A state court judge ordered Able Energy to repay $1.5 million to about 80 customers on Friday, finding that the struggling solar company engaged in an "egregious" pattern of fraud including one instance where an employee forged a client's signature on a contract.
Judge Richard Kyle Jr. said Able Energy and company owner Michael J. Harvey tricked customers into making large upfront payments on solar systems that were never completed with an array of false promises. In some cases, he said, wary customers were reassured that parts would be ordered immediately for their projects when in fact the parts never arrived, allowing the company to squeeze extra money out of its victims.
Kyle concluded that Harvey and Able Energy "diverted payments received from customers for unintended purposes and unrelated projects."
The ruling was issued in response to a lawsuit by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which also moved to revoke Able Energy's license in March after hearing from dozens of frustrated customers who have been waiting as long as two years for work to begin on their solar systems. A department spokesman said a decision on the licensing action is expected later this month.
"We are happy the judge agreed that Able Energy's outrageous and reckless conduct warranted strong action," said Ken Peterson, DLI commissioner. "Our major goal was to try to help these homeowners get their money back and prevent additional harm to Minnesota consumers."
Harvey did not respond to calls or text messages seeking comment. In the past, he has denied wrongdoing, blaming the company's problems on former employees.
In his ruling, Kyle noted that neither Harvey nor Able Energy filed written responses to the department's lawsuit, even though Harvey discussed the case twice in July with state officials.
"Neglect of the party to respond is inexcusable," Kyle said in the order.
Kyle said Able Energy's fraudulent behavior began in 2014 and continued for four years. He faulted the company for continuing to solicit new customers this year after its license expired and state officials began investigating the company's conduct. He noted that Able Energy employees persuaded a Rochester physician to put down $11,070 for a new solar system in April, even though it was illegal for the company to perform electrical work in Minnesota at the time.
Kyle said Harvey repeatedly failed to refund down-payment money even when his company failed to complete work in a timely manner. In one case, Kyle noted, a customer who put down $10,301 for a solar system obtained a partial refund of $1,500, but the check bounced because the company had insufficient funds in its checking account. Kyle said Harvey agreed to provide the check "only after he confirmed that Able forged" the customer's signature on the contract.
Able Energy has just $14,000 in its bank accounts, according to the order.