Does a Realtor® Violate the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act When He or She Provides a Seller’s Property Condition Disclosure Statement to a Buyer, Which Contains a Misrepresentation Made by a Seller?
Holt v. Laube, 2011 WL 6141466 (App. Div., Dec. 12, 2011) (NO. A-1331-10T2) certif. den. 210 N.J. 108 (2012).
By: Michael Millar, Esq.
The most common claim made against real estate brokers and agents in New Jersey is an alleged violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (the “CFA”). [EN1]
The CFA provides for a mandatory award of treble (3X) damages and payment of the plaintiff’s attorney fees and costs when the plaintiff proves both a violation of the Act and damages arising from the violation. [EN2] New Jersey courts have created an exception to the CFA, finding that homeowners are not liable under the CFA when they sell their own home. [EN3] However, the courts have further ruled that real estate brokers and agents are subject to the CFA and that they may be liable for repeating a misrepresentation of fact first communicated to them by the seller. [EN4] Thus, the real estate broker and agent may be liable when the seller is not – and where the seller is the source of the alleged misrepresentation.
The CFA’s promise of enhanced, punitive damages and attorney fees against real estate brokers and agents provides a powerful incentive to sue the broker and agent in any dispute between a buyer and a seller of real estate.
One issue facing New Jersey Realtors® is whether, simply by providing a Seller’s Property Condition Disclosure Statement to a buyer, a Realtor® commits an act of consumer fraud if the seller has made a misrepresentation of fact in the disclosure.
The Three Types of CFA Violations
The CFA provides, in relevant part, that:
"The act, use or employment by any person of any unconscionable commercial practice, deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, misrepresentation, or the knowing, concealment, suppression, or omission of any material fact with intent that others rely upon such concealment, suppression or omission, in connection with the sale or advertisement of any … real estate, … is declared to be an unlawful practice…"
CFA violations fall into three basic categories.
The first category is an affirmative misrepresentation of fact. An affirmative misrepresentation violates the CFA even when made without knowledge that the statement is untrue and when made with no intent to mislead. [EN6]
The second category is a “knowing omission” or concealment of a material fact, accompanied by the intent that others rely upon the omission or concealment. [EN7]
The third category is a violation of a specific regulation promulgated under the CFA. In this last category, the unlawful practice may be proven without the need to show intent. [EN8] The third category of CFA violation, a regulatory violation, is only applicable to regulations enacted by the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs (“DCA”) under the CFA. [EN9] The regulations setting forth the duties of New Jersey Realtors® - e.g., N.J.A.C. 11:5-6 - are not enacted by the DCA and are not enacted under the CFA. Rather, the New Jersey Real Estate Commission is responsible, under its own rule making authority, for enacting regulations governing the duties of Realtors®. [EN10] Therefore, violating a regulation enacted by the New Jersey Real Estate Commission is not a violation of law and is not an act of consumer fraud. [EN11]
Having eliminated the third category - regulatory violations - as a means of CFA liability for Realtors®, leaves only the first two categories - affirmative misrepresentations and knowing omissions. Virtually every case brought against a New Jersey real estate broker and/or agent involves either a claim that the broker/agent misrepresented some fact to the plaintiff or that the broker/agent had knowledge of a material fact but failed to disclose it. [EN12]
The CFA Safe Harbor
Because, among other reasons, a Realtor® may be found liable under the CFA for repeating a statement made by his or her client - and the client has no CFA liability for making the statement - the New Jersey Association of Realtors® successfully lobbied the New Jersey legislature to pass an amendment to the CFA - a Realtor® “Safe Harbor” - which shields the Realtor® from treble damages and attorney fees for conveying information supplied by a Seller to the Buyer if the Realtor® follows certain steps. [EN13] The CFA Safe Harbor led to the creation of the Seller’s Property Condition Disclosure Statement (the “Seller’s Disclosure”). From the perspective of real estate brokers and agents, the primary purpose of the Seller’s Disclosure is to shield them from CFA punitive damages if they are sued. To qualify for the CFA Safe Harbor, the Realtor® must meet the following four conditions:
Does not know of the defective condition. (A Realtor® always has a duty to disclose all material facts known to the Realtor® [EN14]);
Obtains a Seller’s Disclosure completed solely by the seller;
After obtaining the Seller’s Disclosure, performs a visual inspection of the property and the home to see if anything differs from what is represented by the seller in the Seller’s Disclosure;
Provides the Seller’s Disclosure to the buyer prior to the conclusion of attorney review.
