When Richard King got embroiled in a rental dispute with his landlord in the Washington suburbs, he turned to the Fairfax County consumer protection office.
But in spite of the agency's 23 staff members and its yearly budget of $454,000, he found the department virtually helpless. He wound up arguing his own case in court and though he won, he fully expects to lose on appeal.
"I think they [the consumer department] try to be helpful, but their hands are tied," grouses King. "All they can do is be a nuisance."
Had King's complaint been filed in neighboring Montgomery County, the outcome might have been radically different. Armed with subpoena powers and the power to order businesses to cease and desist improper practices, Montgomery's consumer agency says it sucessfully resolves 86 percent of its cases.
In contrast, Fairfax, six-year-old department has few such tools at its disposal. It says it is able to resolve about 50 percent of the 4,500 complaints it receives each year, relying largely on moral persuasion.
The reason the agency has more bark than bite lies with Virginia's business-dominated state legislature, which must approve the legal powers granted to local consumer offices. Montgomery and other Maryland countless enjoy a form of home rule in deciding such matters.
To guide consumers, the Fairfax office outlines a five-step procedure for resolving complaints, but voluntary compliance by the business involved is a key ingredient for success.
The steps include collecting documents, contracting the firm and presenting the complaint. If that fails, the brochure recommends filing a formal complaint with the department in order for mediation to begin. If mediation fails, the consumer is directed to seek binding arbitration, and as a last resort to file suit in General District Court.
Richard King followed the department's advice. He tried to mediate the disputed bill with his landlord, and when the landlord refused to return a security deposit before the total amount of the bill was paid, King filed a complaint with the department.
When the department proved unable to resolve the dispute, King requested binding arbitration. The landlord refused and King filed suit.
King won his case, but only, he says, because the landlord did not return with a proper citation within the time period allowed by the court. The landlord has now appealed the case, and King is sure he will lose.
"If a consumer goes against a company, even if they have an inept lawyer, he'll probably lose. You just don't know the ropes," says King. "I wasn't a Perry Mason but I think I should have been given a fair shot." King says he spent his day in court listening to the judge discuss the case with the landlord's attorney.
Because Fairfax County has no small claims court, the few consumer cases that do end in suits are argued i n General District Court, which is bound by strict rules of evidence.
Judge Frank Perry, who presides over many of the small claims cases, says there is "no question" that the side represented by an attorney will make a better case.
Judge Richard Horan agrees. "It's like Abraham Lincoln said: 'He who represents himself has a fool for a client.'"
Few consumers, frustrated in their initial attempts, take a company to court. Karen Schlegel of Annandale, who had her new car repossessed because bills sent to the wrong address remained unpaid, had planned to sue, but instead paid up. "I think it's kind of useless. I mean me against them, not a chance," she says.
About 20 percent of consumers, like Schlegel, who file complaints with the department walk away dissatisfied. Gloria Kornasiewicz, an investigation supervisor with the department, says the department often feels the consumer has a legitimate gripe, but is unable to garner suficient evidence to prove the case.
It took consumer activities four years to get the legislature to enact the watered-down Consumer Protection Act of 1977, which allows the Fairfax department, thorough the county executive, to pursue complaints where there is substantial proof of misrepresentation of goods and services.
The law gives the county executive the authority to request what is called an assurance of voluntary compliance -- a promise that the actd will not be violated again -- from a business that has clearly violated the law.
In the last two years, the department has sought only three compliances. Lin Quitmeyer deputy director of the department, says the compliance is a last resort used only after numerous complaints have been filed against a particular merchant.
Though Quitmeyer says the act has "given us a little more clout," she is clearly unhappy with the scope of the consumer protection law. "We wanted subpoena and cease and desist powers, but through the legislature it ended up a lot less than that," she says. "The argument they used was that Virginia doesn't need this kind of thing -- we have reputable businesses here."
Peter Drymalski, president of the Virginia Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, says the existing Consumer Protection Law is weak because it only addresses misrepresentation. "It needs to go beyond that and deal with the question of unfairness" he says.
But Quitmeyer says it will be at least four or five years before the legislature considers any substantive addition to the act. "It was just like pulling teeth to get what we got," she says.
Although investigations is its major division, the Fairfax department also has a weights and measures division that routinely checks supermarket scales and gas pumps for accuracy, and a research division that puts out literature and includes two utilities analysts.
Ron Mallard, director of the department, complains that the office lacks adequate manpower to research the myriad directives that come primarily from the Board of Supervisors, and which sometimes take 10 months to complete. The research department is currently working on a homeowners manual, an auto repairs manual and more than 20 other research directives.
Though the department is limited in its enforcement authority, it has more scope than most of the others around the state. Says Drymalski: "I think I speak for most of the other counties when I say we are quite envious of Fairfax's position."