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Carlson Construction Company, Inc. v. Dupont West Condominium

September 27, 2007

CARLSON CONSTRUCTION COMPANY, INC., APPELLANT,
v.
DUPONT WEST CONDOMINIUM, INC., APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-6139-05) (Hon. John M. Campbell, Jr., Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Argued June 12, 2007

Before RUIZ, KRAMER, and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges.

Carlson Construction Company, Inc. ("Carlson") appeals the grant of summary judgment dismissing its breach of contract action against appellee, Dupont West Condominium, Inc. ("Dupont West"), under a contract to renovate the common areas of appellee's condominium building. We agree with the Superior Court that, under the relevant regulations, the units of the Dupont West Condominium are properly deemed "residential property," and that Carlson performed "home improvement work" in the condominium building while not licensed as a "home improvement contractor." As a result, because Carlson accepted advance payments for work done under the contract, the contract was rendered void and unenforceable, and Dupont West became entitled to reimbursement of progress payments paid to Carlson. We therefore affirm the grant of summary judgment to appellee.

I.

The Dupont West Condominium is a ten-story condominium building located at 2141 P Street, N.W., consisting of ninety-five individual units (of which eighty-eight are exclusively for residential use and seven may be used for commercial purposes) and an underground parking garage for its residents. On August 14, 2004, Dupont West entered into an agreement with Carlson to renovate some of the building's common areas. Under the terms of the agreement, Carlson was to renovate the vestibule, lobby, elevators, mail room, and hallways, and Dupont West was to pay Carlson a total of $183,500, with progress payments due as work was completed. Carlson commenced working on the project, and on December 16, 2004, Dupont West paid Carlson $108,000 for the work that had been performed to that point.

In March of 2005, before all the work under the contract had been completed, Dupont West became aware that Carlson was not licensed as a home improvement contractor in the District of Columbia. When Dupont West refused to make further payments for work performed under the contract, Carlson sued for breach of contract. Dupont West counterclaimed, seeking repayment of the $108,000 it had paid to Carlson, on the ground that the contract was void ab initio.

The trial court concluded that the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations require that contractors working on condominium buildings be licensed as home improvement contractors. It therefore granted summary judgment in favor of Dupont West and ordered that Carlson return the $108,000 it had already been paid. Carlson filed this timely appeal.

II.

Where a trial court has granted summary judgment, and has done so based on interpretation of a statute, our standard of review is well-defined.

This court reviews both trial court decisions granting summary judgment and questions of statutory interpretation de novo. We first look at the language of a statute to interpret a statute. We are required to give effect to a statute's plain meaning if the words are clear and unambiguous. The literal words of a statute, however, are not the sole index to legislative intent, but rather, are to be read in the light of the statute taken as a whole, and are to be given a sensible construction and one that would not work an obvious injustice.

District of Columbia v. Bender, 906 A.2d 277, 281-82 (D.C. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

In the District of Columbia, no person may "require or accept payment for a home improvement contract in advance of the full completion of all work required" unless that person is licensed as a "home improvement contractor." 16 DCMR § 800.1.*fn1 The regulation defines a "home improvement contract" as "an agreement for the performance of home improvement work" of at least $300. 16 DCMR § 899.1.*fn2 As our cases establish, the effect of the regulation can lead to "seemingly harsh result[s]." Nixon v. Hansford, 584 A.2d 597, 599 (D.C. 1991). If an unlicensed contractor accepts payment before completion of work under the contract, the agreement is rendered void and unenforceable. See id. at 598. As a result, the contractor is not entitled to contract damages and must return any payment received for work performed. See Cevern v. Ferbish, 666 A.2d 17, 19-20 (D.C. 1995).

Under the regulations, a contractor performs "home improvement work" if it involves "residential property," ...


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