Fraud Just Got More Expensive – Equity as a Factor in Attorney Fee Awards

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that the New Home Warranty Act (“NHWA”) is not the exclusive remedy for a purchaser of a new home where the builder fails to disclose known defects in the Residential Property Disclosure Act (“RPDA”). Stutts v. Melton, 2013-0557, — So.2d. —-. The Court also upheld an award of damages and attorney fees for fraud victims who elect not to seek rescission of a sales contract despite no Civil Code article expressly allowing for attorney fees in such instances.

Builder Chad Melton completed a home in Walker, Louisiana in 2004. He and his wife lived in the home for approximately nine months prior to selling the home to James and Lisa Stutts. The Residential Property Disclosure Act, La. R.S. 9:3196, et seq., requires disclosures of known problems with a home prior to sale. Melton provided the Stutts with a disclosure form, but failed to mention that color had previously been observed bleeding onto the walls of the home from the roof.

In Stutts, it was factually established that Melton was aware of the roof defect because he had entered into a $13,600 settlement with the roof manufacturer to fund the replacement of the roof. Nevertheless, Melton cleaned the walls and installed gutters instead of the more expensive roof replacement.

Melton’s gutter solution was ill-advised and unsuccessful. After discovering the problem in the summer of 2006, the Stutts filed suit seeking as damages: the repair costs for the roof; costs for additional repairs; and attorney fees.

The Stutts filed a motion for summary judgment on their fraud claim citing La. C.C. art. 1953. The Meltons opposed the motion, arguing that the NHWA provides the “exclusive remedy” available to the Stutts. The motion was granted and, after a bench trial on damages, the trial judge awarded damages to include attorney fees.

The court of appeal reversed both the summary judgment and the money judgment, holding that the Stutts’ claims were untimely under the NHWA.The NHWA provides a one year warranty period for new home construction and an additional thirty day period in which to file suit under the Act. By its terms, the NHWA provides the “exclusive remedies” between a builder and an owner relative to home construction.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed and reinstated that lower court’s judgment. The Court held that the RPDA applied in this case because the home had been occupied by the Meltons after construction was completed. Even though the NHWA claims were prescribed, the Stutts possessed a timely claim that Melton had provided a fraudulent disclosure in violation of the RPDA.

The Court next addressed the Stutts’ claim for attorney fees. The Court observed that no statute specifically authorized attorney fees where the plaintiff does not seek rescission of the sale. However, the Court reasoned, citing principles of equity found in Louisiana Civil Code article 4, that the legislature surely did not intend for victims of fraud to go uncompensated if they elect not to seek full rescission of the sale. Accordingly, attorney fees were held appropriate where fraud is committed but the victim elects not to seek rescission of the contract.

The Court’s holding in Stutts may have a limited impact on the NHWA because of the peculiar facts of the case, i.e. the builder of the new construction living in the completed home before selling it to plaintiffs. However, the Court’s award of attorney fees is an interesting development in the law. Time will tell whether the Court may be inclined to create further exceptions to the established rule that attorney fees cannot be awarded in the absence of statutory or contractual language awarding attorney fees.

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