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Paycheck mistakes

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TESS VIGELAND: Finders keepers. Losers weepers. OK so I'm not 12 anymore, but if I got an extra paycheck in the mail -- one I wasn't supposed to get -- it'd be hard not to chant that little ditty to myself. It's not that I'm unethical, but is it really my problem to solve? Sally Herships had to answer that question recently.

SALLY HERSHIPS: In February I got an extra paycheck. No, not a bonus -- a mistake. I was overpaid by $1,200. I tried to return the money, but it took me two months of phone calls and e-mails just to find out how. And even then there were problems.

SYLVIA IN HR: Hello?

ME: Hi Sylvia?

SYLVIA: Yes?

ME: Hi, it's Sally Herships.

SYLVIA: Hi, how are you?

ME: Hi good thanks. Um, I was wondering if you got the check I sent?

That's me calling human resources to ask when they planned to cash the check I sent them.

SYLVIA: I did get it and I'm gonna forward it to Ben because he deals with part-time faculty.

ME: OK

SYLVIA: And all he's gonna do is fill out a PRA so that it can go to HR and then they'll deduct the funds from the account code.

ME: And how much longer will that take?

SYLVIA: Knowing this place? Forever.

That was April. Nothing had changed by June . . .

SYLVIA: Hello?

ME: Hi Sylvia, this is Sally Herships calling

SYLVIA: Hi

ME: Do you remember me?

or August.

SYLVIA: Hello?

ME: Sylvia?

SYLVIA: Yeah.

Now look. I'm not a saint. Sure, I wanted to do the right thing, but I also wanted to make sure this wouldn't come back to bite me in the, well you know where. What if I spent the money and my employer suddenly wised up and asked for it back?

But apparently not everyone asks themselves that question.

Linda from California says her bank accidentally deposited $1,500 into her account. She didn't want to use her last name, because unlike me, she and her husband didn't try to return the money.

LINDA: Oh no, no, I didn't contact my bank at all. If we discussed it, the conversation probably went something like, should we tell them? Nah, are you kidding? We definitely just decided to take the money and run.

A friend of mine, here in New York City, also came into some unexpected cash. He's a composer and one day he got an unusual royalty check in the mail. Keep in mind: his name is Jonathan Mitchell.

JONATHAN MITCHELL: I'm really excited because this is like my first check I've gotten. And I look at it and it's for $2,100. And I'm like this is awesome. I am set! And so I look and it was all for a song called "Both Sides Now." I haven't written anything called both sides now. What's going on? And it turns out Joni Mitchell wrote "Both Sides Now." So I'm holding Joni Mitchell's royalty check.

Jonathan never cashed Joni's check, but he also didn't return it. Linda took the money and ran. Are they fools . . .or am I? What are my rights here? I need a lawyer!

Mara Levin is an employment litigator at Herrick, Feinstein in New York City. She's been practicing law for 20 years.

MARA LEVIN: It would be a great situation if I could say to the consumer well if you've gotten something then have fun with it. But the bottom line is, if you've received something and it's not yours to keep, you gotta give it back. There aren't any excuses to think of which would enable you to keep the money.

Not exactly what I wanted to hear. But here's the good news: Mara also told me the statute of limitations for these cases is six years.

So legally speaking, I could put that extra money in an Interest bearing account while I wait for my employers to cash the check I sent. If they haven't by 2012 . . . jackpot! And even if I don't get to keep the original cash, the interest would be mine. All mine! But is it Immoral? Afraid for my soul, I sought absolution from an expert.

RANDY COHEN: You've done the ethical thing.

Randy Cohen, the ethicist for the New York Times.

COHEN: You've done everything absolutely right. You've made a good faith effort to correct an error in your favor. And that's the end of your obligation. I mean you do not have to make it your life's work to correct their error. Ethics doesn't require that we be saints it doesn't require that we be perfect it requires that in general we're decent people. You've done much more then I would have done. I sort of envy you, I mean there's a sort of aura about you where people just give you extra checks.

Well, I may get them, but unfortunately I may not get to keep them.

Just as I finished this story, the budget office got back to me. They'd finally found the check I wrote in April. It's on its way to accounting via interoffice mail. They still have no idea when it will be cashed. Fingers crossed, it'll take about six years.

VIGELAND: Sally Herships is an independent producer in New York City. We guarantee she will not get extra money from us.

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