News

Contractor files big claim for bad Yelp review

Local homeowner in dispute over lead cleanup in her backyard

Online reviews are a fact of life for today's businesses, but one local story illustrates how some are coming to grips with the effects of a bad review.

A Cupertino-based construction contractor, Craftsmen's Guild, filed an arbitration claim last week for $70,000 against a Mountain View family for a bad Yelp review. The one sentence claim reads "Baseless defamation damaging our business and false accusation plus."

In the review, Ania Mitros of Chiquita Avenue says Craftsmen's Guild left behind toxic lead debris after renovating the 1930s home that she and her husband live in, endangering their 1-year-old son, with whom she was pregnant during construction. But Craftsmen's Guild denies that it caused the problem, or that it was significant. And because the family left a bad review on Yelp, the company is now asking for $70,000 in damages for defamation.

"They put wrong information on Yelp," said Craftsmen's Guild co-owner Matt Amini, who managed the project. "They lie and they are damaging our business. I'm losing a lot of business because of the bad review from Yelp."

Ania Mitros disagrees that the review was false, and said she has offered to correct any false information. Amini claims, "everything (Mitros) is saying is lying." "My Yelp review falls clearly under the umbrella of free speech," Mitros said.

Debris problem

Mitros said that a year ago, she found paint and plaster chips in the dirt outside her back door, where Amini's workers had piled debris. A store-bought kit showed traces of lead in the chips -- not unusual for the paint and plaster of pre-1970s homes.

"I was pretty stressed out, I was kind of scared," Mitros said. "I was concerned whether they would help us clean it up."

Mitros had given birth to her son a year earlier and he had played in the area the lead-contaminated debris was found. Fortunately, she said, doctors found no lead poisoning in her son as it can cause irreversible brain damage in children, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Tests eventually found levels of leaded dust that "may be considered a hazard" in the heating system Craftsmen's Guild installed, on a backyard deck, and trace amounts elsewhere. The testing and cleanup recommended by a lead assessor, including replacement of backyard soil, cost the family $11,400.

Craftsmen's Guild co-owner Matt Amini denies that his crew left behind any debris, or that what was found was dangerous. He claims that lead levels found were "much lower than EPA standards or in the grey area." He also pointed to a 2008 lead assessment conducted for the property which found similar amounts of lead in the soil before the project began.

Experts disagree

Adding to the disagreement are dueling opinions of the lead assessors each side hired, as well as an e-mail that may have been misunderstood as an extortion letter. In that letter, Mitros complains about construction delays and promises to revise her Yelp review "with the goal of sticking to facts and reducing editorializing." Complaining of delays, she says, "To put it in dollars, three months of my time is $30,000. I can't repeat the first three months of my baby's life."

Amini said he took that to mean that Mitros wanted $30,000 in exchange for taking down her Yelp review, and that the family "came up with the lead story" when it didn't work, he said in an e-mail. "All they are doing is trying a kind of extortion," Amini said.

Mitros denied that, saying in an e-mail that she didn't mean to "write between the lines."

Later, Amini offers up to $5,000 for Mitros to take her reviews down, or Amini would take the matter to arbitration, according to e-mails.

Differing opinions on clean up

Lead assessors clearly disagree on the most costly part of the cleanup -- replacing the home's backyard soil.

The state-certified lead assessor Mitros hired, Lafayette-based LaCroix Davis, concluded that "It is LCD's opinion that although the 'soil samples' exhibit a low concentration of lead; the size and non-homogeneous distribution of lead-contaminated construction debris in the top layer of soil poses an ingestion hazard for small children."

But Amini's state-certified lead assessor, San Jose-based Isotech Environmental, reviewed the same results and concluded that "there were no basis for replacement of soil on the property, because the lead content in samples were well below the established hazard limit." LCD's "recommendation regarding removal and replacement of soil can not be supported by established EPA or HUD regulations."

Amini blamed leaded dust found on a staircase and in heating ducts on contractors who did work on the second floor of the home. But Mitros said that would have been impossible, because only carpet and linoleum were removed on the second floor, and lead paint was not disturbed.

Arbitration money pit?

When the Mitros family signed their contract with Craftsmen's Guild, it specified their agreement to an American Arbitration Association process in which a mediator may attempt to resolve "any controversies arising out of the contract." If necessary, an arbitrator weighs both sides of the matter and makes a decision that must be adhered to by both parties. It's not free -- one day of mediation costs $350.

Mitros hopes the evidence is on her family's side and that it doesn't cost her too much to prove it.

"Our contract doesn't say anything about free speech or defamation, or the extent to which we can express our feelings about the project afterwards," she said.

The bottom line, Mitros said, is that her construction agreement with Craftsmen's Guild promised that "the premises shall be left in a neat broom clean condition."

Honoring that "would have provided a level of cleanliness that would have eliminated the construction debris as a potential ingestion hazard," said a letter to Mitros from her lead assessor.

