Washington Legislature to Consider Reforms to Statute Governing Residential Construction Disputes

Grant S. Degginger | Lane Powell PC | January 31, 2018

Efforts are now underway in both houses of the Washington legislature to improve the legal landscape for residential construction defect litigation by adding a mediation option similar to what has been common in commercial and public works contracts.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering House Bill 2475, a bill introduced by Representative Cindy Ryu (D-Shoreline). Meanwhile, Senator Mark Mulle (D-Issaquah) has filed a similar proposal, Senate Bill 6523. Both bills propose several changes to RCW 64.50, the statutes governing the prerequisites for filing a residential construction defect lawsuit. As currently written, the statute requires a homeowner or a condominium association to serve a written notice on any construction professional (defined to include any contractor, subcontractor, developer, declarant, architect, engineer and/or inspector) detailing the defect at issue 45 days before filing suit. The construction professional then has 21 days to serve a written response to the notice proposing one of three options:

  • Propose to inspect the residence within a specified period of time and based upon the inspection offer to remedy the defect, compromise by making a cash payment or dispute the claim;
  • Offer to compromise and settle the claim with a monetary payment without inspection. The offer may include a proposal to purchase the residence that is subject of the claim and pay the claimant’s reasonable relocation costs; or
  • State that the construction professional disputes the claim and will not remedy the construction defect or offer to compromise and settle the claim.

The bills would revise the notice and opportunity to cure process and they would add mediation as a fourth option. Thus, a construction professional could respond to a notice of construction defect by offering to mediate, which would give the claimant 30 days to serve an acceptance or rejection of the offer to mediate. If the claimant rejects the mediation offer, then the notice and opportunity to cure process is terminated. If the mediation is accepted, then the parties have 30 days to do the following:

  • Select a mediator;
  • Agree on a mediation date;
  • Agree on what materials will be submitted at mediation;
  • Complete their respective investigation of the alleged defects;
  • Disclose each party’s proposed repair plan and the estimated costs of repair; and
  • Any other deadlines mutually agreed to by the parties.

The parties can mutually agree to modify the deadlines and the selected mediator is permitted to unilaterally extend deadlines by no more than 90 days.

The bills currently have a provision that allows either party to terminate the mediation process without cause and without costs. Given the time and expense that the parties may have incurred preparing for a construction defect mediation, including the mediator’s time, investigation and expert costs, it only would be fair to require that the party who terminates the mediation should pay at least the cost of any lost deposits for the mediator’s services. Although not currently in the proposed legislation, such an amendment would be reasonable.

The bills also extend the applicable statutes of limitations and repose following service of a claim under RCW 64.50.020 from 60 days after the period of time which the filing of an action is barred until 105 days after termination of the notice and opportunity to cure process; however, the new tolling period applies to claims by one construction professional against another construction professional only if the construction professional serves the claimant’s notice of claim upon the other construction professional within 60 days of receipt of the notice of claim or the amended notice of claim.

Many construction contracts for commercial or public works projects attempt to encourage early claim resolution by requiring the parties to engage in mediation before they can commence litigation. This bill seeks to extend this practice to the field of residential construction. The objective is that the mediation option will encourage early case assessments and timely resolution of disputes.

Florida Supreme Court Confirms 558 is Not a Civil Proceeding, Allowing Contractors and Design Professionals to Resolve Defect Disputes as Intended by the Legislature

Brian A. Wolf and Joseph R. Young | Smith Currie & Hancock | December 14, 2017

Contractors and design professionals are entitled to notice of alleged defects in their work and the opportunity to fix them without intervention by insurance companies and needless litigation. Today, Florida’s Supreme Court in Altman Contractors, Inc. v. Crum & Forster Specialty Insurance Co., No. SC15-1420 (Dec. 14, 2017), held that the Florida Statute Chapter 558 dispute resolution process is not a civil proceeding. This means that contractors and subcontractors who receive a 558 demand are free to participate in the notice and right to cure process without notifying their insurers of non-covered claims for construction defects unless otherwise specified in their insurance policy.

Chapter 558, Florida Statutes, was enacted almost 15 years ago with the express purpose of resolving construction defect claims without expensive and time-consuming litigation. Chapter 558 was originally known as the notice and right to cure statute. Unfortunately, the statute is now more commonly referred to as the “construction defect statute.” The trend has been for owners, contractors and design professionals to engage in expensive and protracted processes often lead by condo-lawyers and their engineering consultants, and on the other side, insurance companies, their lawyers and adjusters.

