Thinking Beyond the Dispute Resolution Provision in Construction Disputes

Benjamin Pollock | King & Spalding | June 5, 2017

When parties cannot resolve a claim during a major construction project, the contracts dispute resolution provisions do not always need to read as step-by-step instructions. To the contrary, the situation may warrant a different approach that can be negotiated after the dispute arises. While agreement certainly is required to deviate from the contractual obligations which themselves reflect the parties prior and current agreement other options can be considered and proposed whenever they would be beneficial to the Project or parties needs. This article discusses alternative methods by which a resolution to a construction dispute concerning costs or delays can be found in ways not necessarily proscribed by the contracts dispute resolution provisions.

Contracts Do Not Predict Every Situation

As an initial point, by no means is this article suggesting that the contract should be ignored or disregarded. Indeed, the contract provisions should be the embodiment of the good faith negotiations of the parties, often hard-won through sophisticated bargaining. But this does not mean that one size fits all, and the individual situation and claims should be considered when an actual dispute must be managed.

This can be particularly true when circumstances change between the parties, or when the companies develop a business relationship outside of the one specific project. To be sure, the contracts dispute resolution provisions establish the original framework by which the parties are to resolve disputes arising from construction of that individual project. But the realities can change when those companies subsequently enter into additional contracts regarding multiple projects, or agree to an Operation and Maintenance Agreement that binds them to each other at the same site for multiple years following completion. Suddenly, the prospect of filing for arbitration over the one construction dispute can become a challenging or unacceptable option. Indeed, preserving the relationship and maintaining peace may prove more valuable than escalating a dispute to a jury or an independent panel. And with arbitration or litigation seen as a last-ditch option, the parties may do well to think beyond the contracts instructions in order to get the dispute resolved.

Conditions Precedent Can Be Mutually Waived or Changed

In many ways, a contracts dispute resolution provision can be seen as the designation of the ultimate deciderarbitrator, judge, or juryand a series of conditions precedent that must be followed before reaching the final stage. These conditions serve various purposes, like promoting party communication in an attempt to avoid costly litigation, or ensuring notifications are being effected internally at appropriate levels of management. These interim steps can include formal notice, a mediation or other non-binding proceeding, various waiting periods, and/or a meeting between management personnel. When a particular dispute reaches impasse, however, these actions may not always serve their intended purpose. In such scenarios, the contract provisions do not always need to be strictly adhered to, but instead should be evaluated for their perceived effectiveness under the circumstances. When it serves both parties or the Project to take different action, consider seeking a mutual agreement to waive or adjust certain of these conditions.

Take waiting periods. It is not uncommon for a contract to mandate that arbitration cannot be filed until a certain number of days after a formal notice letter is served (or other triggering event). But what if the dispute is impacting critical path activities, and a quick resolution would allow the parties to mitigate the impact or at least would provide the parties more certainty regarding the risks of a situation already affecting cost and schedule? As an initial matter, the owner may do well to instruct the contractor to continue working, or enter into a temporary agreement that maintains Project progress while the claim is addressed. But in this scenario, both parties may wish to consider waiving the required waiting period and submitting the dispute on an expedited schedule. Similarly, both sides may benefit from adding strict time limits on the selection process of nominating one arbitrator eachwho then nominate a chairpersonor even forgoing this timely process in favor of selecting a single fact-finder.

Another example is mandatory meetings between managers. Sometimes it may be patently obvious that certain disputes will not be resolved at such meetings. Perhaps the representatives designated by the contract have personality conflicts, the parties positions are extreme and irreconcilable, or the contemplated meeting would present other challenges that may actually exacerbate the situation. If the parties are entrenched in their positions, more might be at stake than a waste of time and resources: ill will can result if one party believes the other is not participating in good faith. In certain circumstances, a discussion by the designated persons about the dispute can do more harm than good.

Agreeing not to hold such a meeting is an option, although generally speaking, parties engaging in discussion before launching litigation is a good thing. If the contract requirements do not create an environment for success, they can be tweaked. Notwithstanding contractual restrictions on attendees, the parties can agree to select personnel best suited to attend, usually so long as there is someone present with decision-making authority. The presence of a mediator, expert, or third party neutral to facilitate discussions and offer opinions can be considered, regardless of whether the contract requires such a presence. And rather than meeting to discuss the merits of the disputewhich likely is encapsulated already in opinionated change documentation and argumentative claims letterscommercial settlements can be discussed instead. Indeed, such proposalsbonus milestones, additional resources, overtime, changes to the payment schedule, etc.may resolve the dispute without having to discuss, much less decide, the contentious issues, and can also benefit project progress itself. In these ways, parties can still hold the required meeting but tailor it to best position themselves for success.

Conclusion

A dispute resolution provision identifies the final arbiter of a dispute and contains other requirements meant to facilitate discussion and negotiation so that litigation can be avoided. Sometimes, however, the specific provisions will not best serve those purposes. In these situations, prudent parties will study the contracts requirements but also consider options that might more effectively resolve the particular dispute at issue, get the project back on track, and improverather than harmthe business relationship. Rather than view the various required stages as items on a checklist, parties can agree to waive or alter certain provisions and thereby adopt a procedure that may better facilitate resolution the specific dispute.