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Shoreline Electrical Contractors, Inc. v. Hafen

A-1560-10T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

CONTRACTORS — If a homeowner suing its contractor wishes to present government documents, such as inspection reports, that do not bear a signature affixed to them in an official capacity by a governmental officer or employee, the homeowner must furnish extrinsic evidence of authenticity, such as a certification that the document is a copy of an original record.

An electrician was hired by a homeowner to perform certain electrical work. The electrician sued the homeowner for the balance of the contract price. At trial, the electrician testified that, with the exception of two electrical outlets in the kitchen that could not be installed until a wall was constructed, the rest of the work was complete. He also testified that he sent several letters to the homeowner over a period of months to gain access to the house and complete the work. The homeowner disputed the electrician’s account, instead claiming that the electrician had abandoned the project. He also testified that the work was not performed properly.

The lower court ruled that an expert’s opinion was required. It also rejected the homeowner’s offer of certain public records as proof that the work was not completed properly, and the lower court ruled that the homeowner had failed to establish the proper foundation for admitting those records. It then found in the electrician’s favor for the contract balance plus attorney’s fees (as allowed by the contract).

The homeowner appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed, finding the evidence supported the electrician’s contention that it had completed the required work with the exception of the two electrical outlets. The Court also found that the evidence supported the electrician’s contention that it could have installed the additional outlets if permitted to do so by the homeowner. The Court rejected the homeowner’s argument that the lower court improperly refused to admit records into the evidence. The records included: (a) a change in a contractor form showing that the electrical work failed an inspection; (b) a correction notice issued by the municipal inspector; and (c) a certificate of occupancy issued by the municipality. The homeowner claimed that these records showed that the electrician failed to perform certain work it was required to do, and that some of the work was substandard.

The Court agreed with the lower court that those records were inadmissible because the homeowner had failed to lay the foundation required to admit them. New Jersey’s Rules of Evidence require extrinsic evidence of authenticity. With records of public officials, such extrinsic evidence is not required if the document bears a signature affixed in an official capacity by an officer or employee of state or local government or agency. However, in this case, the names of the individuals who signed those documents were not identified so there was insufficient information to show that they were public officials signing in their official capacities. Therefore, the lower court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to admit them as evidence. The Court noted that extrinsic evidence as to authenticity is also not required when the custodian of records provides a certification that the document is a copy of an official record or document authorized to be filed, and filed in a public office. However, once again, the homeowner did not provide a certification from the custodian of records.

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