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She’s left with a concrete slab and $140K out of pocket after conflict with a contractor

An Ottawa-area woman says she’s at risk of losing her home, alleging that a dispute with a contractor — now charged with fraud — left her close to $140,000 out of pocket in building costs alone.

Carol Richenhaller sold her house during the pandemic to purchase a small hobby farm in Beckwith Township in eastern Ontario, partly because of the positive impact spending time with horses would have on her daughter’s mental health. 

It was a bit of an adventure, selling an income property she planned to use as her retirement fund as the two tried to make “COVID lemonade,” she said.

“It was golden,” Richenhaller said during an interview on the farm in January. “I mean, it did exactly what we were looking for. It provided a space [to better our] mental health.”

But Richenhaller says her peaceful oasis just outside of Ottawa quickly turned into a waking nightmare, alleging Shelby Mills, the man she hired to build an indoor horse-riding arena, left the job unfinished and her property in disarray. 

“I’m likely looking at a situation where our dream property is now going to have to be sold so that I can access the money needed to make it through this,” Richenhaller said.

But Mills, who was charged by the Ontario Provincial Police earlier this year with one count of fraud over $5,000, denies the accusations against him. He says there is more to the story.

“She has been harassing the hell out of me,” said Mills, of Fawn Group Construction, by phone in January. He called his dealings with Richenhaller “frustrating.” 

Nearly 2 years since initial payments

With the fraud charges before the courts and untested, Richenhaller is still out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars and wishes to speak out about her experience. She said it illuminates how consumers are left to fend for themselves.

As she notes, it’s been nearly two years since she made her initial payments, and a grey concrete foundation sticking out of the ground is all that exists of her dream riding arena. 

A foundation sticks out of the ground.
Nearly two years after initial payments for an indoor riding arena, Carol Richenhaller says all she’s left with is the concrete foundation. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)

Documents filed by police at the Perth courthouse allege Mills defrauded Richenhaller of $73,450 “by failing to purchase building materials.” The accusation dates back to May 6, 2022. 

And according to the police press release about the charge, “it was determined that the money has been misappropriated,” with the police investigation beginning in November. 

Richenhaller said she did her research before hiring Mills, checking the Better Business Bureau, saying she saw no complaints. His company was listed on the Canadian Farm Builders Association’s website, still visible in a cached version.

She said she reviewed some of the previous builds listed on Fawn Group’s website, including ones that had been constructed in the area. She didn’t speak to the owners.

Both Mills and Richenhaller agree that relations started off amicably before deteriorating. 

Richenhaller said the initial quote she received was for $248,000. 

Things went smoothly at first, with Richenhaller making the first payment of a little more than $11,000 for a design deposit in March 2022. She was also told she needed to pay for trusses because of backlog and supply issues, and so paid another $73,500. 

One month later, the quote ballooned to just south of $350,000. Richenhaller said volatility in lumber prices was cited as the cause for the increases.

But by September of that year, Richenhaller said an agreement to move forward had been reached.

Mills asked for the approximately $36,000 in advance for materials, she said, once a scaled-back final design and a plan to proceed was agreed upon.

And she said after a lull in communication and further delays — accusations Mills disputes were not his fault — the work began at the start of 2023.

With work underway, she said Mills asked for another $50,000 for a job start payment, which she paid. But she said only a foundation was put in before communications stopped once more. 

There were issues with the foundation, she said; it hadn’t passed inspection. She shared with CBC News an inspection report from the township dated January 2023.

She also provided CBC an email between her and the company providing the trusses, alleging they had never been ordered as Mills hadn’t provided a final delivery date. 

Amidst long lulls in communications, Richenhaller said her lawyers sent a letter requesting a full refund by June 2023. 

Relationship ‘broke down,’ says Mills

Richenhaller said by August — a month after she and Mills had last met to discuss the build — he was told not to return to her property, with the farm owner confident he didn’t intend to complete the job.

In Mills’ recounting, the foundation still needed to be buried under a few bags of dirt and Richenhaller needed to allow her outdoor gate for the horses to be disassembled to accommodate the trusses coming in — or allow a crane on her driveway to do the work from there.

“I set that up and the cost was quite high to accommodate that,” he said by phone. “And she said, ‘No, there’s no way. That’s not happening.’ And the relationship sort of broke down that way. 

“And then she said, ‘I can’t afford to go ahead with the project and I want to stop.’ And so I haven’t been back since,” Mills continued, adding Richenhaller knew her deposits wouldn’t be refundable. 

