How I Handled A Legal Dispute With A Wedding Client Due To COVID-19
What a fucking mess! If you are in the wedding industry it goes without saying that the 2020 wedding season thus far has been a shit sandwich with all the shitty toppings. All I can say is that this whole thing sucks ass and wherever you are in the world reading this please know I am rooting for you, me, and everyone in our industry who has been impacted by this situation. Better days are ahead of us, but for now, we are in the dick of it. So if you recently had a client decide to postpone or cancel their wedding and demand a refund for their deposit/retainer here is my story. This is how I responded to the threat of legal action in a way that was both compassionate and aggressive. The end result? Both the couple and I were able to walk away from the situation feeling it was a Win/Win. I hope my story can help you if you find yourself in a similar situation!
Before The Wedding Client Demanded A Refund Due To COVID-19
When I noticed other wedding professionals in Facebook groups I follow were getting postponements due to COVID-19 I knew it was only a matter of time before the cancellation virus would hit my business. Therefore, unlike the government, I decided to prepare myself and my business the best I could before the shitstorm hit. That meant gathering information from other industry professionals, reading legal blogs that discussed wedding services, Good Faith laws, and anything that could help me be ready to respond to a couple who demanded a refund of their wedding deposit. This is why you might see in my response to the bride and groom many of the words and phrases used are pieces from articles that already have addressed the topic of wedding cancellations related to Coronavirus. This is another reason why it is super helpful to do your own research and gather as much information as possible that helps strengthen your position as a wedding vendor.
Hopefully, you have been able to communicate with each one of your couples who are postponing their wedding date due to COVID-19, and working together with the entire wedding team to find a new date that works for everyone. This has been overwhelmingly the case with my wedding photography business, but even if 99.9% of your clients are on board the postponement plane that 0.1% can still create significant stress to your life both personally and professionally. That was the exact situation with one of my wedding clients (now former) whom I will refer to as Ross and Rachel to protect their identities. But before I go into how I handled my personal situation with a bride and groom threatening legal action and demanding a refund of their wedding deposit let me give you some bullet point highlights to catch you up on everything!
- The bride and groom hired my associate shooters to shoot their wedding for 3/22/20
- Ross and Rachel sent a deposit/retainer for $2,250 to secure the date
- COVID-19 fucked everything up so they tried to do a smaller wedding, and then a smaller one, then something very intimate at a private property as the state/county began reducing the number of people who could gather for events
- The day before the wedding the couple was going to do a small ceremony at their families’ home that I would photograph due to other cancellations in my schedule. This also fell apart last minute.
- The couple was unsure if they would postpone or cancel but were certain they wanted their wedding deposit back ASAP
- I sent over an offer to apply the retainer to any future date within a year from their original wedding date, or I could deduct funds from the original retainer for work done and send back the rest.
- The mother of the groom wrote a negative review about me on The sKnot
Now that you are all caught up here is the email that the bride sent me where she threatened to take legal action if I did not refund the $1,750.00 of the $2,250.00 retainer. Buckle up because here we go!
Email From The Wedding Client
Sorry for such a late response. It has been a crazy month. We spoke to our attorneys and they suggested that we try and agree upon a settlement or have this handled in small claims court. It is their understanding that during a time like this a contract should be null and void and fully refundable. We are still willing to offer the original $500 as a settlement considering we received no services as stated in the contract, otherwise we would have to handle this in court.
Please let us know how you’d like to proceed.
Thank you, Ross & Rachel
Ross and Rachel,
I totally understand. It has certainly been a crazy month for sure! And I sincerely hope all is well with you both during these challenging times.
