On Certificates of Merit

An investor in an office building sued the building’s architect and engineering consulting firm for fraud, negligent misrepresentation, aiding and abetting, and conspiracy. The investor did not file a certificate of merit with the original petition, so the defendants moved to dismiss. The claims against the engineering firm were dismissed without prejudice, and the plaintiff refiled with a new complaint that included a certificate of merit. After consolidating the old and new cases, the trial court granted a motion to dismiss as to all claims against the engineering firm, but only as to the negligent misrepresentation claim for the architects. An interlocutory appeal ensured, and the Court of Appeals ended up siding with the plaintiff. As to the plaintiff’s claim against the engineering firm, the Court held that dismissal without prejudice did not prevent the plaintiff from refiling a new lawsuit — the one under appeal — that included a certificate of merit. As to the claims against the architecture firm, no certificate of merit was required because the plaintiff’s case was based on the allegation that the firm knew of defects in the building due to its occupancy in the building, not in connection with any professional services that the firm had provided. Accordingly, no certificate of merit was necessary, and all of the plaintiff’s claims against the architecture firm were also remanded for further proceedings.

TIC N. Central Dallas 3, LLC v. Envirobusiness, Inc., No. 05-13-01021-CV

The Case of the Missing Certificate of Merit

The developer of a condominium project in Fort Worth sued the general contractor it had hired to construct a rooftop pool and deck. Inevitably, the general filed third party claims and cross-claims against various other participants, including engineers and subcontractors, seemingly all of whom filed claims, cross-claims, and counterclaims against everyone else. Two of the defendants moved to dismiss some of third party claims on the basis that the claimants had not complied with the certificate of merit requirement for suits against licensed architects, engineers, and surveyors.  See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 152.002. Applying recent authority from the Texas Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals held that a certificate of merit is only required to initiate suit, not for defendants or third-party defendants who assert claims for relief within a lawsuit. However, the Court also ordered the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ fifth amended petition as to one of the two defendants on the basis that they had failed to attach a certificate of merit to the amended petition before the deadline.

Hydrotech Engineering, Inc. v. OMP Dev., LLC, No. 05-13-00713-CV

Failing to Meet the Threshold for a Certificate of Merit

The owners and occupants of a medical office building sued TDI, the company that installed the plumbing system, alleging a number of defects that caused mold and “brown water.” TDI filed a motion to dismiss based on the plaintiffs’ failure to file a certificate of merit, which is required when the plaintiff’s claims arise out of the provision of professional services by certain types of licensed or registered professionals, including engineers and architects. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 150.002. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed on interlocutory review. The only evidence TDI had offered to show it was a “licensed or registered professional” was a printout of search results from a government registry of engineering firms, and that printout showed nothing regarding TDI’s alleged status as a licensed or registered engineering firm. Based on that evidence, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that TDI had failed to meet its burden of showing itself to be a licensed or registered professional, and the certificate of merit requirement therefore did not apply.

TDIndustries v. My Three Sons, Ltd., No. 05-13-00861-CV

Maybe We Should Hang Some Art …

In this certificate of merit case, the court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendant-architect’s motion to dismiss. After walking into a very clean glass wall in the lobby of a condominium complex, Zion sued the owners of the building and added claims against the architect, MSM, for negligently designing the wall. He included with his petition a certificate of merit, which was an affidavit authored by architect James R. Drebelbis, as required by § 150.002 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. MSM filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the affidavit did not meet the requirements of § 150.002. The trial court denied MSM’s motion to dismiss.

On appeal, the court first held that a certificate of merit need not demonstrate the affiant’s practice in the same sub-specialty as the defendant. Drebelbis’s affidavit, which stated he was knowledgeable in the area of architecture, was therefore sufficient. Next, the court held that the certificate of merit need not state the applicable standard of care to satisfy the statute’s requirement that it allege a negligent action, error, or omission. Finally, the court held that the affidavit included a sufficient factual basis for Zion’s claims, as opposed to merely conclusory opinions, to meet the requirements of § 150.002. Thus, the affidavit was sufficient and the court affirmed the trial court’s order.

Morrison Seifert Murphy, Inc. v. Buck Zion, 05-11-00621-CV

Argument for Dismissal for Lack of Certificate of Merit Lacked Merit

The court reversed the dismissal of a claim against an engineering consultant in an opinion dealing with the “certificate of merit” requirement in section 150.002 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. Though there was no written contract between JJW and Strand, JJW originally asserted claims against Strand for breach of contract and negligence arising from a cracked foundation Strand designed. JJW later dropped its negligence claims and asserted only the contract action against Strand in its third amended petition, claiming that it entered an oral or implied contract with Strand to perform a “pre-pour” inspection of the foundation. JJW alleged that Strand breached this contract by failing to measure the depth of the concrete slab. Strand moved to dismiss the action because JJW failed to file a certificate of merit with its petition. JJW responded that the applicable 2005 version of section 150.002 does not apply to a claim for breach of contract. The trial court dismissed the claim.

On appeal, the court first held that it would consider the live pleadings at the time of the trial court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss to determine whether and how section 150.002 applied to the plaintiff’s claims. Examining the third amended petition, the court agreed with the majority of the Texas courts of appeals and held that the 2005 version of section 150.002 requires a certificate for negligence claims only and not for non-negligence claims. In doing so, the court rejected the approach recently taken by an en banc panel of the Austin court of appeals. The court noted, however, that it still must determine whether JJW’s contract claim was truly based on Strand’s alleged contractual obligations to JJW or was merely a negligence claim recast as breach of contract.

To determine the nature of the claim, the court looked to the source of the duty owed and the nature of the remedy sought. The court held that because JJW alleged that Strand had an express or implied contractual obligation to measure the depth of the slab – independent from its duty to exercise a professional degree of care, skill, and competence in performing the pre-pour inspection – the duty arose from the contract. The court also held that the remedy – consequential damages for the diminution in value of the residence and the loss of use and other damages due to necessary repairs – was based in contract because those damages are “consequences of the alleged failure to perform a pre-pour inspection.” Thus, the court concluded that the nature of the claim was, indeed, contractual.

JJW Development, LLC v. Ramer Concrete, Inc. and Strand Systems Engineering, Inc., 05-10-01359-CV