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Some disputes may take a state regulatory body to resolve

The Baltimore Sun

Norman Mullins claimed that Martin Plumbing & Heating abandoned a shower installation project at his Northwest Baltimore home halfway through the job.

Lance Martin, the owner of said plumbing business, accused Mullins of breaching their contract by hiring another business to finish the job.

Here at complaint central, disputes like this are standard. Everyone gets equal time to submit their account. The trick is getting both sides to stop focusing on pointing fingers and start compromising.

But when neither side will release their death grip on extracting blame, it's time to seek help from a higher power.

No, I'm not suggesting prayer - although such pious pleas might help - or court. I'm talking about taking your grievance to a governing body of last resort.

If the beef is with your utility provider, seek out the Public Service Commission. Got a problem with a health care facility? Contact the Office of Health Care Quality in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. For a gripe about people who cut your hair, handle your finances, build your home or inspect your home, look to the various boards under the purview of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

But realize that while someone like me can broker a deal using sometimes fuzzy details, you must step up your game and go fully prepared with documents to back up your story if you're taking it to a state regulatory agency.

State administrative bodies often will consult with the attorney general's office to treat a dispute like an actual court case.

In the case of the unfinished shower replacement, the story begins when Mullins, a 74-year-old retired grocery store owner, began calling up contractors.

The first company he reached wanted $3,500 to remove the old shower and replace it with a new one, Mullins recalled. The second, Martin's, quoted a price of $1,950.

Both men confirm that on Sept. 22, Mullins paid Martin $975 - half the work quote - to start the job. They agree that Martin removed the existing shower two days later and that Mullins felt the replacement shower was inferior in quality. They concur that Mullins was to search for a new shower, which Martin would then install.

At that point, the stories diverge.

According to Mullins, he phoned Martin a week later to install the new shower and Martin said he would be there in two or three days. For whatever reason, that didn't happen. Mullins called again. No response. Frustrated, Mullins decided to sue and sent a summons on Nov. 13 to compel Martin's appearance in civil court on Jan. 18. But the summons was returned as unclaimed mail, according to court records.

Mullins continued calling and on Dec. 15 reached Martin, who then promised he would come Dec. 28.

"At that point, I was out $975 and I figured he wasn't going to do the job," Mullins said. "I was tired of messing with him and eventually called someone else and had the shower installed. It cost me another $600."

Martin, for his part, said he did three days' worth of work removing the old shower, purchasing the new shower, returning the new shower and buying other supplies. Martin added that both men made plans to have Martin install the new shower on Dec. 28. Martin said he was not aware of any court summons.

"Then he called me on Dec. 26 and told me he was not going to be satisfied with the installation and did not want me to install the shower," Martin said. "He's the one who breached the contract. In my view, for the amount of time I already spent on his project, we were about even."

Since both men said they wanted to work this out, we tried mediation. But Mullins said he would only accept $600 of his payment back. Martin said he would only offer Mullins $1,000 worth of plumbing service over the next year.

With neither willing to budge, I directed both to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. On March 5, Mullins filed a complaint with the state plumbing board, which has authority over all plumbing contractors in the state - except those in Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, which are governed by separate boards.

According to Deputy Commissioner Harry Loleas, about 4,000 complaints like these are filed with DLLR every year. Most involve home improvement companies, he said, and many of the complaints are resolved successfully.

But make no mistake, going to any state regulatory agency is serious stuff. Administrative boards will judge whether or not a complaint is even legitimate or whether they have jurisdiction before assigning an investigator to the case.

Once an investigator is assigned to a case, he will look for meticulous proof to corroborate your story. Was the contractor licensed? Was there a contract with work completion dates? Were permits needed? Was the work inspected? Are there photos of the work in progress? Are there receipts or invoices to prove service provided and payments rendered?

"You have to be prepared to help yourself," Loleas said. "You're getting involved in administrative law and due process at that point. The boards have to rely on facts and evidence. They have a good track record of resolving many complaints, but the ones they have the most problems with are the cases without proper documentation."

It would be entirely up to each man to make a case for himself, Loleas said.

The first couple of times we spoke, Mullins had difficulty remembering when and how often he spoke to Martin. He struggled to recall specific dates about when the work was supposed to be completed. By our last conversation, Mullins had pulled all his documentation together.

In Martin's case, Martin said he wrote a letter to Mullins but had trouble finding a copy of the letter. He also had difficulty remembering when the two spoke, saying that it was "sometime in the latter part of November or December." But in a voice mail he left last week, Martin said he's got all his paperwork now, too.

Spotty memory aside, it will all come down to who can prove what.

"I've got everything documented in writing. so I'm going to take my shot," Mullins said about filing the complaint.

When we last spoke, Martin was equally steadfast, saying, "As a businessman, I get stuck all the time when it's time to get paid. It's really insulting when I try to charge a reasonable price and he ends up blaming me after he hired someone else. We had a contract."

Who is right? Who is wrong? The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

We'll have to just wish both men luck and leave it up to the state plumbing board to sort it out.

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