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KAREN PATRICIA GAINES AND JOHN BENTON GAINES, JR. VERSUS JOHN R. PASSMAN LAND DEVELOPMENT, LLC, JOHN R. PASSMAN, II, TRUE HOMES, LLC, LJ'S MOBILE HOME MOVERS, AND CAPPAERT MANUFACTURED HOUSING, INC.
This lawsuit concerns a cause of action for defects in a new mobile home. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of one of the defendants, True Homes, LLC, and dismissed plaintiffs’ claims against True Homes with prejudice. We affirm the trial court judgment for the following reasons.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On December 17, 2018, Karen and John Gaines purchased property and a new mobile home located at 36962 Chapel Drive in Franklinton, Louisiana, from John R. Passman Land Development, LLC (“PLD”). Cappaert Manufactured Housing, Inc. (“Cappaert”) manufactured the mobile home, which was initially purchased by PLD from True Homes on August 10, 2018. LJ's Mobile Home Movers (“LJ's”) transported and immobilized the mobile home on the property prior to the sale to the Gaineses.
In January 2019, shortly after moving into the mobile home, the Gaineses discovered structural damage and numerous defects in the floors and throughout the mobile home, which they believed were caused by poor workmanship and improper leveling of the mobile home. In July 2019, the Gaineses filed a Louisiana Manufactured Home Consumer Complaint Inspection Request concerning repair of the defects. True Homes was notified of the complaint. Although True Homes and LJ's attempted some repairs, they did not correct all of the problems. Consequently, on December 17, 2019, the Gaineses filed suit against PLD and its owner, John R. Passman, II, True Homes, LJ's, and Cappaert, alleging claims based in redhibition, breach of contract, bad faith, fraud, negligence, and breach of warranty.
Two years later, True Homes filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the exclusive remedy for the Gaineses was grounded in the New Manufactured and Modular Home Warranty Act (“NMMHWA”), La. R.S. 51:912.1, et seq. True Homes sought dismissal of all the Gaineses’ claims as perempted and excluded under the NMMHWA. In support of the motion, True Homes relied on the affidavit of Lane Thomas, the owner of True Homes, who averred that both True Homes and Cappaert designed the floor plan and layout of the Gaineses’ mobile home. Cappaert subsequently manufactured the mobile home and delivered it to True Homes, which then sold the mobile home to the initial purchaser, PLD, who then sold it to the Gaineses.
Attached to Thomas's affidavit was a copy of the Gaineses’ consumer complaint, along with a letter from the Office of the Louisiana State Fire Marshal regarding an August 12, 2019 site inspection and report generated in connection with the complaint. The Fire Marshal's report concluded that True Homes had no responsibility for any of the alleged defects. True Homes argued that summary judgment is appropriate because the Gaineses have no evidence that True Homes knew of, caused, or concealed damage to the mobile home. True Homes also pointed out that all of the Gaineses’ claims for defects in the mobile home are subject to a one-year peremptory period pursuant to the NMMHWA and, thus, the claims were untimely.
The Gaineses opposed True Homes’ motion, relying on Mr. Gaines's affidavit averring that the floor in the mobile home is “incredibly uneven, almost 2 [inches] from front to back and side to side in unevenness,” and the mobile home is “not structurally sound nor level.” Attached to Mr. Gaines's affidavit was an inspection report generated by Clayton Costanza of Cypress Home Inspections, LLC, after an inspection of the mobile home on October 3, 2019. Additionally, in support of their opposition to the motion for summary judgment, the Gaineses relied on Costanza's affidavit with the Cypress Home Inspections’ report attached. Costanza's affidavit declared that he is a “licensed professional home inspector,” but there is no statement in the affidavit about the results of the inspection that he conducted as an employee of Cypress Home Inspections.
True Homes filed a reply in support of its motion for summary judgment, wherein an objection was made to the unsworn reports attached to Mr. Gaines's and Costanza's affidavits. True Homes also argued that Mr. Gaines's affidavit contained conclusory statements that were unsupported by specific facts, and in Costanza's affidavit, there was no conclusion that the mobile home contained a major structural defect making the home unlivable or unsafe. True Homes asserted the record actually lacks any evidence that the Gaineses’ mobile home was unlivable or unsafe.