Honestly, this entire situation has resulted in me commissioning multiple attorneys to provide an in-depth review of not only my wedding services contract, but more importantly, Good Faith laws that pertain to any situation where unforeseen events occur. Here is what an attorney who specializes in wedding services contracts wrote about the situation:
UNDERSTAND THAT ANY FORCE MAJEURE IS NOT A CONTRACT KILLER— IT’S A CONTRACT MODIFIER. Force majeure related to any “Act of God” does not automatically entitle a party to a refund. Force majeure is meant to excuse or delay the performance of a contract without penalty It does not automatically “rescind” a contract, i.e. send the parties back to square one, as if it never happened. This means that if you’ve incurred expenses if you’ve done work for the couple (timeline reviews, consultations etc.)— you’re not necessarily going to be stuck “in the red” because of an unforeseeable event. But it also means that you probably can’t force them to pay you any more money than they already have. Remember: Force majeure is a DEFENSE, not an offensive method of attack. It’s a way to say “you don’t need to do anything else because of these bizarre intervening events we did not consider.” It’s not a “cause of action,” meaning someone can’t sue you or cancel a wedding services agreement for “force majeure.”
Let me be clear, you DID receive services. We reviewed your timelines, spoke on the phone, via email and via text a significant amount of time on making adjustments and discussing your event. Those are indeed costs incurred. Holding your wedding date is a cost incurred. The reality is a wedding professional does work before, during, and after an event. We would not have talked about creating family photo lists, the timeline, adjusting to new changes with the wedding day if we were not contracted and being paid. Those are clearly services provided because it is obvious I would not have just given my time away for free to discuss your wedding in heavy detail and work with the girls to make sure everything was in place if we were not being commissioned to do so. Any Judge overseeing a small claims case would agree with that, especially with the evidence I would certainly provide to validate that claim.
So where are we now? Every client I have thus far has postponed their wedding date. Again, I have no issue extending that same courtesy. I understand you have both been under a lot of stress and am willing to help in any way I can. Any “Act of God” or any unforeseen event such as COVID-19 which results in a wedding being postponed is NOT a reason to cancel a wedding services contract. From a recent review Ross’ mother Connie wrote on The Knot, this appears to be a very clear case of a client canceling a contract and making no attempt to postpone or act in Good Faith. This will certainly be used as evidence in any filed court case highlighting that no effort was made to postpone the date with us. But instead, the situation was used to nullify a contract as it appears a new photographer was hired within weeks of the initial cancellation request. If an “act of God” occurs each party will put forth a Good Faith effort to find a date that works for both. This was not provided. I made a Good Faith effort to work with you two. Instead, of resolving the matter, a new wedding photographer was hired and Ross’ mother wrote a negative review.
“So instead of re-booking, another photographer was called”. That will be very compelling evidence in my favor. It shows a complete lack of Good Faith.
Again, I can extend the same offer I sent originally and be glad to fulfill it… even though a very inappropriate, defamatory, negative review was written on behalf of you. Actions like that only derail any settlement. They don’t show Good Faith on your end. We have hundreds of text exchanges, phone calls, and emails showing we went over every detail of your wedding and the timeline. Those are part of the services provided.
This COVID-19 was an unfortunate situation that happened, and we were right by your side to help! We wanted to work with you to find a new date and help capture amazing photos of your wedding. We were there every day as the situation changed, willing to do whatever we could to make sure you were happy. I was even willing to risk my own personal health to shoot the wedding even though it went against CDC guidelines (I will make sure the court knows this as well to show how far we were willing to go to accommodate you both). But the reality is the wedding was not canceled, it was postponed, and “another photographer was called”.
I understand you might feel no services were provided but the texts, emails and calls, and the fact you sent over a family photo list (that you created on my recommendation) and timeline (that had changed on my recommendation) are indeed services rendered. This also does not even factor in that simply holding a wedding date is a service rendered.
