March 23, 2017
On March 9, 2017, the Supreme Court of New Jersey delivered a significant victory to consumers against an auto dealership attempting to use an arbitration agreement to obstruct claims from being heard. Roach v. BM Motoring, LLC shows a strategy for overcoming delay tactics in arbitration so that consumer protection claims can be considered on the merits. Arbitration clauses appear in all sorts of contracts all over the country, including many real estate and construction matters. BM Motor Cars put a clause in its contracts requiring that disputes be decided under the rules of the American Arbitration Association. The AAA is a commonly used alternative dispute resolution service. After the consumers submitted their cases to the AAA, BM refused to pay its $3,200.00 portion of the arbitration fees required for them to proceed. Consequently, the AAA dismissed the claims. When the consumers filed lawsuits, the court referred the case back to AAA. BM used this revolving door tactic to continuously delay hearing of the consumers claims by a judge or arbitrator. Finally, the Supreme Court of New Jersey short-circuited these tactics, finding that BM breached the arbitration agreement by failing to pay the required fees. The opinion provides insights on how arbitration clauses may expand or restrict a party’s substantive rights under an agreement.
Arbitration clauses find their way into all sorts of contracts these days, in employment, consumer, HOA, condominium and many other matters where industries find themselves in risk of litigation. Many consumer advocates have a low opinion of arbitration clauses, and for good reason. Before diving into an analysis of the BM case, let’s first consider how arbitration differs from litigation.
- Cost to Initiate. To get into court, the consumer may have to pay an attorney but the court fees are low. The operational costs of the judiciary are subsidized by the government. To get a case heard by an arbitrator, someone must also pay the AAA (or another arbitration agency) and the arbitrator. AAA arbitrators are typically experienced attorneys who charge the parties by the hour. If the defendant refuses to pay the fees required by the AAA, the consumer is forced to up-front those costs herself, file a lawsuit in court to compel arbitration or abandon the case.
- Fewer Procedural Rules. In arbitration, there are fewer procedural rules. The overall expense of the process can be lower because of reduced discovery, depositions, motions practice, disclosures, appeals, etc. However, if the consumer or small business finds themselves unable to initiate the proceeding, it does not offer much value. Because arbitration clauses are created by contract, there is potential for creativity in the agreed dispute resolution procedures. However, detailed arbitration clauses tend to work against the interests of the party to the contract most likely to find themselves trying to bring claims. Often, consumers do not understand how arbitration clauses may practically limit their right to a fair hearing.
- Does Arbitration Save Money Overall? Some people say arbitration clauses “save” consumers the cost and trouble of a lawsuit. However, arbitration can also be time consuming and expensive. The claimant or her attorney must prepare a detailed written claim and file it with the arbitration agency and maintain momentum.
- Do Arbitrators Suffer from Bias? The next step is the selection of the arbitrator from a panel of experienced lawyers and retired judges. The AAA will send the parties a list of potential arbitrators narrowed by geographic area and subject matter experience. The risk of bias is mitigated by the opportunity to cross names they don’t like off of the list. There are other arbitration agencies which cater to specific industries. Some providers have arbitrators who never attended law school or passed the bar exam. Parties are wise to consider whether an arbitration company functions as a vendor for their opponent.
- Hearing or Meeting? Once the arbitrator is determined the parties will receive a schedule of deadlines in preparation for the arbitration hearing. In a court trial, there are all sorts of formalities required for parties to make motions, disclosures and objections. In arbitration, there are few rules of evidence. The parties sit in a conference room instead of going into a courtroom. There are no juries.
- Judicial Review Strictly Limited. If the arbitrator makes a monetary award, the prevailing party can then go to court to get the result confirmed as a judgment. Unless there is fraud or other extreme irregularities, there is no judicial review of the merits of the arbitration result.
I believe that parties ought to be able to contract for whatever alternative dispute resolution provisions of their own choosing. However, the devil is in the details of the arbitration clause language and the rules of the arbitration forum. The arbitration process works well for wealthy parties looking to reduce their annual legal expenses and keep their disputes out of the public eye. Consumers are better off with the judiciary, especially with juries or in small claims court.
