Cutting through the red tape
At least six families lost a total of $150,000 in costs associated with unreimbursed down payments and shoddy workmanship by a Grass Valley contractor, and now they want their money back.
But they may never recover all of their money, legal officials say.
They’re just little people trying to fight what they say is an unscrupulous contractor. Their efforts to get their money back has taken them on a journey through a maze of government agencies and the courts, revealing hurdles and red tape.
“I can’t stand to see someone doing this to my friends and neighbors,” said Lee French, of Alta Sierra, a disgruntled client leading the charge against the contractor. “It’s not right.”
The Union is not using the contractor’s name because no criminal charges have been filed against him. His former customers want to raise awareness about the difficulties of recovering losses in a civil dispute, French said.
Workmanship, materials a problem
The contractor demanded 50 percent up front to install granite countertops in French’s kitchen; the law allows him to ask for 10 percent, French later discovered.
Then, the contractor’s employees did a shoddy job.
“The workers were inexperienced, nonprofessional people they hired off the street,” French said.
When the contractor delivered the granite, it was not the kind French had ordered.
“The owner came out, and he and I almost came to blows,” French said. “He was hollering that that’s all he could get, we’d have to accept that.”
The contractor “misrepresented their installation abilities, quality of work and professional expertise of their personnel and installers,” according to a letter written by Zelna Lee Morrow, of Alta Sierra.
At her house, Morrow wrote, workers installed sinks unevenly. One of the sinks fell and hit Morrow’s plumber in the head, so the plumber reinstalled the sinks properly.
Janis and Wayne Siegfried, of Penn Valley, said they had to stop work due to myriad problems with workmanship, including part of a counter duct-taped into place, uneven tiles and parts ordered for no reason.
“Our rare granite countertops were destroyed during installation by workers sent out by (the contractor) that were not skilled in the installation of granite. Consequentially, we had to settle for another type of granite to replace our entire kitchen,” wrote Doug and Rosetta Edwards, of Alta Sierra.
“The guys in trucks left us with the dustiest mess you ever saw,” French said. “You’d think it was a demolition crew.”
No insurance, tiny bond
French and the other families, many elderly couples, felt defrauded, he said. They got together and mapped out their goals: Getting their money back and getting the contractor’s license revoked.
“I found there were a lot of hurdles to go through,” French said.
He checked the contractor’s license, which was for a different company than the one the contractor was representing through his advertising.
He also discovered the contractor did not carry workmen’s compensation insurance. French had unwittingly been taking a financial risk.
“If one of them was hurt, I was (liable),” he said.
French had investigators with the Contractors State License Board come out to his house three times as part of their research, he said.
The next steps were contacting the contractor’s bond company, the Better Business Bureau and filing a complaint against the contractor.
He found out the contractor had a $12,500 bond to cover all his liabilities – a fraction of the money angry customers feel they are due.
French took the contractor to small claims court, and a judge determined the bond would be dispersed among the claimants, French said.
The Contractors State License Board ultimately revoked the contractor’s license due to the victims’ complaints, French said.
To sue or not to sue
Lee wanted to see if criminal charges could be pressed.
Police told him they cannot show there was criminal intent on the part of the contractor. The bad business practices do not add up to a crime, Grass Valley police Capt. Dave Remillard said.
“This is a civil matter,” Remillard said. “The customers signed a contract with a licensed contractor who, they say, provided substandard work. That is an issue for the governing agency, which in this case is the Contractors State License Board.”
Unless police can show a crime was committed, there is nothing police can do other than refer dissatisfied customers to the civil court process and forward a report to whatever governing board is involved, Remillard added.
Now that the contractor’s license has been suspended and the contractor’s bond will be dispersed among the parties, French’s next course of action could be to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit, Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell said.
“If the license has been revoked, that should be a relatively easy court trial,” Newell said. “First, you would need to see if the contractor has any assets. Just like with crimes where restitution is sought, if a person does not have any money or assets, unfortunately, the victims are out of luck.”
People should always do a cost-benefit analysis and talk to a lawyer about the pros and cons of suing before filing a lawsuit, Newell said.
Lee said he won’t be satisfied until he and other victims recover monetary losses.
Preventative measures are less expensive
Before signing a contract, consumers always should follow the Contractors State License Board recommendations for choosing a quality contractor, said Wendy Schutt, operations manager at Sierra Foothills Construction in Grass Valley.
Schutt, who works for Nevada County Contractors Association President Keoni Allen, said she uses the state license board’s Web site to check out all the subcontractors who do business with the company.
On the board’s Web site, consumers can find educational materials about hiring contractors and the construction process. They can also check the status of a contractor’s license.
In addition to checking with the state licensing board, Newell recommends consumers check references and talk with a contractor’s former customers.
“Whenever you have any work done, you should go to whatever registering agency there is and look and see if they have a valid license, insurance and bonds in place,” Newell said. “Asking for references is very important. Don’t take someone’s word that he’s the best contractor in the county. Always check the Internet to see if there are any complaints. Do your own detective work.”
To contact Staff Writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4236.
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