Every construction litigator in the residential arena knows that a state’s consumer protection laws are good grounds for disputes. Will my client get treble damages? Will they recover attorney fees for deceptive trade practices? Does my client have any defenses to these types of claims?
In Fayne v. Vincent (pdf), the Supreme Court of Tennessee held that the Consumer Protection Act applied to real estate professionals engaged in the sale of their personal residence. The case involved problems with a septic tank that were discovered after sale of the residence to the purchasers. Mr. Vincent was a builder and developer and his wife was a realtor. Mr. Vincent was the developer of the neighborshood and he constructed the home in question, moving into the house after it was completed. Mrs. Vincent signed the Tennessee Residential Property Condition Disclosure Statement in her dual capacity as owner of the property and as realtor for the property.
After the purchasers moved into the home, they began to notice odorous fluid seeping from around the septic tank. After investigation, the purchasers filed suit against the builder and the realtor for various claims including negligent misrepresentation, fraud, deceit, and violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.
Following a two-day jury trial in the trial court, an appeal to the Court of Appeals, a remand back to the trial court, and a subsequent appeal, the Supreme Court held that the sale of the home was covered by the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Specifically, the Court recognized that the TCPA does not apply to sellers who are “not in the business of selling property as owners or brokers” and therefore that “persons making an isolated sale of their home [is] not covered.” The Court reasoned:
We adhere to the holding … that homeowners participating in the casual and isolated sale of their personal residence and not in the conduct of trade or commerce cannot be sued for damages under the TCPA. This principle applies to developers, contractors and realtors who are selling their personal residence in a casual or isolated sale and who are not performing or providing professional services to facilitate or finalize the sale. However, we have also concluded that developers, contractors, and realtors cannot insulate themselves from liability under the TCPA simply by owning and briefly residing in a house before they offer it for sale as their personal residence.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the TCPA applied to the facts of this case.
The Fayne case is a good reminder to developers, contractors, and realtors, as well as to purchasers of residential property, to know and understand the full breadth of your state’s consumer protection laws. Imagine the case of where verbal abuse by the builder against a purchasing couple gives rise to a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress and consumer protection act violations. It happens.