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.
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.
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.