Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of a series of posts in which Denver-area real estate attorney Frederick Skillern provides summaries of case law pertinent to real estate practitioners (click here for previous posts). These updates originally appeared as materials for the 32nd Annual Real Estate Symposium in July 2014.
Gattis v. McNutt (In re Estate of Gattis)
Colorado Court of Appeals, November 7, 2013
2013 COA 145
Residential sales contract; nondisclosure; economic loss rule.
This case presents another test of the outer limits of the economic loss rule. The buyer of a house, Carol Gattis, sues for fraudulent concealment and recovers a judgment against McNutt. McNutt’s company acquired the property to “fix and flip,” and obtained detailed soils reports outlining damage that was caused by shifting soils. On the disclosures form included in the standard form residential purchase and sale contract, McNutt disclaimed any “personal” knowledge of defects, and identified only the name of a company which had performed structural repairs — without describing the nature of the repair. McNutt appeals on the basis that the fraud claim is barred by the economic loss rule. He argues that the contract calls for specific disclosures, which were given, and that tort actions are precluded by the economic loss rule, as the requirement for disclosures “subsumes” the common-law duty to disclose material information.
The appeals court disagrees and affirms the judgment. Under the economic loss rule, “a party suffering only economic loss from the breach of an express or implied contractual duty may not assert a tort claim for such a breach absent an independent duty of care under tort law.” The court rejects the economic loss rule defense for two reasons. First, home sellers owe consumers an independent duty to disclose latent defects of which they are aware. Second, the court reasons that the disclosure provisions in the commission-approved form do not subsume the independent duty so as to trigger the economic loss rule. Although sellers were not required by the disclosure form to disclose their involvement with the entity that had performed repairs, the trial court found that this fact was material and should have been disclosed. Gattis could have prevailed on this nondisclosure claim without relying on the form disclosure. In short — the seller was perhaps “too cute by half.”
The court distinguishes two recent decisions in which a real estate seller has successfully invoked the economic loss rule to avoid a fraud claim. In those cases — Former TCHR, LLC v. First Hand Mgmt. LLC, 2012 COA 129 (Colo. App. 2012), and Hamon Contractors, Inc. v. Carter & Burgess, Inc., 229 P.3d 282 (Colo. App. 2009) — the parties negotiated “transaction-specific” contracts. Here, the parties used standard real estate commission forms. The court holds that neither the Seller’s Property Disclosure nor any other term in the form contract limits or subsumes the home sellers’ common-law duty to disclose latent defects of which they are aware.
Planning Partners International, LLC v. QED, Inc.
Colorado Court of Appeals, July 1, 2013.
2013 CO 43
Contracts; attorney fee shifting provision; discretion to reduce fee claim to account for successful claim for offsets; no mandatory rule.
Our supreme court accepts this case to decide a recurring issue in attorney fee hearings pursuant to contractual fee shifting provisions. The court of appeals held that the trial court erred in failing to apportion a fee award to account for an offset caused by judgment or a counterclaim. The Supreme Court rejects a per se rule of mandatory apportionment in this circumstance. Requiring proportional diminishment in all cases where the judgment based on a note or contract had been reduced by a counterclaim arising out of the transaction would undermine the trial court’s ability to determine a reasonable fee under the specific facts of the cases before them. The widely divergent circumstances under which attorney fee issues are litigated militate in favor of flexibility and discretion on the part of the trial court, rather than a rule of mandatory apportionment. In the current case, the trial judge proceeded methodically through the planning company’s accounting, discounting the fees incurred in a claim he found to be unsupported by the evidence and reducing the entire amount of requested fees by 20%. He further determined that the attorney’s fee issues were sufficiently intertwined and inter-related that apportionment was not appropriate.
The court notes that a trial court’s discretion may be circumscribed by the statute or contract giving rise to fees. It points out that the note provision here did not require or preclude apportionment, which is a factor that a drafter of such a note or contract might consider. As a result, a trial court may determine that some apportionment is necessary for a fee to be reasonable, or it may not. The court here holds only that the widely divergent circumstances under which attorney fee issues are litigated militate in favor of flexibility and discretion on the part of the trial court, rather than a rule of mandatory apportionment.