Homeowner's Web Gripe Draws Contractor Lawsuit

Monica Hammock, with son Max, is being sued by a contractor to whom she gave a bad review.
Monica Hammock, with son Max, is being sued by a contractor to whom she gave a bad review. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)

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By John Kelly
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

M onica Hammock and Edwin Castillo did not have the best experience with the contractor they hired in 2003 to work on their Mount Pleasant rowhouse. In fact, they said it was a year-long, $30,000 nightmare.

Where once Monica might have voiced her dissatisfaction to her neighbors or in complaints to the Better Business Bureau, she decided to take a more modern approach: She joined Angie's List, a nationwide Web site where consumers pay about $60 a year to read and post reviews of service providers.

"Awful," Hammock wrote last year of SCS Contracting Group. "Run away quickly. SCS basically takes your money and runs . . ." She outlined the Burtonsville-based company's alleged shortcomings and gave it an F rating in six categories, from quality to professionalism.

How did Stephen C. Sieber, owner of SCS, react? On Thursday, he filed a $6 million libel lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against Hammock, charging that she made false and defamatory statements on Angie's List with the intent of damaging his reputation.

He's also suing John Poole, another disgruntled client, who sent warnings about SCS to a neighborhood message group and posted this on Angie's List: "Absolutely terrible on all counts. Avoid!" (Poole works for washingtonpost.com as a videographer.)

This is part of the brave new world of the Web, where he-said/she-said arguments can be read by anyone with a PC and a broadband connection.

Sieber said he'd never heard of Angie's List until some customers told him that he was taking a beating on it. He called the Indianapolis-based company to complain. What right did it have, he wondered, to let unsubstantiated comments be posted? "Should Angie's List be able to become a finder of fact and create innuendo and create scare tactics and all of this?" he asked in an interview.

Sieber said that he'd like to sue Angie's List but that his attorney tells him it's protected. So he's going after Hammock and Poole instead.

Sieber said his crews didn't do the damage Hammock ascribed to him: the mistakenly cut support beam, the incorrectly wired heat pump.

Said Sieber: "What has happened is a great contractor like myself is subject to this gossip, innuendo, rumor -- all these things that homeowners talk about. And it's not fair."

Some of his customers dispute that he's a great contractor. In 1990, Sieber was the subject of a segment on ABC's "Primetime Live" in which Diane Sawyer wondered whether he should be dubbed "the Contractor From Hell." In 1992, after complaints from homeowners, he signed a settlement with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, agreeing to cease home improvement work for three years.

Sieber told me that he'd rather not comment on his Montgomery problems. "That goes back to a company long, long ago that has nothing to do with [the current case]," he said.


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