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Ruling on Appeal Questions Contractor’s Charges

Alexander A. Farrelly Justice Center (Photo by James Gardner)

A rare ruling on an appeal filed in Superior Court points up the pitfalls a St. Thomas homeowner can face when fixing a storm-damaged house.

The case, originally filed in Small Claims Court, questions how much a contractor can charge for his services.

Superior Court Judge Renee Gumbs Carty issued a memorandum opinion in the case of Chester Hodge v. Sylvia Roberts June 13. The ruling was published on the Superior Court website several days later.

Carty upheld the Feb. 22 ruling by Superior Court Magistrate Henry Carr, who denied a breach of contract claim by Hodge against homeowner Sylvia Roberts. Hodge said he helped Roberts – someone he’d known since 1969 – by reviewing an estimate for repairs on her storm-damaged house in Anna’s Retreat. After reviewing an estimate prepared by another contractor, for $111,660, Hodge told the court he performed another estimate.

That review put the price of repairing Robert’s house at $87,750. At that point, he said, Roberts agreed to let him perform the work.

Hodge told Carr he was invited to look over the estimate by his long time acquaintance in July 2018. Upon arriving at the house, Roberts and Hodge also discussed the settlement she received for damages from Real Legacy Insurance.

The amount was $35,006.18. At this point, the account of the two parties before the magistrate veered in different directions. Hodge said he told Roberts she was being shortchanged by her insurer. After that, he said, she went back to Real Legacy and got a revised settlement of $100,000.

Roberts told Carr she appealed the settlement on her own, without any prompting from Hodge. After the July discussion in Anna’s Retreat, the homeowner also gave the job of fixing her house to someone other than Hodge. He told the court he found out that Roberts changed her mind three weeks later.

When he did, the contractor sent Roberts a bill for $5,793. That figure included a $5,000 charge for professional services.

The homeowner didn’t acknowledge the bill until a few days later when Hodge sent a notice, marked “Please Respond.” According to court documents, Roberts responded by asking how he arrived at the $5,000 charge.

Carr questioned the charges while hearing the small claims case. The magistrate asked Hodge if he discussed the charge with Roberts prior to sending her a bill. He said no. The magistrate also asked if Hodge and Roberts had reduced their agreement that he would get the repair job to writing. Hodge said no.

Carr asked the petitioner about his rates. The contractor said he charged between $75 and $250 an hour. The $5,000 charge came from 25 hours of work performed at a rate of $200 an hour.

The magistrate ruled, and Carty agreed, that without informed consent from the homeowner over the professional service charge and only Hodge’s verbal testimony in court, there was insufficient evidence. There was also no proof that the contractor performed 25 hours of work while working up the estimate.

The homeowner also testified that in addition to raising her concerns about the original estimate to her long time acquaintance, a representative from Real Legacy came over to the house in Anna’s Retreat to do an assessment.

“The court concluded that $200 an hour was unreasonably high for the work he did on the project and reduced the rate to $75 an hour,” Gumbs ruled on appeal.

Hodge was awarded $1,929.80, for professional services, based on 15 hours of work. Charges for an order of plastic foam insulation, which Hodge brought in, and a delivery charge of $150 went through, undisputed by the court.

The breach of contract case was handled on appeal by the Superior Court Appellate Division. In her ruling Carty also spoke about how rare the ruling was. She cited Rule 322.3(c) of the Superior Court that discourages review of small claims cases when a magistrate has already ruled or issued a judgement.

“However trial judges may conduct a hearing when the case presents a novel issue and when the outcome will have significant precedential value, requires clarification of the issue or facts given the state of the case record, or relies on subsequent judicial decision or change in the law,” the judge said.

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