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CONTRACTOR SUES BBB FOR LIBEL, SAYS GROUP HAS GRUDGE AGAINST HIM

The St. Louis Better Business Bureau went out its way to punish a home-remodeling contractor who complained that the watchdog group was treating him unfairly, according to a libel suit against the BBB.

Overland-based Castle Rock Remodeling is seeking at least $500,000 in the suit, which was filed Aug. 6 in St. Louis County. In addition to libel, the suit alleges tortious interference, or that the BBB intentionally harmed Castle Rock's relationship with consumers.

Castle Rock President Jamie Hart said BBB officials have a grudge against him, and they're targeting his business.

"The BBB is accountable to no one," he said. "And, if you try to hold them accountable, they retaliate."

The BBB denies any wrong-doing.

Castle Rock was a BBB-accredited business from 2002 until April and, according to the suit, Hart served on the BBB's dispute-resolution committee. But his relationship with the BBB soured after he protested some consumer complaints against his business.

In January 2009, the BBB scrapped its custom of rating businesses as either "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" in favor of a school-style grading spectrum that ranged from A-plus to F. Castle Rock initially was awarded a C-plus.

One year later, the grade hadn't improved -- even though the number of reported complaints had dropped to 23 in January 2010 from 48 in January 2009, the suit stated. Typically, BBB reports include a tally of complaints for the previous 36 months only.

According to the suit, Hart complained to BBB President Michelle Corey that he felt his business was being treated unfairly. He told her that complaints more than 36 months old were being held against Castle Rock and that similar remodeling firms were being treated differently.

Days later, a BBB official asked Hart in an e-mail for Castle Rock to voluntarily surrender its BBB accreditation or risk being expelled by a vote of the BBB's ethics committee. (BBB spokesman Chris Thetford said it is standard practice for the group to allow accredited businesses to resign before expulsion proceedings begin.)

One month after Castle Rock gave up its accreditation, the company's BBB grade was lowered to a D-plus. There were no new complaints against Castle Rock; the BBB told Hart the grade was lowered because of "advertising concerns."

Corey would not describe those concerns in detail given the pending lawsuit.

Hart said they involved two minor transgressions: failing to note in one ad that a 40-percent discount applied only to regular-priced work, and omitting the words "up to" when referring to a $1,500 tax credit available on some remodeling work.

After the grade was lowered, Hart said competing home-remodeling contractors circulated copies of Castle Rock's BBB report to consumers and the resulting drop-off in business has been "catastrophic."

He said he blames the BBB for "at least a six-figure loss in profits."

The suit alleges the BBB accepted complaints it knew to be false or should have known to be false. The BBB also allegedly allowed consumers to re-file complaints after the 36-month cut-off and re-open complaints previously deemed closed in order to ensure a lower grade for Castle Rock.

Corey said she wouldn't discuss specific allegations but dismissed the suit as being without merit. She said Castle Rock was held to a higher standard "just as any BBB-accredited business is held to a higher standard," but that her group followed its policies and procedures for grading Castle Rock. The BBB held no grudge against Hart or the firm, she said.

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