Case of the Day – Thursday, August 5, 2021


Should I be talking about Chia Pets? Sure. With Labor Day falling in fewer than four weeks, the Christmas shopping season is just around the corner. And what gift says “Happy Festivus” more than a Chia Pet? There are Chia pigs, Chia cats, Chia aliens, Chia emojis, Chia Care Bears®, even a Chia Donald J. Trump. Of course, there’s also a Chia Joe Biden, but Chia Trump claims his hair is much thicker and greener, and anyway, he’s more popular with shoppers.

Alas, the CHIA we’re discussing here isn’t a ceramic figurine smeared with seeds. Instead, it’s the Connecticut Home Improvement Act. And the “jerk” is not a former President, of course, but rather a slick lawyer who tried to use it to cheat a local tree trimmer. I’ve told you about this case before, but this sad little cautionary tale bears repeating. 

The takeaway here for the aspiring arborist should be entitled “make sure all your oral contracts are in writing.” That rule goes double when you’re messing with a homeowner who happens to be a slick lawyer. Don made a deal with Ronnie “The Mouthpiece” LoRicco to cut the lawyer’s grass. The contract was verbal. After all, it’s a lawn, for heaven’s sake. Who needs a lot of printed mumbo-jumbo for a lousy lawn?

I think you know the answer to that one. Don started with cutting the grass, but one thing leads to another. The mowing became some grass seeding became some stone moving became some grading and some tree trimming and retaining wall construction. When Don, tuckered out after all of that hard work, went to collect for his labors, slick Ronnie yelled “Gotcha!” Well, perhaps not literally, but he might as well have, because he refused to pay the $2,277 bill, claiming he didn’t owe the arborist a farthing.

Don sued. The lawyer-defendant argued that under the Connecticut Home Improvement Act, Don should have given Ronnie a written agreement. Because Don didn’t, Ronnie said, he didn’t owe anything for all the work. Shades of Henry B. Swap tricking the hapless but industrious Mike Mulligan! But like the classic story about the plucky steam shovel Mary Anne, today’s case has a happy ending.

Mulligan-swap When Ronnie moves for summary judgment on the grounds that Don violated the CHIA, the trial court showed the solicitor that it could get just as hyper-technical as he could. The work Don did, according to the court, seemed more like “maintenance services” than home improvements. That argument might be a hard sell where lawn planting and wall building are concerned, but what we have here is a court doing a little distributive justice. Plus, the court said, Don was asserting that Ronnie had raised the CHIA defense in bad faith, invoking the Act not because he was a sheep-like homeowner fleeced by an unscrupulous contractor, but instead because Ronnie had never intended to pay Don to begin with.

Don believed he was the one getting sheared, and the court — apparently thinking the same thing — intended to give Don a chance to prove it. But what a cautionary tale! Simple projects all too often become complex projects, and the fifty states have a patchwork of consumer protection laws that serve as a snare for the unwary arborist. Support your local lawyer! Spend a few bucks to be sure that the slick Ronnies of the world don’t try to shear you.

Don’s Landscaping and Tree Service v. LoRicco, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 248, 2007 WL 2938602 (Conn.Super. Sept. 20, 2007). Don’s Landscaping entered into a verbal agreement with LoRicco for lawn cutting services, which over time mushroomed into installation of a lawn, grading, removal of stones, seeding, moving of trees, planting and building walls. When LoRicco decided not to pay, Don’s sued for the amount due, $2,277.00. LoRicco denied owing Don’s any money, and moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the landscaper’s suit was barred under the Connecticut Home Improvement Act because Don’s didn’t give LoRicco a written contract. Don’s complained that LoRicco was an experienced attorney familiar with Connecticut law looking to beat Don’s out of payment, using the CHIA in bad faith.

shyster150717Held: Summary judgment was denied to the lawyer-defendant. The trial court noted that for LoRicco to satisfy his burden he had to make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact. That evidence had to be viewed in a light most favorable to the opponent. In this case, although the Home Improvement Act refers to landscaping, there was a real question of fact whether the services provided by Don’s were governed by the Act. They appeared to be maintenance services, and not “home improvements.” What’s more, the Court credited Don’s allegations, finding they raised questions of fact of whether LoRicco’s reliance on the Act was a bad-faith dodge (of course it was). For those reasons, the summary judgment was denied.

So Don got his day in court, but it was a day that shouldn’t have ever had to arrive. There is a thicket of local, state and (sometimes) Federal law out there – in addition to a substantial body of common law – just waiting to prove a snare to unwary but well-meaning people like Don. And you. A stitch in time saves nine. Here, a little piece of paper would have saved Don a lot of aggravation and legal costs.

– Tom Root

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