MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Francine Fields had a tall task when she purchased her Midtown home back in 2011. The Memphis native had been living in Maryland; she moved back to care for her elderly mother. She decided to make an investment and buy a property from the federal government’s HUD program.
“It was listed for $35,000 and I bought it for 39,500,” she said of the home on Cowden Avenue. “Everything needed to be done. It was an eyesore.”
She needed a contractor and eventually decided to hire a woman named Toni Harris. Fields felt good about her decision in a field dominated by men.
“I believe in us women. People say we can’t do this work but we can,” she said.
In the contract, Fields agreed to pay Harris $57,000 for the rebuild including electrical, plumbing, HVAC and flooring work.
She’d already given Harris more than half that money when she found out from one of the sub-contractors he hadn’t been paid. That plumber also said Harris had a bad reputation.
“He told me she had done this to another client of hers for over $60,000. He gave me the lady’s name. I called and she confirmed. He said, ‘Ms. Fields there’s a possibility you’re not going to get your work done,’” Fields said.
She called Harris and asked if they could sort things out.
“She comes with a gun on her hip, her son has a gun on his hip,” she said of the meeting.
When that didn’t go anywhere, Fields told Harris she would do what the previous customer did not.
“She laughed at me said, ‘I guess you’re going to sue me now.’ I said, ‘I will.’ She said, ‘Well I’ll see you in court but you won’t get anything.’”
Fields filed a lawsuit and also a complaint with the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, who found Harris guilty of doing unlicensed work.
The state fined her a civil penalty of $3,000, which she promptly paid. But the court case didn’t wrap up as quickly.
“I presented everything you all asked for, it’s there before you. And you continuously delay,” Fields said.
In the time since she filed the lawsuit, Fields had to dip into her retirement savings to correct Harris’s work. It’s not the homecoming she imagined.
“To come here and be mistreated and abused, because I’m trusting someone so I can live comfortably here in Memphis and this is what I get?” she said.
Now she wants to be made whole. So she called the WREG Problem Solvers, we set out to talk to Harris. We first visited the Germantown address in her state paperwork. When that didn’t work, we contacted her lawyer, John Candy and asked if he had anything to say on her behalf regarding the lawsuit or why she was doing unlicensed work and didn’t pay Fields back the money originally.
Candy wouldn’t comment.
Soon after we spoke with Candy, Fields and Harris had a hearing in front of a mediator called a “special master.” They ruled in Fields’ favor, saying Harris should pay her more than $100,000 for the unfinished work and to cover her attorney fees.
“I’m relieved because it let it be known the contractor was wrong,” Fields said.
Now, she wants her money paid out. Above all, she hopes this is the last time Toni Harris does this.
“Let the public know there’s a menace out here disguised as a contractor in the state of Tennessee,” she said.
State officials said Harris did get a contracting license after this incident but has since let it expire.
Harris’s lawyer said his client will not pay Fields until a judge affirms the decision and even then they might appeal.