Anyone can get sued at any time for any reason. It doesn’t matter what a contract says. I have been allowing postponements and being supportive, not simply sticking by a contract policy because lawyer fees and processing fees will most likely end up costing me more time and money. So I allow couples to utilize any deposit/retainer for a future date and explain that I have to cover the cost incurred thus far if they want to cancel. So far, every other client has been completely understanding. With that being said, If you choose to go to small claims court, please know I have all the evidence already gathered to defend myself and my business interests because technically, I am in the position that you canceled the contract and hired another photographer which would make you liable for the remainder of the balance. As a sole proprietor, I have the option to countersue in small claims court for up to $10,000 to cover the remaining balance as well as any legal fees + pursuit of any libel laws given Connie (Ross’ Mother) published false statement that was intentionally meant to be damaging to my reputation; written defamation.
Lastly, I agree with you that the best route would be to resolve this matter outside of court, as I do not have any desire to pay to have papers served to you + pay court filings for a countersuit to recover the remaining balance along with associated fees. We have all dealt with enough stress and should focus on putting everything behind us with good vibes and positive energy. With that said, you mentioned paying $500.00 for the services rendered, and in my last email, I stated Option 2 was $1350.00. We are not far apart so my recommendation is we split the difference and move forward. You can then work with your new photographer, and I will turn my head to any counter-lawsuit for the balance of the contract + any libel legal action for Connie’s (Ross’ Mother) defamatory review written on your behalf. I would also request 90 days for payment and a termination contract be drafted to avoid any potential future headaches. That would mean services rendered would be $925, and I would send back $1,325.00 of the retainer. Win/Win for both parties, and a true sign of Good Faith.
This is my last and final offer given I have really gone above and beyond to try and resolve this matter and I was only met with a defamatory review and threats of legal action. If I do not hear back in 48 hours I will assume there is no interest on your side in resolving this matter in Good Faith and will have no other option but to file a suit in small claims court to protect myself and my business interests. In closing, I dislike having to use lawyer-language copy/pasted from email exchanges I had with attorneys I commissioned because it is not my style. I sincerely wish you and Ross the absolute best and hold no ill-will toward either of you at this time. Hopefully, we can simply agree on the difference and close this matter out amicably and without further future headaches.
Within 12 hours the couple agreed to my settlement offer. We drafted a termination contract and I will be refunding them the amount we agreed upon within the next 90 days.
When it was clear that the bride and groom were willing to put a legal action on the table it was obvious we were now in a high-stakes situation. Therefore, I needed to open up the dialogue compassionately so they would allow me to show them the work I had already done. That my job was more than simply taking pictures on their wedding day. Then I needed to explain in a concrete fashion that small claims court was not a one-way street, and that I had that same avenue to go after the remainder of the funds if an amicable compromise was not reached. However, I was also very clear that my position was not a weak one and I would also be willing to escalate the situation. Most importantly, I gave them a clear deadline so we could resolve the matter as quickly as possible, and so I could get some fucking sleep at night instead of worrying about this shit for weeks or months.
Wedding Photographer Service Contract Dispute Small Claims Court
After this situation concluded, a wedding industry friend said I let the couple walk all over me given they hired another wedding photographer and the family left a negative review about my business. First of all, the review was removed the next day since the person writing it was not a client and never paid for my services. I was over that. Secondly, nothing is guaranteed when you step foot in a courtroom. Did I have a strong case? Sure. Was my wedding contract bulletproof? Absolutely not. Regardless, the last place I wanted to be was in a small claims courtroom as an emotional bride cries to a sympathetic judge about how it was the hardest day of her life having to cancel her wedding. I can already see the entire courtroom getting teary-eyed as I look down at that ground and whisper to myself, “fuck me”.
My advice is to always seek the Win/Win solution regardless of the circumstances or if you feel your contract gives you a stronger case. If you are being bullied by a client and feel uncomfortable standing your ground than consult with an attorney who has experience with wedding service contract disputes. Either way, make sure you stand up for yourself and your business because if you won’t then who will?
Ryan Horban is a destination wedding photographer based in Southern California that enjoys disputing wedding service contracts and referring to himself in the third person.