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Court Narrows Homeowners’ Ability to Obtain Relief Under Home Improvement Contractor Statute

By March 1, 2011No Comments

Due to a recent shift in the judicial interpretation of the Massachusetts Home Improvement Contractor law, M.G.L. c. 142A (“the Act”), homeowners will no longer be able to recover triple damages and attorney’s fees for mere technical violations of the Act by a contractor, where those technical violations do not cause harm to the homeowner.

The Act was designed to protect homeowners, and to give them a remedy to address unscrupulous practices by home improvement contractors.  The Act places numerous requirements upon the contractor.  For example, agreements between contractors and homeowners must contain the contractor’s social security number, a time schedule of payments, the date for the completion of the work, the total cost of the work, and other consumer protection-oriented disclosures.  The Act also requires that the material terms of the agreement and any change orders must be in writing for contracts over $1,000.  As a remedy for violations of the Act, homeowners are able to obtain orders from the court requiring the contractor to complete work under the contract or damages for violations of the Act.  Violations of the Act constitute almost automatic (per se) violations of Chapter 93A, Massachusetts’ consumer protection statute, permitting the homeowner to seek multiple damages (up to triple damages) and reimbursement of their attorneys’ fees.

Historically, homeowners could avail themselves of these powerful damages and attorney’s fees, even for a relatively innocuous, technical violation of the Act, such as the contractor’s failure to include his/her social security number on the contract.  Because of the threat of significant damages and the potential to have to pay the homeowner’s attorney’s fees arising from a technical violation of the Act, contractors were at a disadvantage.  A contractor who substantially completed a project may have been forced to waive all or a portion of monies owed by a homeowner due to an inconsequential oversight.  In certain cases, the threat of triple damages and attorney’s fees may have resulted in a windfall to a homeowner, who otherwise had received the benefit of her bargain.

In the recent case of  DeBettencourt v. Aronson,  the homeowner alleged that the contractor violated the Act by failing to include in the contract between the parties the contractor’s social security number, the date for completion of the work, the total cost of the work, a schedule of payments, and a recitation of the homeowners’ three-day right of rescission (cancellation).  Although the appellate court recognized that the contractor had committed numerous violations of Chapter 142A, the court also observed that none of those statutory violations caused any harm to the Aronsons.  Therefore, the court reversed the award of statutory damages and attorneys’ fees to the homeowner.

In doing so, the Court appears to have sent a message that, although the Home Improvement Contractor law is a powerful remedy for consumers who are harmed by unscrupulous contractors, Chapter 142A cannot be used by homeowners to avoid paying their contractor where no harm is caused by the contractor’s technical violations of the statute.  To obtain relief under Chapter 142A, homeowners will need to identify how a violation of the statute harmed them or caused them specific financial injury.  Contractors and consumers alike are strongly advised to have their contracts and procedures reviewed by a capable attorney to ensure compliance with Chapter 142A before problems arise.