After a hearing on April 7, 2022, the trial court signed a judgment on May 11, 2022, granting the motion for summary judgment in favor of True Homes and dismissing, with prejudice, all of the claims made by the Gaineses against True Homes. The Gaineses appeal, primarily asserting that the trial court erred in its interpretation of the NMMHWA and its determination of their available remedies against the seller of the mobile home, True Homes. The Gaineses also maintain that they did not have adequate time for significant discovery before the trial court dismissed their claims against True Homes.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Summary judgment procedure is favored and is designed to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action, and shall be construed to accomplish these ends. Campbell v. Dolgencorp, LLC, 2019-0036 (La. App. 1st Cir. 1/9/20), 294 So.3d 522, 526. Appellate courts review the grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo under the same criteria governing the trial court's consideration of whether summary judgment is appropriate. Pacaccio v. Hoover, 2021-1587 (La. App. 1st Cir. 8/2/22), 348 So.3d 81, 85, writ denied, 2022-01525 (La. 12/6/22), 351 So.3d 367.
After an opportunity for adequate discovery, a motion for summary judgment shall be granted if the motion, memorandum, and supporting documents show that there is no genuine issue as to material fact and that the mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. Code Civ. P. art. 966(A)(3). The burden of proof rests with the mover. Nevertheless, if the mover will not bear the burden of proof at trial on the issue that is before the court on the motion for summary judgment, the mover's burden on the motion does not require him to negate all essential elements of the adverse party's claim, action, or defense, but rather to point out to the court the absence of factual support for one or more elements essential to the adverse party's claim, action or defense. La. Code Civ. P. art. 966(D)(1).
The mover can meet this burden by filing supporting documentary evidence with its motion for summary judgment, consisting of pleadings, memoranda, affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, certified medical records, stipulations, and admissions. La. Code Civ. P. art. 966(A)(4). Once a motion for summary judgment is made and properly supported, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce factual support, through the use of proper documentary evidence attached to its opposition, which establishes the existence of a genuine issue of material fact or that the mover is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. Code Civ. P. art. 966(D)(1).
Material facts are those that potentially ensure or preclude recovery, affect the litigant's success, or determine the outcome of a legal dispute. Daigrepont v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, 2021-0534 (La. App. 1st Cir. 12/30/21), 340 So.3d 1018, 1023, writ denied, 2022-00852 (La. 9/27/22), 347 So.3d 151. Because it is the applicable substantive law that determines materiality, whether a particular fact in dispute is material can be seen only in light of the substantive law applicable to the case. Id. Here, the primary issue concerns the interpretation and application of the NMMHWA to the undisputed facts. Interpretation of a statute presents a question of law. See Lester v. BREC Foundation, 2022-0514 (La. App. 1st Cir. 11/4/22), ___ So.3d ___, ___, 2022 WL 16707989, * 2, writ denied, 2023-00019 (La. 3/7/23), ___ So.3d ___, 2023 WL 2385127. Questions of law are reviewed de novo, simply reviewing whether the trial court was legally correct or legally incorrect. Young v. State, 2022-0477 (La. App. 1st Cir. 11/4/22), 355 So.3d 657, 661, writ not considered, 2022-01790 (La. 2/14/23), 354 So.3d 1242.
The requirement that a summary judgment should be considered only after “adequate discovery” has been construed to mean that there is no absolute right to delay action on a motion for summary judgment until discovery is complete. Elledge v. Becnel, 2022-0491 (La. App. 1st Cir. 11/4/22), 354 So.3d 688, 692. Rather, the requirement is only that the parties have a fair opportunity to carry out discovery and to present their claims. Unless a party shows a probable injustice, a suit should not be delayed pending discovery when it appears at an early stage that there is no genuine issue of fact. Id. Trial courts have broad discretion when regulating pre-trial discovery, and this discretion will not be disturbed on appeal absent a clear showing of abuse. Id.
