Sued for bad reviews on Angie’s List – what happened? (Updated)

Back in March I wrote a post about homeowners getting sued for bad reviews on Angie’s List and have been wondering what happened … I hadn’t seen any follow up stories until reading Eric Goldman’s Technology & Marketing Law blog. Since then I’ve found more info and this post has been appropriately updated.

To recap, home improvement contractor Stephen C. Sieber ( SCS Contracting Group ) launched multi-million dollar defamation lawsuits against 2 homeowners who wrote negative reviews (with F ratings) on Angie’s List, as originally published in this Washington Post story.

So what happened? According to the recent John Kelly article, Sieber dropped the lawsuits against the home owners. The lawsuits (Sieber v. Mattera and Sieber v. Hammock ) were settled and dismissed without prejudice a month after filing meaning that they agreed to settle but without setting any precedents. Sieber could technically sue the homeowners again for the same reason. From answers.com:

A plaintiff is not subsequently barred from suing the same defendant on the same cause of action when a court grants a dismissal without prejudice of his or her case. Such a dismissal operates to terminate the case. It is not, however, an ultimate disposition of the controversy on the merits, but rather it is usually based upon procedural errors that do not substantially harm the defendant’s rights. It effectively treats the matter as if the lawsuit had never been commenced, but it does not relieve a plaintiff of the duty of complying with the statute of limitations, the time limit within which his or her action must be commenced. A dismissal without prejudice is granted in response to a notice of dismissal, stipulations, or a court order.

Meanwhile, Monica Hammock’s $83,000 civil lawsuit against Stephen Sieber for damage done during her home renovation is still ongoing.

Interestingly, it seems that Sieber has been representing himself in the proceedings as his lawyer is listed as “PRO SE”. Maybe business has been a bit slow lately? Lawyers are pretty expensive.

Sieber wasn’t going to initially sue Angie’s List (as reported in the Washington Post) but ended up doing so for “malicious interference”. He was upset with the “consumer alert” Angie’s List sent out about him and charges that it

“was used solely as a public relations ploy to gain more market exposure and revenue for Defendants, at the expense of the business and reputation of SCS Contracting Group and Stephen C. Sieber personally.”

“I’m standing up for all the service providers who this will not happen to, ever.”

You can see the full details of the lawsuit at www.angiegotsued.com.

Several Angie’s List principals were named as defendants in the suit (including Angie Hicks herself) but they were subsequently dropped. Sieber is still suing Brownstone Publishing however; Brownstone “does business as” Angie’s List. You can monitor the online court records by going to:

https://www.dccourts.gov/pa/

and searching by case number.

  • Sieber v. Mattera – Case # 2007 CA 002063 B
  • Sieber v. Hammock – Case # 2007 CA 001726 B
  • Hammock v. Sieber – Case # 2006 CA 006940 B – pending
  • Sieber v. Brownstone Publishing -Case # 2007 CA 002549 – pending

When Green Products & Green Design Don’t Measure Up

Came across a post on AbbeyK’s on interior design blog that referred to this Interior Design Magazine article When Green Products Don’t Perform.

Non- or under-performing green product alternatives are a concern for every designer and specifier. I posed the issue to some of my colleagues and heard horror stories—bamboo flooring that comes apart in high traffic zones only after a couple of years, low odor and fast drying concrete sealers that do not adhere well and chip, scratch or stain easily, cork that fades relatively quickly under UV rays.

Failures such as these sour both the designer and client on green products and green design in general … we have found that it is incredibly important when a building is beginning its ‘journey’ towards sustainability that the first green products are successful.

My thought isn’t that this isn’t just a problem for designers, it’s a challenge for anyone interested in “going green” and promoting environmentally friendly alternatives. The green product is supposed to be “the good guy” – you want green products and green design to succeed. After all, you have to go out of your way to find and research green products, buy them, and usually pay more for them. Maybe you even tell your friends about them. To have them turn out to be a bust, well, it’s disillusioning.

So how do you prevent Green product failure?

The Interior Design article recommends you

  • Use green products in established categories and that have a track record
  • get “word of mouth” recommendations
  • request product testimonials from manufacturers
  • ensure proper installation & maintenance
  • try before you buy – ask for product samples
  • find a forum where green products are discussed, such as list serve Big Green

From personal experience and other research:

  • don’t use green alternatives where they won’t perform well
  • don’t go low end – “you get what you pay for”.

I would also suggest look for ratings and reviews on green products. If you are interested in trying green products, you are probably an early adopter and may well be the one writing these reviews … but they are out there if you look …

Do Blog Searches for products you want to try

You may stumble on a houseblogger who has tried it out and learned from the experience. Keywords to use would be the brand name and type of product. Then ask questions on the blog posts.

Visit Green Review Sites

The Green Home Guide offers editorial reviews on green products & services – “unbiased reviews and advice from professionals and homeowners like you”.

