An Ontario franchise of a large Canadian moving company has been lambasted by a judge for what he said amounts to extortion, fraud, theft, and blackmail against one of its customers.
"They said, 'Give me money and I will give you your stuff.' You don't give me the money, then you obviously don't want your stuff,'" said customer Natasha Mitchell of Kitchener, Ont.
"The defendant's various demands ... wrongful retention and detention of her property ... and the threat of continued retention ... was extortion," said Ontario Superior Court Judge Sebastian Winny.
Mitchell is a single mother, and said she was struggling financially when she hired Two Small Men with Big Hearts in 2009. She sued the movers after they refused to deliver her belongings unless she paid them up to three times more than their initial bill.
"I lost everything. I don't have any baby pictures of my two oldest children," said Mitchell, who still doesn't have her belongings, 2½ years later.
"It took a really long time to accept that we weren't going to see our stuff again. And it doesn't get any easier."
The court ordered the company to pay for her losses in November, but it still hasn't.
"I think it's ridiculous. Something needs to be done," Mitchell said.
The dispute started when the movers unloaded her belongings in the driveway of her new home and told her the bill was $890 — $400 more than she expected — and that she had to pay immediately.
Mitchell said the company's initial estimate was $500. When she said she didn't have any more money with her, the movers put her belongings back on their truck and drove away.
"I'm freaking out, because I have maybe an hour and a half to go pick up my children to bring home to our house that should have everything in it," she said. "They had all the power … and the price just kept on rising."
Court was told the owner of the Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto franchises of Two Small Men with Big Hearts, Himanshu (Lucky) Batta, called her the night of the move to tell her the bill to get her belongings had increased to $1,245.
"He appeared quite oblivious to the fact that the kind of option he was giving her was the kind of option which might be given by a blackmailer to his victim," said the judge in his ruling.
The next day, Batta jacked up the bill again to $1,901, and told Mitchell if she didn't pay right away, it would increase to $2,529. He told Mitchell the additional fees were for storing her goods.
"They were simply unilateral demands," said the judge. "Fortunately … for Mr. Batta and the defendant's other employees, this is not a criminal court and criminal charges such as extortion, fraud and theft were not laid against them."
Mitchell said she had to beg and borrow from friends, to get pots and pans and clothes for her children. She also had to rent furniture, which was then repossessed when she couldn't pay.
"I spent maybe close to three weeks sleeping on the floor, because I didn't have anything else to sleep on and I gave my kids the beds," said Mitchell. "I was in over my head with the amount of money I was spending."
She said she didn't ask police to lay charges, choosing instead to represent herself against the company in court.
"They know what they did. They are more than aware of what they did to me and my family that day," she said. "The judge saw it for exactly what it was."
The court awarded her $22,419, plus interest and costs.
Mover kept belongings
The Two Small Men franchise owner admitted to CBC News that Mitchell's furniture and appliances have been in his home garage for several months. He displayed her dining room table, washer, dryer and TV for a CBC camera but denied having any personal items.
"I did not keep her baby pictures. We left all the garbage bags and boxes," said Batta. "We picked up her stuff from the driveway. We went back to the storage unit and offloaded again. That's labour. I am paying those guys by the hour. I am not running a charity."
Batta said none of this would have happened if Mitchell had paid the initial $900 bill. "I made effort to resolve this situation as much as I can," he said.
The judge also heard Batta's explanations and rejected them. However, Batta said he has no intention of paying Mitchell as the court ordered.
"That was a wrong judgment against me. [The judge] does not have a right to say that to me," said Batta. He said he intends to appeal, but Mitchell said he's missed the deadline to do that.
As a result of CBC News inquiries, a manager at the head office of Two Small Men Canada said Batta will be forced to honour the judgment.
Head office promises payment
"We are going to hold him accountable for this," said Rosario Bullaro from Winnipeg. "TSM Canada will see to it that she gets paid. If [Batta] doesn't pay it, TSM will pay it, and go after him for the money."
Bullaro also said by exposing Two Small Men to negative publicity and putting good franchise owners in a bad light, Batta has put his licence at risk.
"I will have a letter drawn up from our corporate lawyer to take steps to shut them down," he said. He also praised Mitchell for going to court on her own. "Good for her for standing up for her rights."
Another Ontario operation of Two Small Men with Big Hearts has pleaded guilty to similar practices. The Ontario Ministry of Consumer Services said the North York location admitted to "renegotiating a contract under duress" and two other charges in March 2010.
The franchise was fined $2,250. Since then, the government has had three new complaints about the same location.
Two Small Men is not the only moving company accused of such practices.
In 2010, a southern Ontario operation with several names, including Desi Movers, was charged with 160 counts of fraud and extortion. In the end, though, only one defendant from that company pleaded guilty — to false pretences.
The rest of the charges have since been withdrawn. Desi Movers is still in business, operating as GTA Premier Moving.
"The industry has had enough of what we call the rogue movers," said Tom Finlay of the Canadian Association of Movers. "We have standards. Codes of ethics …They give us a bad name."
Finlay said he would like to see more criminal convictions in cases like Mitchell's. He also said the industry association has refused to accept Two Small Men as a member, because of its reputation.
Mitchell said the company should just pay her what she's owed.
"I won it fair and square and I will get it," she said, adding she hopes Batta's franchise is shut down.
"They shouldn't be allowed to step foot in anybody's house ever — knowing that this is what they are capable of. I don't want to see their trucks on the road anymore."