Richenhaller said other people she contacted disagreed that her fencing would need to be disassembled to complete the work. Richenhaller said that detail also wasn’t part of the original build plans, of which Mills was the designer.

But according to Mills, a lack of funding is what really pulled in the reins on the riding arena. 

Richenhaller said her reluctance to go ahead once costs ballooned has been used time-and-time again by Mills. And she notes, these tactics have been used before.

Carol and her daughter stands in front of their horses.
Richenhaller and her 15-year-old daughter Bronwyn Richenhaller. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)

In an unrelated, 2022 decision from Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, Mills was found to not be an “honest nor unfortunate debtor.” 

The matter involved the sale of a property Mills owned half of and a dispute with creditors from a previous bankruptcy his company faced.

The court found Mills, through the use of delay tactics, did not comply with parts of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

Mills and Fawn Group Construction filed for bankruptcy in 2018, but were granted a suspended and conditional discharge in 2021.

The decision also found that, under oath, Mills “grossly understated his unsecured liabilities.”

“In order to obtain the relief by Mr. Mills, he must come to court with clean hands and keep his hands clean,” the decision reads. “The court finds that Mr. Mills did not come to court with clean hands and if he did, he certainly did not keep them clean during the bankruptcy process.”

When I have consumers coming to me with those kinds of fact patterns, the hard conversation is, ‘We can go after this person, but like, is there going to be any money available at the end of the day?’​​​​​​– Neil Hartung, lawyer with expertise in consumer protection

Richenhaller said she wasn’t aware of the 2022 decision until after her troubles with Mills began. 

After initially speaking with CBC News, Mills said his lawyer advised him to provide no further comment, but also said they were preparing documents to contest the allegations made against him. Further emails to Mills by CBC News went unanswered. 

Richenhaller said she tried to pursue Mills under the Consumer Protection Act, but ran into roadblock after roadblock with little navigational support.

Now she has a determination from the Ontario Dispute Adjudication for Construction Contracts (ODACC), which administers and oversees the adjudication of construction disputes in the province, stating she’s entitled to be paid back $137,000, with about another $22,000 in legal fees also owed to her according to the authority. 

The ODACC, however, said it doesn’t participate or assist with enforcement of its orders. 

She plans to present Mills the ODACC determination, already sent to the Superior Court, at his March 4 court appearance.

But even with that order in hand, it doesn’t mean Richenhaller’s battle to collect is over.

“Realizing on a lawsuit is a whole separate process,” said Neil Hartung, a Toronto-based lawyer whose expertise includes consumer protection litigation.

He said ODACC is set up to allow for construction disputes to be handled more speedily by those with specialization.

Once filed, a determination acts as a court order, he said, and would allow Richenhaller to take next steps toward collecting. 

A mother and a daughter stand outside in front of a wooden gate.
Richenhaller sold her house during the pandemic to purchase a small hobby farm, in part, because of the positive impact spending time with horses would have on her daughter’s mental health. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)

A judge wouldn’t even need to rule on anything, but Hartung also cautioned that cases like these can often end in pyrrhic victories.

“When I have consumers coming to me with those kinds of fact patterns, the hard conversation is, ‘We can go after this person, but like, is there going to be any money available at the end of the day?'”

At the same time, he said it’s easy to tell someone suing you that you don’t have any money, and it can often be difficult to determine whether that’s true until you spend what’s required to take them to court.

He said the research Richenhaller did before hiring Mills should really be viewed as “the base thing you have to do.”

Hartung said getting some legal advice before forging ahead with a build can go a long way, as can limiting payments until certain stages of work is completed. 

Still, Mills says he’s not the monster Richenhaller has made him out to be and his reputation has been tarnished.

Mills said he had several other jobs, many within a 12-kilometre radius of Richenhaller’s farm, that were “completed, finished — not one complaint” within the last year and a half. 

But even if the two could reconcile their differences and weather permitted it, he said Richenhaller would still owe him approximately $116,000 to get the job done, even with the money already paid.

“If she called me today and wanted that done, I’d get there tomorrow. We frame the walls, throw a roof on it, throw some steel on it and be done,” he said. “Close the book.”

Richenhaller said stories like hers are often touted as a consumer issue, where an inexperienced buyer enters into a contract without knowing the risks. But she says she did her due diligence and still lost out, arguing the issues appear to be with the industry itself. 

She said the worst part of her situation is that she’ll likely soon have to sell her property — now with a sizeable concrete blemish on it. 

This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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