Substantial Performance Doctrine: Contractor Defeats Finicky Homeowners in Construction Case (the ‘You Missed A Spot’ Post)

Two diva-esque homeowners (I don’t judge; I just report) who demanded impossible perfection from a contractor got slapped with a $100,000-plus bench trial verdict in Wolfe Construction v. Knight, 2014 IL App (5th) 130115-U. Affirming the damage award, the appeals court gave content to the substantial performance doctrine, expanded on the requirement of contractual definiteness and applied the governing standards for recovering contractual interest and attorneys’ fees,

The plaintiff contractor was hired to perform renovation work on the defendants’ home after a fire damaged the home.  The written contract required the homeowners to pay for any extras and to also foot the bill for any services not covered by their homeowners’ insurance.  Over a span of about a year, the contractor completed nearly all of the restoration work (about 95% of it) and performed some $30,000 of additional work including interior painting, building a new porch and custom-ordering and installing kitchen cabinets – all at the defendants’ specific request.  But according to the homeowners, the contractor’s work was lacking and the homeowners refused to pay and kicked the contractor off the job.  The contractor sued for breach of contract and after a bench trial, won a $100,000-plus judgment against the homeowners, including amounts for unpaid services, extras, contractual interest and attorneys’ fees.  The homeowners appealed.

Held: Money judgment for the contractor affirmed.

Rules/Reasoning:

The Court upheld the judgment for the contractor; noting that the defendants demanded “perfection and the impossible.”  The law doesn’t require surgical precision in construction contract performance.  Instead, the contractor is held only to the duty of substantial performance in a workmanlike manner.  For substantial performance, a contractor must show there was an honest and faithful performance of the contract in its material and substantial aspects.  The contractor must also demonstrate there was no willful departure from, or omission of the contract’s essential elements.  A nebulous standard, the substantial performance test depends on the unique facts of each case.  (¶33).

During trial, both sides presented expert testimony in support of their position and the Court found that the contractor completed about 95% of the job before the defendants fired it (the contractor).  (¶¶ 25-26).  And since the defects asserted by the homeowners involved items which pre-dated the contractor’s involvement, the Court found those deficiencies weren’t the contractor’s fault.  The Court also found the homeowner’s blatantly biased expert’s testimony to be incredible and even “laughable.”  For these reasons, the Court sided with the contractor on all issues. (¶34).

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s award of interest and attorneys’ fees under the contract; but against only one of the homeowners.  Interest and attorneys’ fees generally are not recoverable unless specified in a written contract.  ¶¶36-37.  If a contract does provide for interest and attorneys’ fees, only the party that signs the contract will have to pay them.  (¶ 37).  Here, the parties’ construction contract clearly delineated that the homeowners would be responsible for the contractor’s attorneys’ fees and would have to pay monthly interest at 1.5% on tardy amounts if the contractor sued. The Court held that since the contractual interest and fee-shifting language was clear, it was enforceable – but only against the defendant that signed the contract.  The homeowner that didn’t sign the contract wasn’t responsible for the over $26,000 in interest and nearly $40,000 in attorneys’ fees awarded to the plaintiff contractor.  (¶ 38).

Aftermath:

Definitely a pro-contractor and anti-persnickety homeowner case.  I suppose perfectionism, as character trait and life ethos, has its merits.  But the law doesn’t require it; at least not in the construction setting.   This case illustrates in lurid detail the perils of a property owner having unrealistic and too-exacting expectations of his contractor.  Blemish-free work is not required under the law.  As this case amply shows, if a contractor substantially performs or is prevented from remedying or completing performance by a recalcitrant homeowner, the contractor will win.  Wolfe Construction also seems to set a fairly lenient benchmark for a contractor to establish substantial performance.  This case should and will likely give property owners pause before they declare a default and fail to pay a contractor.

 

 

 

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Bielski Chapman, Ltd. representing businesses and individuals in business litigation, post-judgment enforcement, collections and real estate litigation.