Mr. Fix-It Didn’t, Suit Filed Against Contractor Alleges
John and Shirley Thymes’ gray stucco house is a hodgepodge. The ceiling is arched too steeply to support itself, so an ugly horizontal ceiling beam has been constructed across the main living area. A carpeted 13-step staircase rises to nowhere. It ends where it meets the beam.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Ten years ago the Thymeses, a South Los Angeles couple with three children, wanted to add two bedrooms to their small home on West 107th Street so 8-year-old Anthony and his 7-year-old sister, Jermone, wouldn’t have to keep sharing a room. They interviewed contractors. They shopped for a loan.
Then, as the Thymeses tell it, strange things began happening. One of the contractors began ripping apart their home before they had signed a contract with him. And a financial institution recommended by the contractor granted the Thymes a $19,000 loan--and began demanding $255-a-month payments--even though the family had not signed an application.
Job Done Poorly
The job was done poorly and sporadically. John Thymes eventually took out another loan and put in $12,000 of his own money to make the home livable. But there were some scars he couldn’t fix, like the rain that still seeps through in winter or the burn marks on Shirley Thymes’ left arm from a wall heater that was installed only 18 inches from the other side of a hallway.
Next month, the Thymeses and three other families will deposit their grievances before a Superior Court jury in a trial that will examine not merely the actions of the contractor but allegations that his habit of taking the money and then abandoning jobs in midstream was aided by Beverly Hills-based Gibraltar Savings, one of the 10 largest savings and loan associations in the nation.
The lawsuit, filed by the families in 1980, contends that contractor Reinaldo Gilbert preyed on low-income homeowners by portraying himself as an “agent” of Gibraltar.
“He said he was a member of the bank,” said one of the plaintiffs, Maximo Martinez of Paramount, who said that claim swayed him in signing a contract with Gilbert’s company, Mr. Fix-It. “That’s the one thing I’ll never forget.”
According to court declarations and interviews with some of his customers, Gilbert carried Gibraltar loan application forms with him and boasted of his close relationship with a Gibraltar loan officer, Michael Garner.
Garner, in turn, vouched for Gilbert whenever homeowners who were financing their home improvements with Gibraltar loans called to complain about their inability to get Gilbert to finish the job, according to allegations contained in the lawsuit. Garner urged angry homeowners who wanted to cut off “progress payments” to Gilbert to keep making them, the suit says.
“We were suckered,” said Lawrence Jackson, a retired painter who borrowed $16,000 from Gibraltar and signed a contract with Gilbert to build a second story on his home on Dalton Avenue in Southwest Los Angeles so Jackson and his wife would no longer have to sleep in the living room while their four children used the two bedrooms.
The lawsuit, accusing Gibraltar of conspiracy and fraud, seeks several hundred thousand dollars in punitive damages from the corporation, Garner, Gilbert and other defendants.
Sharon Mason, an attorney representing Gibraltar, said Gibraltar’s policy is to decline commenting on pending litigation.
Gibraltar filed a motion for summary judgment in 1984, contending that it should be dropped as a defendant because it was not responsible for the homeowners’ problems. But a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied the motion.
In an effort to avoid a trial, the case was later submitted to non-binding arbitration. But when a court-appointed arbitrator recommended no awards for two of the families and minimal ones for the other two, the four families declined to accept the decision.
There is little dispute that Mr. Fix-It left many homeowners in a lurch. In late 1978, more than a year after the firm worked on the four homes involved in the lawsuit, the Contractors State License Board revoked Mr. Fix-It’s license in response to numerous customer complaints of unfinished work.
Earlier that year, the state attorney general’s office went to court to prevent Mr. Fix-It from soliciting any more jobs. Declarations filed in support of an injunction claimed that many customers had their signatures forged on checks being held by the company. The checks were not to be signed until work was completed.
That crackdown came too late for many families, however. When Mr. Fix-It was put out of business, Gibraltar had purchased 33 of the company’s home improvement contracts. Mr. Fix-It failed to complete work on 24 of them, according to a declaration Gibraltar filed in court.
Gibraltar offered settlement payments to many of those families, and many accepted. Those who have chosen to pursue the matter in court have paid a high price in legal fees, an estimated $75,000 among the four families.
