Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Contractors State License Board: Settlement With Home Repair Companies

On March 12, 2009, the California State Attorney General's Office and the Contractors State License Board (CSLB) reached a final agreement with SRVS Charge Inc. and its affiliated companies which were providing home repair work in California to approximately 6,000 customers a year. The State alleged that the home repair work was substandard and the fees were exhorbitant. The settlement follows a lawsuit that was filed.

The CSLB and Attorney General's settlement was with :

- SRVS Charge Inc. and its affiliates,
- Principal owner, Sarkis Terabelian, 43, of Burbank;
- General manager, Zohrab "Rob" Mkhitarian, 40, of Burbank; and
- Associates Marine Metspakyan, 33, Avetik Avo Gyandzhyan, 38, Lilit Lusparyan, 28, Alisa Oganyan, 35, Estine Akopyan, 28, and Vardui Terabelian, 45.

The defendants operated various service and repair companies that employed electricians, plumbers, and heating and air-conditioning technicians in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Sacramento region. The State in its lawsuit contended that SRVS Charge Inc.'s improper business activities were as follows:

- The company placed millions of dollars in telephone directory advertising, including many full-page ads. The ads, which listed different company names, claimed a 100% satisfaction guarantee and senior discounts. When customers called the numbers listed in any of the ads, they would be directed to a central call center.

- Many times repairmen would be dispatched from a different company than the customer called.

- Often, these workers had not undergone the criminal background check required of all contractors and Home Improvement Salespeople licensed by the Contractors State License Board since January 1, 2005.

- Customers were charged high prices for emergency home service and repair, often unrelated to the actual home repair work. Much of the work was poorly done or never completed.

- If a customer refused to pay, the company would file a lien against the home to force payment.

Because the company used multiple business names, it was difficult, if not impossible, for customers to seek recourse for incompetent workmanship, incomplete work, or any other issue that arose on their project. Customers were often denied refunds, despite the existence of the "100% satisfaction guarantee" promised in the ads.

Over several years, the Attorney General and the CSLB shut down affiliates of SRVS Charge, Inc. But instead of closing the business, the defendants continued to run their company under a labyrinth of business names and fraudulent contractor license numbers that were interchangeable. When CSLB either revoked a license or received an excessive number of complaints, the company would establish a new corporate identity and business would continue without interruption.

As part of its investigation, CSLB conducted undercover stings against service technicians suspected of using these fraudulent licenses and referred instances of the illegal activity to the San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Clara, and Sacramento County district attorney's offices. In one instance, the San Diego District Attorney's Office found that a service technician had also committed burglary and theft and is now being prosecuted for his crimes.

The settlement provides for the following.

- A permanent injunction against the defendants' prior illegal activities. This includes:
o CSLB monitoring of the defendants' operations for one year;
o Mandatory registration of all company service technicians with CSLB. This requires technicians to undergo a criminal background check;
o Capping the number of business licenses that the defendants can use to a maximum of five;
o Preventing the defendants from charging exorbitant fees or fees that have nothing to do with the actual work that is performed;
o Fully disclosing to CSLB the names of the directors, officers, and employees of their company; and
o Mandatory customer complaint tracking with proper complaint investigation and reasonable efforts to resolve them.
o Prohibiting the defendants from engaging in false advertising.

The companies will pay $3 million in penalties and restitution to be distributed as follows:
o $1.3 million to be used for consumer restitution;
o $450,000 to be assessed in penalties for state Business and Professions Code violations; and
o The remainder to be used to reimburse CSLB for investigative costs, legal costs, and costs of monitoring future compliance with the judgment.

If the terms of the settlement are violated, the defendants could face jail time.

The following companies are affiliated with the defendants and are included in the settlement:

- American Electric (CSLB #834398)
- American Home Repairs, Inc. (CSLB #834206)
- 59 Minute Service (CSLB #837697)
- Cal Repair Services, Inc., dba Pick Red Plumbing (CSLB #797241)
- Answering Resources, Inc., dba Thrifty Electric (CSLB #723375)
- Orbell Enterprises, Inc., dba Plumbing One (CSLB #713006)
- USA Services, Inc. (CSLB #775863)
- Love My Home, Inc. (CSLB #811361)
- Electric Avenue, formerly A Plus Electric Company (CSLB #569322)
- American Electric 911 Fast Inc. (CSLB #826916)
- Pro Electric Co. (CSLB #670171)
- RG Electric (CSLB #516892)
- Pacific West Heating & Air Conditioning (CSLB #604150)

See the complaint: http://ag.ca.gov/cms_attachments/press/pdfs/n1706_complaint_for_civil_penalties_and_injunctive_relief.pdf
See the settlement agreements:

Any questions or comments should be directed to: tgreen@greenassoc.com. Tracy Green is a principal at Green and Associates and focuses their practice on the representation of licensed professionals and businesses in civil, business, administrative and criminal proceedings.


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