In an unpublished decision issued earlier this week, the Appellate Division reaffirmed that mere puffery regarding a contractor does not amount to an actionable statement under New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. (“CFA”) The judgment had been entered against Jeff Sands (“Sands”), who met with the Plaintiffs as a result of them contacting Stanley’s Home Improvement LLC (“Stanley’s”). Sands took notes during the meeting, gave his sales pitch about the great work that Stanley’s did and the company’s terrific reputation, but indicated that someone else would be in touch with the Plaintiffs in order to give them a cost estimate.
After the Plaintiffs decided to hire Stanley’s, Fed Zappolo (“Zappolo”) met with Plaintiffs and provided them a cost estimate of $28,000. Although Zappolo introduced himself as Stanley’s foreman, the agreement given to the Plaintiffs to sign was with Zappolo’s company named Fred Allen Builders, not Stanley’s. When Fred Allen Builders failed to complete the work, the Plaintiffs contacted Sands who advised that he was no longer with Stanley’s and that they had gone out of business. Eventually, the Plaintiffs were forced to hire another contractor at a cost of $39,600 to complete the unfinished work and correct the deficient work.
The trial court entered a judgment against all of the defendants, including Sands individually, for over $200,000. Sands was the only party to appeal, and the court agreed that there was no basis to find that Sands violated the Consumer Fraud Act. The court noted that being an officer of a business entity, without more, does not amount to liability under the CFA. Instead there must be an affirmative act, knowing omission or administrative violation personally committed by an individual. Here, the court determined that Sands’ statements in his sales pitch that Stanley’s stood by their work, had a terrific reputation, etc. were mere puffery and did not provide a basis for liability under the CFA. Consequently, the over $200,000 judgment was vacated as to Mr. Sands. (Pellegrino v. Fred Allen Builders, et. al.)
New Jersey Residential home improvement contractors are required to provide clients with an estimated timeframe for the completion of the work. In a recent unpublished case from the Appellate Division, a contractor provided the homeowner with a 45-day time period from the date of the contract to complete an addition. However, due permit delays and other reasons, the work did not begin until months later. Despite the contractual time-frame not being met, the court found that there was no violation of the CFA, stating that the homeowners, "were aware that ... [c]onstruction began approximately 120 days from the contract date, yet defendants did not cancel the contract or allege a breach at that time." Furthermore, although a change order for additional work was never signed by the homeowner, a regulatory violation of the CFA, the court found that since there was no ascertainable loss suffered by the homeowner as a result of the regulatory violation, the contractor was not liable for damages under the CFA. (MYCWHome, LLC v. White, et. al.)
A group of homeowners joined together to sue the builder of their development for selling them homes with infiltrator septic systems instead of stone and pipe septic systems, which allegedly have a substantially-shorter useful life. Since many of the homes were sold over ten years prior to the filing of the complaint, the Plaintiffs only filed Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") claims and did not file faulty design or construction defect claims. However, the Appellate Division affirmed the ruling of the trial judge that all claims must be dismissed based upon the statute of repose. Noting the broad application of the statute of repose, that it covered all claims regardless of how a plaintiff couches the cause of action, citing the legislature's use of the language that no action could be brought after ten years, "whether in contract, in tort, or otherwise." (Allen, et. al. v. Beazer Homes Corporation)
The New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") places many responsibilities upon a home improvement contractor which, if violated, render the contract null and void. However, if the CFA violations are only "technical" and "inadvertent" in nature, then the contractor can still recover monies for unpaid work performed under a theory of quantum meruit. This was specifically the situation presented to the court in CB Construction, Inc. v. Jill Panico, which was decided on June 26th. There, the Appellate Division affirmed an award in favor of a contractor despite three technical violations of the CFA. Moreover, even though the technical CFA violations did entitle the homeowner to recover attorney fees, the trial court substantially reduced such fees to only 10% of what was requested by the homeowner defendant. As stated by the trial judge, "The litigation could have been resolved in the Special Civil Part at minimal legal expense to the parties, but for Defendant's decision to utilize the CFA as a sword in an effort to win a large judgment and attorneys' fees award. Defendant made the decision to transform this case from a simple dispute over a book account, into, relatively speaking, a "high stakes" multi-count, multi issue dispute. That defendant failed on almost all of her factual defenses and legal theories must also weigh heavily on this court as it tries to determine a fair and proportionate counsel fee award." The appellate court upheld this substantial reduction. (CB Construction, Inc. v. Jill Panico)
The New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") protects homeowners from (among other things) unconscionable commercial practices of residential contractors, including those who threaten to file criminal charges if they are not paid. A recent Appellate Court decision involved a homeowner who withheld payment to an HVAC contractor who failed to repair an air conditioning system after three service calls. The contractor then proceeded to threaten the homeowner with the filing of criminal charges, and then (when payment wasn't made) actually filed charges for theft of services with the local police department. The charges were eventually dismissed by the municipal court, and the homeowner was ultimately successful on a CFA claim in Superior Court.
On appeal, the Appellate Division upheld the finding of a CFA violation but remanded the case back to the trial court to revisit the award of only $19,800 in attorney fees and costs. In doing so, the court noted the specific conduct of the contractor stating, "[the contractor] admitted that [it] has a history of instituting criminal actions as a means of collecting its unpaid invoices. This outrageous abuse of our criminal justice system is precisely the type of unconscionable commercial practice the CFA was designed to protect consumers from and deter unscrupulous commercial entities from engaging in." Accordingly, the matter was remanded to the trial court to revisit the amount of attorney fees and costs awarded. (Jeffrey S. Jacobs v. Mark Lindsay and Son Plumbing & Heating, Inc., et. al.)
In an unpublished trial court opinion released today, a Superior Court Judge in Bergen County dismissed the claims of a condominium association against the sponsor/developer of the condominium complex related to construction defects that were discovered by the Association. After dismissing the Association's contractual claims based on the statute of limitations, the Court found that all other claims asserted by the Association, including claims under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") were barred by the ten-year statute of repose. Noting that the New Jersey judiciary has shown, "an unwillingness to recognize a fraud exception to the statute of repose," the court held the CFA claims were subject to the statue of repose, were not filed within ten years after the TCO was issued, and therefore were barred by the statute of repose. (Vela Townhomes Condominium Assoc. Inc. v. Rosen Partners LLC)
In a recent case decided on January 24, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court confirmed that the State's Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") can apply in business to business transactions. Noting that the CFA has been continuously expanded by the State's Legislature over the years, the Court found that the sale of a custom-manufactured all wheel drive truck and tow body was included in the definition of "Merchandise" under the CFA and therefore the CFA claim was wrongfully dismissed by the trial court. The Court noted that so long as, "any member of the public could purchase the product or service," it would be covered under the CFA, "regardless of whether such a purchase is popular." The Court also provided future guidance by setting forth four factors to consider in determining whether the nature of a business-to-business transaction would subject a seller to liability under the CFA. The factors are as follows:
Peter J. Vazquez, Jr.