The State of Maryland added to the swelling legal woes of Warner Management Co. late last year by filing nine pages worth of charges against the company. The charges, filed Dec. 22, alleged the company:
- sent unlicensed technicians to perform plumbing work;
- replaced products instead of repairing them at a lesser cost; and
- failed to carry necessary parts as a Sears Authorized Plumber.
Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran, Jr. announced the charges on local television.
“The fact that Maryland’s attorney general filed charges against us is disheartening, to be sure,” said Tom Warner, whose family-run company originates in the 1870s. “They further malign the reputation of a company that is devoted to providing a high-quality service for a reasonable price, in a manner that addresses consumer interests to a degree still unmatched by any comparable company nationwide.”
Third Lawsuit Filed: These charges are the latest in a line of legal problems dating back to an investigative report by CBS affiliate WUSA (Channel 9) on Nov. 2, 3 and 8, 1995. WUSA was tipped off by a disgruntled former employee who submitted a manuscript full of undocumented and unproven allegations.
The three–day report, which aired during television’s coveted “sweeps week,” showed Warner and his Washington D.C.-based PHC company supposedly milking consumers by charging high prices and using underhanded sales and service policies.
CBS’s “48 Hours” picked up the report and attempted to set up its own expose. CBS sent out a crew in early December 1995 to film five different service firms fixing a disconnected terminal wire in a furnace.
Warner’s service technician attempted to replace a working motor that was statistically near the end of its useful life, and sold a service contract without fully explaining it. The service agreement resulted in a $6 overcharge; however, it entitled the furnace owner to another service call the following spring to check on the motor. The report aired nationally last Feb. 8.
Montgomery County began investigating Warner Management Co. shortly before the “48 Hours” segment aired.
The county began working closely with WUSA investigating Warner Management, and eventually filed suit on June 25, 1996.
A judge has put a freeze on all public comments, so neither side can comment on developments in the County case.
Warner Management was able to settle with Sears, Roebuck & Co, and had one of its lawsuits dismissed on April 29, 1997.
Sears had been suing because it believed Warner — an Authorized Sears Plumber — was not paying all of its fees. Details of the settlement were not announced.
Since the investigative reports first aired and the subsequent lawsuits, Warner has seen his fleet drop from 171 to 64 trucks.
The Latest Charges: The charges levied by Curran have enormous implications for Maryland plumbers.
The key of the case — that Warner knowingly sent unlicensed technicians to perform plumbing work — means that all Maryland journeymen plumbers must now be licensed.
Curran directed the counties to aggressively enforce a 1986 law stating that plumbers performing work must be licensed. Plumbing companies were previously allowed to send unlicensed plumbers out to perform minor jobs.
“The law cited by the attorney general has been on the books for 11 years, and we are the first plumber to have been charged with its violation,” Warner said. “Warner’s policies in this regard are identical to those of all other local plumbers, of which we are aware.”
To date, no other plumbing companies have been brought up on charges for sending unlicensed journeymen plumbers to perform work.
“You need to have a journeyman’s license to perform plumbing services in the state of Maryland,” said Steve Sakamoto-Wengel, an assistant attorney general in the Consumer Protection Division. “The case alleges that Tom Warner sent individuals to perform plumbing work who were not licensed as required by law.”
Warner said, “I have journeymen plumbers who have been with me for more than 40 years who just don’t want to take the written test. They are experienced guys — they know what they’re doing.”
Additionally, the new charges question a “Replace, Not Repair” policy.
“Warner Management’s failure to disclose to consumers a less expensive repair instead of a replacement violates the Maryland Consumer Protection Act,”
Sakamoto-Wengel said. “It requires that all material facts and alternatives be disclosed. We have consumer complaints recommending replacement instead of repair.” Sakamoto-Wengel would not say how many complaints had been filed against Warner.
The charges also state that Warner did not stock supplies necessary to be a Sears Authorized Plumber.
Sakamoto-Wengel said that Warner Management would charge extra to get parts for replacement that they did not have in stock or try to replace the fixture at a higher rate.
“We hope to show that Warner committed these alleged violations,” said Sakamoto-Wengel.
If found guilty of the charges Warner would need to use licensed plumbers, face civil penalties and be forced to pay refunds to customers.
The case is slated to be heard July 21 in Hunt Valley, MD.
According to Sakamoto-Wengel, by the time all avenues for appeals are exhausted, a decision in the case should come sometime next year.