March 15, 2017
Property owners frequently have complaints about construction contractors. Some of these complaints involve thousands of dollars in damage or serious infringement upon the use or value of property. These property owners (and their attorneys) want to know who to turn to. Should homeowners bring complaints against contractors before courts or regulators? This question raises issues about how the government ought to enforce its laws and resolve disputes. There is a perspective that regulatory boards ought to be a welcome forum for owners threatened or damaged by alleged contractor misconduct. In this blog post I will explain why I believe that, for all its imperfections, the judicial system is the best venue for vindication of legal rights in consumer disputes.
In 2015, the Court of Appeals of Virginia decided an illustrative case arising out of a complaint of a home purchaser about the seller’s contractor. Around 2002, Mark Holmes purchased an Alexandria, Virginia home, including an addition constructed by Culver Design Build, Inc. Mr. Holmes was unhappy about defective construction of the addition. He went to the city government, whom the General Assembly tasked with enforcing the building code in his locality. The City Code Administration found extensive water damage caused by construction defects and issued a Notice of Violation to Culver. Holmes was not satisfied with Culver regarding corrective work, so he filed a complaint with the Virginia State Board of Contractors. Holmes asked the Board to suspend Culver’s license until it corrected the violation. Culver Design Build, Inc. argued that Holmes did not have legal standing to seek judicial review of the Board’s ruling because this was a license disciplinary proceeding. The Holmes case also includes issues about how deferential the courts should be to a licensing agency’s administrative rulings. This case is unusual in that Mark Holmes represented himself in his appeal to the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Mr. Holmes acknowledged that unlike the seller, he lacked the privity of contract with the contractor which potentially could be used to go to court in breach of contract. The Court of Appeals agreed with Culver and the Board for Contractors.
When homeowners conclude that a state-licensed contractor or tradesperson committed a wrongful act depriving them of their home or damaging its value, it is easy to see why the aggrieved party would want a governmental agency to help them. Most people deal with governmental agencies much more than courthouses or law offices. Lawsuits require significant commitments to pursue or defend. Public resources go to supporting various agencies that have apparent subject-matter authority. This may appear to be a taxpayer-financed legal authority to go after the professional. However, this strategy often does little more than aggravate the licensed professional, the agency officials and the consumer. The Holmes v. Culver case illustrates one key weakness with homeowners pursuing consumer complaints through the professional licensure and disciplinary board process.
When consumers are harmed by unprofessional conduct, usually what they want is to have the defect corrected, an award of money or the transaction voided. These kinds of remedies are conventionally handled in the court system. The professional regulatory boards focus on licensure. They consider whether a business is properly licensed, should the license be suspended or revoked, should fines be assessed, and so on. Prominent members of the industry typically dominate these boards. For example, licensed contractors sit on the Board for Contractors. Initiating a professional licensure proceeding is a clumsy means of advancing the specific interests of the consumer having a transactional relationship with the business. It is the judiciary that can grant money damages or other remedies arising out of the formation and any breach of the contract. Regulators focus on whether disciplinary action is warranted regarding the registration or licensure of the business. In the Culver Design Build, Inc. case, the Board for Contractors and the Court of Appeals for Virginia agreed that Mark Holmes did not have standing to contest a regulatory decision in favor of the contractor. The board had authority to punish Culver for failing to abate a regulatory violation. However, the board had no authority to order the contractor to take any specific action at the job site. The board did not deny Homes any right or impose upon him any duty in its decision, because its authority revolves around Culver’s licensure. It is the State Building Code Technical Review Board that has the authority to review appeals of local building code enforcement decisions, not the Board of Contractors. One of the appeals judges suggested that if Holmes’ contentions were taken to a logical conclusion, the new buyer of the house could have greater leverage over a contractor than the previous owner, whose remedies may be limited by the contract. In his oral argument, Mark Holmes admitted that trying to resolve his complaints through the Board of Contractors complaint process was, “cumbersome and very long lasting.”
Even if the consumer unhappy with an adverse decision made by a regulatory agency in response to a complaint has standing, her appeal to the courts may encounter other obstacles. The licensure dispute is unlikely to starts afresh on appeal. The courts tend to be receptive to the agency’s interpretation of the legislature’s statutes. In Virginia, courts accord deference to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of its own regulations (as adopted by the board pursuant to the statutes). A consumer’s ability to raise new factual issues may be strictly limited in her attempts to get the courts to overturn the board’s decision. Judicial deference to agency rulemaking is not without controversy. Judge Neil Gorsuch, whom President Trump nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court is a high-profile critic of judicial deference to agencies. In his August 23, 2016 concurrence to a federal appeals decision Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, Judge Gorsuch explained that concentration of both legislative and judicial power in regulatory agencies creates constitutional problems. The constitution protects the public from authoritarianism by separating the government by the type of power, not the subject-matter. Under the constitution, the legislature prescribes new laws of general applicability. Taken to its logical conclusion, doctrine that courts should defer to agencies’ quasi-judicial determinations of what the statutes mean unconstitutionally undercuts the independence of the judiciary. The constitutional problems identified by Judge Gorsuch are illustrated in the arena of housing industry occupational regulation.
