Massachusetts Court Clarifies Statute of Repose Trigger for Multi-Phase Construction Projects

Kyle Rice | White and Williams LLP

In D’Allesandro v. Lennar Hingham Holdings, LLC, C.A. No. 17-cv-12567-IT, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185874, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently discussed a case against a general contractor and its related entities, all of whom were involved in the construction of a multi-phase construction project. The court held that, in this context, completion of the “improvement” – which was the whole project, rather than each individual phase – triggered the six-year statute of repose. The court also held that the plaintiffs’ misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty and unfair business practices claims were not claims based on the design and construction of the improvement and, thus, were not subject to the statute of repose. 

In D’Allesandro, the action arose out of the construction, marketing, sale and management of the Hewitts Landing Condominium (the Condominium) project. Ultimately, 150 units in 28 different buildings were constructed over 24 phases of construction. While construction was ongoing, the project’s architect submitted declarations to the Town of Hingham swearing that the individual units were “substantially complete” and could be occupied for their intended use. Shortly thereafter, the Town of Hingham issued certificates of occupancy for the units or buildings. 

Lennar Northeast Properties, Inc. d/b/a Lennar Northeast Urban was the developer and Lennar Higanham Holdings, LLC was the contractor and construction manager. Hewitts Landing Trustee, LLC (Lennar Trustee) acted as the trustee for the Hewitt Landing Condominium Trust between 2010 and 2015. On June 25, 2010, the Master Deed of the Condominium was recorded with the Plymouth County Registry of Deeds. On the same date, defendant Lennar Trustee executed a Declaration of Trust, establishing the Condominium Trust. In December of 2015, the unit owners of the Condominium took control of the Condominium Trust. On November 3, 2017, the Trustees of the Condominium Trust brought their action, alleging that a number of deficiencies and code violations were discovered in the design and/or construction of the common areas of the buildings. The Lennar-related entities moved for partial summary judgment arguing that, with respect to six of the buildings, the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of repose. The statute of repose bars tort claims arising out of any deficiency or neglect in the designing, planning or construction of an improvement to real property commenced more than six years after the earlier of: 1) the opening of the improvement to use; or 2) substantial completion of the improvement and the taking of possession for occupancy by the owner. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 2B. For the six buildings at issue, the architect signed affidavits of substantial completion more than six years before the plaintiffs filed their action. For five of these buildings, the Town of Hingham issued certificates of occupancy for the buildings and all of their units more than six years before the plaintiffs filed their action.

The court found that only two of the plaintiffs’ seven claims, Counts V and VI (alleging negligence and a breach of implied warranty) were subject to the statute of repose. With respect to Counts III, IV and VII, which alleged intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation and a violation of Massachusetts’ unfair business practices statute, the court held that these claims were not subject to the statute of repose. These claims were not subject to the statute of repose because, as alleged, the actions arose from distinct facts and alleged distinct wrongdoing associated with representing the property to prospective buyers. Similarly, because Counts I and II (alleging breach of the Condominium documents and a breach of fiduciary duty) related to the Lennar Trustee failing to investigate and address construction problems and not the construction itself, these claims were not subject to the statute of repose.

With respect to the plaintiff’s negligence and breach of implied warranty claims, the defendants argued that because each building constituted an improvement to real property, the filing of the architects’ certificates of substantial completion for each building began the running of the statute of repose for that building. The plaintiffs contended the development was not conceived as 150 different subplots for each unit or 28 different projects for each building, but rather that the project should be taken as a whole. Therefore, the plaintiffs argued that the statute of repose did not begin to run until the entire construction project was completed.

The court sided with the plaintiffs. The court found that the 150 units were conceived as the potential scope of the project from the onset, that the same general contractor and architect were used throughout and that the project was legally defined as a single condominium with a single Trust maintaining exclusive control over the common and limited common elements of the entire condominium. Taking all of these factors together, the court found that the Condominium was not a series of improvements, but one improvement. Therefore, the repose period began to run upon completion of the entire improvement, not when the architect or township signed off on the individual buildings.

