Woman learns lesson about checking a contractor’s background

Malachi Crump promoted his small home construction business two years ago with a flier that said his company had been in business since 1978. He was proud, it said, of “our 31 years of service.”

But for almost 10 of those years, Crump was in prison.

Malachi Crump

Malachi Crump

Sherita Musgrove didn’t know that when she got a referral from a friend to hire Crump. She needed a contractor who could restore her grandmother’s house after an electrical fire.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber column first learned, Crump promised to do a great job, and she signed a contract to pay $36,000 to his company, Ashley Designer Homes: $12,000 upfront, $12,000 when the job was 50 percent complete and the rest when the job was done.

But Musgrove says that after she paid him $14,000 in insurance money, Crump stopped work.

The insurance company sent another check for $4,000, and Musgrove got Crump to co-sign it. But then she gave it to a second contractor whom she brought in to replace Crump. That angered Crump, who told her she owed him $10,000. When she didn’t give it to him, he filed a mechanic’s lien for $10,000 on the property.

“We did the work,” Crump’s business associate, Danielle Abram, says in the lien’s affidavit. The company removed the burnt materials, demolished four bedrooms, two living rooms and a kitchen, and removed all flooring. The company hired an electrician, bought materials, installed drywall, replaced rafters and removed front siding, the affidavit says.

The insurance company stopped sending money to Musgrove, saying work on the house had to be completed. But that wasn’t going to happen with Crump, Musgrove decided. Because Crump had ceased work on the house, she believed that he had terminated the contract. Based on that, she sued him in small-claims court for $10,000.

In a brief interview recently, Crump said he can prove that Musgrove owes him $10,000. “I got copies. I got pictures. I got facts. I got everything. See? She doesn’t have it. I do.”

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Crump did some work, but nowhere near enough to justify the amount of money she paid him, Musgrove maintains.

Ultimately, however, the dispute is a legal question about the contract. At issue is which of the two can stop performing his or her end of the agreement, at what point and for what reason, said Julie Forrester of the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.

“The general contract rule is that a party can stop their performance if the other party committed a material breach” of the contract, she said.

But a judge or jury may have to decide the issue.

Musgrove might have avoided problems had she done her homework before signing the contract.

She didn’t look into Crump’s background until after their falling-out.

Then she learned that Crump, 62, was sentenced to four years in prison for theft in 1983, according to state and county records. He served eight years from 1994 to 2002 on a drug charge. He’s under parole supervision until 2018. Crump also has convictions for burglary in 1968 and theft by check in 1981.

He filed for bankruptcy in 2006. The Internal Revenue Service said he owed $94,000, among other debts. His case was dismissed in 2007 when he didn’t show up for a required meeting of creditors.

Musgrove says that if she had known any of those details, she would not have hired him.

She also learned about a neighbor who had a similar dispute with Crump. Irashonette Tatum hired Crump in 2005 to do a home renovation. She paid him $15,000 but couldn’t find him so he could finish, Tatum told me.

In 2008, she sued him in small-claims court. Crump didn’t appear and lost a $10,000 default judgment. He has never paid Tatum, according to court records.

In Tatum’s notes for her court hearing, she wrote a list of excuses she heard from Crump.

“He would say: ‘I had a heart attack. I’ve been in the hospital. I got electrocuted, so I’ve been out of work, and I got sick and found out I was a diabetic, and I had to have surgery on my foot. I passed out. After I go to New Orleans and do some work I will come back and finish your house.’

“He was always convincing,” she says. “That’s why I let this go on for so long.”

Aside from Ashley Designer Homes, Crump’s business has operated under the names of Chimeres Builders and Chimere’s Designer Homes.

I spoke to Crump several times seeking an interview. The first time I called him, he answered and said, “I’m in the hospital right now.”

When I asked about Musgrove’s claims, he said, “I filed two lawsuits against her, one in small-claims court and one in federal court.”

I could not find either.

Musgrove’s small-claims case against him is scheduled for March 10 at the Tarrant County Precinct 8 Justice of the Peace Court. Federal court records show no recent lawsuits filed by Crump.