In Altman Contractors, Inc. v. Crum & Forster Specialty Insurance Co., the contractor’s reaction to an extensive 558 notice was an attempt to force its insurer to pay for the 558 process. Altman Contractors argued that its commercial general liability policy contractually obligated its insurance company to defend against the 558 process because it was no different than a lawsuit. Altman attempted to convince the Supreme Court that the 558 notice and right to cure process was a “civil proceeding” as defined by language of their insurance policy.

The Supreme Court expressly held that the chapter 558 presuit process is a mechanism for resolving disputed construction defect claims but it is not a civil proceeding. The Court reasoned that chapter 558 is a notice and repair process which is not equivalent to a lawsuit because participation is voluntary and does not involve a third-party acting like a judge. The Court noted that the 558 process does not take place in a court setting and the parties are free to resolve or not resolve the defect claims as they choose.

It is critical to note that the Supreme Court determined that that the 558 process would fit the insurance policy’s definition of a “suit” if the insured submitted to the 558 process with the insurer’s consent. The Court reasoned that the 558 process is an alternative dispute resolution proceeding as defined by the insurance policy that Crum & Forster Specialty Insurance Co. sold to Altman Contractors, Inc. The Supreme Court relied on the language of the insurance policy which included a specific definition of a “suit” in the context of the insurer’s duty to defend.

The Court’s holding is important because it allows contractors to request and obtain consent of their commercial general insurance company for the insurance company to pay for and participate in the 558 process. The Court’s holding provides contractors with guidance for triggering their insurance company’s duty to pay for the defense of a 558 proceeding. If the contractor elects to trigger defense coverage, then it is incumbent on the contractor to notify its insurer of the 558 claims and specifically request the insurer’s consent to the process before participating in the 558 process.

Contractors and design professionals who receive a 558 notice and demand to cure should take care to consult with their construction attorney to review their insurance coverage and determine whether and how to involve insurance in the 558 process. The determination will depend on whether any of the defects alleged in the 558 notice are covered by insurance and the specific triggering language of all applicable insurance policies.

Dispute Resolution: Arbitration – A Better Option for Resolving Construction Disputes

Kent B. Scott | Babcock Scott & Babcock

This is the third installment in the series of articles on Dispute Resolution.

Arbitration has long been favored as a means of resolving construction disputes.  Many standard construction contract documents provide for a mandatory binding arbitration of all disputes arising under or related to the contract.

Arbitration Statutes

Both Federal and Utah law, like virtually every other state, favor arbitration as a cost-effective and timely means of resolving disputes.  Consistent with these policy considerations, both statutory law and case law support judicial orders compelling arbitration when required by statute or contract. The current Utah law is most commonly referred to as the Revised Utah Uniform Arbitration Act as set out in Utah Code Ann. §78-31a-101 through 131 (“RUAA”).  Utah’s RUAA is patterned after the Revised Uniform Arbitration Act that was approved by the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws.  The Federal law is found in Title 9 U.S.C. §1 et seq.  This statute is known as the Federal Arbitration Act.

Commencement of Arbitration and Selection of Arbitrator(s)

Arbitration is initiated by a demand for arbitration.  The most common arbitration clause found in construction contract documents requires arbitration to proceed in accordance with the Construction Industry Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”).  A demand for arbitration pursuant to the AAA’s rules in a very simple document, requiring only a general and brief statement outlining the nature of the claim and a sum representing the damages sought.

The method for the selection of arbitrators is found in the AAA’s Construction Industry Rule or the Federal and Utah state statutes.  The method of selection can also be defined in the parties’ Agreement.

Case Management

The arbitrator will generally schedule, through the AAA, a preliminary hearing wherein the arbitrator and parties’ council will discuss the parties’ claims, scheduling, discovery, motions, witnesses, exhibits, the evidentiary hearing and form of award.

Discovery and Motions

In most instances, the type, amount and time frame for discovery is left to the arbitrator’s discretion.  Most arbitrators try to get the parties to agree on reasonable limits on discovery, especially depositions, but will impose such limits where the parties fail to agree.  Within this same authority, the arbitrator usually has the authority to issue subpoenas and subpoenas duces tecum upon third parties as allowed by the Rules of Civil Procedure.

In theory, arbitrators have always had authority to summarily dispose of all or portions of the claims submitted for arbitration.  Because of the limited avenues of appeal available in arbitration organizations like the AAA have discouraged summary disposition of claims except in the clearest cut of cases.

The Arbitration Hearing

At the evidentiary hearing, the procedure is in form very similar to that encountered in litigation.  It is, however, considerably less formal, particularly as to evidentiary matters.  Simply stated, the rules of evidence do not apply in arbitration.  In fact, both the AAA’s rules and most arbitration acts require the arbitrator to receive and consider evidence material to the dispute.  In short, the test by which evidence is judged in arbitration is materiality, not admissibility.