Five Limes – community / consumer reviews and ratings on green products and local stores and services.

Finally, back to the blog post that got me on this topic, AbbeyK makes a good point: if your green design product ends up in a landfill before it’s time, it “can end up not being green in the long run”.

Rate Your Real Estate Agent

HomeThinking

Thinking of buying or selling a house? Homethinking.com can be helpful in selecting a real estate agent or broker. The site’s promise: “Know which agent sold what and what people said about the job they did.”

It aims to help consumers target the most active and the most recommended agents through a combination of consumer reviews and Homethinking.com’s ranking system. “The agents who do the most work usually get the better price …”
Niki Scevak on RealEstateJournal.com

Read the in-depth review by The Smart Surfer.

Please note that the site has been updated since the story was published late February – the data should be the same but the look and functionality have been revamped.

Homeowners get sued for bad reviews on Angie’s List

Interesting column by John Kelly on the Washington Post about 2 different homeowners being sued by the same home improvement contractor for defamation. Monica Hammock is being sued by Stephen C. Sieber, owner of the SCS Contracting Group operating out of Maryland for $6 million “charging that she made false and defamatory statements on Angie’s List with the intent of damaging his reputation.” Another reviewer, John Poole, is also being sued.

Interestingly, Angie’s List is not being sued.

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.

This surprised me … because when I consulted with a lawyer recently about related issues, reviews and defamation came up for discussion. My lawyer said to be wary, that a review site could possibly be held responsible for “promulgating” the defamation of a bad review.

Maybe Angie’s List is protected by their standard User Agreement which states:

“I acknowledge and understand that I am solely responsible for all reporting information submitted by me to Angie’s List in connection with my membership, and that Angie’s List bears no responsibility whatsoever for statements made by me or anyone acting on my behalf. I agree to defend and indemnify Angie’s List if it is finally determined that the reporting information I provided to Angie’s List was false and inaccurate.”
– Angie’s List standard User Agreement

If Angie’s List was a news site, then it would be protected under “freedom of the press” where to prove defamation, you must also prove malicious intent. Angie’s List didn’t write the reviews any more than any other published reviews so no malicious intent. But is Angie’s List the press? Probably not …

I emailed the writer John Kelly for more information. Why is Angie’s List protected from being sued? Mr. Kelly wrote back “… his lawyer told him that the FCC’s Communications Decency Act protects web sites …”. I did some digging and there seems to be something in this – the courts have upheld that the CDA of 1997 “creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service”. Well ya learn something new every day. Thanks John for the prompt reply.

With “social media” and the rise of the “review culture”, it’s easy to forget you are responsible for what you write on the web – reviews are commonplace now. But did you realize that every time you write a review online, the fine print says you are legally responsible, not the site hosting your review? They may “own” your content as soon as you press the submit button, but if someone complains, they will say you are responsible.

If what you have to say in the review is true, then it’s not defamation. But it’s still a stressful – and expensive – situation to be in. The article mentions that Angie’s List “might help with Hammock and Poole’s legal bills”.

Let’s just say I’ve spent some time in the home improvement review business in my former life. From direct experience (stats!), the majority of homeowner reviews are positive. Writing bad reviews is not something homeowners take lightly. It wasn’t unknown for a homeowner to have a bad contractor experience, write a review about it, then have second thoughts before publishing. Other times homeowners have changed their minds after being contacted by the contractor or a lawyer. If the contractor handled the situation as a “customer service” matter, homeowners often upgraded the review of their own accord because of the efforts made to resolve the matter. So based on first-hand experience, bad reviews are more likely to be underreported, not the other way around.

Yet Mr. Sieber had bad reviews from unconnected Angie’s List reviewers. That’s a red flag for me. Furthermore:

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.

Big red flag. He says that stuff is way in the past. And Ms. Hammock’s problems occurred in 2003.

Well what about this Better Business Bureau Reliability Report that says Mr. Sieber has had 5 complaints lodged in the last 36 months?? To be fair, most of these have been resolved and no complaints in the last 12 months. But overall, there seems to be a trend here.

The irony? Mr. Sieber was interviewed by another writer from the Washington Post about homeowner-contractor relationships just a few months ago, not as an offender but as a contractor commentator. Uh, doesn’t the Washington Post check references? Kidding!

Anyway, here’s what he had to say about the homeowner-contractor relationship:

“It’s sort of like a marriage,” said Stephen Sieber, owner of SCS Contracting Group in Burtonsville. “There’s a lot of different people and a lot of different variables. It’s a challenging situation.”

Sounds like Mr. Sieber is in need of a little “marriage counseling”, and then some.

Contractors speak: why good help is hard to find

A while back I read an article on SFGate.com answering a question from a homeowner who was having a hard time finding a home improvement contractor. She was trying to get three bids with references, without success.

“While it sounds prudent, I live in Vallejo and I can’t get a single pro to come out to my house, let alone three of them. I have been stood up many times and have been disappointed with the few that have come out.”
Burnett Brothers Q & A, San Francisco Chronicle

The writers advised her to work her network (friends, family, coworkers, etc.). Then try local real estate agents, who usually have a stable of professionals to call on when getting homes ready for sale. Finally, they suggested checking out Angie’s List, an online home improvement review site that has been getting good publicity.

Their observations on the root of the problem:

In our minds, the cause of the dearth in tradespeople is twofold: the real estate boom and the lack of skilled workers — especially those willing to take on home-improvement projects. It’s simple supply and demand. Too many jobs are chasing too few workers. The good contractors can afford to cherry-pick, and you don’t want the bad ones.

Since then, they’ve published a follow up article with more suggestions from readers such as trying other websites, homeowner associations, the BBB (Better Business Bureau), and even the NARI (National Association for the Remodeling Industry).

The most interesting thing about this follow up, though, was the responses from contractors.

You know you’re supposed to vet contractors before you hire but did you know they also vet you?

Trust. If the contractor doesn’t think the homeowner trusts him, it will be an uphill battle to get the job done. So some will turn it down. Do you blame them?

How did they find me? Contractors trust referrals from people they know more than from the internet … just like you do.

I decided to do a bit more digging and found this thread on ContractorTalk.com. The question for discussion: Should homeowners have to provide references for contractors? “To find out if the Homeowner was a good customer, or a PITA or Deadbeat”. An interesting and insightful read, if you dare.

Multiple bid situations are not a desirable situation for a contractor. It takes a lot of time and effort to put together a bid … to not have a realistic chance of getting it. As one anonymous contractor said “why compete when the market doesn’t require me to?”.

Operating costs. Doing small jobs doesn’t make financial sense. And estimates aren’t really free. “The cost of visiting the job and performing the estimate has to be worked into the cost of the work”.

“Next, there is a cost to everyone from selecting the too-low price. The last thing you want on your job is a contractor who is not making any money. When people realize what they are doing isn’t profitable, they take all kinds of shortcuts to make up the loss.

“If you sound like you know what you want, and it’s a clear, straight-up process, a contractor will be much more likely to spend the time bidding and communicating with you because they know it is more likely to be a successful job.”

The last word from the Burnett Brothers:

The bottom line is to define and communicate the scope of the work. Change orders are expensive. And expect to pay a fair price. If you do this, you’re more likely to get a contractor to show up when promised, actually do the work you want and charge the estimated price.

Read more: Contractors weigh in on why good help is so hard to find on SFGate.com

HomeOpinion.com – New Online Homeowner Advice Community

There is great value in sharing and learning from the Home Improvement & Renovation experiences of others – it’s the raison d’être behind RenoVine.com.

And then I stumbled on a press release for HomeOpinion.com which embodies this very concept.  Fate? Kismet?  “Hundredth Monkey Effect”?  Whatever it is, it’s all good for us homeowners!

The message: “Where homeowners help homeowners.  Find out how to make the most of your home and share the lessons you’ve learned from past projects.”  From the “tag cloud” on the forums page, hot topics are kitchens, bathrooms, remodeling, cabinets, countertops and the discussions range from DIY “how to” questions to dealing with contractors etc.

The site is currently in Beta so when you go there, you won’t find a lot but it would be interesting to go back in a few months and see how it’s doing.  I’m putting it on my list … 

QuoteCity.com – This Site is Contagious!

And I don’t mean that in a good way either!

QuoteCity.com - PWA_JA Virus Found

Nothing says quality like an unexpected dose of PWS-JA (a trojan virus), courtesy Home Improvement Contractor and Homeowner matching site QuoteCity.com. Let the buyer be wary.

Automate your Home Maintenance To Dos in 2007

Ah the holidays, a time relax and reflect.  On Boxing Day, I was so relaxed it dawned on me that I had not shut off the water valve to the tap outside.  I was stunned.  Visions of frozen pipes and blow dryers danced before my eyes!

Now how did that happen?  I think it’s the speed at which we live our lives.  There’s always more to do, more to remember, and not enough time.  So what to do?  Well, I found some pretty nifty home maintenance planning tools at ServiceMagic.com to help you manage your home throughout the year.  I hear you.  “Who wants another To Do list?  I’m not going to remember to check the site etc.”

Ah well – that’s the beauty of it, you don’t have to go check the website or remember much of anything.  This is (almost) 2007 and you can sign up for an rss feed to the calendar.   So significant Home Maintenance To Dos and reminders get sent to your news reader or browser desktop “just in time” – automatically.  Service Magic’s, Calendar of Home Improvement To-Do’s

Check it out.  Not all the tips are going to apply to everyone (and some sound like thinly veiled attempts to generate leads for ServiceMagic) but even so, it’s still a valuable service that will help keep your home renovation & maintenance efforts top of mind throughout the year.

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