Friday, August 15, 2014

Certificates of Merit are Not Required to Assert Third-Party or Cross-Claims Against a Design Professional in Texas.

In certain states, a plaintiff seeking to file a lawsuit against a design professional (such as an architect or engineer) based on the provision of professional services must include a “certificate of merit” with the initial pleading. In Texas, this certificate must be a sworn affidavit from a professional with the same license as the defendant that is knowledgeable in the defendant’s area of practice. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 150.002. It must specifically describe the allegedly negligent acts of the defendant, including the factual basis for each claim. Id. Failure to file the certificate of merit with the initial pleading will result in dismissal, possibly with prejudice. Id.

As a practical matter, this requirement has created tactical problems for general contractors and other construction companies whose scope of work includes responsibility for design. If an owner sues a general contractor for damages arising from alleged design problems, the general contractor must evaluate whether to bring in its design professional as a third-party defendant to bear responsibility for the claims. If the certificate-of-merit requirement applies to such claims, then the general contractor is left with the dilemma of deciding whether to provide sworn proof of the design problems (potentially admitting the general contractor’s liability to the owner) or refraining from joining the design professional (and therefore giving up the benefits of seeking indemnity while the owner’s lawsuit is pending).

In Texas, this issue was recently resolved. In Jaster v. Comet II Construction, the Texas Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 plurality opinion, that defendants and third-party defendants who filed third-party claims or cross-claims against design professionals are not required to file certificates of merit accompanying those claims.

The Court’s decision rested on an analysis of the language of Chapter 150 which requires “the plaintiff” in “any action or arbitration proceeding for damages arising out of the provision of professional services by a licensed or registered professional” to file a certificate of merit (an affidavit signed by a design professional specifically stating what was done incorrectly) with the petition. The Court drew a distinction between “plaintiff” and “third-party plaintiff”/ “cross-claimant” by finding that a plaintiff initiates the lawsuit whereas a “third party-plaintiff”/ “cross-claimant” does not. The Court also found support for that distinction when it interpreted “action” to mean the filing of a lawsuit as opposed to “causes of action” which are the individual claims that make up a lawsuit. The action would be filed brought by the plaintiff as well as causes of action whereas only causes of action would be brought by third-party plaintiffs/cross-claimants.

The Court explicitly did not render an opinion as to whether, in multi-plaintiff suits, each plaintiff would be required to submit a certificate of merit, as that issue was not before the Court.

Notably, there is no majority opinion in this case, which means that the case technically cannot be used as binding precedent. However, the similarity of the concurrence written by Justice Willet to the plurality opinion written by Justice Boyd makes it likely that lower courts can and will consider the majority opinion binding. The concurrence takes the same textual approach as the plurality but instead of focusing on the distinction between “plaintiff” and “third-party plaintiff”/ “cross claimant” the plurality honed in on the phrasing of the statute that describe “the plaintiff” and “the complaint.” The concurrence found that the modifier “the” means a singular plaintiff, thus excluding later claimants, and the initial pleading, not subsequent causes of action added to the complaint. Thus, coming to the same conclusion as the plurality, that the first plaintiff filing the original petition must include a certificate of merit, but subsequent third-party plaintiffs and cross-claimants need not.

Thanks to Nick Brooks at Griffith Davison & Shurtleff, P.C. for assistance with preparing this post.

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