When Can I Hold On to Assets
Q. When I recently did a consulting job for a company, they lent me a digital camera to work with. Now the company is running out of money and can not pay my fee, and I want to keep the camera as security. But the company says I must return it. What should I do?
A. In your case we have to make a careful distinction between two questions. The first question is, who is really right - you or the company? The second question is, what do you do until you have clarified the first question?
I cannot help you with the first issue. It is a basic principle of fairness and justice that it's impossible to give an unbiased answer after having heard only one side of a dispute. A final ruling is only possible if you and the camera's owner both have the opportunity to present your positions before an unbiased judge or arbitrator. Jewish law explicitly forbids giving a ruling regarding a dispute without giving a fair hearing to both parties.
However, we can discuss what to do in the meantime. It's clear that you have a convincing case to make. You acquired the camera in a completely permissible fashion, and the owner does not question that they owe you money.
Since you have a sincere, non-frivolous claim to this asset, there's no reason you can't hold on to it until your dispute is resolved. But since you cannot be sure you really have a right to it, you have a responsibility to cooperate in clarifying your rights. I suggest you tell the company that you are holding on to the camera as security against your fee, but you recognize that they claim you must return it, and you are willing to resolve the question promptly either through compromise, arbitration, or litigation.
There are two main principles we should keep in mind. The first is that you should act only on the basis of a sincere and reasonable claim. Don't look for excuses to hold on to someone else's property in the hope that perhaps they won't take the trouble to reclaim it. The Torah commands us to make a special effort to return lost objects (Exodus 23:4); certainly we shouldn't do the opposite and go out of our way to avoid returning them!
Second, you should present dispute resolution as an opportunity, not a threat. There's a big difference between saying, "Let's work this out..." and saying, "So sue me!" You should have a sincere desire to resolve the dispute, rather than the intent to use the time, money and effort of litigation as a deterrent or weapon to defend your position.
SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 4:1, 12:2, 17:5; Ketzot HaChoshen 4:1.