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Blanchette v. Superior Court (GHA Enterprises)

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, First Division

February 10, 2017

WILLIAM BLANCHETTE et al., Petitioners,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF IMPERIAL COUNTY, Respondent; GHA ENTERPRISES et al., Real Parties in Interest.

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDINGS in mandate, Imperial County Super. Ct. No. ECU9103 L. Brooks Anderholt, Judge. Petition granted.

          JCL Law Firm and Jean-Claude Lapuyade for Petitioners.

          No appearance for Respondent.

          BENKE, Acting P. J.

         Wood Smith Henning & Berman and Brenda Nicole Radmacher for Real Parties in Interest.

         In this construction defect case we are called upon to interpret the notice and time requirements of the Right to Repair Act (the act), Civil Code[1] section 895 et seq. As we explain, the goal of the act is to resolve, if possible, construction defect claims without resort to litigation. In brief, the act requires that, before initiating litigation, construction defect claimants must give a builder notice of alleged defects and if a builder wishes, an opportunity to inspect and repair the noticed defects. The act requires that a claimant's notice set forth the defects "in reasonable detail" sufficient to determine the nature and location of the alleged defects. (§ 910.) A builder receiving the notice has 14 days in which to acknowledge receipt of the claim and 14 additional days in which, if the builder wishes, to inspect the premises; within 30 days after completing an inspection, a builder may make an offer to repair the claimed defects. The act requires that its time limits and other requirements be strictly construed. (§ 930, subd. (a).)

         Here, we grant petitioner William Blanchette's petition for a writ of mandate and direct that the trial court vacate its order staying proceedings pending Blanchette's compliance with the act. As we explain, Blanchette's compliance with the act was relieved by virtue of real party GHA, Enterprises, Inc.'s (GHA)[2] failure to timely acknowledge receipt of Blanchette's notice of a claim. Contrary to GHA's argument, the act's goal of promptly resolving claims without resort to litigation cannot be achieved by permitting homebuilders to serve tardy responses to claims or to ignore them entirely.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Blanchette is the owner of one of 28 homes constructed by GHA. No later than February 2, 2016, Blanchette served GHA with notice of a claim, which set forth a number of alleged defects in all 28 homes; Blanchette's notice used, almost verbatim, the language section 896 employs in setting forth building standards, the violation of which, give rise to actionable claims against homebuilders.[3] Attached to the notice of claims was a list of the names and addresses of each of the owners of the 28 homes in the development.

         GHA responded to Blanchette's notice of claims by letter dated February 23, 2016. GHA asserted the construction defects set forth in Blanchette's claim were not alleged with reasonable detail, as required by section 910, subdivision (a); nonetheless GHA offered to inspect the homes.

         Blanchette responded to GHA on February 26, 2016. Blanchette asserted that GHA's response was untimely and excused him and the other homeowners from any obligations under the act.

         Thereafter, Blanchette filed a construction defect class action complaint against GHA in the trial court. GHA responded to the complaint by moving to stay the action until Blanchette satisfied the prelitigation requirements of the act. Blanchette opposed the motion on the grounds GHA had not timely responded to his notice of claims.

         The trial court agreed with GHA that Blanchette's notice of claim lacked detail sufficient to trigger GHA's obligations under the act. Accordingly, the trial court stayed the action pending completion of the notice and inspection procedures required by the act and ordered that Blanchette serve a new notice of claims to "identify each individual claimant by address, " to "provide a defect list for each subject property, which sets forth [the] alleged defects, " to "set forth the location, nature and severity of each alleged defect, " and to identify "the code section(s) [the claimants] contend each alleged defect violates."

         Blanchette filed a petition for a writ of mandate in which he challenged the trial court's order. We issued an order to show cause.

         DISCUSSION

         I

         Blanchette's petition raises a novel issue under the act: when must defects in a notice of claim be raised by a builder? We also note that because the trial court enforced its interpretation of the act by way of a pretrial stay, Blanchette has no adequate remedy by way of appeal. The novel issue raised by Blanchette's petition and the absence of an adequate remedy by way of appeal support writ review here. (See Omaha Indemnity Co. v. Superior Court (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 1266, 1273-1274.)

         II

         The act, its purposes, and provisions were in many important respects considered by the court in Darling v. Superior Court (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 69 (Darling). In Darling, the court rejected a homeowner's contention the document production required of homebuilders under the act (§ 912) could be initiated in the absence of the notice of claims required by section 910. (Darling, at p. 84.) However, neither Darling nor any other case which has come to our attention, has directly considered when defects in the notice of claim must be asserted by a builder.

         As the court in Darling noted, the prelitigation requirements of the act are set forth in Chapter 4 of the act, commencing with section 910. (Darling, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at p. 82.) The purpose of Chapter 4, "is to give a builder the opportunity to resolve a homeowner's construction defect claim in an expeditious and nonadverserial manner. [Citation.]" (Ibid.; see also Stats. 2002, ch. 722, § 1(b) & (c), p. 4247 [Chapter 4 intended to provided for "prompt and fair resolution of construction defect claims" and "procedures for early disposition of construction defects claims."].)

