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Canada Vulnerable and isolated senior preyed on by construction company, tribunal rules

08:35  17 february  2020
08:35  17 february  2020 Source:   montrealgazette.com

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a person posing for the camera: Gemma Even was 87 years old and suffering from dementia when four men took advantage of her and took hundreds of thousands of dollars from her for unnecessary or overpriced home maintenance work. Gemma Even was 87 years old and suffering from dementia when four men took advantage of her and took hundreds of thousands of dollars from her for unnecessary or overpriced home maintenance work.

Knowing she was socially isolated and unable to judge the value of their work, four men tied to a home maintenance company have been found to have taken advantage of an 87-year-old woman in the St-Laurent borough.

The work done on the woman’s home included charging her $38,000 for a new fence later estimated to cost only $2,300. The men also convinced her she needed her exterior walls cleaned: one brick at a time, each washed by hand with soap and a rag.

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In all, Gemma Even, since deceased, was invoiced more than $174,000 for work worth less than $10,000. It’s also believed she paid the men more than $244,000 in cash, with one of them often accompanying her to the bank to withdraw large sums of money.

Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal has now ordered the four men to pay Even’s family a total of nearly $380,000 in damages, ruling they preyed on her vulnerable state and financially exploited her “without restraint.”

“Ms. Even was vulnerable and incapable of making the slightest informed judgment on the necessity and real value of the renovation work,” Tribunal Judge Mario Gervais ruled in late January.

“Both Ms. Even’s cognitive limitations,” he added, “and the abysmal discrepancy between the true value of the work undertaken and the costs disbursed support this conclusion.”

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A retired teacher, Even lived alone in her St-Laurent bungalow and rarely left her home. She never married or had children. Neighbours would say she wasn’t social, their relationship consisting of cordial hellos but little more.

According to her niece and nephew, she didn’t enjoy being visited or questioned about her lifestyle and financial situation. She saw her family only once or twice a year. In 2008, she began suffering from mixed dementia.

Even was 86 when she first met two of the men, Sylvain Lessard and Denis Brown, in winter 2010. Under Lessard’s company, Calfeutrage Multi-Scellant, they approached her at home. She agreed to have caulking and snow removal work done.

The tribunal ruled Lessard, Brown and two other men, Denis Greffard and Simon Bétournay, knew how isolated Even was and took advantage of it for two years following that initial meeting.

The scheme came to a halt when Even was hospitalized following a heart attack in 2012.

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When Even’s niece went to her home to retrieve a few personal items for her, she was shocked at the mess she found. There were cheques and banknotes scattered all over the place. Among the paperwork was a letter stating Even was about to lose her home due to unpaid taxes.

Even’s niece called her brother for help. When he arrived at the house, he noticed the shoddy maintenance work that was either done or underway. For example, he would later say, floating floorboards in the basement were so poorly installed there were large, uneven gaps between them.

They filed a complaint with the police and Quebec’s Hunan Rights Commission soon after. The nephew also went to Even’s bank to cancel any cheques she had written and freeze her account.

When Even returned home from the hospital, her niece and nephew hired someone to help keep the house tidy and make her meals. But her health kept deteriorating and she became increasingly disorganized. She was moved into an old-age home in 2013 and lived there until her death four years later.

In his decision, Gervais noted that only one of the four men, Lessard, contested the Commission’s findings. Lessard argued he developed a business relationship with Even in good faith and was justly paid for the work that was done. One of the other men, Greffard, has since died. His family has been ordered to pay damages instead.

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The decision notes Lessard cut ties with Even in May 2010. His employee, Brown, then introduced her to Bétournay as a jack-of-all-trades type that could finish the work.

The ruling says Bétournay then gained Even’s trust by frequently visiting her, even bringing her snacks and treats. He began accompanying her to the bank and, during the same time period, would convince her to lend him nearly $32,000.

The evidence showed Even often paid the men in cheques bearing only the word “cash” and no other explanation. There were also often duplicate invoices for the same work.

During the two-year period in question, Even withdrew $315,000 in cash from her bank account.

Though Gervais ruled the tribunal can’t know for sure what was done with that money, after subtracting Even’s usual expenses and considering other factors, he ruled it was reasonable to believe $244,000 had been given to three of the men.

The judge came to the conclusion, in part, because they were the only people involved in Even’s life at the time. Even would also tell her bank she was taking out the money to pay for renovations on her house.

The case heard Even’s bank made some efforts to inquire about what she was doing with all the money she was withdrawing, but Gervais questioned how it allowed the situation to go on for so long.

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At 87 years old, the judge wrote, Even withdrew an “outstanding” amount of money that was not in line with her usual habits. She often left the bank with thousands of dollars in cash on her.

“It is distressing,” Gervais wrote, that the bank accepted Even’s responses when questioned about the money and never thought of alerting the competent authorities, “despite the presence of worrisome signs of financial exploitation.”

jfeith@postmedia.com

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