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Fire safety supplier settles lawsuit with Arteaga

Michael Guetzke didn’t get as much money as he says he was owed but insists his 15-month pursuit of Arteaga Construction Inc. to settle a construction bill was worth it.

Guetzke owns Guetzke and Associates Inc., a Waukesha fire protection and safety system supplier that contracted with Milwaukee-based Arteaga in 2010 to install fire alarm systems in two Milwaukee public schools.

But when Guetzke finished the five-month project in December 2010, Arteaga failed to pay a balance of $5,737.87 for materials. Guetzke filed a small claims lawsuit in Milwaukee County on Nov. 4, 2011, to recover that balance.

The case settled Monday, a day before trial, and Guetzke recovered $4,000, minus his attorney’s fees. He said it was frustrating the quest to recover the money took longer than the installation job.

“I have no idea why it took so long,” Guetzke said. “There was no communication on their end. We tried to contact them to get paid.”

Arteaga President Tony Arteaga did not immediately return repeated calls for comment.

Arteaga’s attorney, Lauren Triebenbach, of von Briesen & Roper SC, said the settlement was satisfactory.

Guetzke said his company initially contracted to supply material to West Bend-based Schwister Electric LLC for installation of new smoke detectors, call stations and control relays inside Walker Middle School and Kosciuszko Montessori School.

But Schwister shut down early in the project, leaving Arteaga to complete the work and pay six invoices for material, Guetzke said.

Gregg Schwister, former project manager at Schwister Electric, said the company started work on the fire protection and safety system before going out of business. He said Schwister was paid for a portion of its work for Arteaga and also paid Guetzke a portion of the money owed for materials.

But once the company went under, Schwister said, his understanding was that Arteaga would be responsible for completion of the project and payment of the outstanding invoices to Guetzke.

But, Triebenbach said, Arteaga’s position in the lawsuit was that the contractor shouldn’t be obligated to pay for Schwister’s unpaid invoices.

“I don’t think he had a position as to who should pay,” Triebenbach said of Arteaga, “just that he wasn’t responsible.”

She declined to comment on why Arteaga shouldn’t pay for the material.

“In general, when the middle man goes out, there is not necessarily a typical situation as to how these are resolved,” Triebenbach said. “It’s very fact specific.”

Guetzke said he understood why Arteaga would be frustrated.

“But they were stuck with this thing,” he said, “and didn’t take care of it.”

Shortly after Guetzke filed the lawsuit, Arteaga offered to settle the dispute for about $3,000, Guetzke said, but he refused.

Guetzke said he was fully prepared to take the case to trial, despite the relatively small amount of money, but he settled because he didn’t want four of his 18 employees taking off work to testify at trial.

“They came back with a different offer and I said, ‘You know what, it doesn’t pay for us to tie up our employees with this,’” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”

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