Where does this leave an owner when property rights are infringed by regulated professionals? Should everyone should go back to renting? Certainly not! This is what the independent judiciary is there for. Usually owners have privity of contract with the contractor and do not need to go to an agency. They can sue for remedies for breach of contract or deceptive practices. Consumer advocates with an interest in legislation should focus on increasing access to the court system and not promoting an administrative process that may not be a good fit for the homeowner. If you find yourself needing to bring or defend a construction claim, contact my office or a qualified attorney in your jurisdiction.
October 25, 2016
There is a lot of litigation and arbitration in the construction contracting industry. Most of these cases are disputes over whether the contractor did the work and if so, whether it has been appropriately compensated under the terms of the agreement. Some construction disputes include allegations of deceptive practices. Virginia law approaches unprofessional practices in the construction contracting industry in two ways: First, construction contractors must obtain licenses to do business here. A builder is subject to professional sanction if the Board for Contractors finds that the conduct violated regulations. There is a fund managed by the board, from which unsatisfied claims may be paid if certain criteria are met. Second, owners, general contractors, subcontractors and other parties can bring lawsuits (or where agreed, arbitration claims). Can residential owners bring Virginia consumer protection claims against contractors? Parties unfamiliar with these rules often need help navigating the legal system to protect their rights.
VCPA & License Regulation:
In the 1970’s, the General Assembly adopted the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (“VCPA”). The main purpose of the VCPA is to make it easier for consumers (including homeowners) to bring legal claims against suppliers for deceptive practices. Before the VCPA, consumers had to prove fraud. Suing for fraud is attractive because a court may award attorney’s fees or punitive damages for fraud. However, fraud carries a higher standard of proof and many defenses that the consumer must overcome. In a proper case, the VCPA allows for tripled damages and attorney’s fees. The legislature has exempted certain types of real estate related business activity from the VCPA, including regulated lenders, many landlords and licensed real estate agents. What about contractors? Are contractors subject to professional regulation and exempt from the VCPA? Last month, the Circuit Court of Loudoun County considered this question in a lawsuit arising out of a residential custom contracting dispute.
Closing the Sales Process for the Custom Residential Construction Project:
On May 20, 2015, licensed contractor Interbuild, Inc. made a written agreement with Leslie & John Sayres for the construction of a large recreational facility on their property. The Sayres agreed to pay $399.624.00 for what would include a batting cage, swimming pool, exercise area and bathroom. According to the Sayres, they relied upon certain false representations by Interbuild in their decision to move forward with the contract. They allege that Interbuild told them the following:
- Interbuild had been established since 1981.
- The project did not require a building permit.
- The contractor already priced things out with subcontractors.
- Interbuild would supervise construction full-time.
- The project would be completed in 16 weeks.
- 4000 PSI concrete would be used.
- The building would be constructed upon an agreed upon area.
On October 20, 2016, attorney Chris Hill discusses this Sayres opinion in his Construction Law Musings blog. He observes that many of the alleged misrepresentations sound like things that would be specifications or terms of the contract. Hill raises concerns expressed by Interbuild’s lawyers that the Sayres complaint attempts to transform a breach of contract case into a fraud claim. I agree that this fraud in the inducement claim will be a challenge to pursue. However, I think that some of the fraud claims described in the Sayres counterclaim sound more like promissory fraud than anything else. Under Virginia law, promissory fraud occurs when one party makes a promise to the other that they have no intention of keeping, and the listener relies upon this empty promise to their detriment. In July, I blogged about this in the foreclosure context. If a false promise remains fraud even after reduced to a contract, then the Sayres fraud in the inducement claims make more sense.