Initially, we find no merit to the Gaineses’ argument that True Homes’ motion for summary judgment was premature. The motion was filed two years after the petition was filed, and the record does not contain any motion to compel discovery. Further, True Homes’ motion was pending for five months and during that time, the Gaineses made no attempt to conduct discovery. Thus, the Gaineses failed to show a probable injustice would occur if ruling on True Homes’ motion for summary judgment was not delayed pending discovery. It is not an abuse of the trial court's wide discretion in discovery matters to grant a motion for summary judgment before discovery is complete. Elledge, 354 So.3d at 692.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
The NMMHWA provides the exclusive remedies, warranties, and peremptive periods as between the builder and owner relative to the construction of new manufactured and modular homes. No other provisions of law relative to warranties and redhibitory vices and defects shall apply. See La. R.S. 51:912.10. Any warranty imposed by the NMMHWA automatically transfers to subsequent owners who acquire title to the mobile home, but the transfer does not extend the duration of any warranty. See La. R.S. 51:912.8. The purpose of the NMMHWA is to provide clear, concise, and mandatory warranties for the purchasers and occupants of new mobile homes. See La. R.S. 51:912.1.
The remedies provided by the NMMHWA are limited to reasonable repair or replacement costs, attorney fees, and court costs; however, damages with respect to all defects in the mobile home shall not exceed the original purchase price. See La. R.S. 51:912.9(A). Since its enactment in 2012, the minimum required warranties owed by every builder to owners of new mobile homes under the NMMHWA are: (1) a one-year warranty covering all defects; (2) a two-year warranty covering electrical, plumbing, heating, cooling, and ventilating system defects; and (3) a five-year warranty covering “major structural defects.” See La. R.S. 51:912.4(A) and (C). For a defect to be actionable under the NMMHWA, the defect must be due to noncompliance with building standards or due to defects in materials or workmanship not regulated by building standards. See La. R.S. 51:912.4(A). The NMMHWA defines a “major structural defect” as any actual physical damage to designated load-bearing portions of a home, including floor systems, which affects their load-bearing functions to the extent the home becomes “unsafe, unsanitary, or is otherwise unlivable.” See La. R.S. 51:912.3(6)(g).
There is little jurisprudence addressing the provisions of the NMMHWA, but the Gaineses’ argue that the trial court erred in ruling that their claims against True Homes fall exclusively within the NMMHWA. The Gaineses insist that True Homes is not a “builder” under any version of the NMMHWA. In 2012, the NMMHWA was enacted by 2012 La. Acts, No. 112, § 1, wherein “builder” was defined as “a person or an entity that designs, manufactures, or constructs homes, including dealers, developers, manufacturers, and installers.” See former La. R.S. 51:912.3(1). In 2021, the NMMHWA was amended by 2021 La. Acts, No. 29, § 2, effective August 1, 2021, wherein the definition of “builder” was revised to mean “the dealer who sold the home, the manufacturer who constructed the home ․ the installer who installed the home, any person or entity that designed, manufactured, or constructed the home, ․ or any person or entity licensed by the [Louisiana Manufactured Housing Commission].” See La. R.S. 51:912.3(1) and (3), as amended.
A close review of the affidavit offered in support of True Homes’ motion for summary judgment reveals that True Homes’ owner, Lane Thomas, stated facts within his personal knowledge, including that: (1) he was familiar with the design, sale, delivery, and installation of the Gaineses’ mobile home; (2) True Homes had continuously held a valid retailer's license issued by the Louisiana Manufactured Housing Commission; (3) True Homes, along with Cappaert, designed the floor plan and layout for the Gaineses’ mobile home; (4) Cappaert manufactured the Gaineses’ mobile home as determined by the floor plan and layout; (5) True Homes sold the Gaineses’ mobile home to the initial purchaser, PLD; and (6) True Homes was not aware of any defect, damage, or other problem with the Gaineses’ mobile home until it received a copy of the consumer complaint in July 2019, Whether the statements are accurate is not to be decided on a motion for summary judgment, because the trial court must assume that all affiants are credible. Pacaccio, 348 So.3d at 86. Further, the Gaineses did not object to the affidavit, and they did not offer any evidence to dispute the facts asserted by the owner of True Homes. Thus, under either version of the NMMHWA, we conclude that True Homes is a “builder” because it is undisputed that True Homes, along with Cappaert, designed the floor plans and layout of the Gaineses’ mobile home (meeting the 2012 version), and True Homes was an entity licensed by the Louisiana Manufactured Housing Commission (meeting the 2021 version).
