Tag Archives: defect

Attorney’s Fees Arrangements In Construction Defect Litigation

3 Jan

Aside from taxes and death, paying the attorney may be the most disliked activity an Association Board undertakes.  But, like seeing a doctor to treat an ailment, attorneys are necessary in many cases for an Association to meet its goals of recovering money in construction defect cases.  How the Association pays the attorney in construction defect cases (this would also include cases against remodeling contractors) can be broken down into three general types of fee arrangements. 

The first and the most longstanding arrangement is the hourly fee arrangement.  In this arrangement, the Association is billed typically on a monthly basis for the actual hours spent by the attorney (including costs advanced by the attorney) in pursuit of the matter.  The Association pays as it goes, and when a recovery is made, the Association receives 100 percent of the recovery (assuming they paid their bills).

The second arrangement, which is suddenly popular, is the contingency fee arrangement.  The attorney is paid a percentage of any recovery that is made in the litigation.  Therefore, a 33 percent contingency fee arrangement means that the attorney is paid one-third (1/3) of any money that is recovered in the litigation and the Association receives two-thirds (2/3) of the money (minus any costs advanced by the law firm in the case).

The last arrangement is the flat fee arrangement.  This is not as popular as the previous two and sometimes is mixed with an hourly fee arrangement.  For example, the attorney may charge a flat fee to take the matter up to mediation and charge an hourly rate going through to trial.

The question most Associations have is which fee arrangement is the best?  As is expected when a lawyer is writing an article, the answer is “it depends.”  There are two primary goals the Association Board should seek to achieve in any fee arrangement.  First, to recover as much money as the Association needs to repair the conditions that exist at the Association after considering all the risks.  Second, that the Board be cognizant of its fiduciary obligations to the members to protect the Association’s finances and to keep as much money for the Association while advancing the first goal.

The contingency fee arrangement sounds attractive to some Boards because there is no monetary payment made as the litigation proceeds.  However, with contingency fee arrangements, the percentage amount paid to the attorney at the conclusion of the case may be much greater than the Association would have spent if it would have paid the attorney on an hourly basis.  For example, let’s assume that the Association has a $600,000 roof defect claim (cost of repair based on expert’s estimate) and has entered into a 33 percent contingency fee arrangement with a law firm.  Let’s assume further that the Association engages in mediation and based upon an evaluation of the risks and benefits and proceeding forward decides to resolve the matter for a $450,000 settlement at the mediation.  In this example, the law firm receives $150,000 in fees plus reimbursement for any costs that they advanced in the litigation (expert fees, filing fees, depositions, etc.).  For this example, let’s say that amount is $10,000.  This leaves the Association with $290,000 ($450,000 – $150,000 – $10,000 = $290,000) to fund a $600,000 repair.

The chief complaint with contingency fee arrangements is that the percentage taken by the law firm (one-third in my example) may not be based or related to actual time spent by the law firm for the work on the matter.  The law firm gets a windfall (they recover more money than they would have had the Association paid on an hourly basis).  This money is, therefore, not available for the Association to fully fund the repair.

The chief benefits of the contingency fee arrangement are the Association does not need to pay money on a monthly basis and if the Association’s claims get dismissed, the Association is not out any money in attorney’s fees (except the Association would still be liable for those costs advanced by the law firm).  In theory these benefits appear sound and advantageous to the Association. However, the Association needs to consider that most attorneys that are proceeding on a contingency fee basis have evaluated the case and generally do not take cases where the risk of getting nothing is present 

The concerns with the hourly fee arrangement are fairly obvious.  The Association may put money into a litigation and not recover enough to merit proceeding with the litigation (the money spent on the litigation surpasses the amount being recovered), or if the Association’s case is dismissed by the Court, the Association will have spent money on attorney’s fees which are not recoverable and a significant loss to the Association.  However, if the case is evaluated correctly and the risk of a zero recovery is not present the hourly fee arrangement is far more likely to net the Association more money as there is no windfall to the law firm. The law firm is compensated for the work they actually did.  This typically leaves the Association with more money to use towards the repairs.

This same concern with contingency fee arrangements can be seen in the flat fee arrangement.  There is one thing that can be said of lawyers, they do not suffer from a lack of concern for money.  The flat fee arrangement usually has a built in cushion for the attorney so they are not left working for free.  The flat fee arrangement, however, does help the Board in its budgeting so the Association knows exactly how much it is going to spend on the litigation. But like the contingency fee, the Association potentially pays the law firm more money then they actually earned.

As can be seen, there are benefits and risks to any fee arrangement.  It is critical that the Board consider all options and work with the lawyers to arrive at a fee arrangement which satisfies the two primary goals of recovering and keeping the most money to repair the conditions.