Consumers often sign arbitration agreements for economic reasons, lack of consumer choice or by ignorance. Because parties often find themselves bound by arbitration clauses, the victory won by Mmes. Jackson & Roach is significant. These women (separately) purchased used cars from BM Motor Cars in Rahway, New Jersey. The Dispute Resolution Agreement provided for arbitration in accordance with the rules of the AAA before a single arbitrator who shall be a retired judge or attorney. The DRA also require that, “Dealership shall advance both party’s (sic) filing, service, administration, arbitrator, hearing or other fees, subject to reimbursement by decision of the arbitrator.” They subsequently submitted demands for arbitration against BM with the AAA. They asserted claims under consumer protection statutes. Ms. Jackson alleged that BM refused to sell the car for the advertised price, overcharged from title and registration and misrepresented the terms of the extended warranty. Ms. Roach also sued under consumer protection legislation. The AAA repeatedly requested that BM pay the arbitration fees required by its rules. The AAA suggested to the consumers that they simply pay BM’s fees and later seek recovery of them from BM in the arbitral award. After BM ignored these requests, the AAA dismissed the consumer’s cases. The AAA became so fed up that it sent BM a letter instructing it to remove the AAA arbitration language from its agreements. Undeterred, the consumers filed lawsuits in court. The judges granted BM’s motions to dismiss the cases and compel arbitration. The court wanted the plaintiffs to go back to AAA and for BM to pay the fees. When the women went back to the AAA, the arbitration company dismissed their claims again because BM failed to pay the fees. As you can see, BM was trying to deny the consumer a decision on the merits of their claims by leading through the revolving door from court to the AAA and back again.
At the Supreme Court of New Jersey, BM Motor Cars argued that the contract did not, “contemplate using AAA as the forum and venue for arbitration” and that it, “consistently not arbitrated disputes with its customers by utilizing AAA . . . because of the excessive filing and administrative fees charged by AAA.” However, BM never asserted this argument before the case reached the Supreme Court. The justices asked some pointed questions to BM’s lawyer about this at the January 3, 2017 oral argument. It sounds like they found BM’s belated objection to AAA as the arbitral forum to be disingenuous. The consumers responded to this by pointing to AAA’s rules which provide that if the contract requires that arbitration be conducted under AAA rules, then the AAA is a proper venue for the case.
The consumers argued that the requirement to advance the fees was a material term of the Dispute Resolution Agreement. By breaching that term, BM Motor Cars precluded itself from the right to force arbitration. BM waived its right to deny the consumers the ability to go to court instead. Roach & Jackson argue that BM should not profit from its own breach of the arbitration agreement’s language. The court rejected BM’s argument, finding that the consumer’s filing with the AAA was consistent with the terms of the arbitration clause.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court of New Jersey mentions that judges have not always been so inclined to enforce arbitration clauses. Under the common law, judges were averse to arbitration. Courts strictly construed these clauses as like they would with restrictive covenants or covenants not to compete. To encourage arbitration, congress and the states enacted legislation to place arbitration agreements upon the same footing as other contracts. Now a court cannot subject an arbitration agreement to more burdensome requirements than ordinary contract law doctrine. But the Supreme Court doesn’t end its analysis by affirming pro-arbitration public policy. Roach v. BM Motor Cars illustrates that ordinary contract law doctrine provides protections against abusive practices. Generally applicable contract law defenses can be applied in proper cases. Ambiguous provisions may be construed against the drafter of the agreement, especially in a take-it-or-leave-it consumer contract. Under contract law, breach of a material term relieves the non-breaching party of its obligations. The court observed that the federal Ninth and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal previously held that a party’s failure to pay required fees constitutes a material breach of an arbitration agreement.
The N.J. Supreme Court held that BM’s refusal to comply with the arbitration procedures was a material breach of the Dispute Resolution Agreement. This breach prevents BM from later compelling arbitration if the matter is brought to court before a judge. The case will proceed in the courts. The Supreme Court reversed the previous decisions that the trial judge and intermediate appellate panel made in favor of BM. Consistent with its finding that arbitration clauses are subject to generally-applicable contract law defenses, the Court refrained from setting rules about refusal to pay arbitration fees that could be applied in every case:
Nevertheless, we establish no bright-line rule. The determination of whether refusal to respond to a written arbitration demand within a reasonable time period constitutes a material breach of an arbitration agreement that precludes enforcement by the breaching party must be made on a case-by-case basis after considering the agreement’s terms and the conduct of the parties.
