Attorney General and Consumer Affairs Obtain Temporary Restraints Against Contractors Who Allegedly Damaged or Destroyed Chimneys
Two Bergen County-based home improvement companies yesterday agreed to temporary restraints and other relief sought by Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa and Eric T. Kanefsky, Acting Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, after the State filed suit last Friday alleging, among other things, that chimneys not in need of repairs were damaged or destroyed as a means to coerce consumers into signing expensive rebuilding contracts.
AAA Reliable, Inc. and Old Reliable Construction, LLC are barred from advertising, selling and/or performing home improvements, under the temporary restraints. They also consented to a freeze of company assets and the shutdown of the AAA Reliable Website.
The State, in its 11-count Verified Complaint filed in State Superior Court in Hackensack, alleges that the companies, as well as their principal, Sulejman Lita, either did not perform the contracted-for work or did substandard chimney work that created potentially hazardous conditions inside some homes that did not previously exist. The Verified Complaint also alleges that the defendants, who also conducted business under the unregistered assumed name Reliable, Inc., performed substandard roofing repairs and gutter cleaning and then refused to correct these problems.
Sulejman Lita, 35, of North Haledon, who is also known as Sul Lita, allegedly controlled and directed the management and operation of both companies and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. The companies maintained business addresses in Fair Lawn, Franklin Lakes, North Haledon and Totowa.
The defendants advertised through the AAA Reliable Website, in the Yellow Pages, as well as direct mail marketing, such "ClipperMagazine," "SuperCoups" and "Valpak." Such advertisements offered "Senior Citizen Discounts" and included coupons, among other things, for "$49.99 Gutter Cleaning," "$50 Gutter Cleaning," "$29.99 Chimney & Fireplace Cleaning," "$49.99 Chimney & Fireplace Cleaning" and/or "$49.99 Chimney Rain Caps With Chimney Cleaning."
The Verified Complaint alleges that after consumers contacted defendants in response to these coupons, defendants either told consumers the work could not be done at the advertised price, or went onto the roof of the consumers' homes and returned to tell them that they had serious problems with their chimneys. The Verified Complaint further alleges that on at least a few occasions, defendants' workers caused damage to chimneys in order to sign up consumers for rebuilding or repair work costing upwards of $20,000.
"The alleged actions of these defendants are simply egregious. Upon the pretense of performing inexpensive chimney and gutter cleaning, the defendants allegedly caused deliberate damage and destruction in order to enrich themselves by defrauding consumers of their hard-earned money," Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa said.
More than 50 consumers have filed complaints to date, including complaints forwarded to the State Division of Consumer Affairs from the Bergen County Office of Consumer Affairs and the Better Business Bureau. Many of the complainants are senior citizens.
"These defendants allegedly targeted senior citizens, many of whom may be on fixed incomes, through their offers of specific home improvements at attractive prices. Rather than saving money, our lawsuit contends that senior citizens lost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars through the pre-meditated destruction and substandard work carried out by these defendants," Acting Consumer Affairs Director Kanefsky said.
The State's Verified Complaint contends the defendants violated the Consumer Fraud Act, Contractors' Registration Act, Contractor Registration Regulations, Home Improvement Regulations and Advertising Regulations. The violations include: engaging in high pressure sales tactics; misrepresenting the character of the materials to be used; failing to include the required consumer protection and cancellation language in their contracts; failing to obtain the necessary government permits prior to starting work; collecting full payment from consumers prior to final inspections being performed by local building inspectors; and using bait-and-switch sales tactics.
The State is seeking the revocation of AAA Reliable's home improvement contractor registration, appointment of a receiver, disgorgement of profits, restitution for affected consumers, civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation, and reimbursement of attorneys' fees and costs. The State also seeks an additional civil penalty of up to $30,000 per violation based upon defendants' direct solicitation to senior citizens which resulted in pecuniary injury.
Deputy Attorney General/Section Chief Lorraine K. Rak and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Kant, of the Consumer Fraud Prosecution Section within the Division of Law, are representing the State in the action. The Office of Consumer Protection within the Division of Consumer Affairs conducted the investigation, with assistance from the Bergen County Consumer Affairs Office.
Additional consumers who believe they may have been defrauded by the defendants should file complaints with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.