Monday, February 13, 2017
C.A. Rules Statute Requires Strict Adherence to ‘Right to Repair’ Deadlines
Statute’s Goal of Litigation Avoidance Hinges on Builders’ Quick Responses, Panel Declares
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An Imperial Superior Court judge erred in staying a construction defects action under the Right to Repair Act in a case where the builder failed to respond to the homeowner’s notice of claim within the statutory time limit, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Div. One granted a writ of mandate lifting the stay of William Blanchette’s suit against GHA Enterprises, a builder of custom homes, including Blanchette’s. Blanchette alleged that in building his home and 27 others in his development, the company failed to adhere to the standards of the act, as set forth in Civil Code §896.
The act, which takes up §§895 to 945.5 of the code, permits a buyer to recover for substandard work, even in the absence of damage to other property. But the buyer must give the builder a reasonably detailed notice of the claim and a reasonable opportunity to make corrections prior to litigating.
A builder must acknowledge receipt of a claim within 14 days, has 14 days after that to inspect the premises, and is allowed 30 days after that to make the offer to repair. The act requires strict construction of its standards and time limits.
If the builder believes the notice of claim lacks the required detail, the Court of Appeal ruled Friday, it must tell the homeowner so within the 14-day acknowledgment period.
Blanchette gave his notice of claim last February. The company waited three weeks to respond, insisting that the notice lacked the required level of detail, but offering to inspect all 28 homes.
Blanchette replied that the response was untimely under the act and that he was excused from all obligations under it. He then filed a class action complaint, to which GHA responded with a motion to stay pending the plaintiff’s compliance with the statute’s prelitigation requirements.
Superior Court Judge L. Brooks Anderholt agreed with GHA that the notice of claim lacked the detail required by the act and granted the stay. The plaintiff was ordered to identify all of the claimants by address, to list all of the alleged defects and describe their “location, nature, and severity,” and to identify the statutory basis for each allegation of defect.
But Justice Patricia Benke, writing Friday for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the plaintiff that the builder’s failure to acknowledge receipt of the claim within 14 days excused Blanchette from all of his prelitigation duties under the act. To rule otherwise, she said, would contravene the statute’s strict construction requirements and its essential purpose.
“Contrary to GHA’s argument, the act’s goal of promptly resolving claims without resort to litigation cannot be achieved by permitting homebuilders to serve tardy responses to claims or to ignore them entirely,” the justice wrote.
Blanchette’s notice of claim, Benke elaborated, was sufficient to trigger the 14-day limit because it contained what the statute required—his name and address and a statement alleging violation of building standards. If GHA believed the notice was inadequate, the justice added, it was obligated to bring the lack of specificity to the plaintiff’s attention within the 14 days, rather than ignore the notice and the time limit.
“[A] developer who unilaterally concludes the level of specificity in a notice is insufficient, and therefore concludes it need not respond within the 14-day period prescribed by statute, acts at its peril if later, it wishes to employ the inspection and settlement process otherwise mandated by the statute,” the jurist wrote.
Benke agreed with GHA and the trial judge that the notice of claim was facially insufficient to tell the builder what it needed to know in order “to meaningfully engage in the inspection and resolution process required by the statute.” But this did not excuse GHA from the 14-day rule, she said.
The case is Blanchette v. Superior Court (GHA Enterprises), 17 S.O.S. 698.
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