What Happens to the Realtor® When the Seller’s Disclosure Contains a Misrepresentation of Fact Made by the Seller?
The Seller’s Disclosure contains over 100 questions. The Seller’s Disclosure is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it may shield a New Jersey Realtor® from punitive damages and attorney fees under the CFA. It may be a curse because it may expose the Realtor® to CFA liability for misrepresentations made by a seller concerning a myriad of issues that the Realtor® would otherwise make no representation whatsoever.
Some plaintiff’s attorneys have argued that the mere conveyance of a Seller’s Disclosure is an act of consumer fraud made by the Realtor® if the Seller’s Disclosure contains a misrepresentation made by the seller. The law is unsettled on this point. There is no published decision by any court in New Jersey - as of January 2015 - that provides guidance. There is, however, an unpublished decision, made by the New Jersey Appellate Division that discusses the issue. [EN16]
New Jersey, like the federal government, has three levels of courts - the Law Division (trial court), the Appellate Division (mid-level appellate court) and the Supreme Court (highest court). The decision of a higher court on an issue is controlling on a lower court. A trial court must follow a decision made by the Appellate Division. However, there is a difference between a published and an unpublished decision. A published decision must be followed. An unpublished decision is merely “persuasive authority” - i.e., it is instructive, but it does not have to be followed.
The Holt v. Laube Case
In October 2002, plaintiffs, Mr. & Mrs. Holt, expressed an interest in purchasing a home owned by Mr. & Mrs. Laube. Coldwell Banker represented the seller. Re/Max represented the buyer. A Contract of Sale was completed and Coldwell Banker provided a Seller’s Disclosure to plaintiffs. In December 2002, while the contract with the Holts was pending, Mr. & Mrs. Laube conveyed the property to a relocation company – Primacy. Primacy completed a second Seller’s Disclosure and provided it to the Holts along with the original Seller’s Disclosure prepared by the Laubes. The Primacy Seller’s Disclosure stated Primacy was a relocation company, had not lived in the property and that it made no representations or warranties concerning the property. After the purchase, a retaining wall on the property collapsed. The Holts sued alleging the Laubes had made misrepresentations in their Seller’s Disclosure concerning the construction of the retaining wall and that both Coldwell Banker and Primacy had committed consumer fraud by providing them with a copy of the Laubes’ Seller’s Disclosure. As to Primacy, the trial court dismissed the CFA claim finding the statements made in the Seller’s Disclosure were not made by Primacy. The Appellate Division upheld that ruling. [EN17] The Appellate Division stated:
"Plaintiffs nevertheless allege that Primacy is liable under the CFA for affirmative misrepresentations allegedly made by the Laubes in their SDS, which Primacy had provided to plaintiffs. However, those statements were made by the Laubes, not Primacy. Here, Primacy did not make any representations as to whether the Laubes had obtained all permits required for the construction of the retaining walls. Although Primacy furnished plaintiffs with a copy of the Laubes’ SDS, Primacy never indicated that the Laubes’ statements were accurate or acceptable. … We therefore conclude that the trial court correctly determined that Primacy was entitled to summary judgment."
In Holt, after affirming the summary judgment order dismissing the CFA claim against Primacy, the Appellate Division next turned to the consumer fraud claim asserted against the real estate broker – Coldwell Banker. The plaintiffs argued both that the real estate broker had an obligation to investigate inconsistent statements made in the Seller’s Disclosure and that the real estate broker had made a misrepresentation to the plaintiffs by conveying the Seller’s Disclosure to them. The Appellate Division rejected both arguments stating:
"We next consider plaintiffs’ contention that the trial court erred by dismissing their CFA claims against Coldwell. Plaintiffs assert that the Laubes made inconsistent statements on their SDS and Coldwell had a duty to investigate those inconsistencies. Plaintiffs claim that these inconsistent statements constitute affirmative material misrepresentations by Coldwell that violate the CFA. We are not persuaded by these arguments.
