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Unique Custom Landscaping v. Sterman

A-3450-06T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

CONSUMER FRAUD ACT — Violations of consumer fraud regulations are themselves unlawful practices and provide an independent basis for liability under the Consumer Fraud Act.

A landscaper brought an action to collect about three thousand dollars on a book account for services rendered and for material it allegedly supplied to its customer. The customer filed an answer denying the allegations and counterclaimed that the landscaper violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). The matter was tried and, according to the Appellate Division, the lower court adequately, and with great detail, summarized the evidence presented and the contentions of the parties. However, the lower court failed to make factual findings. It simply recounted the testimony of both sides. The lower court only offered the conclusion that the difference between the billed charges and the authorized charges would result in an outstanding balance in favor of the landscaper for $893.80. Additionally, it offered no findings of fact with regard to the customer’s CFA claim that the contract was vague and not signed by both parties.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter for a new trial because of the lower court’s inadequate findings of fact and unexplained conclusions of law. The Court noted that the customer had introduced evidence that the original contract violated certain regulations promulgated under the CFA regarding home improvement contracts, yet the lower court failed to set forth any findings in this regard other than to say that the contract was sufficient. The Court further noted that violations of the applicable regulations were themselves unlawful practices and provide an independent basis for liability under the CFA, but that since the lower court made no specific finding whether the regulations applied and whether they were violated, the Court had no way to evaluate the merits of the customer’s claim. Additionally, the Court held that the calculations used by the lower court to determine the amount of credits due the customer were never adequately explained. Given the foregoing, the Court held that although it would not disturb the findings and conclusions of the lower court if they were supported by substantial credible evidence in the record, it could not determine what those findings were and so it could not determine what findings supported the legal conclusions reached.

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