It’s Tough to Nail Down the Treatment of Arbitration Clauses in Housing Cases

Standard

Authorities disagree!

On June 7, this blog discussed a South Carolina Court of Appeals case* that held an arbitration clause in a roofing supplier’s warranty provision was not unconscionable. The lower court had ruled that the supplier’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the injured property owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms, which were actually contained in the packaging for the shingles.

The Court of Appeals indicated that the underlying sale was a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate terms. The Court found it significant that the packaging for the shingles contained a notation:  “Important: Read Carefully Before Opening” providing that if the purchaser is not satisfied with the terms of the warranty, then all unopened boxes should be returned. The Court pointed to the standard warranty in the marketplace that gives buyers the choice of keeping the goods or rejecting them by returning them for a refund, and blessed the arbitration provision.

In a residential construction case, the South Caroline Supreme Court appeared to take the opposite approach last week.**  A national residential construction company’s contract contained a number of “oppressive and one-side provisions”, including an attempted waiver of the implied warranty of habitability and a prohibition on awarding of money damages of any kind.  The Supreme Court held that the home purchasers lacked a meaningful ability to negotiate their contract, the only remedy through which appeared to be repair or replacement.

nailing roofJustices Kittredge and Pleicones dissented, stating that the contract involves interstate commerce and, as a result, is subject to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), “a fact conspicuously absent in the majority opinion”.  The dissent stated that federal law requires that unless the claim of unconscionability goes to the arbitration clause itself, the issue of enforceability must be resolved by the arbitrator, not by the courts. The majority construed the Warranties and Dispute Resolution provisions of the contract as comprising the arbitration agreement and thus circumvented controlling federal law, according to the dissent.

The property owners raised no challenges to the arbitration clause itself, so the dissent would have required that the other challenges be resolved through arbitration.

Consider the CFPB’s recently-announced proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits. That proposed rule can be read here and is the subject of May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It seems the authorities are all over the place on the issue of arbitration provisions affecting consumers in the housing arena. We will surely see more discussion on this topic!

 

*One Belle Hall Property Owners Association, Inc., v. Trammell Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1, 2016).

**Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27645 (July 6, 2016).

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