The Summit County prosecutor is trying to shut down longtime Tallmadge contractor Keith Heating & Cooling.
In a complaint filed Wednesday, the prosecutor charges that the company and its owner, Keith Goodwin, are guilty of “unconscionable consumer sales practices,” have been unfair and deceptive and have failed to apply for required permits.
The complaint asks Summit County Common Pleas Court to grant preliminary and permanent injunctions, freeze the company’s assets, provide immediate access to the business premises and appoint a receiver.
At least 31 Keith customers were falsely told their furnaces were in immediate need of replacement because of a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the complaint.
A lawyer for Keith Heating said that the company denies the charges.
In a 17-page filing, which also seeks restitution, the county laid out a host of other charges. Chief among them was that Keith Heating “continuously” has:
• Practiced deceptive pricing.
• Lied about warranty information and parts availability.
• Lied about the quality and value of the goods and services being sold.
• Lied about the nature and costs of additional products and services.
• Solicited service appointments through scare tactics.
• Locked consumers into installment and financing contracts without disclosing the terms.
“The company’s blatant disregard for its customers is appalling,” said Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh.
“What makes this case especially egregious is what we discovered to be a pattern of targeting elderly and disabled customers and scaring them with unfounded warnings of serious illness and even death.”
Goodwin’s attorney, Adam VanHo, said via email, “We’re frankly surprised the prosecutor decided to file this suit [because] we’ve actually heard nothing … since last March, when we offered to work with the county to address the concerns that had been raised. In fact, Mr. Goodwin went ahead and acted on the issues that had been identified. …
“The complaints included in this suit are not true and we intend to contest the charges.”
Keith Heating first appeared on the county’s radar in December 2011, when a former employee told the Beacon Journal and the county’s Division of Building Standards that the company routinely failed to apply for mandatory permits, which cost $85.85 for a furnace and $121.20 for a furnace and air conditioner.
An investigation by the building division revealed that Keith Heating applied for only 45 permits from 1996 to December 2011. Owner Goodwin then tried to catch up, the suit says, by purchasing 133 permits for jobs that already had been completed.
However, he failed to pay the penalty for applying after the fact, which is twice the original fee (over and above the permit itself).
For Keith’s customers, though, the biggest financial damage came from an ongoing practice in which Keith’s technicians would say they found extremely dangerous conditions and pressured the homeowner into a major purchase, the county says.
A stack of court exhibits nearly 2 inches high recounts a litany of consumer horror stories. One of the alleged victims, a 70-year-old Akron man who was recovering from heart surgery, paid $9,287 for a new furnace and air conditioner he didn’t need after being told he and his wife could die in their sleep.
According to the documents filed, many of the scenarios went like this:
A Keith Heating technician checks the furnace with a special video camera and declares an emergency, saying the heat exchanger is cracked and leaking potentially lethal levels of carbon monoxide. The tech then says the homeowner’s only choice is to install a new furnace or a new furnace and air conditioner.
Some potential victims called in a second contractor — or, in one case, three additional contractors — and were told Keith was grossly exaggerating the problem and that immediate repairs were unnecessary.
Goodwin has said his company’s video cameras are more sophisticated than other companies’ and that he had “a moral and ethical responsibility to protect our customers” from carbon monoxide.
In some cases, the prosecutor says, the company allegedly did more than simply scare its customers:
“A significant number [of them] had their furnaces falsely ‘condemned’ … by the placement of red or yellow tags, shutting off gas to the furnace or leaving furnaces in a state of disrepair during cold weather.”
Many of these charges were laid out in four previous stories in the Beacon Journal. The prosecutor’s complaint credits those stories for triggering a flood of reports to the Summit County Office of Consumer Affairs.
A 10-month investigation by that office and the prosecutor led to Wednesday’s court action.
Keith Heating, whose headquarters is near Tallmadge Circle, has been in business since 1995.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.