lease talks about enjoyment rights of the home. Long story short, the account holder started harassing me and my fiancé once COVID-19 interrupted my work status, and she kept bugging me to pay her back for the bills. I was unaware that me and the other roommate were reimbursing her this whole time for bills, and had assumed that our payments went directly to the companies and not her pockets. So I asked why she did not allow the bills to rollover (like I was doing with the rent) given the crisis as I did not have the means to pay back everything at once. I would have understood paying back the utility companies themselves if they had sent an actual statement of overdue charges. She then proceeded to demand that my fiancé pay towards the bills for visiting me despite how frequent/long her own guests have stayed at our residence with no such financial demands being made to them. We all agreed that guests could contribute if they so wished to their host, but I never said guests had to pay for the dang house (we are not a hotel...come on now.) She even tried to get my landlord to force my fiancé to pay, in which my landlord said I was not in violation of the lease so she couldn’t ask him to. And then she contacted her father who used his military contacts to find and message my fiancé’s former sergeant in the navy to pressure him into paying! All of this prior to her sending me a claim of money I “owe her.” I have since repeated that I will not be paying anything without seeing a full statement of charges Provided by the utility companies themselves and I honestly don’t even want to pay her anything given how brazen she was during this whole ordeal. Would It be possible for me to argue this in court and agree to pay a lesser amount? I never had an issue with paying my bills prior to this but COVID-19 put me out of a job For awhile and instead of speaking with me appropriately she literally starting harassing both me and my fiancé. What can I do?
Would It be possible for me to argue this in court and agree to pay a lesser amount?
It is unclear what you mean by "lesser amount". However, it appears that the most meritorious position is yours in that (1) you are entitled to get a copy of the bills, and (2) given the unprecedented situation with the coronavirus, the roommate's unilateral decision(s) precludes her from requiring you to pay immediately.
It is important for you to ascertain the actual amounts billed so far. Since your agreement is in terms of "pay[ing] 1/3rd of the bills" and you have never seen an actual bill, there is a possibility that she might have fraudulently overcharged you in the past. See Restatement (Second) of Contracts at § 162. If so, that excess will compensate at least a portion of what she intend to bring in Small Claims court.
Moreover, a material excess (or overcharge) would mean that she breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, a covenant on which all contracts are premised. See Restatement at § 205. Her continued refusal to produce a copy of the bills also is indicative of her lack of good faith, which weakens her position regarding any claim premised on that contract.
Since she knew or should have known that the companies are allowing a suspension of payments during the coronavirus crisis, her unilateral decision to promptly pay the bills is tantamount to her bearing the risk of a mistake. See Restatement at § 154(a). That forfeits her right to be reimbursed for as long as the utilities companies maintain said suspension.
What can I do?
If she files a complaint in Small Claims court, you need to
(1) develop the points made above;
(2) explain how the worldwide unprecedented circumstances (i.e. the coronavirus crisis) constitute a supervening impracticality contemplated in Restatement at § 261 (noting that it is not that you are trying to avoid paying your agreed share of utilities, though, just the timing therefor under the circumstances); and
(3) ask for relief in the form of contract not to sue given the coronavirus circumstances. See Restatement at § 285(1). The "limited time" to which the Restatement refers should be based on the duration of companies' suspension of payments.
On a more general level, gaining acquaintance with the Restatement will help you think in terms of contract law this type of disputes, and easily defeat claims like hers without the "help" of a typically expensive lawyer.
Although it will be obviously an inconvenience and vexatious if she brings you to court for this, the occasion could be a good opportunity for you to get some exposure to court proceedings as well as for advancing your legal arguments. Your current lack of income is unfortunate and stressful, but it appears that somehow you can take advantage of your current spare time by learning about contract law. The Restatement is a good source for that, and it is frequently cited by U.S. courts when deciding contract disputes.
You sound like a lot of my dispute resolution clients on their first visit
You seem upset, maybe even angry and you feel that you are being victimised and harassed and that the person you are in dispute with is an amoral scumbag with no integrity. I sympathise with your feelings and understand that this sort of thing is stressful and causes emotional turmoil.
However, how you feel has very little to do with what the objective facts are.
This is what I read:
- You agreed to pay 1/3 of the bills,
- You have been happy to let your roommate handle this,
- You have trusted your roommate to do this honestly,
- You have been paying what she asked when she asked for it,
- Your circumstances changed,
- You did not advise your roommate that this would make it difficult for the existing arrangement to continue,
- She continued doing what she had always done,
- You stopped doing what you had always done,
- Your roommate has been left out of pocket and probably is under financial pressure herself,
- She kept asking for the money,
- You saw this as unnecessary harassment,
- You showed that you no longer trusted her integrity and judgement,
- She reacted the way most people do to being indirectly called a liar and a thief,
- Things spiralled out of control.
Put your outrage on the shelf and feel sorry for yourself when it's not happening on my time (unless you are paying me, in which case I'm more than happy to listen to all your troubles at $420/hour + GST).
Yes, she can take you to court. She will almost certainly prove that you owe her whatever you owe her for the utilities. I think it's extremely unlikely that she has been dishonest about this (although anything is possible). You may be able to make an arrangement to pay through the court which means that she will get a pittance per week from now until forever.
This won't make things better.
You have to deal with the fact that, right now, you share a home with someone where your relationship has broken down and you will have to continue to live with that person. At least until one of you can move out.
Take a deep breath. Work out how you are going to make the relationship at least tolerable. I suggest you start by apologising.