         "Chapter 4 begins with section 910. Section 910 requires a homeowner to serve notice of a construction defect claim to commence the prelitigation process, before bringing a lawsuit. The statute provides in relevant part: 'Prior to filing an action against any party alleged to have contributed to a violation of the standards set forth in Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 896), the claimant shall initiate the following prelitigation procedures: [¶] (a) The claimant or his or her legal representative shall provide written notice via certified mail, overnight mail, or personal delivery to the builder, in the manner prescribed in this section, of the claimant's claim that the construction of his or her residence violates any of the standards set forth in Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 896). That notice shall provide the claimant's name, address, and preferred method of contact, and shall state that the claimant alleges a violation pursuant to this part against the builder, and shall describe the claim in reasonable detail sufficient to determine the nature and location, to the extent known, of the claimed violation. In the case of a group of homeowners or an association, the notice may identify the claimants solely by address or other description sufficient to apprise the builder of the locations of the subject residences. That document shall have the same force and effect as a notice of commencement of a legal proceeding.

         "Compliance with section 910 is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a residential builder for construction defects. [Citations.] " (Darling, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at pp. 75-76.)

         After a notice of claim has been served under section 910, a process expressly designed to permit the parties to resolve claims without resort to litigation commences. As the court in Darling set forth, following service of notice: "the builder must acknowledge in writing its receipt of the notice of the claim within 14 days after the claim is received (§ 913); the homeowner is released from the requirements of the chapter if the builder does not acknowledge receipt of the notice, elects not to go through the process, or fails to request an inspection in a timely manner (§ 915); the builder must complete its initial inspection and testing within 14 days after it acknowledges its receipt of the notice of the claim (§ 916); the builder may offer in writing to repair the violation and compensate the homeowner for applicable damages '[w]ithin 30 days of the initial or, if requested, second inspection or testing' (§ 917); the homeowner has 30 days after receipt of the repair offer to authorize the builder to proceed with the repair or request alternative contractors (§ 918); the offer to repair shall be accompanied by an offer to mediate the dispute if the homeowner chooses (§ 919); if the builder fails to make an offer to repair or otherwise strictly comply with Chapter 4 within the times specified, the homeowner is released from the requirements of the chapter and may proceed with the filing of an action, and the homeowner may file an action if the contractor performing the repair does not complete the repair in the time or manner specified (§§ 920, 925); and the repairs shall commence within 14 days after acceptance or selection of an alternative contractor or within seven days of the mediation, or within five days of permit issuance, and must be done 'with the utmost diligence' and be 'completed as soon as reasonably possible.' (§ 921.)" (Darling, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th 77-78.)

         Importantly, section 930 provides: "(a) The time periods and all other requirements in this chapter are to be strictly construed, and, unless extended by the mutual agreement of the parties in accordance with this chapter, shall govern the rights and obligations under this title. If a builder fails to act in accordance with this section within the timeframes mandated, unless extended by the mutual agreement of the parties as evidenced by a postclaim written confirmation by the affected homeowner demonstrating that he or she has knowingly and voluntarily extended the statutory timeframe, the claimant may proceed with filing an action. If this occurs, the standards of the other chapters of this title shall continue to apply to the action. [¶] (b) If the claimant does not conform with the requirements of this chapter, the builder may bring a motion to stay any subsequent court action or other proceeding until the requirements of this chapter have been satisfied. The court, in its discretion, may award the prevailing party on such a motion, his or her attorney's fees and costs in bringing or opposing the motion."

         III

         When we are called upon to interpret a statute we begin with its express terms and, if ambiguity or conflict arise, we resolve them by reference to the statute's purpose. (See Darling, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at p. 69.) Section 913 is clear. It provides that following service of a notice of claim, a builder must acknowledge receipt of the notice within 14 days. Section 910 provides the notice of claim must state the name and address of the claimant or claimants and that the claim or claimants allege a violation of building standards set forth in the act. Here, Blanchette's notice of claim met the requirements of section 910. It provided his name and address and a statement alleging violations of the act's building standards. Section 915 is equally explicit: "[i]f a builder fails to acknowledge receipt of the notice of a claim within the time specified... this chapter does not apply and the homeowner is released from the requirements of this chapter and may proceed with the filing of an action." (Italics added.) We are obligated to strictly enforce section 913's time limits. (§ 930.)

         This brings us to the portion of section 910 that requires a notice of claim "describe the claim in reasonable detail sufficient to determine the nature and location, to the extent known, of the claimed violation." (Italics added.) Unlike the 14-day time limit set forth in section 913 and the express consequence for failing to meet that deadline set forth in section 915, whether a claim provides ...


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