… Furthermore, there is no basis for a claim against Coldwell based on a failure to disclose material facts regarding any deficiency in the retaining walls. As the trial court noted, there was no evidence that Coldwell was aware of any problem with the retaining walls and acted to conceal it. We are therefore convinced that the trial court correctly determined that Coldwell was entitled to summary judgment.”
In Holt, the Appellate Division ruled that a Realtor® does not make a “representation” by conveying a Seller’s Disclosure to a buyer. Rather, a plaintiff must show either that the Realtor® made a representation, found to be false, independent of the Seller’s Disclosure or that the Realtor® had actual knowledge of a defective condition that was not disclosed.
Other Reasons a Seller’s Disclosure Should Not Create Realtor® Liability.
In Holt, the Appellate Division ruled that a Realtor® does not make a representation in a Seller’s Disclosure - and that without a representation there can be no misrepresentation. However, that is not the only argument that could or should be advanced for why a Realtor® should not be found to have violated the CFA by providing a Seller’s Disclosure to a buyer.
(1) The Seller’s Disclosure Expressly Provides that the Realtor® Does Not Make a Factual Representation in the Form.
The text of the Seller’s Disclosure expressly provides that all answers are provided solely by the seller. A buyer cannot read the Seller’s Disclosure and then claim they reasonably believed the representations made in the disclosure were made by the Realtor®.
The Sellers Disclosure states on the first page:
The purpose of this Disclosure Statement is to disclose, to the best of Seller’s knowledge, the condition of the property…. Seller alone is the source of all information contained in this form…
While it is true that a Realtor® signs a Seller’s Disclosure, the Realtor does so in order to further inform the Buyer that the information in the Disclosure is provided solely by the Seller.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF REAL BROKER/BROKER-SALESPERSON/SALESPERSON
The undersigned Seller’s real estate … salesperson acknowledges receipt of the Property Disclosure Statement form and that the information contained in the form was provided by the Seller.
Thus, a plain reading of the Seller’s Disclosure indicates that all of the representations concerning the condition of the property are made by the Seller alone.
(2) The CFA Safe Harbor Does Not Create a New Type of CFA Violation
Plaintiffs may argue that the CFA Safe Harbor speaks of a Realtor’s® liability for communicating false information provided by a seller to a buyer. However, the CFA Safe Harbor does not create a new class of consumer fraud violations. The CFA Safe Harbor does not define what acts or omissions constitute a violation of the CFA.
CFA violations are defined at N.J.S.A. 56:8-2 (misrepresentations and knowing omissions) and N.J.S.A. 56:8-4 (certain regulatory violations). There are no CFA violations defined in N.J.S.A. 56:8-19.1 (the CFA Safe Harbor),
In context, N.J.S.A. 56:8-19.1 supplements N.J.S.A. 56:8-19, which defines damages. N.J.S.A. 56:8-19.1 - the CFA Safe Harbor - defines an exception to the damages required by the CFA.
The CFA Safe Harbor sets forth what steps a Realtor® must take to be shielded from punitive damages and attorney fees - if the Realtor® has committed a violation of N.J.S.A. 56:8-2 (affirmative misrepresentations and knowing omissions). The CFA Safe Harbor does not state that by complying with the requirements of the CFA Safe Harbor - _ i.e._ , by providing a Seller’s Disclosure - a Realtor® has committed an act of consumer fraud. Rather, the CFA Safe Harbor merely defines what steps must be taken to be shielded from the punitive damages mandated by the CFA.
(3) A Finding That the CFA Safe Harbor Creates Liability Requires an Illogical Interpretation of the Statute.
In enacting the CFA Safe Harbor, the New Jersey Legislature created certain requirements – e.g., the seller alone must complete the Seller’s Disclosure and that the Realtor then must provide the Seller’s Disclosure to the buyer - that a Realtor® must follow to avoid punitive damages. A plaintiff who argues that a Realtor has committed an act of consumer fraud by providing the Seller’s Disclosure to the Buyer, is arguing that the New Jersey Legislature intended and required that Realtors® commit acts of consumer fraud against New Jersey consumers so that the Realtor® can then be shielded from punitive damages for their acts of consumer fraud. That makes no sense. The purpose of the CFA is to reduce instances of consumer fraud and to punish those who commit acts of consumer fraud. It is illogical to interpret the CFA Safe Harbor so that it is intended to require that more acts of consumer fraud be committed and that those who commit acts of consumer fraud should then be shielded from the punitive damages required by the CFA.
