Language students learn lesson about fine print

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) noted, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

But he could have added that if you don’t read a contract before you sign it you can be certain you’ll be the loser.

Jody Williams and her partner, Nicolis Ferreira, learned this lesson after they registered with Mi Casa School of Languages, Sea Point, in September, to do Portuguese classes.

“We paid R4 833, although class dates were still to be confirmed,” the Sanddrift North resident said.

“I told them more than once that we could not do 6pm classes as we have an 11-month-old toddler. We were told to select three out of the four dates, and it will be ‘majority rules’,” Ms Williams said.

“There were two 6pm slots and two Saturday options which was our preferred slot. However, the majority decided on one of the 6pm classes which we could not attend.

“We asked for a refund, but our request was declined as we didn’t cancel within 21 days of registration. Nicolis spoke to the managing director, Antonio Romero, who asked us to give him a week so he could ‘peruse the emails and discuss it with the board’.

“Then we received an email from the billing department saying they had a class available, but not on a Saturday as we requested. After all this, we no longer wanted to proceed and preferred a refund. They emailed us again saying they have slotted us into a class, without our consent, and it will start the following day. We did not attend as we didn’t agree to it.

“Nicolis contacted Mr Romero again. However, he reportedly said they hadn’t had time to read the emails, and Mr Romero asked us to give him a timeline of events so he could see if their info corresponds with ours,” said Ms Williams.

Mi Casa told them it was doubtful they would get a refund and even if they did it would not be the full amount as lecturers had to be paid.

They also apparently said that the couple could sell their course to someone else.

“When we asked if they could do it on our behalf, they refused as ‘it would take business away from them’,” Ms Williams claimed.

Mr Romero replied on February 13 a few days later, as, “We could only recently consult with our lawyers”.

He warned that if the report tarnished the reputation of Mi Casa School of Languages in any way, “We will take legal action against yourself, your newspaper and the complainants,” and the correspondence was copied to their lawyers.

If my intention was to tarnish the reputation of Mi Casa, I would not have asked Mr Romero to comment. I just wanted to know what happened.

“I have perused the email trail and everything was clearly explained to Ms Williams and Mr Ferreira. Our terms and conditions are self-explanatory, and they accepted them,” Mr Romero said.

“They were well aware of the risks and our terms and conditions when enrolling. As per our policies and procedures, we also offered them alternative classes. But it is clear they have buyer’s remorse and are not willing to accept any other alternatives. Their only motivation is to recover their money.

“Whether they have paid upfront or not, the fees will have still been due to Mi Casa, and their account would then be with our collections attorneys. So it makes no difference. They are in breach of the contract.

“We have had over 19 400 students through our doors – who followed the exact same procedures as Ms Williams and Mr Ferreira – and we have not had one complaint. It is clear they are trying this route as a manipulation tactic. They know very well that they are in the wrong, and the paper trail proves it.

“As per our terms and conditions, they have up to six months in which to start their course. Every time there is a new course running, their names have to (as per procedure) be added to the class list, as they are registered and enrolled students. This is the case with the class they were added to in late January. The procedure, should the days and times not suit them, is to wait for the following intake.

“I want to make this very clear that they are most welcome to exercise their legal rights in the Small Claims Court or the Consumer Commission. This is the correct route to follow. The school will, however, have the right to counterclaim for damages.

“Should they continue with any form of slander campaign or public debate that results in the damage of reputation of our business, we will have no alternative but to institute legal action against them and yourself. Should any article appear with regards to this (which is nothing but manipulation tactics and completely not the truth, from Ms Williams and Mr Ferreira, we will take legal action against yourself, your newspaper and the complainants.”

Later Mr Romero told me it wasn’t a threat.

“I was merely expressing the facts and the consequences if and when false claims are made against reputable businesses publicly. We work tirelessly – over decades – to build up a reputation and will not allow bitter clients to destroy this. If we, or any other business is extorting a consumer, I am all for them to be exposed and then to reap the consequences of their actions.

“The couple know exactly what their options are, and I have personally been attending to their concerns. In the interim, we have incurred costs so we have to enforce our terms and conditions. At a point I was willing to make an exception for them and meet them halfway.

“However, they have left me with no choice but to stick with our original agreement.”

Ms Williams reluctantly accepted the decision. “Thanks for your efforts,” she said.