OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — With the help of a contractor, Shari and Mitchel Blank had grand plans to renovate their Johnson County home.
At first, things were on track, and they were happy with the progress.
Then, when that contractor, Rollin Shuck of R Professional Services was injured on another job site, the couple found themselves back at the drawing board.
"I said, 'If it’s too much either give us our product or return the money, help us find somebody you trust, and we will have someone else fix itm'" Shari Blank recalled. "And he said, 'No, no, no, I can do this.'"
So, the Blanks waited months for Shuck to heal.
Meanwhile, several projects were left unfinished for months, including their completely gutted master bathroom.
Then, when Shuck finally returned, he asked the couple for more money. The problem was, the Blanks say that money was for materials they claim he told them he'd already bought.
Frustrated, the family fired the contractor.
After spending almost $71,000 and waiting roughly 18 months, they asked for a refund of nearly $25,000.
"Because he hasn't completed the work. The main chunk of it being the master bathroom!" Shari Blank said.
That's when the Blanks turned to the Johnson County District Attorney, filing a complaint under the Kansas Consumer Protection Act, designed in part "to protect consumers from suppliers who commit deceptive and unconscionable practices."
"Kansas has these really great consumer laws, consumer protection laws. They really do," Shari Blank said. "And when I first read them, I thought 'No, we are actually protected,' and I felt calm knowing that."
However, District Attorney Steve Howe ultimately declined to prosecute.
"That is where my frustration is that Kansas makes you think that as consumers, we are protected. But, when it really comes down to it we aren’t," she said.
Howe said he's sympathetic to the family, and acknowledges there appears to be a breach of contract in this case. But, he says there's a higher burden of proof required for consumer fraud cases, requiring him to prove there was deceptive intent.
"We have to show more than just a breach of contract, we have to show that a person made a misrepresentation or false statements things like that to get us to deceptive criminal practices," Howe said.
However, another local attorney, Scott Waddell, who specializes in consumer law, disagrees.
"I’m not surprised to hear that but I fundamentally disagree with that," Waddell said.
Waddell says he's sued dozens of contractors for similar types of behavior utilizing the Kansas Consumer Protection Act. But, he knows clients face a tougher time getting criminal charges filed with prosecutors who are already juggling heavy caseloads.
"I’ll tell you in my experience it’s very rare that I find a prosecutor whether it be you know a county prosecutor, or a state or a fellow prosecutor, willing to take on a dispute like this. They always say the same thing, it’s a civil dispute," Waddell said.
In fact, that's exactly the advice the district attorney gave the Blanks.
But, the couple says hiring an attorney for civil court would require money that could instead be spent on hiring someone else to finish Shuck's work.
"I don't have the means right now. I have to go ahead and take more money. And why should I take additional equity out of my home when I've already paid for this?" Mitchell Blank said.
Plus, the Blanks say even if they won their case, there's always a chance the defendant could file for bankruptcy, meaning they'd get nothing.
Unfortunately, Waddell says they're right.
"It does, it happens all the time. And you know, the problem with bankruptcy is that it’s a system that's set up to give businesses, persons a second start," he said. "And that’s fine, but it surprises a lot of people to find out that if even if you are successful in court, they can go to the bankruptcy courts, get relief and then your claims are gone now."
So, with few options left for the Blanks, they say their last resort now is simply to share their story as a cautionary tale.
"If nothing else, if we can stop someone else from getting taken advantage of next, then maybe we can get some solace from that," Shari Blank said.
KSHB 41 News asked Howe what homeowners can do to better protect themselves, and he shared this advice:
- First, he says always get things in writing, and keep a memo of conversations you have with your contractor.
- Next, don't pay all your money upfront. Reputable contractors will not require you to pay all the money upfront.
- Finally, consider purchasing materials yourself. That way, you know exactly where your money is going and what it's being spent on.
KSHB 41 News reached out to Shuck and his attorney for an on-camera interview, but they only provided us with an email countering the Blanks' claims.
In that email, Shuck maintains even with credits for all the work left unfinished, the Blanks owe him almost $10,000 for hours and materials he says he didn't have a chance to calculate before he was fired.
But, those are numbers the family says he made up months after he last set foot in their house, and question why, if they owed more, he didn't include that on his final invoice he presented them before he was fired.
Shuck's attorney also stated the Blanks have "wrongfully kept possession" of the tools he left behind at the job site. The Blanks previously notified Shuck that once he refunded their money and cleaned up the trash he left behind, he would "be granted access to the home to collect his belongings."