If consumers encounter this obstructionist tactic in the wake of these appellate decisions, they must consider whether it is easier to simply up-front the defendant’s fees or to initiate court motions practice on whether the defendant’s breach waived their right to enforce arbitration. In the wake of these decisions in New Jersey and the federal courts, I expect that parties preparing arbitration clauses will react accordingly. Some will seek to specifically burden the complaining party with the burden of up-fronting the arbitration agency and arbitrator fees. Roach v. BM Motor Cars represents a balanced approach to judicial enforcement of arbitration clauses. Perhaps there are additional contract law doctrines that parties can assert to protect their interests? Often builder contracts or community association restrictive covenants are ambiguous, contradictory or unclear in whether the remedies provided are exclusive. Consumers, property owners and family-owned businesses should not rely upon their opponent or their opponent’s lawyers to give a fair assessment of how a judge or arbitrator would read the agreement. When one’s investment, home or business are on the line, a qualified attorney can help navigate a path to a solution that may not be immediately apparent.
Opinion and Video:
Jan. 1, 2017 Oral Argument Video: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/webcast/archive.html
October 25, 2016
There is a lot of litigation and arbitration in the construction contracting industry. Most of these cases are disputes over whether the contractor did the work and if so, whether it has been appropriately compensated under the terms of the agreement. Some construction disputes include allegations of deceptive practices. Virginia law approaches unprofessional practices in the construction contracting industry in two ways: First, construction contractors must obtain licenses to do business here. A builder is subject to professional sanction if the Board for Contractors finds that the conduct violated regulations. There is a fund managed by the board, from which unsatisfied claims may be paid if certain criteria are met. Second, owners, general contractors, subcontractors and other parties can bring lawsuits (or where agreed, arbitration claims). Can residential owners bring Virginia consumer protection claims against contractors? Parties unfamiliar with these rules often need help navigating the legal system to protect their rights.
VCPA & License Regulation:
In the 1970’s, the General Assembly adopted the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (“VCPA”). The main purpose of the VCPA is to make it easier for consumers (including homeowners) to bring legal claims against suppliers for deceptive practices. Before the VCPA, consumers had to prove fraud. Suing for fraud is attractive because a court may award attorney’s fees or punitive damages for fraud. However, fraud carries a higher standard of proof and many defenses that the consumer must overcome. In a proper case, the VCPA allows for tripled damages and attorney’s fees. The legislature has exempted certain types of real estate related business activity from the VCPA, including regulated lenders, many landlords and licensed real estate agents. What about contractors? Are contractors subject to professional regulation and exempt from the VCPA? Last month, the Circuit Court of Loudoun County considered this question in a lawsuit arising out of a residential custom contracting dispute.
Closing the Sales Process for the Custom Residential Construction Project:
On May 20, 2015, licensed contractor Interbuild, Inc. made a written agreement with Leslie & John Sayres for the construction of a large recreational facility on their property. The Sayres agreed to pay $399.624.00 for what would include a batting cage, swimming pool, exercise area and bathroom. According to the Sayres, they relied upon certain false representations by Interbuild in their decision to move forward with the contract. They allege that Interbuild told them the following:
- Interbuild had been established since 1981.
- The project did not require a building permit.
- The contractor already priced things out with subcontractors.
- Interbuild would supervise construction full-time.
- The project would be completed in 16 weeks.
- 4000 PSI concrete would be used.
- The building would be constructed upon an agreed upon area.
On October 20, 2016, attorney Chris Hill discusses this Sayres opinion in his Construction Law Musings blog. He observes that many of the alleged misrepresentations sound like things that would be specifications or terms of the contract. Hill raises concerns expressed by Interbuild’s lawyers that the Sayres complaint attempts to transform a breach of contract case into a fraud claim. I agree that this fraud in the inducement claim will be a challenge to pursue. However, I think that some of the fraud claims described in the Sayres counterclaim sound more like promissory fraud than anything else. Under Virginia law, promissory fraud occurs when one party makes a promise to the other that they have no intention of keeping, and the listener relies upon this empty promise to their detriment. In July, I blogged about this in the foreclosure context. If a false promise remains fraud even after reduced to a contract, then the Sayres fraud in the inducement claims make more sense.
Some of these alleged misrepresentations appear potentially more serious than others. While contract management experience is important, the Sayres contracted with Interbuild for a certain result. The experience was not an end unto itself. A missing permit could become a problem if the county later decided that the construction was not code-compliant and wanted substantial, costly corrections. The subcontractor pricing could become an issue if it could be proven that Interbuild was effectively unable to complete the job from the get-go. A contractor is required to provide adequate supervision regardless of what is represented. Rarely will you see a written agreement that absolves a contractor of this. In a proper case, courts will award damages for delay. However, the Sayres would have to prove that they relied upon the agreed delivery date. I suspect that this lawsuit is not about the Sayres inconvenience of continuing to exercise in a different place. The strength of the concrete raises serious structural questions, but would require proof by expert testimony. Building the project on the spot where the customer wants is indeed a fundamental issue. However, it might be shown that the location under the contract is unfeasible due to site conditions or that the difference is only slight. In general, the damages must flow from the misrepresentations. Courts are reticent to award a windfall to purchasers if the lies are of minimal consequence.