Whether Craftsmen's Guild should pay for the cleanup, and whether Mitros must pay for "baseless defamation," may be settled in the next few months.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Spaghetti Freddie
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 28, 2011 at 11:32 am

The $30,000 for 3 months of her life that she will never get back was all I needed to know. After you start throwing around punitive damage type stuff, it's pretty hard to argue you're benevolence.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by BD
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 28, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Well now there's even more information about these guys on the internet, even if the arbitrator has them take the yelp review down. Maybe they should have quit while they were ahead.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kathy
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Feb 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm

When you call in the lawyers, everyone loses, except the lawyers, bad move on Amini's part. The Craftsmen Guild has all 4 and 5 star reviews, why draw attention to the only negative review.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Lori
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 28, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Most of us living grew up on lead based paint, mercury fillings, toxic fumes etc. There is never going to be a germ or toxic free zone at this point. That is why the regulators have established "safe limits" of the various chemicals in the soil and water. Broom clean does not mean soil contamination removal. If she is that concerned about it she should have hired an enviornmentalist to clean it up before beginning construction.
I wonder if she dines in restaurants or uses a cell phone?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ronn K
a resident of Jackson Park
on Feb 28, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Yelp provides a platform for bad customers to write bad reviews about businesses. They promote negative reviews of companies through their rating system by only allowing customers to say "cool" "funny" or "helpful" about reviews that people write. What happened to reviewing the review like on Amazon.com? Check out www.thereviewbuster.com for reputation defender and reputation management services


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mr. DePortum
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Mar 1, 2011 at 3:26 am

Another Money grabbing scheme.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dr. Collateral Damage
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Which one is the worst? Lead-based paint, mercury fillings, toxic fumes, or cell-tower radiation?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 2, 2011 at 12:30 pm

I think the homeowner is stretching the facts to serve her interests.

Note that the lead consultant she hired prefaces their statement with "It is LCD's opinion...", while the lead consultant for the contractor cites that lead levels in the soil do not exceed regulatory limits that would require action.

Anyone can have an opinion, but adherence to regulatory limits is the determining factor in establishing liability.

Furthermore, the burden of proof is on the homeowner to show that the lead level in the soil came from the construction debris, and not from existing contamination before construction started. In a pre 1930's home, there is ample opportunity for lead contamination to occur before this construction project started. To prove her case, she would have needed to test the soil before construction, which doesn't appear to have happened.

Also, her reliance to the clause in the contract of a "broom clean" condition is standard boiler plate language on all construction contracts and is not intended to cover hazardous material levels. If this was a specific concern of hers, then she should have added specific language in the contract to cover it.

Finally, it's never a good idea to mix a major renovation project with other life changing events, like the birth of a child. Construction projects nearly always run over schedule, and/or over budget for a variety of reasons (Owner changes, weather, material delivery, etc...)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by DCS
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 2, 2011 at 1:16 pm

@Hardin- it seems there was lead testing performed before the project began, see below:

"He also pointed to a 2008 lead assessment conducted for the property which found similar amounts of lead in the soil before the project began."

Looks like the homeowners have buyers regret - they should have bought new construction instead.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hardin
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 2, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Good catch, I missed that. It would seem the homeowner has little to stand on, at least in mediation.

That makes the negative Yelp entry a cheap shot. Being unhappy about the results is one thing, but if the contractor performed to the contract requirements, its dishonest to misrepresent their performance in Yelp simply because you are unhappy.

To put it plainly, I think the contractor may have failed to manage the clients expectations, but succeeded in complying with the contract.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ania Mitros
a resident of Shoreline West
on Mar 7, 2011 at 7:36 am

My disappointment with Craftsmen's Guild extends beyond the lead issue. The lead situation was not my only complaint; it was one of many. My yelp review mentioned some of the others.

Lori - Our contract also stated that "All of the construction debris shall be removed by Contractor". I'm not aware of any lead in the soil that needed cleaning up before Craftsmen's Guild's construction, and the heating ducts that contained lead dust were installed by Craftsmen's Guild. Based on my previous experiences with contractors, I expected much less debris to be left behind.

Hardin - I agree with your sentiment that mixing renovation and the birth of a child isn't a good idea; ironically, that was a major factor in hiring Craftsmen's Guild. We had been fixing up our house bit by bit when we discovered that I was pregnant. After my first conversation with Mike Amini (Craftsmen's Guild's architect), I was under the impression that they would complete the remodel very close to my son's birth. This was a big factor in my decision to hire Craftsmen's Guild. I did not expect construction to be wrapping up when my son was 4 months old.

DCS & Hardin - What worried me wasn't the average lead concentration; it was the bite-size pieces of lead paint where my toddler plays. I tried to clean up the debris myself but after hours picking out bits of tile and paint chips from the soil I felt futile. I asked Craftsmen's Guild for help but they curtly declined. I spent hours on the phone trying to figure out what to do, and ultimately hired a lead assessor on the recommendation of the California Department of Public Health, and followed the assessor's recommendations. I did my best.

I do not believe I misrepresented the situation, and I have offered to revise my review, but Craftsmen's Guild has offered no specific re-wordings other than complete removal of the review.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Andrea Gemmet
Mountain View Voice Editor
on Mar 7, 2011 at 10:01 am

Andrea Gemmet is a registered user.

The following comment has been moved from a duplicate thread, which is now closed:

Wow, the behavior of the contractor is disgusting. Offering to pay $5000 to take down a bad review is really demonstrative of their guilt, not to mention that there's irrefutable evidence of the presence of lead. There is nothing worse than a business who mucks up a job, THEN bullies the customer with threats and extortions and lawsuits.
by Monica Mar 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm


 +   Like this comment
Posted by A. Palled
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 8, 2011 at 5:46 pm

wow. i wonder how many other customers they managed to keep quiet through lawsuits?


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