The Award

Once the arbitrator is satisfied that all other evidence is in, he or she will close the hearing and begin deliberations to the end of making an award.  Historically, arbitration awards have been extremely brief, consisting essentially of a net award of damages in favor of one of the disputants and perhaps an award of attorney’s fees and/or arbitration costs.  Currently, many arbitrators, as well as organizations such as the AAA will provide either a detailed or reasoned award upon request by the parties.

A detailed award must specifically list the arbitrator’s award as to each component of each party’s claims and culminate in a net award as to damages, attorney’s fees, arbitration costs and interest. If a contractor’s claim is comprised of a changed conditions claim, a constructive change order claim and an acceleration claim, the arbitrator must make a specific award as to each claim.  A reasoned award takes the process one step further, requiring the arbitrator to provide at least a minimal written explanation for each component of their award.

Under the AAA rules, an arbitrator must issue their award within 30 days from the date they closed the hearing.  Neither the Utah Arbitration Act nor the United States Arbitration Act has established any such time frame.

Modification of Award

Under the Utah Arbitration Act and the AAA rules, a party has twenty days from the date the AAA transmits the arbitrator’s award to the parties to seek modification of the award to correct any clerical, typographical, technical or computational errors.  The arbitrator has no authority to re-determine the merits of the award but may correct calculations or descriptions of persons or property in the award. Under the Federal Arbitration Act a motion to modify may be filed at any time within three months after the award has been filed or delivered.

Motion to Vacate Award

A motion to vacate the award under the AAA rules or the RUAA must be filed within twenty days from the receipt of the award. Under the Federal Arbitration Act, a motion to vacate may be filed at any time within three months after the award has been filed or delivered.

Once an award has been issued, it may become subject to efforts to vacate by a dissatisfied party. Reversal of an arbitrator’s award can only be done by a court.  Under both the Federal and Utah Arbitration Statutes, an arbitrator’s award will be vacated if it appears that:

  1. The award was procured by corruption, fraud.
  2. The arbitrator is guilty of misconduct.
  3. The arbitrator exceeded its powers.
  4. There was no arbitration agreement.

Again, courts have traditionally deferred to arbitrator’s awards and have been reluctant to revisit them when challenged by a dissatisfied party.  However, the Buzas decision seems to indicate that given improper circumstances, a Utah court may explore further propriety and basis for an arbitrator’s award, then one might expect by simply reading the terms of the RUAA.

Conclusion

The construction industry has used arbitration as an alternate form of dispute resolution for several years. Arbitration as a method of dispute resolution will continue to grow.

My Roof, My Rules: Arbitrators May Determine Their Own Jurisdiction When the Parties Delegate that Authority

Amandeep S. Kahlon | Buildsmart | September 20, 2017

An issue that repeatedly comes up in construction disputes is the scope of an arbitration agreement. Courts generally interpret agreements to arbitrate broadly, and, where the arbitrability of a specific claim has been at issue, courts often defer, allowing such questions to be answered by the arbitrator. One recent opinion from the Ninth Circuit followed this general approach.

In Portland General Electric Co. v. Liberty Mutual Insur. Co., an owner contracted with a general contractor to construct a power plant in Oregon. The work started in 2013. In the contract, the parties consented to the exclusive jurisdiction of any federal court in Oregon. The contract also required a performance bond, and the bond agreement included a statement that “any proceeding, legal or equitable, under this bond may be instituted in any court of competent jurisdiction in the location in which the work or part of the work is located.”

In addition to the bonding requirement, the owner also required the contractor to obtain a written guaranty of performance from its parent company. In the guaranty, the owner and parent company consented to submit any disputes in connection with the guaranty to binding arbitration under the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Rules. The guaranty also specified that, once the arbitration proceeding was commenced, either party could implead any other entity (with its consent) in, and/or raise any claim against, any other entity provided such claim arose out of or in connection with an agreement with a subcontractor or the guaranty.

On December 18, 2015, the owner terminated the general contractor. In response, the contractor’s parent company filed a demand for arbitration. The contractor claimed it had not defaulted, that the termination was wrongful, and that the owner was due nothing under the guaranty agreement. Shortly thereafter, the parent company impleaded the surety under the performance bond invoking the impleader provision of the guaranty agreement and Article 7 of the ICC Rules. The surety consented and sought relief similar to that of the parent company.

