Construction Defects in Utah

I had the privilege and honor to be an invited guest at Community Solutions & Sales’ monthly managers’ meeting today; I spoke to an attentive group about construction defect litigation. The stories that I told — and those that I heard — all shared a common theme; construction defect litigation is too time consuming, too expensive and too destructive to communities.

Unfortunately, the other common theme is that there’s still a lot of defective construction out there, and developers and contractors would often rather deny than address the problems. We can only hope that proposed changes in civil procedure (the rules by which lawsuits are governed), and a realization of the need for better alternatives, can result in prompter, more efficient resolutions to these issues when they arise.  (As they will.)

I also enjoyed an informative presentation by John Boekweg, C.P.A. and David Lewis, C.P.A.,  both with the accounting firm of HEB Business Solutions, who both spoke knowledgeably about community association audits and taxes, and the need to retain professional accountants with knowledge of the industry.

Chinese Drywall

Several months ago, the New York Times posted a story on the proven hazards associated with so-called “Chinese Drywall.”  Here’s the story.

Let’s hope that there’s no Chinese drywall that made it into Utah.  If there is, the manufacturers will be insulated from liability, thanks to our Utah Legislature and HB 220, which they passed two years ago.

Davencourt — The Economic Loss Portion

Section 1: The Economic Loss Rule

The Davencourt opinion begins with the analysis of the most eagerly anticipated portion of the opinion; how the Court would deal with the economic loss rule.

Background on the Economic Loss Rule

The economic loss rule, as it applies to construction disputes in Utah and more particularly with community associations, began with the 1996 ruling in the case of American Towers Owners Ass’n v. CCI Mechanical. In that case, the Court held that in the absence of physical property damage to “other property,” or personal injury, economic losses could not be recovered through a negligence claim. (Simply stated, a negligence claim involves an assertion that one party failed to comply with duties involved to another – in building, for example, to meet the “standard of care” expected of a contractor.) Because of the American Towers ruling, it has been difficult for community associations to pursue claims against developers.

In 2002, the Court limited the Economic Loss Doctrine somewhat in the case of Hermansen v. Tasulis; in that case, the court held that the doctrine did not bar claims where one party owed an “independent duty” to the other party. The Hermansen case, which we filed and argued, involved claims against real estate agents.

Davencourt’s Holdings Respecting the Economic Loss Rule

The plaintiff homeowners association, and I acting as amicus counsel for the Community Associations Institute, had hoped that the Court would further limit, or even overrule the American Towers case, because of its adverse consequences to community associations. The ultimate goal would have been the elimination of the doctrine, at least as it related to construction defect claims asserted by community associations which, by their nature, do not have contractual relations with the builders. A lesser, but still desirable result, would have been the establishment of an independent duty to be owed from builders to the purchasers in community associations.

In Section I.A. of the opinion, the Court rejected an outright reversal of American Towers, stating that the doctrine was “particularly applicable to claims of negligent construction.” Furthermore, the opinion expressed an inability to overrule the doctrine based upon the “codification” of the doctrine in Utah Code Ann. 78B-4-513. (That section of the code arose from the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 220, in 2008.

In Section I.B., the Court next refused the Association’s request that the Court recognized that the unique status of community associations warranted that the doctrine not be applicable to associations. The Court declined, asserting that contractual expectations created in the contracts among the Unit Owners, the Developer and the Builder” could not be ignored. Under the ruling, then, neither an individual owner nor an association can pursue a claim, in negligence, against the Builder.

The third argument rejected by the Court was a contention that various components of the structures had been damaged by defects in other components, triggering the “other physical damage” exception to the doctrine. Again, the Court rejected this argument, finding that Unit Owners had not bargained for individual components, but rather for “a finished product, which included the integral components of the roof, the foundation and the siding.”

Turning to the review of “independent duties,” the Court rejected a request to extend the independent duty between a contractor-seller and a home purchaser to a similar duty between a contractor-seller and the Association. Interestingly, however, the Court appears to have clearly established that a contractor-seller’s duty “to disclose known material information” to a buyer. If the Developer of a condominium project was also the contractor-seller, that developer/contractor-seller would owe each unit owner a duty to disclose known defects in the units and the common areas, an interest in which was also being sold.

