Four years ago, the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA) went into effect, forcing home improvement contractors to register with the Commonwealth and to comply with various contracting requirements (for more information, see our Client Alerts on the subject https://www.ammlaw.com/general/articles.html). We have found that unfortunately many contractors remain unaware of this law. Failure to comply with HICPA could result in civil and criminal penalties. But does non-compliance also mean that a contractor is prevented from receiving payment from its customer for completed work? Not necessarily, held the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which recently gave hope to contractors when it concluded that a contractor who does not comply with HICPA may nevertheless recover the value of its services from the customer.
In Shafer Electric & Construction v. Mantia, an out-of-state contractor entered into a written contract with a Pennsylvania homeowner (who also happened to be a contractor) to build an addition to the homeowner’s garage and provided services valued at over $37,000. The contractor did not register with the Commonwealth under HICPA. After the homeowner failed to pay the amount due, the contractor sued to recover its fees. The homeowner asserted that the complaint was legally insufficient because the underlying contract was not enforceable under HICPA. The contractor countered that even if the contract were unenforceable, the contractor should be able to recover its fees under the equitable doctrine of quantum meruit, a theory which allows a party to recover the reasonable value of its services so as to avoid unjust enrichment of the other party. Unfortunately, although HICPA preserves a contractor’s right to recover its fees under a quantum meruit theory, the language of the statute appears to require compliance with HICPA as a prerequisite to recovery. The lower court, strictly interpreting the statute’s plain language, ruled in favor of the homeowner. The Superior Court reversed, holding that the plain language of the statute impermissibly limits the purpose of the provision allowing recovery under quantum meruit. It reasoned that to require the contractor to comply with HICPA before recovering under a quantum meruit theory made no sense because a compliant contractor can recover its fees under a breach of contract theory and does not need an equitable remedy such as quantum meruit.
While Shafer Electric provides reassurance for home improvement contractors doing work in Pennsylvania, the prudent contractor will not rely on it to ensure collection of its fees. Because of the hefty fines and possible criminal penalties that may be imposed for violations, we strongly encourage contractors to register and comply with the other requirements set forth in HICPA.