By Jim Donovan: The owner of a Wilmington-area furniture store named The Amish Mill has been fined $23,000 for violating Delaware’s consumer protection laws. The Delaware Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit found that he assessed undisclosed fees and willfully misled customers who waited months for orders that never arrived.
After receiving numerous complaints from customers, Biden’s Consumer Protection Unit filed an administrative complaint last year against Michael D. Wharton, The Amish Mill’s owner. The administrative complaint centered on allegations that Wharton would promise customers to have furniture ready by a certain date but never deliver and that he charged customers additional, undisclosed fees if they called to check on the order or complained about the store’s business practices.
At a recent hearing on the allegations, former Amish Mill customers testified that they waited months past the time frame when Wharton said their furniture would be delivered and that the hidden fees included $5.99 if they called him to check on the status of their overdue orders or $85 for posting negative comments online.
In an opinion signed Monday, an administrative hearing officer agreed with the allegations in the complaint and found Wharton had committed 23 violations of Delaware’s Consumer Fraud Act. Wharton not only failed to deliver items within the promised time frame, the officer found, but in some cases never had any intention of having the ordered furniture built. When customers complained, no attempt to resolve the situation was made. Instead, the fees were tacked onto their bills or they were told their orders were nonrefundable.
“One would expect that a businessman who was having legitimate problems with suppliers to be contrite, offer refunds, or in some way accommodate the customer over an item’s extreme lateness,” the officer wrote. “Mr. Wharton’s anger with customers when they inquired about their items is indicative of someone, who, viewing some customers negatively and with a sense of entitlement, sought to drive them away and keep their money.”
Wharton even left one customer a voicemail in which he said the customer’s bill was “going up very drastically” because the customer had called to check on his order and posted comments online.
In addition to the $23,000 Wharton was ordered to pay, the hearing officer also extended a Cease and Desist Order that Biden’s office issued against Wharton that subjects him to stiff penalties if he assesses undisclosed fees or retains customer deposits for items he fails to deliver items in the timeframe promised. Since Biden’s Consumer Protection Unit brought this administrative action against Amish Mill, the scrutiny has led to several customers receiving their long-delayed orders and other customers receiving refunds after waiting as long as 14 months for furniture that had been ordered and on which deposits had been paid but that were never delivered.
Deputy Attorney General Stephen McDonald prosecuted this administrative case for Biden’s Consumer Protection Unit.