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I am so mad at the utility company for charging me unjust fees that I figured I should do better than get mad and instead get even. I plan to get a load of pennies at the bank, dump them unrolled into a big bucket, and pay my bill at their office in thousands of pennies. What do you think of that?!
Words by Nelson P. Miller
Although you may be thinking of not getting mad but instead getting even, sometimes it is better to neither get mad nor get even.
If you feel that you must protest a payment through some communication or action, then find a sounder, more civil, and more lawful way than pennies. Paying in pennies as an act of protest or retribution is not particularly original.
It has also produced mixed results for those who attempted it and bad results for a few. Your purpose in doing so may be in part to embarrass and inconvenience your payment’s recipient, even as you call attention to your protest of the payment. Chances are pretty good though that the person to whom you deliver or attempt to deliver the pennies will be neither embarrassed nor inconvenienced.
The law just does not give you much help with this form of protest. Those who pay in pennies believe and insist that pennies are valid currency that others must accept as payment. They are only half right.
The federal Coinage Act does indeed provide in relevant part that “United States coins and currency … are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues.”
Pennies are good money. Yet the Coinage Act does not state that utilities and other businesses or local agencies must accept pennies (or any other particular money form) in payment. To the contrary, many businesses and agencies refuse various payment forms while welcoming or even requiring other forms.
Some insist on cash, refusing credit cards and checks. Others refuse cash, insisting on credit cards, checks, or special tokens. Still others refuse to accept large bills over, say, $20, simply for security reasons.
To be “legal tender” as the statute states simply means that pennies are a valid offer of payment, not that the other must accept the offer. To tender payment is to provide it, to offer it. A shopkeeper or utility office need not accept the offer.
Indeed, at times they may decide to accept no form of money, either because they are busy with other affairs such as inventorying or working with another customer or fixing the cash register.
Refusing payment or limiting it to certain forms may not always be good business, but it is their right to conduct their affairs as they see best, whether for security, convenience, efficiency, or other reason.
If the utility office does not want to deal with a bucket of pennies – and who would, which is exactly why you are thinking of tendering it- then it does not have to do so. The U.S. Federal Reserve would have to take your pennies, but no one else.
So what has happened when people have tried to pay in pennies?
In one instance, prosecutors charged the payer with disorderly conduct when he strewed the pennies across the payment counter and onto the floor.
In another instance, the payer incurred a late fee double the amount owed when the agency reasonably refused the raft of pennies for lack of available staff to handle them.
In another instance, an agency was happy to receive payment in any form including pennies but reasonably insisted that the payer sit idly by while the agency verified accurate payment by counting all the pennies.
In yet another instance, the payer filled the payment envelope with feces, sickening officials who opened it and subjecting the payer to civil liability for inflicting distress.
You see, the receiver retains control over their premises and business methods. Indeed, you generally find it both difficult and hazardous, not to mention generally unproductive and unwise, to spite anyone at any time over any matter. One sympathetic state legislator actually proposed legislation that would have required government agencies to accept payment in pennies, but the proposal went nowhere.
Spite, vengeance, and retribution through inconvenient means just generally make bad policy. Instead, if you have a legitimate complaint with the utility charge, then consult a lawyer. Even if the issue is over just a few dollars, lawyers can file class actions that remedy and even punish wrongdoers for cheating customers out of small amounts.
Consumer-protection, civil-rights, and other special laws may also provide for statutory damages, costs, and attorney fees to ensure that you have an opportunity to redress wrongs. So instead, consult a lawyer about the wrong the utility inflicted on you. By the way, tax law may be to blame for pennies, anyway.
Sales tax is largely why we continue to need pennies. Otherwise, sellers of goods and services could just charge round figures, and payers would pay in round bills.
To read more from Nelson Miller, check out his book Top 100 Questions Friends & Family Ask a Lawyer on Amazon.
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