Some of these alleged misrepresentations appear potentially more serious than others. While contract management experience is important, the Sayres contracted with Interbuild for a certain result. The experience was not an end unto itself. A missing permit could become a problem if the county later decided that the construction was not code-compliant and wanted substantial, costly corrections. The subcontractor pricing could become an issue if it could be proven that Interbuild was effectively unable to complete the job from the get-go. A contractor is required to provide adequate supervision regardless of what is represented. Rarely will you see a written agreement that absolves a contractor of this. In a proper case, courts will award damages for delay. However, the Sayres would have to prove that they relied upon the agreed delivery date. I suspect that this lawsuit is not about the Sayres inconvenience of continuing to exercise in a different place. The strength of the concrete raises serious structural questions, but would require proof by expert testimony. Building the project on the spot where the customer wants is indeed a fundamental issue. However, it might be shown that the location under the contract is unfeasible due to site conditions or that the difference is only slight. In general, the damages must flow from the misrepresentations. Courts are reticent to award a windfall to purchasers if the lies are of minimal consequence.
After paying most of the purchase price but before completion, the Sayres terminated the contract. Interbuild sued for work that was allegedly performed but not paid for. The Sayres filed counterclaims for fraud in the Inducement, VCPA and breach of contract.
Fraud in the Inducement:
Interbuild sought a court ruling on whether the Sayres could move forward with their fraud in the inducement and VCPA claims. The Contractor argued that the fraud claim should be thrown out. Interbuild maintained that the fraud claim was not proper because the customer only alleges that their expectations under the contract were disappointed. In its September 8, 2016 opinion letter, the Court dispensed with this argument, distinguishing between fraud inducing formation of the contract and fraud in the performance of the contract. The court found that the counterclaim clearly alleged that the misrepresentations were made to convince the Sayres to sign the contract. Because the alleged fraud occurred before the contract came into being, the claim is not alleging disappointed contractual expectations.
When legal disputes arise, owners and contractors frequently focus their attention on things that were most recently said or done. A contractor may be unhappy about an owner’s hands-on attitude about a project. Customers may take offense at the contractor’s customer service. However, the case might be about fraud in the inducement issues that come from the sales process. In the Sayres case, the judge allowed the fraud in the inducement claim to move forward.
Interbuild adopted a different approach in its attempt to get the Sayres’ VCPA claim dismissed. The contractor argued that since it is subject to regulation as a licensee of the state contracting board, it is exempt from the consumer protection statute. While the VCPA does not specifically name contractors as exempt, it does exclude “any aspect of a consumer transaction which aspect is authorized under laws or regulations of this commonwealth. Va. Code § 59.1-199. Contractors are subject to state regulation by Va. Code § 54.1-1000, et seq. In his opinion, Judge Douglas L. Fleming, Jr. followed judicial precedents distinguishing between consumer transactions that are specifically sanctioned by law vs. those that are merely regulated. The absence of a prohibition of a particular practice does not constitute authorization of that practice. Since the professional regulations do not specifically cover the particular types of business practices at issue, this statutory exemption does not protect the contractor from suit. The court found that the alleged misrepresentations are the kind of practices that are actionable under the VCPA. This is consistent with other rulings made by Virginia courts in cases between consumers and construction contractors.
The VCPA also provides that a consumer may sue a contractor for not having a license. Interbuild argued that because it had an active contracting license it was exempt from the VCPA. Since Interbuild is subject to license revocation for conduct that violates professional regulations, that should be the sole remedy under the state statutes. Judge Fleming rejected this argument, observing that the state’s licensure regulations do not, “inferentially cloak licensed contractors with VCPA immunity if they are shown to have committed deceptive practices.” In short, a professional license does not include with it a privilege to engage in fraudulent behavior.
News reports frequently raise public policy questions about professional regulation. Each year, more occupations become subject to licensure requirements. Usually this means that the leaders in that industry regulate its participants by means of a state board. Too often, self-regulating industries use these boards to protect prominent members against competition. Consumers look to the boards for relief from predatory practices, but are often frustrated by the results. Interbuild’s arguments seem to appeal to this notion that as a licensee, its customers should have to go through the board if they want a special remedy. Bear in mind that there is a public demand for housing prices to go down. Builders have a more organized lobby than consumers regarding professional regulation and limiting liability for extra damages in lawsuits. Given market demands, I wonder how close the General Assembly is to exempting contractors from the VCPA. The construction industry provides many jobs to Virginia. However, I think that the public’s interests would not be served if quality and service were sacrificed for job creation and affordability concerns. A defect-riddled house is the most unaffordable of investments to its owner and doesn’t help the “property values” of others.
All the September 8, 2016 opinion decided was that Interbuild’s counterclaims may move forward in litigation. Even under the lower standards and enhanced remedies of the VCPA, claims based on deception are difficult to prove and obtain an award of damages.
When disputes arise over custom construction contract projects, the parties cannot rely upon the board of contractors or the county’s permitting office to advocate or mediate for them. When payment issues, construction defects or other disputes arise, the services of an experienced construction litigator are necessary to protect one’s best interests.
For Further Reading: