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

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

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