This post was authored by David J. McGee. David McGee’s practice is based in the litigation section at Thomsen & Nybeck, P.A.  Dave brings his 20 plus years of experience representing Community Associations in construction defects and insurance disputes.  Dave has recovered millions for Associations in disputes with developers, contractors and insurance companies, and heads up the firm’s “Property Insurance Claims” Group.  Dave has been named a “Top Lawyer” by Minnesota Law & Politics and Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine for a number of years.  Dave has represented clients in numerous appellate cases including Chapman Place Ass’n, Inc. v. Prokasky, 507 N.W.2d 858 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993); Ly v. Nystrom, 615 N.W.2d 302 (Minn. 2000); and Peggy Rose Revocable Trust v. Eppich, 640 N.W.2d 601 (Minn. 2002).  Dave represents clients in arbitrations, mediations, court actions, trials, and appellate work.  Dave is a frequent lecturer and has written numerous articles in the area of Insurance, Construction, and Real Estate Law.  He is also a qualified neutral under Rule 114 of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice (mediation and arbitration).

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Minnesota Construction Warranty Claims: New Procedures for 2011

18 Jan

You may be familiar with (or at least aware of) the warranties provided to homeowners under Chapter 327A of Minnesota Statues.  These warranties include a one-year warranty on all workmanship and materials, a two-year warranty on plumbing, electrical or other mechanical systems, and a ten-year warranty against major construction defects.  These warranties apply to new or newly remodeled residential property (which can include single-family homes or community associations, such as condominiums or townhouses), and are binding against the builder (of a new home) or contractor (in the case of a remodeling project).  Throughout the rest of this article, I will refer to both as a “contractor”, though homeowners should appreciate there can be a difference.

For years, Chapter 327A has contained certain procedures that owners must follow to preserve a claim for a breach of one or more of these warranties.  Effective January 1, 2011, these procedures now have been revised, and new procedures have been added.  You can read the complete text of the new statute here.  The legislature’s goal in making these changes is to try to reduce the number of lawsuits that are necessary to resolve these warranty disputes, but as with any new process there will always be traps for the unwary and navigating the new procedures is bound to catch more than a few homeowners off guard.

The process still provides that written notice of an alleged defect must be provided to the contractor within six months of the discovery of the defect, with the new exception being where the owner can demonstrate the contractor had actual notice of the claimed defect. Of course, it’s best to provide timely written notice if you wish to rely on this statutory warranty.  Many owners falter by failing to provide this notice within six months of discovering the defect.

After this notice has been provided, the contractor has always been required to inspect the alleged defect within 30 days and propose a repair.  The new amendment now requires the owner to allow the contractor to conduct “invasive” testing to determine the extent of any damage or the proper type of repair, however.  Invasive testing may involve making test cuts in stucco or interior drywall and/or using a probe to test the moisture content of the wood framing members of the home, though the statute does not specify.  It is of course fair to permit the contractor a reasonable opportunity to understand fully the defect (if any) involved, and the contractor is required to place the property back into “pre-inspection condition” following any invasive procedures, but it is unclear how this restoration process will be measured or enforced in practice.

In the event the contractor inspects the property and the owner and contractor cannot agree on the proposed repair (and owners should carefully evaluate proposed repairs, preferably with the assistance of a trusted contractor, engineer or attorney), the homeowner must (yes, must) follow through with the new “home warranty dispute resolution process”.  The new dispute resolution process requires the selection of a “qualified neutral” from a list maintained by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which will charge aspiring neutrals a $200 fee to be listed.  There are rather short timeframes applicable to the steps for selecting a neutral, so homeowners should consult with an experienced member of the construction industry and/or their own construction attorney before submitting their claim to the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.  Otherwise they will find themselves with little time to make a decision about the neutrals from which they must choose to evaluate their case.

After a neutral has been selected, the parties must meet together with the neutral and each will submit its own reasons why its proposed repair is proper.  There is a fee of $25 per party for participation in the process, in addition to the hourly fees of the neutral third-party the parties select.  It also is possible the parties will use attorneys to represent them through this process, and contractors with insurance coverage almost certainly will have attorneys present to represent them, though homeowners presumably will not be required to do so.  According to the amendment, at the end of this process the neutral third party does not issue a binding decision (it simply is an evaluation). Moreover, this evaluation may not be used as evidence in any later litigation if the “unreasonable” party does not care to acknowledge that it is being unreasonable. The process does, however, provide the parties with perhaps some further understanding of the potential damages at stake and chances of a favorable (or unfavorable) result.

Barring certain exceptions, the parties must complete this process before litigation can be commenced.  However, there are four situations which owners may commence litigation earlier if the contractor is not engaging in the process in good faith:

1) The homeowner may sue the contractor immediately if:

a) the contractor fails to conduct an inspection within 30 days after the owner has provided written notice of the defect;

b) the contractor performs the inspection but fails to provide a written proposal to make a repair of the alleged defective condition within 15 days after the inspection is complete;

c) the contractor provides a proposed repair, to which the owner agrees, but the contractor does not perform the repair.

2) The homeowner may also sue the contractor following the expiration of 60 days from the owner’s receipt of the contractor’s repair proposal, whether or not the dispute resolution process is complete.