Accordingly, our de novo review leads us to determine that the trial court correctly found the Gaineses’ exclusive remedy against True Homes falls squarely within the provisions of the NMMHWA. It is not necessary for us to determine which version of the definition of “builder” applies since under either version, True Homes meets the definition. Therefore, we pretermit any classification of the 2021 amended version of the NMMHWA as substantive, procedural, or interpretive as requested by the Gaineses on appeal. Additionally, we find that the case the Gaineses’ rely upon, Dodge v. White's Mobile Homes, Inc., 2019-759 (La. App. 3d Cir. 6/17/20), 299 So.3d 177, 180, is distinguishable in that the seller/dealer in that case clearly did not take part in the design process for the mobile home.
Finally, we find that the Gaineses’ opposing evidence is not legally sufficient to defeat summary judgment in favor of True Homes. Mere conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation will not support a finding of a genuine issue of material fact. Pacaccio, 348 So.3d at 87. Neither of the affidavits by Mr. Gaines or the mobile home inspector, Costanza, set forth any factual support that a major structural defect affecting a load-bearing portion of the mobile home caused the home to become unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise unlivable. The summary judgment evidence is devoid of support for this essential element of the Gaineses only possible claim under the NMMHWA to enforce the five-year warranty action against True Homes as a builder. As such, on the facts presented, we find no genuine issue of material fact and conclude that True Homes is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.
For the reasons assigned, we affirm the judgment of the trial court granting summary judgment in favor of True Homes, LLC, and dismissing all claims of Karen Patricia Gaines and John Benton Gaines, Jr., with prejudice. All costs of this appeal are assessed to Karen Patricia Gaines and John Benton Gaines, Jr.
I disagree with the majority opinion herein affirming the judgment of the trial court. I find that the Gaineses’ opposing evidence is sufficient to defeat summary judgment in favor of True Homes. Specifically, the court must consider the affidavit of Mr. Gaines and the affidavit of Mr. Costanza with the attached home inspection report.1 Mr. Gaines's affidavit indicates that the mobile home was not structurally sound and was not level. His affidavit further states that the floor was “incredibly uneven” and “almost [two inches] from front to back and side to side in unevenness.” Mr. Gaines is qualified to testify about the condition of his mobile home and does not need to be qualified as an expert to do so. See La. C.E. arts. 701 and 702; see also La. C.C.P. art. 967.
I also find that the court must consider the affidavit of Mr. Costanza and the attached home inspection report. Mr. Costanza stated that he is a licensed professional home inspector, he conducted a survey for Mr. Gaines at the subject property, the home inspection report he compiled is attached to his affidavit, and his statements are made from personal knowledge. While the report is not signed, it is verified by the affidavit to which it is attached. In considering the two affidavits and the attached home inspection report, I find that sufficient facts were presented to support a finding that a major structural defect affecting a load-bearing portion of the mobile home caused the home to become unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise unlivable. See La. R.S. 51:912.3(6) and La. R.S. 51:912.4(A)(3). Accordingly, I would reverse the judgment of the trial court that granted summary judgment in favor of True Homes and against the Gaineses.
1. True Homes objected to the affidavits of Mr. Gaines and Mr. Costanza, While the record contains no ruling on these objections as required by La. C.C.P. art. 966(D)(2), the trial court adopted True Homes's reply memorandum in support of the motion for summary judgment as its reasons for judgment.
Miller, J. dissents with reasons.
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Docket No: NO. 2022 CA 1159
Decided: April 14, 2023
Court: Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit.
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