MANATEE -- Fred Welch is relieved he's getting his money back for air conditioning duct work that never should have been done.
"I feel exonerated," Welch said, almost like he was on trial.
A Manatee County jury agreed last week with Welch that the Whitfield company Custom Climate Concepts knowingly exploited the now 90-year-old Palmetto man. If there is anything that could make an elderly person with failing health feel susceptible in Florida, it's the thought of being without air conditioning, said Melton Little, partner attorney of Palmetto's Kallins, Little & Delgado.
Welch retained attorney Jay Horne from the Palmetto law firm to sue Custom Climate Concepts, 2282 72nd Ave E, Whitfield, for damages. The jury found Custom Climate guilty of one count of exploitation of the elderly and awarded Welch $1,705 plus attorney fees and costs. The civil trial allowed Welch to claim treble damages, pushing the judgment to $5,115.
Custom Climate Concepts employee Scott Rupert charged Welch $1,000 more than the price in the company's book and also
didn't give him a 15 percent discount as part of Welch's maintenance contract. Welch ended up paying the company $6,000 for the work and should have paid closer to $4,250.
"He stuck to his guns, and he felt like he was cheated and was going to see it until the end," Little said. "It's even more commendable of him given his failing health and that he's wheelchair bound."
Duct, duct, goosed
The complaint dates back to an unannounced visit by Custom Climate employee Scott Rupert in December 2012, when Rupert came to Welch's door at his Terra Ceia condominium. The employee told Welch that his ductwork was undersized and needed to be replaced. It was the first time Rupert came to Welch after 10 visits from other Custom Climate employees, according to court documents.
"He didn't need the duct work to start with," Little said. "His ducts were fine. There wasn't any reason to charge him $6,000 to change them all out." Welch paid $6,000 for 10 ducts to be replaced, but only six were finished, and Welch said he was asked to make the check out to Scott Rupert personally instead of the company.
"Never make the check out to the salesman individually," Little said. "You don't know if that guy is ever going to come back."
Welch originally had his air conditioning unit installed by Friendly's in 2010. Welch was under the impression that Friendly's was acquired by Custom Climate because Friendly's went out of business, but the company only acquired a customer contact list from Friendly's, Horne said. Custom Climate signed Welch up for a new contract in 2011, which also entitled him to a 15 percent discount that was never received. The jury factored in the 15 percent discount in its award to Welch.
Custom Climate, it turned out, was dealing with the wrong victim. Welch is a retired police officer from the Andover Police Department in Massachusetts and served in World War II and the Korean War. He was also a builder on the side, with buildings in Holmes Beach and a school in Massachusetts. Being a retired officer, he knew the risk of taking the case to a jury, but pressed on.
"I said no, I want the jury trial," Welch said. "Let the people know what these guys are doing."
But Welch is also a man who trusts people, and was saddened to learn he was duped after talking to his neighbors about similar work and had friends check out the repairs, which tipped him off to the scam.
"You got to give Mr. Welch a lot of credit," Little said. "He had the fortitude to sit there as a 90-year-old through two days of trial to stick up for himself because he felt like they cheated him."
These cases are hard to prove, but Welch had his contract, canceled check, and other sources to back up his case, Horne said. The jury could have awarded a judgment against Welch if his case wasn't proven because of the state statute, he said.
Welch has moved from his condo and now is receiving care at Casa Mora for an injury after deeding his Terra Ceia condominium to his son, Matthew Welch, a teacher at Moody Elementary School and his power of attorney.
Avoid being a victim
Legitimate companies typically don't go door-to-door for business, and if a sales or repair person comes to your door, a couple stall tactics can help seniors ward off high-pressure sales, said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
"If they're pressuring you, ask for a moment and tell them to come back tomorrow," Gillespie said. "Ask them to put down information on paper and then call a friend or relative to share information and don't give in."
Also obtain multiple estimates for repair work before agreeing to pay, she said.
"The most important thing for consumers is if you have to get work done on your home, get multiple estimates and make sure the person is licensed," she said.
In Welch's case, Rupert was not licensed for air conditioning repair and was only licensed to replace Freon, Little said. Ask the contractor for his state license number that they can verify at 800-HELP-FLA.
Welch is not the only one who has had issues with Custom Climate Concepts. The Better Business Bureau has logged 21 complaints against Custom Climate in the last 3 years. The company has a F rating.
"You can't get any lower," Welch said, chuckling.
The Herald reached Custom Climate General Manager Rodney Rupert by phone Friday. He referred comments to his attorney Peter A. Peak. Peak did not return a message seeking comment by deadline.
Of the 21 complaints, 12 are advertising/sales issues, two are billing and seven are with the product and service.
The issues appear to go back a few years when the BBB contacted Custom Climate's president for a response in 2011.
"I believe that the underlying cause of the complaints lodged against Custom Climate Concepts Inc., to be the customers' misunderstanding of what the service technician is telling them. They are trying to process too much information at one time. A lot of our complaint customers are elderly," Rupert told BBB. "I honestly do not believe that the Better Business Bureau can help Custom Climate Concepts Inc., eliminate the cause of the complaints. It is our belief that these elderly customers are set in their ways and will not be deterred."
The Florida Division of Consumer Services has also registered 22 valid do-not-call complaints against the company from 2011 to 2013, with half of those occurring last year. The company recently paid a $1,500 fine for the do not call complaints, Gillespie said.
The state Department of Business and Professional Regulations received three similar complaints from Palmetto residents concerning Custom Climate Control over the last three years over questionable business practices. Consumers can file complaints about business practices with the state by calling 1-800-HELP-FLA.
"We do work very diligently to get money back for our consumers," Gillespie said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.