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.
Hammock, who has filed an $83,000 civil lawsuit against Sieber, says her speech is protected by the First Amendment.
"This is my opinion," she said. "I have the right to put my opinion on Angie's List about what the contractor did." She said it's no different from chatting over the fence with a neighbor.
"If he is able to sue, then the value of Angie's List depreciates," Hammock said. "People aren't going to be willing to submit reviews if they could be threatened with a lawsuit."
The same thought has occurred to Angie's List, a for-profit company founded 12 years ago that has 500,000 members, 22,000 in the Washington area. It has been conducting an investigation of SCS. It sent an e-mail warning to its members and yesterday issued a news release announcing a "consumer alert" about the company. It also might help with Hammock and Poole's legal bills.
"The point of the list is for people to share their experiences," said Angie's List founder Angie Hicks. "They should not be intimidated by contractors." Although the online reviews may be unsigned, Hicks says, the company knows which members post them and has safeguards to keep people from unfairly trashing service providers.
Lawyers often say this about libel cases: The truth is an absolute defense.
Hammock says the truth is on her side. She cites the fact that Sieber recognized the anonymous Angie's List posting as hers: "If I didn't put my name, how does he knows it's mine? To me, it's an admission of guilt. All I did was state the facts. It's like he recognized the damage."
Tomorrow: How can consumers protect themselves?