As explained by the court, the question before it was not whether construction of an individual building or improvement could trigger the statute of repose, but rather whether the construction of a portion of a project constituted completion of an improvement, thereby triggering the repose period while the overall project remained underway. The court emphasized the concerns addressed by the statute of repose, i.e. that the contractor would be subject to unforeseen liability for an extended period, the possibility that documents/witnesses would no longer be available and that memory of witnesses would have faded. Here, the same contractor and architect oversaw the project from start to finish and the project had been completed 2½ years before the suit was filed. Therefore, the court found that the concerns addressed by the statute of repose were not applicable.

The court noted, however, that discrete obligations performed by subcontractors may constitute an improvement subject to the running of the six-year repose period. Additionally, the court noted that this suit applied specifically to common areas, rather than individual units, and stated that a failure in an individual unit may achieve a different result. However, because these hypothetical issues were not before the court, it did not decide when the statute of repose would be triggered in these situations. Based on the analysis in D’Allessandro, when faced with phased construction in multi-phase projects in Massachusetts, subrogation professionals should always be mindful of the specific circumstances of their claim. Similarly, subrogation professionals should be mindful that claims based on facts unrelated to the construction itself may not be subject to the statute of repose.

Contract Scope Limits Tort Liability

Stan Martin | Commonsense Construction Law LLC | October 26, 2018

From the Massachusetts Appeals Court comes a reminder that a contract scope of services may serve to control or limit the scope of tort liability.

New homeowners sued the contractor and designer, hired by the former homeowner for a replacement septic system, when that system failed only a few years after installation. Turns out the contractor had placed “construction and other debris in the leaching fields” (apparently as “filler”), instead of using only sand.

The designer moved for summary judgment, on the basis that its contract required the designer to view the work when the hole for the new leaching field had been dug (but before placement of the sand and laterals), and again once the leaching field had been completed. It did so. But of course the designer was not present, and did not see, when the contractor used improper materials.

The trial court dismissed the homeowners’ claims against the designer, and the Appeals Court upheld the dismissal. If the designer was obligated to view the site on two occasions, and did so, the new homeowners could not establish that the designer had any other duty to inspect or observe the conditions. And thus they could not establish that the designer had failed to carry out its duty, in a tort sense. Per the court: “we would conclude, given both the scope and the limitations of the Design Team’s contractual responsibilities, that laymen could not reasonably infer without expert evidence that its failure to learn of the deficiencies constituted professional malpractice.”

This is a reminder – more for designers than contractors – that the scope of services being undertaken may serve not only as a restriction on contract obligations, but also on tort liability or exposure. An important lesson to keep in mind. The case is Van Sicklin v. Nantucket Surveyors, LLC, 2018 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 777 (Oct. 23, 2018).

Contract Scope Limits Tort Liability

Stan Martin | Commonsense Construction Law LLC | October 26, 2018

From the Massachusetts Appeals Court comes a reminder that a contract scope of services may serve to control or limit the scope of tort liability.

New homeowners sued the contractor and designer, hired by the former homeowner for a replacement septic system, when that system failed only a few years after installation. Turns out the contractor had placed “construction and other debris in the leaching fields” (apparently as “filler”), instead of using only sand.

The designer moved for summary judgment, on the basis that its contract required the designer to view the work when the hole for the new leaching field had been dug (but before placement of the sand and laterals), and again once the leaching field had been completed. It did so. But of course the designer was not present, and did not see, when the contractor used improper materials.

The trial court dismissed the homeowners’ claims against the designer, and the Appeals Court upheld the dismissal. If the designer was obligated to view the site on two occasions, and did so, the new homeowners could not establish that the designer had any other duty to inspect or observe the conditions. And thus they could not establish that the designer had failed to carry out its duty, in a tort sense. Per the court: “we would conclude, given both the scope and the limitations of the Design Team’s contractual responsibilities, that laymen could not reasonably infer without expert evidence that its failure to learn of the deficiencies constituted professional malpractice.”

