Appellate Court Provides Some Clarity To Contractors On Home Improvement Act Exemption

Connecticut’s Home Improvement Act requires contractors performing home improvement services to register and to comply with it provisions concerning contracts with homeowners. The Act has a series of requirements for contracts as follows:

  • Contract must be in writing;
  • Contract must include the contractors registration number;
  • Contract must include four dates: date of signing, date work will begin, date of completion, and date by which the homeowner may cancel the contract; and
  • Contract must contain specific notice provision of the homeowner’s right to cancel the contract within three business days after signing.

If a contractor fails to comply with these contractual requirements, the contractor risks non-payment by the homeowner.  If a homeowner refuses to pay, the contractor likely will not be able to recover payment with a lawsuit in court absent some showing that the homeowner acted in bad faith.  This can bring about a harsh and inequitable result in some cases.   

In Drain Doctor, Inc. v . Jason Lyman, the Appellate Court recently had to consider the potential harsh consequences of failing to comply with the Home Improvement Act.  The contractor at issue in the case had to perform plumbing work below the surface of the home and driveway in order to make the home habitable.  The contract was oral.

The contractor repaired a sewer a line under the home and a storm drain under the driveway.  The contractor finished the job and then restored the driveway and grass.  The homeowner refused to pay.  The contractor brought a lawsuit, but had it stricken by the trial court because the homeowner alleged that the oral contract did not comply with the Home Improvement Act.

The contractor was a licensed plumber and tried to rely on the exemption in the Home Improvement Act at Connecticut General Statutes 20-248.  The exemption provides that the Act does not apply to:

any person holding a current professional or occupational license issued pursuant to the general statutes, and any person registered pursuant to sections 25-126 to 25-137, inclusive, provided such person engages only in that work for which such person is licensed or registered.
 

The trial court found that the work on the driveway and lawn was outside the scope of the work for licensed plumbers and the exemption did not apply.  This ruling produced a potentially unfair result.  The contractor did the work requested.  The only apparent reason for non-payment was the homeowner’s technical reliance on the Home Improvement Act requirements for contracts.  

The Appellate Court overruled the trial court and found that the driveway and grass work was "ancillary" to the work for licensed plumbers.  The Appellate Court looked at the licensing statute to determine the different types of work that plumbers engage in, and then determined that the driveway and lawn restoration was incidental to work directly listed for licensed plumbers.  Therefore, the licensed plumber did not have to comply with the Home Improvement Act.

Although the Drain Doctor decision provides some clarity for contractors on when they need to comply with the Home Improvement Act,  questions will continue as to the scope of the exemption and "ancillary" work.  What should contractors do when faced with a similar situation?  Here are a few tips:

1.  Determine the scope of each project you are estimating.

2.  Consult the licensing provisions for your trade, whether it be electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling, or other trade.  The licensing statute defines the scope of work for the particular trade.  For example, plumbing and piping work is listed and defined here.  If  the work is listed in the definition, and you hold that license, then you likely will not have to comply with the contractual provisions of the Home Improvement Act.

3.  If the scope of the project is outside of the definitions of work for the particular license, you must then consider whether the work is "ancillary" to work that is listed in the definition.  If it is clearly outside the scope of work defined for the license, a contractor should seek to comply with the Home Improvement Act. 

A good starting point for a "how to" on complying with the Home Improvement Act is the Department of Consumer Protection’s handbook and guide for contractors. When in doubt, a contractor should consider complying with the Act.  If not, the contractor risks not getting paid even if the work was done properly.