The owner objected to the inclusion of the surety and sought a preliminary injunction in federal district court to prohibit joinder of the surety into the arbitration. The owner claimed that the contractor’s parent company had improperly impleaded the surety as part of a collusive effort to arbitrate claims that the owner and surety had agreed to litigate in Oregon courts. The district court granted the injunction, and the surety appealed.

On appeal, the surety argued that the owner’s election to arbitrate in the guaranty agreement and the ICC Rules left the issue of arbitrability of a particular claim up to the arbitrator and not the district court. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the surety, reversed the district court’s decision, and remanded the question of whether the surety’s claims could be arbitrated to the ICC arbitrator.  The Ninth Circuit noted that “parties may delegate the adjudication of gateway issues such as arbitrability of claims to the arbitrator if they clearly and unmistakably agree to do so.” The court then determined that the incorporation of the ICC Rules into the guaranty accomplished just such a delegation, where the rules expressly set forth in Article 6(3) that the arbitral tribunal had the power and authority to determine its own jurisdiction over a particular claim or question. The court reached this conclusion even though neither the performance bond nor the construction contract provided for any agreement to arbitrate disputes between the surety and the owner.

The Ninth Circuit showed deference to the parties’ agreement to arbitrate, and the court’s decision highlights the importance of dispute provisions in contracts, even when found in exhibits or addenda incorporated by reference (e.g., bond or guaranty agreements). Here, the owner likely did not anticipate addressing any claims under the bonds in arbitration, but, because of the guaranty’s broad impleader language and its incorporation of the ICC Rules, the owner ended up in a disfavored forum. And, although the arbitrator may later determine he or she lacks jurisdiction over the surety’s claims, when give the opportunity, arbitrators often reach the opposite conclusion and find a claim arbitrable. Given that reality, the Portland General Electric case demonstrates that all construction industry participants should be mindful of the deference courts will give to arbitrators when determining the arbitrability of claims.

Claim Barred by Florida’s Construction Defect Statute of Repose? Maybe Not. Florida Court Says You Should Read the Construction Contract More Closely

Troy Vuurens | Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig | August 21, 2017

Claim professionals are often reminded that even the most meritorious claim is worthless if not filed within the applicable statute of limitations or statute of repose. In the world of construction defect claims, Florida law provides for a 10-year statute of repose. Under § 95.11(3)(c), the action must commence within 10 years after the date of actual possession by the owner, the date of the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, the date of abandonment of construction if not completed, or the date of completion or termination of the contract between the professional engineer, registered architect, or licensed contractor and his or her employer, whichever date is latest.

Not surprisingly, the parties do not always agree on the specific date that the countdown clock on the statute of repose commenced running. In a recent appellate decision, Florida’s 5th DCA reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a homeowner’s construction defect claim that was filed just beyond 10 years after the closing date on the property. See Busch v. Lennar Homes, LLC, 219 So.3d 93 (Fla. 5th DCA 2017).

In Busch, the defendant had taken the common position that the plaintiff’s claim was barred by the statute of repose because the Purchase and Sale Agreement, i.e. “the contract,” was completed on the date of the closing on the property, which was the latest date applicable under §95.11(3)(c). Therefore, argued the defendant, the claim expired exactly 10 years later and before the complaint was filed. The trial court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the claim upon determination that the contract was completed on the date of the closing, which commenced the running of the statute of repose.

The 5th DCA reversed on appeal and held that the trial court erred in finding that the contract was completed on the date of closing. The court held that a contract is not completed until both sides of a contract have been performed. The court pointed to the “inspection and punch-list clause” of the contract which stated: “Any remaining items that Seller has agreed to correct will be corrected by Seller at Seller’s sole cost and expense prior to closing or at Seller’s option within a reasonable time after closing.” In other words, the court found that the contract was not completed at the time of closing because there were remaining punch-list items that the Seller was obligated to correct. As such, the clock on the 10-year statute of repose did not start ticking until the contract was completed (i.e. when the Seller completed the punch-list items, post-closing).

In the context of residential construction, the closing date is generally the date when the statute of repose commences. It is typically the date on which the homeowner takes possession, final payment is made, and the contract is completed. However, the 5th DCA’s decision in Busch is a reminder that there are other factors to consider as well, including if there is a contractual obligation to complete any remaining work after the closing, such as punch-list items.

It is also worth noting that the defendant in Busch is a large production home builder who likely built thousands of homes with the same contract language. Other builders may have similar clauses incorporated into their contracts, too. The Busch case is an important new decision because of the sheer volume of homes that were likely built with this language. As such, it stands to reason that Florida practitioners engaged in residential construction defect litigation may begin to see these same issues arise in their cases, too. And in all cases where the statute of repose may become a critical issue, a careful analysis of the contract should be undertaken in order to identify similar language.