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Repairer’s battle to leave Mitchell contract shows importance of documentation, fine print

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Business Practices | Legal | Technology
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Contracts with the major estimating service providers are necessary for repair work, but it’s important to be aware of the terms — particularly as the deals can span years.

The topic drew attention in April after the Society of Collision Repair Specialists reported contacting AudaExplore, CCC and Mitchell about the lack of notification before a body shop is auto-renewed.

Now, the potential end of a Washington state collision repairer’s battle with Mitchell highlights why repairers should document any interactions with a counterparty and note what the shop has agreed to do in case of a dispute.

The deal

Jeff Butler, president of Haury’s Lake City Collision, said he had signed up for a five-year RepairCenter contract in 2010 after being told that it would be replacing Mitchell’s ABS system.

At the time, he was using CCC Pathways to generate estimates, importing them into Mitchell’s business management ABS 8.1 platform and then outputting the data as invoices and estimates, according to Butler and an affidavit from his IT head at the time, Jacob Cook

At the time, Mitchell promised Butler and Cook that RepairCenter would work as ABS had done and add some new features.

But upon installation, RepairCenter didn’t match ABS on one major feature, according to Cook.

I became aware of the fact that RepairCenter was missing a crucial component: the ability to print estimates without having to convert them to repair orders (invoices) beforehand. This is something every repair shop needs to do at some point, so it was puzzling to us why RepairCenter did not include this feature. Especially because (a Mitchell salesman) had promised us beforehand very clearly that it would be able to do this. We were told by the specialist as well as (the salesman) that the feature was indeed missing but that it would be delivered in an update, at most “a few months from now”. (Note that many shops use their estimation software … to print initial estimates, but due to our shop’s specific requirements and workflow we needed the ability to print via the management software. This was well understood by Mitchell …)

Mitchell told Haury’s Collision to temporarily continue using ABS for that feature while a fix could be delivered, thereby switching what had been a two-program job into three pieces of software, according to Butler and Cook. They agreed and sought a complimentary ABS support extension because of this, but Mitchell declined, according to Cook.

As months turned into years of wrestling with this new, nonsensical “temporary” configuration, and repeated promises of updates to alleviate our ongoing problems resulted in nothing, we were very upset that Mr. Ross had misrepresented the product he was selling, and that no additional recourse could be found from the half-dozen other Mitchell employees we dealt with over that period of time. We had interacted with regional Mitchell employees as well as managers and executives at Mitchell’s head office, but none were willing to address our concerns in a substantive manner.

Butler said the shop had grown accustomed to the work-around, adding more workstations and increasing the user license, but “I’m not happy.”

About three years into the five-year contract, he asked to be let out on the grounds of “I was told it did X, and it doesn’t.”

And that’s where he says the battle began.

“Bad on me for not just ending this sooner,” he said.

Mitchell spokeswoman Adrianne Buchta of Lewis PR said Wednesday a search of the company’s records don’t show the kind of grievances Haury’s alleged.

“There’s no major technical issues that were identified,” she said. She pointed to Butler’s request to increase the number of users from seven to nine.

“Clearly, things were going well,” she said.

However, she didn’t know if complaints to Mitchell parties other than customer service (for example, a salesman) would have been recorded in the system. Butler said he went “up the food chain” and provided Repairer Driven News with what he said was correspondence with Mitchell.

“My assumption there would be some sort of paper trail,” she said.

After three years with apparently no issues indicated on Mitchell’s records, Haury’s tried to exit the contract, Buchta said.

“Mitchell had worked with them to reach a resolution,” she said. Ultimately, the file shows the two companies have “resolved the dispute.”

The battle

Mitchell’s limited records provide a much milder version of the argument, according to Butler.

Though “the vendors’ll usually let you out” of an unworkable contract, Mitchell wouldn’t budge.

“They just said no, and then I started filing complaints,” he said.

Mitchell ultimately sent him to a collection attorney who issued a “pay this or we’re going to sue you” ultimatum followed by an offer to make a settlement offer, according to Butler.

Butler said that he was then given the option to make a settlement offer and told that should he desire legal action over the contract dispute, “Are you aware that you have to sue us in California?”

After calculating attorney’s fees, Butler said he offered to pay $2,500 to settle the matter. Mitchell wanted about $11,000, he said.

Mitchell counteroffered $5,500, which Butler rejected.

“At this point, it’s just principle,” he said.

On May 20, the day after we first talked to Butler and called Mitchell for comment, they agreed to the $2,500 but wanted Butler to sign a confidentiality agreement. That might explain the resolution shown from Mitchell’s records.

Butler on Wednesday said he was considering accepting the $2,500. Initially, he wasn’t sure about the confidentiality component, though he grew more adamant later in the interview (which he observed wouldn’t have been covered by a subsequent deal anyway).

“I have no intention of signing a confidentiality agreement,” he said. “… I want people to know. I want people to know what happened.”

On Thursday, Mitchell confirmed the dispute had been settled.

Advice for repairers

Butler advised any repairers to check with the Better Business Bureau and attorney general’s office for complaints against a potential vendor. In this case, there were no attorney general complaints about Mitchell, but “some of this sounds familiar” on the BBB website, he said.

He urged auto body shop owners to “read the contract.” And in a situation like Mitchell requiring legal action in its home state of California, “either negotiate better terms” or don’t do business with a party who makes it difficult for you to seek redress.

“They set it up against you,” he said.

Butler gave the example of a CCC product which didn’t perform as expected, and CCC’s response was: “We’re prepared to let you out of the contract if that’s what you need.”

“That was a real partnership,” he said. “… (Mitchell) handled themselves like an insurance company.”

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