The struggle has been a tough one. When the homeowners stopped making payments on their loans to protest Gibraltar’s alleged support of Mr. Fix-It, two real estate companies that had purchased the lien contracts from Gibraltar threatened to sell their homes. The homeowners had to obtain a court injunction to stave off that threat.
When John Thymes organized two Saturday demonstrations by several dozen people passing out leaflets in front of Gibraltar’s Beverly Hills headquarters, the corporation quickly slapped him with $1.5-million libel suit and complained in court that Thymes was trying to “coerce” it into a settlement. The suit has yet to be tried.
Much of the homeowners’ anguish comes from trying to raise the quality of their homes above the ragged texture of their lower-middle-class neighborhoods only to fall back a notch.
“Even those who get taken by a contractor usually find some way to come up with the money to finish the repairs,” said Augustus Paul, a contractors board regional staff assistant in Norwalk.
‘I’m Ashamed of It’
However, in the case of the four families who decided to go to court, nothing has been quite the same. They have taken out other loans or dipped into retirement accounts to make many of the basic repairs, but they remain plagued by cracks or leaks or weird angles that were not there before.
“The worst part is the way my kids talk about it. Two of them have grown up in that house and they always go to other kids’ homes. They’ve been too embarrassed to invite their friends over. They’re ashamed of it. I’m ashamed of it,” Shirley Thymes said in an interview at her husband’s Crenshaw stationery store.
“My wife, she was crying every day,” said Martinez, a foundry maintenance man who signed an $18,000 contract with Mr. Fix-It to add a second story to his home. Years later, the Martinezes finished the job the contractor started, but said they could not bear to continue living there.
“You see spiders crawling in your house,” said Lawrence Jackson’s wife, Ernesteen, a teacher. “You have your grandchildren running around and you have to protect them.”
Mr. Fix-It’s customers began learning that they were not alone after John Thymes came into possession of a list of several dozen of Mr. Fix-It’s customers. His wife spent days telephoning each one. They began to share stories. “We knew then that we had been had,” John Thymes said.
Frequently mentioned was the name of Gibraltar’s loan officer, Garner. Gibraltar’s role was significant to the homeowners because when Gibraltar approved their loans, it arranged to dispense progress payments to the contractor at various intervals in the job. Each check would have to be endorsed by both the contractor and the homeowner. This system was designed to protect the homeowner in case a dispute with the contractor surfaced.
However, three of the families said in their lawsuit that after they asked Gibraltar to stop issuing checks to Mr. Fix-It because of a lack of progress on their jobs, Gibraltar continued to release the money without the knowledge of the homeowners.
The Jackson and Martinez families said someone forged their signatures on one or more progress payments.
Started Work Without Contract
The Thymeses’ experience was more complex. First, they said, Mr. Fix-It began working on their home before they signed a contract. In seeking an estimate, they met with contractor Gilbert and had him write out proposed financing terms on a Gibraltar loan application, John Thymes said. However, Thymes said he was already planning to obtain funding from another institution and never signed the application or any work agreement with Gilbert.
“Then I came home one day and the whole back of the house was ripped out,” Thymes said. “I called and left a message for him (Gilbert) on a Wednesday. On Friday the first (loan repayment) bill came from Gibraltar telling me my loan was approved and saying the payments were to start.”
The signature that appears on that Gibraltar loan application is a forgery, Thymes contends.
Attorney Gordon Zuiderweg, who represents the Thymeses and the other three families, said he believes that Gilbert felt confident about starting the job without permission because he knew that Gibraltar would issue a loan, ensuring that he would be paid.
“Garner more or less coerced them (the Thymeses) into continuing the job,” Zuiderweg said. “With Mr. Fix-It tearing down the house, they were in a very vulnerable position.”
Plaintiff Charles Brown said that he and his wife grew so frustrated with a lack of progress by Mr. Fix-It on a $12,000 remodeling job at their home near Compton that they appeared on a local television show devoted to consumer complaints.
In response, Brown said in a court declaration, Garner contacted them to vouch for Gilbert, telling the Browns that Mr. Fix-It did $3 million worth of business a year with Gibraltar. “He assured us everything would be all right,” Brown said.
Gibraltar attorney Mason said Garner no longer works for Gibraltar but would not say when he left. Zuiderweg said he has yet to receive subpoeaned personnel records with that information. Garner’s whereabouts, like those of Gilbert--who has not responded to the lawsuit--are unknown, Zuiderweg said.