In the event the evaluation process is not successful in bringing the owner and contractor to a resolution, the new amendment also alters certain timing considerations applicable to a construction defect lawsuit. This is because there are numerous claims (or theories of recovery) applicable to construction defect cases. These can include not just a claim that the contractor breached one or more of the statutory warranties under Chapter 327A, but also that the contractor breached an applicable contract, or that the contractor was negligent. There are also other warranties that may apply, including warranties applicable to common interest communities (condominiums and townhouses) as well as warranties covering the sale of goods (such as windows, doors, shingles, etc.). Each of these claims has not only its own standards, but each also has an applicable limitations period (the period within which you must sue or your claim is barred) which may be different from the next. The amendments to 327A now provide that, for as long as an owner is following this statutory procedure, or for 180 days, whichever is longer, all of those claims will be “tolled” (meaning their expiration will be delayed). This is a useful provision for ensuring a homeowner does not lose the right to commence litigation as a result of participating in this mandatory dispute resolution process.

The new provisions of Chapter 327A certainly have created more opportunities for construction defect cases to reach resolution outside of court, in theory.  However, there is little likelihood that a contractor who was being unreasonable under the prior procedures failed to realize it was being unreasonable, and there is little consequence to a contractor that fails to reach a reasonable resolution even under this new scheme.  Therefore, until we have seen this process utilized a few times, we do not know whether it will provide aggrieved homeowners with a legitimate alternative to litigation, or just another hurdle to clear to obtain a recovery under Chapter 327A.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about whether this process applies to you and how to comply with its provisions, contact Matt Drewes or one of the other construction litigation attorneys at Thomsen Nybeck.

Matt Drewes contributed this post.  Matt is a Shareholder with Thomsen Nybeck.  He is the head of the firm’s 10-member Community Association Representation Group and co-leads the firm’s construction litigation group.  Matt practices in the areas of business and real estate litigation, construction litigation, community association law, debtor/creditor law, insurance and employment, has been included in Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine’s list of Rising Stars for several years, and has been quoted on issues involving construction litigation, community associations and real property issues in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Lawyer, Yahoo!finance.com and Bankrate.com, and elsewhere.  He can be reached at mdrewes@tn-law.com or by phone at 952.835.7000.

Matt Drewes Quoted in Articles About Construction Defects Appearing at HOAleader.com

13 Mar

Matt Drewes recently contributed quotes for the following articles published at www.hoaleader.com, a national web-based publication focused on homeowners association and condominium board members and association management professionals: 

 

Matt Drewes is a Shareholder with Thomsen Nybeck.  He is the head of the firm’s 10-member Community Association Representation Group and co-leads the firm’s construction litigation group.  Matt practices in the areas of business and real estate litigation, construction litigation, community association law, debtor/creditor law, insurance and employment, and has been included in Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine’s list of Rising Stars for several years.  He can be reached at mdrewes@tn-law.com.

Few Actual Changes to Minnesota’s Residential Warranty Statute

1 Jun

A slate of bills recently moved through the Minnesota House and Senate to the desk of Governor Tim Pawlenty which related to the State’s residential construction warranty laws.  They included:

 

  • House File 239, Senate File 6, which provided a remedy to homeowners to recover from the contractor for the homeowner’s short-term housing costs when there is a breach of the statutory warranty, such as in a construction defect case (hereinafter “Temporary Housing Cost Bill”);

 

  • House File 412, Senate File 470, which allowed homeowners 12 years after the warranty date to file a claim (though if more than 10 years, only one year after discovering the breach) and thereby increasing the current period by 2 years (hereinafter “Statute of Limitations Bill”);

 

  • House File 211, Senate File 170, which allowed a judge to award attorneys’ fees should a homeowner prevail in its claims to enforce statutory residential warranties (hereinafter “Attorneys’ Fees Bill”);

 

  • House File 362, Senate File 362, which eliminated the requirement that homeowners provide written notice of major structural defects within 6 months of discovery when, in incidents where the contractor had knowledge of the loss or the damage (hereinafter “Elimination of Notice Requirement Bill”); and

 

  • House File 420, Senate File 776, which required contractors to provide to homeowners, copies of the state’s home warranty laws within the construction contract and prohibited either the contractor or the homeowner from modifying that warranty (hereinafter “Warranty Disclosure Bill”). 

 

Between May 19 and May 21, 2009, Governor Pawlenty vetoed the Temporary Housing Cost Bill, the Statute of Limitations bill, the Attorneys’ Fees Bill, and the Elimination of Notice Requirement Bill.  Governor Pawlenty signed into law only the Warranty Disclosure Bill.  Governor Pawlenty stated that his reason for vetoing the majority of these bills is a concern that those bills would create “burdens on the housing sector during [a] historic recession.”  While many in the construction defect area kept a close watch on these bills, as they had the potential to greatly change the landscape of the construction defect practice area, the end of the day held very little change due to the vetoes by Governor Pawlenty.

 

Chris Renz is a shareholder practicing in the Litigation Practice group at Thomsen & Nybeck, P.A., a law firm in Edina. Thomsen & Nybeck, P.A. has a number of professionals dedicated to meeting the legal needs of individuals, businesses, and associations, both big and small.  Chris concentrates his practice in the areas of Construction Litigation, General Civil Litigation, Home Owners Association Law, Real Estate Litigation, Criminal Law, Employment Law and Real Estate Law. He can be reached at crenz@tn-law.com; (952) 835-7000.

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