Every builder operating in New Jersey is most likely aware that our state has plaintiff-friendly laws in the context of construction defect litigation. Even so, the gravity of claims made against builders for alleged defects typically has a direct correlation to relatively known and controllable factors, i.e. their contract performance and quality of product. However, there is another category of claims being made with increasing success in defect cases made under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA).
The CFA is aimed at unlawful sales and advertising practices designed to induce consumers to purchase merchandise or real estate. Intended to give New Jersey one of the strongest consumer protection laws in the nation, it receives liberal interpretation from the Courts in favor of consumers. The CFA declares as an unlawful practice “[t]he act, use or employment by any person of any unconscionable commercial practice, deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, or the knowing, concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact with intent that others rely upon such concealment, suppression or omission”. Affirmative misrepresentations under the Act do not require proof that the alleged violator actually intended to deceive the consumer. Concealment or omission claims require only that the alleged violator knowingly concealed a material fact with the intent that the omission be relied upon by consumers.
The scope of the CFA’s consumer protections can be seen in its language that “any person who suffers any ascertainable loss of moneys or property, real or personal, as a result of the use or employment by another person of any method, act, or practice declared unlawful under this act…may bring an action”. Courts have interpreted that, an “ascertainable loss” occurs simply when a consumer receives less than promised.
Additionally, no proof is required under the CFA that a consumer actually relied upon any alleged statement or conduct by a defendant to make a claim. Rather, the Act specifically provides that consumers are protected “whether or not any person has been misled, deceived, or damaged thereby”. There is also no requirement that consumers have a contract with the alleged violator, or be in direct contact with a party who has allegedly violated the CFA, in order to assert claims. How these principles have been applied in defect cases shows how broad the potential scope of liability can be for builders and contractors.
In Chattin v. Cape May Greene, a developer had distributed a brochure to homeowners that indicated the homes would contain “insulated aluminum windows”. The windows actually used in the homes had a double pane of glass, which provided insulation. The aluminum frames of the windows, however, had no insulating features. Homeowners claimed the frames of the windows allowed air infiltration and caused condensation damage to the sills and woodwork. Homeowners who received the brochure won at trial because the Court agreed that the representation about the windows in the brochure was misleading under the CFA. On appeal, the Appellate Court sent the case back for a new trial, but only because it wanted the jury to determine whether the average consumer would understand the term “insulated aluminum windows” to refer only to the glass or to the entire window unit.
Recently in Matera et. al. v. M.G.C.C. Group, Inc. et. al., a defendant bank concealed information from a local planning board regarding drainage problems connected to land it was selling to a developer, in order to gain approval from the planning board for construction of homes. Homeowners in an adjoining property all began experiencing flooding after the developer bought the land from the bank and built the homes. Despite the homeowners having no direct contact with the bank, and despite the facts that the homeowners never heard any of the bank’s misrepresentations and were never directly exposed to any of its omissions, the Court found the homeowners could still maintain CFA claims against the bank.
With cases like Chattin and Matera, which involved liability to homeowners under the CFA for statements in a brochure and statements to a planning board, it may seem difficult for a builder to avoid claims under the CFA. However, builders and contractors can take steps to protect themselves by having an understanding of the broad scope of potential liability under the CFA and using that knowledge to serve as a filter for all statements and advertisements made in developing and marketing a project.