After paying most of the purchase price but before completion, the Sayres terminated the contract. Interbuild sued for work that was allegedly performed but not paid for. The Sayres filed counterclaims for fraud in the Inducement, VCPA and breach of contract.
Fraud in the Inducement:
Interbuild sought a court ruling on whether the Sayres could move forward with their fraud in the inducement and VCPA claims. The Contractor argued that the fraud claim should be thrown out. Interbuild maintained that the fraud claim was not proper because the customer only alleges that their expectations under the contract were disappointed. In its September 8, 2016 opinion letter, the Court dispensed with this argument, distinguishing between fraud inducing formation of the contract and fraud in the performance of the contract. The court found that the counterclaim clearly alleged that the misrepresentations were made to convince the Sayres to sign the contract. Because the alleged fraud occurred before the contract came into being, the claim is not alleging disappointed contractual expectations.
When legal disputes arise, owners and contractors frequently focus their attention on things that were most recently said or done. A contractor may be unhappy about an owner’s hands-on attitude about a project. Customers may take offense at the contractor’s customer service. However, the case might be about fraud in the inducement issues that come from the sales process. In the Sayres case, the judge allowed the fraud in the inducement claim to move forward.
Interbuild adopted a different approach in its attempt to get the Sayres’ VCPA claim dismissed. The contractor argued that since it is subject to regulation as a licensee of the state contracting board, it is exempt from the consumer protection statute. While the VCPA does not specifically name contractors as exempt, it does exclude “any aspect of a consumer transaction which aspect is authorized under laws or regulations of this commonwealth. Va. Code § 59.1-199. Contractors are subject to state regulation by Va. Code § 54.1-1000, et seq. In his opinion, Judge Douglas L. Fleming, Jr. followed judicial precedents distinguishing between consumer transactions that are specifically sanctioned by law vs. those that are merely regulated. The absence of a prohibition of a particular practice does not constitute authorization of that practice. Since the professional regulations do not specifically cover the particular types of business practices at issue, this statutory exemption does not protect the contractor from suit. The court found that the alleged misrepresentations are the kind of practices that are actionable under the VCPA. This is consistent with other rulings made by Virginia courts in cases between consumers and construction contractors.
The VCPA also provides that a consumer may sue a contractor for not having a license. Interbuild argued that because it had an active contracting license it was exempt from the VCPA. Since Interbuild is subject to license revocation for conduct that violates professional regulations, that should be the sole remedy under the state statutes. Judge Fleming rejected this argument, observing that the state’s licensure regulations do not, “inferentially cloak licensed contractors with VCPA immunity if they are shown to have committed deceptive practices.” In short, a professional license does not include with it a privilege to engage in fraudulent behavior.
News reports frequently raise public policy questions about professional regulation. Each year, more occupations become subject to licensure requirements. Usually this means that the leaders in that industry regulate its participants by means of a state board. Too often, self-regulating industries use these boards to protect prominent members against competition. Consumers look to the boards for relief from predatory practices, but are often frustrated by the results. Interbuild’s arguments seem to appeal to this notion that as a licensee, its customers should have to go through the board if they want a special remedy. Bear in mind that there is a public demand for housing prices to go down. Builders have a more organized lobby than consumers regarding professional regulation and limiting liability for extra damages in lawsuits. Given market demands, I wonder how close the General Assembly is to exempting contractors from the VCPA. The construction industry provides many jobs to Virginia. However, I think that the public’s interests would not be served if quality and service were sacrificed for job creation and affordability concerns. A defect-riddled house is the most unaffordable of investments to its owner and doesn’t help the “property values” of others.
All the September 8, 2016 opinion decided was that Interbuild’s counterclaims may move forward in litigation. Even under the lower standards and enhanced remedies of the VCPA, claims based on deception are difficult to prove and obtain an award of damages.
When disputes arise over custom construction contract projects, the parties cannot rely upon the board of contractors or the county’s permitting office to advocate or mediate for them. When payment issues, construction defects or other disputes arise, the services of an experienced construction litigator are necessary to protect one’s best interests.
For Further Reading: