Can my pay be refused if one of the client’s two managers disliked my work?

Freelancer’s Question: I've freelanced in motion graphics for 15 years, and recently took a job through a recruiter. The client wanted me to create 3D text animations for two documentaries at the same time. I used the same template for both projects, producing identical results.

Project Manager 1 was delighted with the work, but Project Manager 2 pulled the plug on my work for his project several days before the deadline as he didn’t think it would be met. I continued to work for PM 1, and we delivered her project to the client's satisfaction.

Interestingly, PM 2's animation could have been delivered, but his decision to suddenly terminate it early without any consultation prevented delivery. Now, the recruiter says the client won't pay for the second project because it was not to PM 2's satisfaction, and was “delivered late” (despite being cancelled before the deadline). Therefore, the client only wants to pay for half of the five weeks I worked!

But I'm contracted on a day rate and so any days worked within the contract are payable units, right? So what are my rights, as I believe the only legitimate non-payment would be if the work was unprofessional or substandard, which it was not. Do I have a leg to stand on, legally, or can a client really just refuse to pay afterwards if they don't like something?

Expert’s Answer: From reading the information that you have kindly provided, your matter seems to be contractual. In the absence of a written contract we have to rely upon an oral contract that was made between yourself and the other party.

What the client would rely on

Thus, it can be nigh on impossible to recover from a situation which leaves you short of a bob or two, or even quite a bit more than that!

If there is no agreement then it is going to be very challenging. The client will no doubt rely on any witness evidence, notably documents or correspondence leading up to the parties entering the oral contract.

This would help to evidence the parties’ intentions (that you both would enter an agreement where you would provide satisfactory work for payment by Project Manager 2).

How you could defend yourself

Consider, if Project Manager 2 suggests that your work was not up to scratch and that as a result, with no agreement, it seemed sensible to terminate because the work was so bad. In response, you could refer to the fact that the work provided to Project Manager 1 was perfect with no complaints.

Therefore, it is up to Project Manager 2 to evidence that your work was not up to a satisfactory quality. In the absence of a written contract, the burden will be on Project Manager 2 to evidence the existence of any peculiar express terms of the contract – i.e. any specific requirements that the work had to comply with that were stated when the contract was entered into.

Termination: the one-sided, and the water-tight

So, in our view, the contract remains valid. If the contract did have termination clauses, then it seems to me to be perfectly acceptable for the client to terminate the oral agreement, notwithstanding the fact that the same identical project was approved.

But at the same time, if there was an agreement in place it would detail and specify termination provisions. 

Be aware, a one-sided termination clause is unlikely to be in your best interests and you ought to insist on water-tight termination provisions. For example, consider; what would happen if the customer went in to liquidation?

Our view? It's unbalanced and unfair

All in all, based on the information you have provided, it seems to me to be unfair and unbalanced that they have terminated you in the way which you outline.

Finally, in order to best assess your contractual position, it is sensible to try and identify the following:

  1. Note the details down of the oral contract (the express terms);
  2. Identify if this is a business-to-business contract or a business-to-consumer contract;
  3. Depending on the above, certain terms may have been implied into the contract (usually by statute if the contract was entered into in the course of business); and lastly;
  4. Check to see the very last correspondence or information stated before the contract was entered into.

Good luck with the above four, and by all means reach out to us if we can help any further!

The expert was trainee solicitor Fatima Amedu of freelancers’ legal advisory Lawdit Solicitors.