When is a “home” a “house” and not covered by federal consumer protection law? According to a split Sixth Circuit decision issued last week, when a home is manufactured and permanently installed on a property, it is a “house” for purposes of real property law and taxes, and not covered under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act’s protection of “consumer goods.” In the process of rendering this decision, the Sixth Circuit panel addressed the intriguing interstices of jurisdictional defects and dispositive claim ingredients.
The dispute in Bennett v. CMH Homes began when the Bennetts hired CMH to manufacture a home for installation on the property where their previous dwelling had burned down. Before closing on the house, the Bennetts raised concerns about various structural defects in the home, only to be assured that CMH would fix the defects in due course. When CMH failed to make good on these assurances, the plaintiffs sued in federal court, alleging breach of warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. Although a magistrate judge at one point in the proceedings noted the possible defect in the plaintiffs’ MMWA claim due to the house not being a “consumer good” and not covered by the Act, the plaintiffs proceeded to recover almost $40,000 in damages at trial.
On appeal by both the defendants and the plaintiffs themselves, the Sixth Circuit noted that in such a “subject-matter jurisdiction/ingredient-of-claim-for-relief dichotomy,” objections like the one lodged against the home being a “consumer product” confer jurisdiction on the court, but also attack the underlying federal claim. Using the plain language and legislative history of the MMWA, the court determined that the plaintiffs’ home was not a “consumer good” under the Act, dismissed their federal cause of action, and remanded the case to the district court for a determination of supplemental jurisdiction over their state law claims.
Notably, Judge Stranch authored a dissent almost as long as the majority’s opinion, in which she first noted the various types of manufactured and mobile homes available, as well as the history of their terminology. Explaining that the FTC and HUD have both concluded that manufactured homes are covered by the MMWA, Judge Stranch gave them Skidmore deference and found that the text of the MMWA reinforced this position, but this reasoning did not persuade her colleagues.
Although the MMWA extends certain protection to consumers, as the court in Bennett explained, its limits are clear, and at least one class of consumers should note that the law has not completely erased the adage of caveat emptor.