Unlicensed contractor sues customer

Homeowner claims contractor installed plumbing in violation of law

ORLANDO, Fla. – As Kevin Messer and his husband were searching for someone to renovate their master bathroom, they were impressed by photos of similar renovations posted on the Facebook page for Phipps Home Improvement.

Equally impressive to Messer was a promise on the company's online advertisement, stating that the owner, Joshua Phipps, was "licensed, insured, and bonded."

"We didn't question him," said Messer.
"We should have."

WEB EXTRA: Search for a contractor license 

When Messer later discovered that Phipps did not have the proper license required by state law to do plumbing work, he fired the contractor before the job was complete and stopped payment on a $2,257 check intended as a down payment.

Weeks later, Phipps filed a lawsuit against the customers, claiming they owed him for the full cost of the renovation work.

"It was extremely bold," said Messer. 
"I'll be dammed if somebody does that and gets away with it."

Customer claims contractor installed new plumbing

Besides replacing the bathroom tile, a task that does not require a state license, Messer wanted the contractor to install a second faucet in the shower.

Messer claims he witnessed Phipps install new pipes behind the shower wall to connect the valve to the new faucet.

WEB EXTRA: Search unlicensed activity complaints

An invoice from Phipps Home Improvement shows the contractor charged Messer $250 for "new wall plumbing."

According to Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation, a contractor who charges money for connecting plumbing lines to potable water must be licensed by the state.

Phipps is not licensed as a plumber or general contractor, state records show.

At the time he was working in Messer's home, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation was investigating Phipps for allegedly doing unlicensed work in at least two other Central Florida homes.

Angela Russell claims Phipps walked off the job after she paid him $3,500 for bathroom renovation work that included new plumbing installation, according to state records.

WEB EXTRA: What services require a contractor license?

As state investigators were looking into her complaint, they discovered Phipps had posted photos on his Facebook page, indicating that he had rerouted an electrical outlet without being properly licensed, records show.

Those complaints, as well as a recent one filed by Messer, remain under review by the state's licensing agency.

Contracting without a license is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Repeat offenders can be charged with a felony that carries a five -year prison sentence.

When contacted by News 6, Messer declined to answer questions about his licensing status or why his company's Facebook page indicates that he is licensed.

"No comment," Phipps told News 6.

Contractor sues customers after being fired from job

About halfway through the bathroom renovation project, Messer claimed he began noticing extremely shoddy workmanship on the tile.

"There was so much space behind the tiles you could literally fit your hand behind them," he said.
"It looked like it was going to fall down."

Those concerns prompted Messer to do further research into Phipps, he said.

When Messer discovered the contractor did not have any state licenses, the customers fired Phipps.

They also contacted their bank to stop payment on the down payment check which had not yet been deposited into Phipps's account.

Messer said he offered to pay Phipps $600 for the partial work that had been done, but claims the contractor refused.

Weeks later, Phipps filed a lawsuit in Orange County Circuit Court, claiming the customers owed him $4,600.

"I have paid for materials," Phipps wrote in the lawsuit. 
"I have paid all dump fees.  All my employees have also been paid in full."

State law protects customers from unlicensed contractors

Phipps may have a difficult time winning his lawsuit against his customers.

In 1990, Florida legislators passed a law that makes it more challenging for contractors to profit off unlicensed work.

"As a matter of public policy, contracts entered into... by an unlicensed contractor shall be unenforceable," according to the statute.  

Messer plans to cite that state law to Orange County Judge Faye Allen when the lawsuit goes to trial in small claims court early next year.

"The case should be dismissed," said Messer. 
"I hope that justice is served and that (Phipps) learns a lesson that you can't do this to people."

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.