Contractor takes paralyzed veteran for $40K in botched home improvement project

Damage left by the contractor. (Source: WMC Action News 5)
Damage left by the contractor. (Source: WMC Action News 5)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Unlicensed, unqualified building contractors will often ask homeowners to pull building permits themselves to avoid recourse for shoddy work, according to Shelby County's chief building official.

"Don't do it. Never do it," implored Shelby County Building Code Enforcement Administrator Allen Medlock. "You'll be left holding the bag."

Earnest Sanders, Jr., 83, is now holding the bag to the tune of more than $40,000.

A 2014 auto accident paralyzed Sanders, a U.S. veteran, and killed his wife, Ora Lee Sanders. He used funds from the crash settlement to hire contractor Jerry Ward and sub-contractor Charles Jones to lay a concrete foundation and build a handicap-accessible garage behind his Frayser home.

Canceled checks revealed Sanders paid Ward and Jones $43,755.50 for the work. Tennessee requires a contractor's license on any job costing $25,000 or more. Yet neither Ward nor Jones holds a contractor's or home improvement license, according to state records. The Shelby County Clerk's Office revealed Jones' company, Westwood Fence & Construction, held a county business license, but it expired in 1999.

That explains the shoddy work. Really shoddy.

Click here to see pictures of the poorly built garage.

Seismic tie-downs protrude from the concrete where Ward and Jones failed to frame the garage the entire width of the foundation. They also failed to level and smooth the foundation. As a result, rain water pours and puddles inside the garage. It has already destroyed several articles of furniture and soiled boxes full of Sanders' late wife's belongings that were stored in the garage.

"We weren't ready to let go of her things," sobbed Sanders' daughter, Rev. Dinah Tatman of St. Louis. "If Mother was here, she would have been able to assist because she was always there. They were a team. He was honorable in paying them."

They were dishonorable and unlicensed. They were unqualified to do the job. But remarkably, the job passed inspection because the contractor's did another job on Sanders: they convinced Sanders to pull the building permit.

According to a copy obtained by the WMC Action News 5 Investigators, Sanders signed and pulled the building permit.

"We have no authority to go after them, because that contractor obviously did not pull the permit. The homeowner did," Shelby County Building Inspector Abe Solis said.

"They said they was waiting and couldn't get one, and Jerry asked me if I would pull the permit," Sanders said. "I drove him out there, and we went out there and pulled the permit. He went with me."

"When he took the responsibility of being the permit-holder, as the owner, then he took over all of that responsibility," Medlock said, adding it is a common practice for unlicensed contractors to fool clients into pulling their own permits. "If they do that, they have no recourse whatsoever...not any that I know unless they do it through the legal process."

"That's unconscionable to me," Tatman said. "That dissolves any responsibility of irresponsible people. Where's the protection for the consumer?"

Ward declined an on-camera interview, but in a phone conversation he said he had no idea that he was required to have a contractor's license for this type of work. He said he was "unaware of the guidelines." He also admitted that he asked Sanders to pull the building permit, but not because he is unlicensed.

"Mr. Sanders is well aware of why he pulled the building permit himself. It was in order to get the job moving more quickly. It was definitely not to take advantage of him," Ward said.

Jones said he never renewed his company's county business license because he rarely performs jobs "of $200 or more." As for his work on Sanders' property, he said in a phone interview, "What can I do? Code gave us approval on that. They just want to blow it out of proportion and open up a big can of worms."

"They took advantage of him," Tatman said. "To hear there's nothing he can do...again, all of the onus and responsibility placed on him...he has enough he has to deal with."

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators are vetting qualified, licensed contractors to repair the poor workmanship these unlicensed contractors left to an 83-year-old paralyzed widower--all because he pulled the building permit.

"I hope and pray that they will not and do not have an opportunity to do it to someone else," Sanders said.

For Andy Wise's checklist on shopping a licensed building contractor, please click here.

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