As many people have learned the hard way, home improvement contracts don’t always have a happy ending.
In May, the Colorado Court of Appeals had to untie the legal knots in a hotly contested case involving a home siding contract gone awry. The plaintiff in the case was Gravina Siding and Window Co. The defendants and counterclaimants were Paul and Brenda Frederiksen.
In November of 2017, the Frederiksens signed a contract with Gravina to install steel siding on their home. They wanted steel siding because woodpeckers had taken a liking to the home’s original cedar siding and every spring they drilled holes in the siding and built nests.
The price in the contract for this work was $42,116, of which $10,000 was paid at the time the contract was signed. The trial court found that, under the terms of the contract, the work was to be completed before the woodpeckers showed up in the spring of 2018. But, come August 2018, the work was still only a little over half done, some of the work was not properly performed, and the woodpeckers were presumably busy raising their babies.
In its attempt to perform the contract, Gravina had burned through three subcontractors. The first quit almost immediately; the second did unsatisfactory work; and the third did not follow proper installation procedures and was slow to perform the work. Nonetheless, that August, Gravina asked the Frederiksens to pay the balance of the contract price.
At this point, the Frederiksens, having had enough, declared a breach of contract on the part of Gravina and denied Gravina further access to their property. Gravina then sued Frederiksens, claiming they had breached the contract and needed to pay the balance of the contract price.
The case was tried without a jury before Judge Jeffrey Holmes of the Douglas County District Court. Judge Holmes ruled that, since at least some of the work had been done and the Frederiksens had benefited from that work, they owed Gravina another $9,000. There were other issues running around on this stage, including both parties claiming the right to collect legal fees and a claim by the Frederiksens that Gravina’s subcontractors had damaged the roof of their home to the tune of somewhere between $41,000 and $78,000. For a variety of reasons, however, Holmes denied all these claims. Both parties, being unhappy about something in Holmes’ rulings in the case, appealed.
It took the Court of Appeals 40 pages to wade through this tangle. In the end, the Court of Appeals ruled that Gravina did indeed breach the contract and the Frederiksens were indeed justified in terminating the contract. But the Court of Appeals then laid on top of contract law principles another body of law known as “unjust enrichment” and concluded the Frederiksens owed Gravina the value to them of the work Gravina had managed to do, less an amount constituting breach of contract damages suffered by the Frederiksens. Otherwise, said the court, the Frederiksens might be “unjustly enriched.”
The Court of Appeals then sent the case back to the trial court to complete the analysis because it couldn’t figure out how the trial court judge had arrived at his decision that Frederiksens still owed Gravina $9,000.
The Court of Appeals let stand the trial court’s ruling that neither party should receive an award of attorneys fees, meaning, in all probability, the only winners here (if any) were the lawyers.