Next, the Court held, to a limited degree, that the developer’s limited fiduciary duty to the Association does fall outside of the doctrine. The Court expressly recognized and acknowledged “the inherent conflict that a developer faces in promoting and marketing property for a profit, while simultaneously ensuring the interests of a homeowners association and its members…” In light of the conflict, the Court expressly adopted Section 6.20 of the Restatement (Third) of Property, which establishes several clear and important duties owed by a developer to an association. These duties, set out in full here, include 1) “reasonable care and prudence in managing and maintaining the common property;” 2) establishment of a sound fiscal basis for the association; 3) disclosure of developer subsidies, if any; 4) records and an accounting; 5) compliance with governing documents; 6) disclosure of “material facts and circumstances affecting the condition of the property that the association is responsible for maintaining; and 7) disclosure of “all material facts and circumstances affecting the financial condition of the association…”

The Court’s opinion stated: “In adopting this limited fiduciary duty, we recognize that it constitutes a newly-recognized independent duty of care in Utah.” These types of claims, the Court stated, “lie outside of the economic loss rule.” Recovery under this independent duty, however, is restricted to the common areas. The Court indicated that the association could “bring its claims for negligence and negligent misrepresentation against the [developer] insofar as the claims stem from the limited fiduciary duty owed.”

In the next successive sections of its opinion, the Court declined to find an independent duty to comply with the building code, and declined an independent duty to build without negligence in the construction of a home. The Court’s opinion seems to intentionally leave open the possibility, however , that the Court could find such a duty in a sale between a contractor/seller of a new home, and a buyer.

An Outline of the Davencourt Opinion

As promised, I’m trying to figure out, and to help others to figure out, what the new Davencourt v. Davencourt opionion means; I plan on spending a few hours reviewing the case while I’m on a plane tomorrow, continuing that quest. In anticipation of that, and to help make this more manageable, I’ve typed out the case outline, as set forth in the opinion. In the next several posts, I’ll comment on each of these sections, and I’ll update each of them with a link, when I do. Hopefully, that will be helpful.

The Davencourt Opinion — An Outline

I. THE DISTRICT COURT ERRED, IN PART, IN APPLYING THE ECONOMIC LOSS RULE

A. The Economic Loss Rule Remains in Force

B. The Economic Loss Rule Applies Despite Whatever Unique Relationship Exists Among the Association, Developer, Builder and Unit Owners

C. Construction Components Integrated into a Finished Product Do Not Constitute “Other Property”

D. The Existence and Scope of Independent Duties

1. Neither the Builder, the Developer, Nor Woolstenhume, in Their Respective Expertise and Relationships, Owe the Nonpurchasing Association an Independent Duty

2. The Limited Fiduciary Duty Owed by a Developer in Control of a Homeowner’s Association Falls Outside the Scope of the Economic Loss Rule

3. Utah Does Not Recognize an Independent Duty to Conform to the Building Code

4. Utah Does Not Recognize an Independent Duty to Act Without Negligence in the Construction of a Home

II. UTAH RECOGNIZES A CAUSE OF ACTION FOR BREACH OF THE IMPLIED WARRANTY OF WORKMANLIKE MANNER AND HABITABILITY

III. THE DISTRICT COURT MISAPPLIED THE COLLATERAL RIGHTS EXCEPTION OF THE MERGER DOCTRINE TO DISMISS THE CONTRACT AND EXPRESS WARRANTY CLAIMS

A. Contract and Warranty Claims Regarding the Quality of Construction Are Collateral to the Conveyance of Title

B. The Absence of an Act After the Delivery of the Deed Is Not Conclusive Evidence of the Parties’ Intent

IV. THE DISTRICT COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN DENYING THE ASSOCIATION’S MOTION TO AMEND THE COMPLAINT AND REINSTATE DISMISSED CLAIMS

A Quick Read of the Davencourt Opinion…

and it looks like a mixed bag. The Court refused to overrule the American Towers case (I think a bad thing, but ameliorated by the rest of the opinion), expressly adopted Section 6.20 of the Restatement, Third of Property (I think a very good thing), and adopted an implied warranty of habitability on the sale of new property (also a very good thing).