This is a reminder – more for designers than contractors – that the scope of services being undertaken may serve not only as a restriction on contract obligations, but also on tort liability or exposure. An important lesson to keep in mind. The case is Van Sicklin v. Nantucket Surveyors, LLC, 2018 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 777 (Oct. 23, 2018).

Judge Salinger: Defendant’s Letter Disputing Existence of Contract Does Not Trigger Start of Statute of Limitations Period for Plaintiff

Matthew P. Ritchie and Natalie M. Cappellazzo | Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP | March 9, 2018

In Bay Colony, Judge Salinger denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss a contract claim as time barred even though one defendant (AMB) had sent a letter to the plaintiffs more than six years earlier disputing the existence of a binding agreement between the parties.

Judge Salinger found that the letter itself did not constitute a breach of contract because the plaintiffs did not allege that AMB had no right to terminate the contract. Nor was it an unequivocal repudiation of future obligations under the contract. Notably, AMB did not assert in the letter that it would not pay the plaintiffs for services rendered; instead, AMB merely disputed the existence of a binding agreement and stated that AMB would respond further in writing. AMB’s letter, wrote Judge Salinger, “is not a repudiation of the alleged contract because it is not ‘a definite and unequivocal manifestation of intention [not to render performance]’.” Because no claim for breach of contract or quantum meruit/unjust enrichment had arisen at the time of the letter, the limitations period did not start to run.

Judge Salinger noted that Massachusetts does not generally recognize a cause of action for anticipatory breach of contract. KGM Custom Homes, Inc. v. Prosky, 468 Mass. 247, 253 (2014). The most notable exception to this general rule is where an actual breach accompanies an anticipated breach—for example, if a defendant refuses to pay amounts currently owed while also clearly repudiating an obligation to make future payments. In those circumstances, the statute of limitations would begin to run on claims for both the past and future damages upon repudiation. Callendar v. Suffolk Cty., 57 Mass. App. Ct. 361, 364 (2003).

Bay Colony Prop. Dev. Co., et. al. v. Headlands Realty Corp., et al

A Promise to Pay Doesn’t Extend Lien Deadlines

Stan Martin | Commonsense Construction Law | January 24, 2018

Mechanic’s lien rights arise from the laws of each state; there is no common-law right to unilaterally lien someone else’s property. As such, compliance with statutory requirements and deadlines is paramount. Thus, when an owner promised to pay a sub, and the sub elected not to pursue lien rights based on that promise, the sub lost out on its lien when it missed the statutory deadlines.

This case is in Massachusetts, but it is likely the same outcome would result in all other states. Equitable theories that might apply in other circumstances (e.g., equitable tolling of statutes of limitation when one forebears based on promises from another) do not apply when the underlying right is based on compliance with lien law standards and deadlines.

The sub was owed $196,500. It took the first two steps (out of three) under the Massachusetts lien law, to secure a mechanic’s lien. The third step was to file a lawsuit, but the sub didn’t file based on what it claimed were promises of payment. In the meantime, the deadline to file a lawsuit (90 days after the second step) came and went. When no payment was made, the sub tried to resurrect its lien rights by taking steps 1 and 2 again, but by now the deadline for those steps had passed under the lien law.

The sub argued that the lien law deadlines should be equitably extended, but the trial court, and then the Appeals Court, disagreed. “A mechanic’s lien is not a common-law right but a creature of statute, which ‘compels strict compliance in order to obtain relief.’” The sub’s lien rights had lapsed when the deadlines passed, regardless of any promises of payment that may have been made.

The lesson? Ignore lien law deadlines at your peril. The case is D5 Iron Works v. Danvers Fish & Game Club, 2018 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 60 (Jan. 22, 2018).