You Can Beat City Hall: The Power of a Well-Written Complaint Letter

Most people can’t write. If you can reduce an argument to the printed word with a well-written complaint letter, you force them to respond in unfamiliar turf. You have the advantage.

In my own life, I’ve taken on the city of Syracuse, a window company, numerous landlords, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and many others just by writing letters. You can, too.

Here’s my Syracuse story.

Visiting Cousin Steven

Several years ago, on a vacation journey to New York City with my wife, Emily, and my one-year-old son, David, we stopped in Syracuse to visit Emily’s cousin Steven. We parked our Chevette in the driveway because they lived at the top of a hill and, Steven warned, cars parked on the street were likely targets for oncoming traffic.

The next morning, while we were enjoying a breakfast of fresh bagels and cream cheese, a Syracuse city worker came to the door. He asked rhetorically, “Does anyone here own the light blue Chevette?”

He explained to me that, as part of their job, they were transporting telephone poles from one location to another. The poles were positioned lying down in the truck bed because any pole that was standing upright would not have stayed that way throughout the trip.

Unfortunately, the long poles protruded a great distance over the edge of the truck bed. While making a turn by Steven’s house, one pole cut a curved path so wide it bashed the right front fender of my poor Chevette.

“Don’t Worry about a Thing”

“Don’t worry about a thing,” the worker assured me. “We’re insured by the city of Syracuse. Just get an estimate and send it in and you’ll be reimbursed.”

I said I lived in Lansing.

“Just send us an estimate when you get back to Lansing,” he said.

So I did. I sent an estimate of $335.30 from the dealership where I bought my car. My cover letter said in part:

Relative to my claim against the City of Syracuse for the incident of June 28, 1984, in which my car was hit by a city vehicle, enclosed is an estimate for repairs, as you requested.

Thank you for your courtesy when I met with you in your office.

I look forward to your immediate response.

Screwed by a “Compromise Agreement”

A month later, I received the following form letter from their Claims and Safety Division:

Dear Sir:

Enclosed please find a compromise agreement regarding the above captioned action. Kindly execute where indicated before a notary public and return it to this office.

As soon as the agreement is received by this office we shall present it to the Board of Estimate for their required approval. Payment of the claim is subject to their approval.

The key word here is “compromise.” Their check was for $254. I was expected to cover the rest. I realized they were taking advantage of my being from out of state. What was I going to do, hire a lawyer? Take them to court in Syracuse? For 80 bucks?

They didn’t know me.

My First Complaint Letter

Two months later, I responded:

Relative to your insulting form letter of August 16, 1984 (Xerox enclosed): I am not interested in what you call “a compromise agreement.” What does that mean: You will offer me some of the money I need to repair my vehicle and I have to pay the rest myself?

Then I recapped the entire incident from the point of contact to the present while invoking my lawyer, my Allstate insurance agent, and the insurance commissioner, all of whom agreed with me.

I enclosed copies of my first estimate and two others, all of which were higher than the amount of the first check, and concluded:

Pick your favorite but let’s take care of this matter between ourselves rather than through the courts. The vehicle that your employee smashed is my business car and my business is not helped when I drive what looks like a demolition derby loser.

The City of Syracuse is clearly at fault. There is no question about that. Negligence has already been admitted. The only question is, are you willing to pay me what you owe me? Surely, if I owed the City of Syracuse taxes, you would expect payment. Now you owe me. Why should I expect less?

I look forward to a prompt timely reply.

I got my prompt timely reply from the assistant claims officer. Here’s the key paragraph:

They will agree to a top offer of $275.00 to settle claim. If you are agreeable, please advise.

Seeking Redress from the Mayor

I wasn’t. I wrote a letter to the mayor and sent it along with photocopies of all previous correspondence plus copies of all the estimates (this was before email), so each package was getting progressively heavier. My letter began:

Dear Mr. Mayor:

I’ve been to your city one time and I believe I’ve been wronged. Where do I go for redress of grievances?

I repeated the entire chronology of events, including names, dates, locations, and outcomes. I decried the injustice of their “compromise agreement” that they were trying to force on me.

Then I concluded:

In other words, your city attorneys have offered to rip me off and are asking me to agree.

Of course I don’t agree. Further, I believe I’m being deliberately ripped off and harassed because I’m from out of state. I’ve threatened to go to court if I have to — but is this the way the city of Syracuse does business? Isn’t it enough that I have to drive around in a business car that looks like a demolition derby reject?

Isn’t it enough that I had to take time out of my busy schedule to compile estimates to rectify damage caused by your driver?

Do I now have to pay for an injury inflicted upon me in partnership with the party that, by its own admission, is solely at fault?

Where are justice and fairness in Syracuse, New York?

And on which side of the line does its mayor stand?

Resuming Diplomatic Relations with Syracuse

Two weeks later, a friendly letter from the deputy mayor informed me that he had been ordered by the mayor to look into the matter. In my acknowledgment, I thanked him for his quick response and obvious concern. I concluded: “I look forward to a rapid resolution of this matter and a resumption of diplomatic ties with the city of Syracuse.”

On March 29, 1985, I received a note from Syracuse’s assistant corporation counsel, Robert Jenkins, indicating that they were prepared to pay me $313.15, the amount of the lowest of the three appraisals. My car dealer agreed to take the check even though their estimate had been higher, so I accepted.

After an exchange of a few brief letters to complete the transaction, I received the check and a letter from Robert Jenkins saying, “we hope that you will resume diplomatic ties with the City of Syracuse.”

I did, but on my terms.

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This piece was adapted from Ken Wachsberger’s You’ve Got the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You. Ken’s other books may be found here and here. For book coaching and editing help, or to invite Ken to speak at your meeting, email Ken at [email protected].

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