A court must interpret a statute in such a way that it does not lead to illogical or absurd results. [EN20] It makes no sense to interpret the statute - the CFA Safe Harbor - to mean that the New Jersey Legislature intended that a Realtor® must first commit an act of consumer fraud before a Realtor® can be shielded from punitive damages. It is an illogical and absurd reading of the statute. A more logical reading of the statute would be that providing a Seller’s Disclosure - which is required by the CFA Safe Harbor - is not an act of consumer fraud.
A Seller’s Disclosure Should be Used in Every Transaction.
Regardless of how the issue plays out in the courts, New Jersey real estate brokers and agents are advised to use a Seller’s Disclosure in every transaction. The Seller’s Disclosure is required to obtain the CFA Safe Harbor - to be shielded from treble damages and attorney fees. Without the CFA Safe Harbor, for a successful CFA claim, $35,000 in damages could be worth over $200,000 when that amount is trebled and attorney fees are added in.
So, does a New Jersey Realtor® commit a violation of the Consumer Fraud Act when he or she provides a Seller’s Property Condition Disclosure Statement, which contains a misrepresentation made by the seller, to a buyer?
The answer, at this point, is unclear. No reported court decision has directly decided the issue.
However, the unreported decision of the New Jersey Appellate Division in Holt provides some guidance. The Appellate Division, in Holt, indicated that a Realtor® does not make a representation in a Seller’s Disclosure - only the seller does. If the courts eventually follow the Holt decision, a Realtor would not have liability for providing the Seller’s Disclosure to a buyer.
[EN1] N.J.S.A. 56:8-2.
[EN2] N.J.S.A. 56:8-19.
[EN3] DiBernardo v. Mosley, 206 N.J.Super. 371 (App. Div. 1986).
[EN4] Arroyo v. Arnold Baker & Assoc., 206 N.J.Super. 294, 296-97 (Law Div. 1985).
[EN5] N.J.S.A.* 56:8-2.
[EN6] Gennari v. Weichert Co. Realtors, 148 N.J. 582, 605 (1997).
[EN7] Chattin v. Cape May Greene, Inc., 124 N.J. 520, 522 (1991) (Stein, J., concurring)).
[EN8] Cox v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 138 N.J. 2, 18-19 (1994).
[EN9] N.J.S.A. 56:8-4.
[EN10] N.J.S.A. 45:15–16.49.
[EN11] Stoecker v. Echevarria, 408 N.J.Super. 597, 624 (App. Div.) (violating Realtor® duties found in N.J.A.C. 11:5-6 is not a violation of law and is not a violation of the Consumer Fraud Act) certif. den. 200 N.J. 549 (2009). [EN12] See, for example, Vagias v. Woodmont Properties, LLC, 384 N.J.Super. 129 (App. Div. 2006) (affirmative misrepresentation - agent liable under CFA for telling buyer that home was located in Towaca section of Towaca Township when it was not, even though agent did not know that her statement was incorrect); Ji v. Palmer, 333 N.J.Super. 451 (App. Div. 2000) (knowing omission - plaintiff claimed that broker knew that home marketed as a multi-family home was zoned only for single family use).
[EN13] N.J.S.A. 56:8-19.1.
[EN14] N.J.A.C. 11:5-6.4(b)
[EN15] N.J.S.A. 56:8-19.1.
[EN16] Holt v. Laube, 2011 WL 6141466 (App. Div., Dec 12, 2011) (NO. A-1331-10T2) certif. den. 210 N.J. 108 (2012).
[EN17] Holt, supra at 7.
[EN18] Holt, supra at 7-8.
[EN19] Holt, supra at 8.
[EN20] See American Fire and Cas. Co. v. New Jersey Div. of Taxation, 189 N.J. 65, 81 (2006) (Courts must “construe statutes in a manner that avoids unreasonable results unintended by the Legislature.”); State v. Lewis, 185 N.J. 363, 369 (2005) (“[A] court should strive to avoid statutory interpretations that lead to absurd and unreasonable results.”) (citation and quotation omitted).