They also made some really interesting rulings and made some interesting comments on the independent duties that will result in allowable negligence claims, even despite the economic loss doctrine. It will take some time, and probably more rulings, to clarify this area of the law.

I’ll post some more details, which will presumably be more meaningful to non-followers of the law, in the next few days.

Davencourt, at last!

I’m wrapping up a jury trial (hence the hour of this post), but have been informed by a reliable source that the Utah Supreme Court’s opinion in the Davencourt opinion (dealing with the “economic loss doctrine”) will be issued to the public at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

That’s all for now; check back tomorrow for updates. (It won’t be at 10 a.m., that’s the scheduled time for arguments to the jury.) I will, however, post an update and a link to the opinion at my earliest opportunity; that will be followed by a summary, sometime tomorrow or this weekend.

You Wanted a Toilet in Your Condominium?

The Utah Court of Appeals, in an opinion last week, came out with a rather absurd result in a dispute between a condominium developer and unit purchaser.

The case, Flores v. Earnshaw, involved Mr. Seadhna Flores’ purchase of a yet-to-be-built condominium unit. Mr. Earnshaw and Mr. Flores both signed a Real Estate Purchase Contract (REPC) which called for a purchase price of “$144,950, less the $10,000 previously paid when Flores had exercised the earlier Option Agreement.” About a month later, Earnshaw called “to express concern about the selling price…” Earnshaw sought to revise the contract to increase the price of the unit to $179,950; Flores rejected this offer, and ultimately sued, seeking specific performance of the contract.

Following a trial, the trial court decided that the contract was ambiguous as to whether the parties intended to convey a fully built-out unit, or just a shell of a unit. The court found that the form language in section 1.l was ambiguous, and considered evidence outside of the contract to ascertain the parties’ intent. The court thus ordered the sale of a fully built out for $144,850. Earnshaw appealed.

The issue addressed by the Utah Court of Appeals involved whether or not the trial court was correct in allowing and considering the evidence outside of the contract. Ultimately, the court concluded that the court could only look to the contract to determine if it was ambiguous; it the contract itself did not appear ambiguous, the extrinsic evidence should be excluded. Looking only at section 1.1, the court found no ambiguity. Unfortunately for Mr. Flores, that section called for inclusion of “plumbing, heating and air conditioning fixtures, and equipment; ceiling fans; water heater; built-in appliances; light fixtures and bulbs; bathroom fixtures; curtains, draperies, and rods; window and door screens; storm doors and windows; window blinds; awnings; installed television antenna; satellite dishes and system; permanently affixed carpets; automatic garage door opener and accompanying transmitter(s); fencing; and trees and shrubs,” only to the extent that they were presently owned and attached to the property. Because none of the items were “owned and attached” as of the date of the contract, the court found the language unambiguous, and held that the admission of the extrinsic evidence was improper. Thus the court remanded the case (sent it back to the trial court) “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

This is, obviously, an absurd result even if the case was decided correctly pursuant to evidentiary rules. There is no doubt, when the extrinsic evidence is considered, that Flores was expecting to buy, and Earnshaw originally intended to sell, a completed unit, with toilets and appliances. The court noted that the parties (and presumably the real estate agents, erred by using an REPC for completed construction. That fact, while true, is of little consolation to Mr. Flores.

The appellate court gave a few hints, and possible solutions, to Flores, in noting that the existence of an ambiguity can be found by reviewing the “contract taken as a whole.” Furthermore, the court noted that the parties had not argued “mutual mistake, reformation, impossibility or any other theory to support their positions.”

At this point, Mr. Flores and his counsel have the option to ask the Utah Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals’ decision, or they can try to get the trial court’s reconsideration as to whether the contract, as a whole is ambiguous; Mr. Flores and his counsel could also seek to pursue some of the other theories suggested by the trial court. That may or may not be successful, depending upon the posture of the case.

This case should serve as a reminder of several things; the need for the assistance of competent advice in the purchase of property, the need to deal with an honest and reputable builder, and the need to carefully evaluate and pursue all legal options and theories when everything else fails. Although I had no familiarity with the case prior to last Thursday, (when the opinion was issued), I strongly suspect that the attorneys fees incurred by both both parties likely approached or exceeded the $35,000 difference in the original and proposed purchase price. And now, they get to go back to the trial court to fight some more.