“I’m going to get the attorney to call you so you won’t have to call me because it’s been filed,” he said. “Believe me, I’m on the winning side. That’s all I’m going to tell you.”

No attorney called.

When I asked about Tatum, he said, “I don’t know anybody named Tatum” and hung up.

What has Musgrove learned? “Do a thorough background check on contractors.”

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Dear Customer: Sorry you didn’t chose me. Here’s a bill anyway. Signed, The Contractor

A subcontractor reacted in an unusual way when he wasn’t selected for a job for which he had bid $19,000.

Tim Anders, owner of Anders Interiors in Arlington, sent an e-mail in September to homeowner Maebe Davis laying out his request for a payment anyway.

“Since you decided to go with some other contractor, this is to inform you of a bill for my time and effort during the estimate given. My time, gas and samples all cost money. NOTHING is free these days.

“Therefore, I will include an invoice for the initial estimate. Approximately 2 days work spent getting the estimate ready for you. My daily rate is $250 per day, plus samples of $55.00. Total invoice would be $555.00.

“I would expect a check within a timeframe of now and next Friday. … If the invoice is NOT fulfilled by the timeframe noted, then I would have to file a mechanic’s lien on the property. This means you would NOT be able to move into the house or continue work on the property until the lien is satisfied.

“It has also come to my attention that you have chosen to go with a group of Mexicans as your workers. I hope you have found out if they have the LEGAL right to work in the States. If not you and them could be arrested for your knowingly using workers that do NOT have the legal right to work here.”

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber watchdog column first learned, when Anders didn’t get a reply, he wrote again Dec. 27:

“I hope you and your family had a good Christmas but it is now time for business. … I need to receive the money, cash or money order only, by the 7th of January or you will leave me no alternative but to. … file a lien in small claims court for the entire amount plus any and all court costs. The ball is now in your court.”

Davis and her mother, Florence Siao, contacted The Watchdog to see whether Anders could make them pay for an estimate, file a lien against the property or report them to the government if illegal workers were involved in the job.

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Let’s take each one separately.

In Texas, some estimates cost money. If an auto repair shop hooks up a car to a diagnostic machine, accepted practice is to tell the customer of any cost ahead of time.

“People assume that you don’t get charged for an estimate,” says SMU Dedman School of Law professor Julie Forrester. “If someone is going to charge, they should make that very clear.”

Anders says he told Davis that there would be an estimate charge if he didn’t get the job. Davis agreed to that, he says.

Davis says he never mentioned any charges.

Anders produced a witness, Susan Haren, who worked on the house, too. Haren told me that she overheard Anders inform Davis that there would be an estimate charge.

Anders could take Davis to small-claims court for the $555, but he would have to prove that he announced the cost beforehand. It would be his and Haren’s word against Davis’. There’s nothing in writing to back him up. Davis never signed anything.

What about the mechanic’s lien?

Texas law requires that anyone filing a lien produce a signed contract between the parties. Because Davis never signed anything, a lien filed at the county clerk’s office (not small-claims court, as Anders wrote) could backfire, says Fort Worth consumer lawyer Jerry Jarzombek.

He says the Texas lien law was toughened in 2007 after members of the Republic of Texas were accused of filing false liens against properties owned by government officials. Filing a false lien carries a penalty as high as $10,000.

The lawyer says it also violates the Texas Finance Code to threaten to take an action against someone that is not legally permitted.

Finally, Anders is incorrect when he says Davis could be arrested for hiring workers who are not properly documented.

“If the contractor hires undocumented workers, that’s not her problem,” Jarzombek says. “Unless she hired them, that’s the contractor’s problem.”

Siao said she checked with the company that got the job about the workers’ status. “They were legit,” she says she was told.

The Watchdog’s advice: Avoid this scenario by asking whether there is any cost for an estimate or service call to diagnose a problem. Whatever the answer, get it in writing.

Anders, meanwhile, says he hasn’t taken further action on collecting the bill.

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Visit Watchdog Nation HeadquartersDave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.