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September 13th, 2006 Jacques Von Lunen | News Stories
 

Good-Deal Hunting

A Portland retail giant sues over an ex-employee's website.

     
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Dan MacNeil claims ads like these lure customers into the store with information he calls misleading.
Dan MacNeil was fired eight years ago from his sales job at Standard TV & Appliance, Portland's largest locally owned appliance dealer.

The official reason was unprofessional behavior, but MacNeil alleges he was canned because he rebelled, after 13 years on the job, against Standard's business practices.

And he hasn't let go. Two years ago, he started three separate websites featuring shopping tips for appliance buyers. Two of the sites, badderbusinessbureau.com (now dormant) and appliancesportland.com, featured his descriptions of what he termed Standard's "bait-and-switch" tactics.

"More and more it just came to me to expose what they had really been doing," says MacNeil, 58, who now runs a Web-design business out of his house.

Last November, Standard fired back, filing a $2 million defamation lawsuit against MacNeil in Multnomah County Circuit Court. Barring an unlikely last-minute settlement, depositions begin Wednesday, Sept. 20. Standard wants him to hand over ownership of the websites, all company documents in his possession, a list of ex-employees who helped him obtain the documents and $2 million.

Standard owner Bill Gander says the reason is simple: The business started by his father in 1947 depends on a good reputation. "If we ever lost focus with our customers, I'd be dead meat."

An ex-employee creating a "gripe site" and a company filing suit in response is not so unusual these days, says H. Tomás Gómez-Arostegui, a Lewis & Clark Law School professor specializing in cyber law.

While MacNeil doesn't deny his bitterness about being fired, he says his websites give consumers important information. For example, he says, Standard would often keep one outdated dishwasher on the showroom floor. He says this item would be featured in print ads for a low price, luring customers to a store, but they'd then be told that the item had been sold, and be steered toward a more expensive model. This, MacNeil alleges, was official company policy.

He bolsters his claims with what he says are company documents that instruct employees which appliance is that month's "bolt-down" model (the item to be treated as if it were bolted to the showroom floor), and promotional plans that show "do not sell—advertise only" entries.

Bill Gander calls the allegations completely unfounded, and strongly questions the documents' authenticity.

"We don't know who authored those, or if they're even from our company," Gander says. "I would be so humiliated if any of my salespeople ever did anything like that.... They would be terminated. That's always been our policy."

The Federal Trade Commission says any company sales plan "discouraging" salesmen from selling the advertised product is illegal.

The Better Business Bureau has 37 complaints, only one about sales practices, filed against Standard in the past three years. The bureau considers this a "satisfactory" record for a business with seven stores and 375 employees. Officials say there is no good comparison for Standard because it dwarfs its competition.

Gander says the dispute sprang from the imagination of an emotionally unstable ex-employee who tried to extort money from Standard, and, when it rejected the attempt, retaliated with his websites.

Documents connected to the lawsuit show MacNeil writing to Gander in 2004—six years after he was fired—asking for money.

MacNeil says he wrote Gander asking for a commission he was owed on a large order, and that the first of his websites had been up for five months when he wrote the request.

 
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