Home Improvement Restitution and the Unexpected Battle of Semantics
Home improvement is a scary endeavor for most homeowners, and choosing the right contractor is a tall order. Imagine how Eugene Uzoukwu of Baltimore, Maryland, must have felt when he found out that the contractor he hired had lied about being a licensed home improvement contractor and destroyed his home.
On March 17, 2017, Mr. Uzoukwu entered into a contract with Kevin Servance for work on his Baltimore City home. Mr. Uzoukwu agreed to pay $14,000 to Mr. Servance to install a new rubber roof and remove the existing fire escapes in the rear and side of the property. The contract included all material, labor, and permits necessary to complete the work and listed a Maryland Home Improvement Commission license number. So far, so good, right? Wrong.
To remove the existing rear fire escape, Mr. Servance decided to attach it to a truck and step on the gas in an attempt to detach it from the exterior wall of the home. Unconventional – yes, but it gets worse. Prior to pulling it down, Mr. Servance had failed to detach the fire escape and brought down part of the property’s rear wall. Not surprisingly, Mr. Uzouwku reported this incident to the Maryland Home Improvement Commission, and it was then discovered that Mr. Servance was not a licensed home improvement contractor. He was charged with violating Maryland Business Regulation Section 8-601(a), which prohibits persons from selling home improvement services without a contractor’s license, and Mr. Servance pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to six months incarceration, with all but three consecutive weekends suspended, followed by a six-month term of probation. Mr. Uzoukwu then sought restitution under Section 11-603 of the Criminal Procedure Article of the Maryland Code.
On December 3, 2019, the Baltimore City Circuit Court held a restitution hearing, and Mr. Uzoukwu testified about the incident and damage to the home. Mr. Servance argued that removing the fire escape was considered “demolition” and therefore did not require a contractor’s license. The court denied Mr. Uzoukwu’s request for restitution, stating that there was no connection between Mr. Servance’s crime (performing home improvement work without a license) and the damages to the house from removing the fire escape as the work was, in fact, demolition. Mr. Uzoukwu appealed.
On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals focused on whether or not removing a fixture or element of a building, in this case, a fire escape, is home improvement work for purposes of Maryland Business Regulation Section 8-601’s licensing requirement. The court examined both the definition section of the rule and the common dictionary definition of the term and concluded that the work performed was, in fact, a home improvement. Therefore, Mr. Servance needed to be properly licensed. The contract required Mr. Servance to remove the fire escape without otherwise changing the house into something else, and had the process gone properly, the rest of the house, including the wall, would have remained intact. Furthermore, during the restitution hearing, Mr. Uzoukwu had testified that he hired Mr. Servance to carry out a “total renovation” and that taking down the fire escapes was part of that plan. Nothing in the contract or testimony reflected any intention to remove exterior walls from the home or tear down the home to build something new. The contract was to alter the house, not demolish it, and Mr. Servance needed a license to enter into it and perform the contracted work. By selling and performing these services without a license, Mr. Servance had violated Maryland Business Regulation Section 8-601(a), and Mr. Uzoukwu was entitled to seek restitution. The court reversed the Baltimore City Circuit Court judgment and remanded it for a new restitution hearing and determination.
This case is a cautionary tale for those hiring contractors and seeking out home improvement. Do your homework – information regarding licensing requirements and researching license numbers can easily be found by simply visiting the Maryland Home Improvement Commission website. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or get second opinions. Educate yourself and know your rights and remedies – it may save you from losing a wall!
For more information regarding this decision, see Gene Uzoukwu v. State of Maryland, et al., No. 409, September Term, 2020.
Written by associate Jessica Corace.