Day of the Dead: Director Cordray didn’t get his Halloween wish

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President Trump signed the legislation repealing the CFPB arbitration rule

As we discussed in this blog last week, the United States Senate recently voted to dispose of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) rule that allowed consumers the right to bring class action lawsuits to resolve financial disputes. Under that rule, banks and credit card companies could not use mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in the fine print of credit card and checking account agreements.

Day of the DeadThe vote was 51-50 with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote. The vote in the Senate followed a previous vote with the same result in the House of Representatives, leaving only the stroke of President Trump’s pen to finalize the repeal.

After the Senate’s vote, CPBP director Richard Cordray released a statement stating the action was “a giant setback for every consumer in the country.” “Wall Street won”, he said, “and ordinary people lost.”  Interestingly, Director Cordray wrote a letter directly to President Trump on October 30 pleading with him to save the arbitration rule.

The letter said, “This rule is all about protecting people who simply want to be able to take action together to right the wrongs done to them.” It also appealed to President Trump’s support of veterans and lower income Americans by saying, “I think you really don’t like to see American families, including veterans and service members, get cheated out of their hard-earned money and be left helpless to fight back.”

The letter obviously had no effect. President Trump signed the law on November 1 to the delight of banking and business groups. Director Cordray said, “In signing this resolution, the President signed away consumers’ right to their day in court.”  The Trump administration, however, is clearly in favor of dismantling regulatory efforts it believes may put a damper on the free market in any way.

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Court of Appeals Revises Opinion, but not Result, in Arbitration Case

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It seems the arbitration cases are all over the place in 2016. We’ve discussed three cases so far this year*, and the opinion in one of these cases has been withdrawn, substituted and refiled**, but the result did not change.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals decided to make a few changes in its opinion in One Belle Hall. The earlier opinion, filed June 1, held that an arbitration clause in a roofing supplier’s warranty provision was not unconscionable. The trial 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 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 contained the 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.

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In the later opinion, filed September 28, the Court of Appeals addressed the South Carolina Supreme Court’s July 6, 2016 opinion in Smith v. D.R. Horton (cited in the footnote, below). In D.R. Horton, which this blog discussed on July, 14 the Supreme Court held that a national residential company’s contract contained a number of “oppressive and one-sided provisions”, including an attempted waiver of the implied warranty of habitability and a prohibition of awarding 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 and replacement.

The difference in the two cases appears to be the location of the offending provisions. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that an arbitration agreement is separable from the contract in which it is embedded, and the issue of its validity is distinct from the substantive validity of the contract as a whole.*** The arbitration provision in D.R. Horton was construed in its entirety because various subparagraphs addressed warranty information and contained cross-references to each other. In addition, the contract did not contain a severability clause.

In the second opinion in One Belle Hall, the Court of Appeals admitted, as the supplier had conceded, that the agreement at issue was a contract of adhesion, but noted that our Supreme Court has stated that adhesion contracts are not per se unconscionable. The Court recognized that the roofing supplier’s contract continuously used language to the effect that any attempted disclaimer or limitation did not apply to purchasers in jurisdictions that disallowed them. The Court also found it significant that the agreement contained a severability clause.

In other words, since the objectionable provisions of the contract were outside the arbitration provision, and the arbitration provision is severable from the objectionable provisions, the arbitration clause is enforceable. The Court repeated its earlier point that the arbitration provision facilitates an unbiased decision by a neutral decision maker in the event of a dispute.

I believe we will see more of these cases, and I caution lawyers to be extremely careful in their drafting endeavors.

 

*  One Belle Hall Property Association v. Trammel Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (June 1, 2016); Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27642 (July 6, 2016); and Parsons v. John Wieland Homes, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27655 (August 17, 2016).

**  One Belle Hall Property Association v. Trammel Crow Residential Company, S.C. Ct. App. Opinion 5407 (September 28, 2016)

***  Prima Paint Corporation v. Flood Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 395 (1967)

Don’t Amend Your Master Deed As A Litigation Strategy

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The South Carolina Court of Appeals was not impressed!

The owners of The Gates at Williams-Brice (a great place to tailgate!) were surprised in 2012 when a maintenance company refused to bid on an exterior caulking/sealant job because of perceived construction defects.  Almost immediately, the owners’ association and an individual owner filed a complaint alleging negligence, gross negligence, breach of warranty and strict liability claims. The defendants were numerous developer and contractor entities.

The plaintiffs demanded a jury trial and sought to establish a class action for the condominium owners. The developer filed a motion for a nonjury trial and to strike the class action allegations. The Circuit Court ruled for the plaintiffs, and the defendants appealed. The Court of Appeals, in an Opinion dated August 31*, reversed.

The case contains several practice pointers for dirt lawyers, especially those who draft master deeds and amendments to master deeds and those who represent owners’ associations.

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The Master Deed establishing The Gates at Williams-Brice contained provisions requiring arbitration, waiving the right to a jury trial, waiving the right to a class action, and eliminating the right to secondary, incidental or consequential damages.

The original complaint was filed in December of 2012. An answer, opposing the certification of a class, was filed in May of 2013. Later that month, the complaint was amended to add defendants. And on May 23, the homeowners amended the Master Deed to remove the provisions that thwarted their litigation efforts.

The Circuit Court found that the provisions at issue were no longer within the Master Deed and that the defendants were precluded from enforcing unconscionable arbitration and alternative dispute resolutions that contained oppressive, one-sided terms.

On appeal, the defendants argued that the Master Deed could not be amended retroactively to remove the provisions at issue. Neither party contested that the homeowners’ actions were taken in anticipation of litigation. The Court of Appeals held that the homeowners knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waived their rights to a jury trial and to a class action when they signed their deeds.

Citing a North Carolina case**, the Court of Appeals said that to remove the agreed-upon waivers retroactively would effectively substitute a new obligation for the original bargain of the parties. The Court pointed to the cites in the North Carolina case that indicate several jurisdictions apply a reasonableness standard when reviewing amendments to covenants and holding a provision authorizing an owners’ association to amend covenants does not permit amendments of unlimited scope; rather, every amendment must be reasonable in light of the contracting parties’ original intent.

The Court of Appeals discounted several cases involving amendments in condominium projects by the Circuit Court as not controlling. One such case found the developer’s amendment to increase maintenance assessments was enforceable against new purchasers. Another case approved an amendment regarding leasing restrictions. A third case found that an owners’ association properly amended covenants to prohibit the developer from advertising on the property. The final case held that an amendment authorizing the association to suspend utilities for unpaid judgments was properly applied against a unit owner because any alleged retroactivity was proper based on the contractual relationship between the association and the unit owner.

Other cases cited by the Circuit Court were dismissed as neither dealing with amendments to condominium declarations nor to master deeds.

The Court stated that it was unaware of any authority in South Carolina that would permit contracting parties to unilaterally alter agreed upon provisions once litigation has started.

The developer also argued that the amendments were ineffective because they failed to obtain the required permission of lenders and other “bound parties” such as the developer. The Court declined to address that issue because of its other conclusions.

What will the Supreme Court say if it gets the opportunity to rule on this issue?

 

*The Gates at Williams-Brice Condominium Association v. DDC Construction, Inc., S.C. Court of Appeals Opinion 5438 (August 31, 2016)

**Armstrong v. Ledges Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 633 S.E.2d 78 (N.C. 2006)

Another South Carolina Arbitration Case

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Following these cases is like watching a tennis match!

This is the third blog on this topic this summer! The June 7 blog surrounded 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.

SCORE:  15- Love in favor of arbitration

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Let’s Talk Dirt on July 14 addressed a South Carolina Supreme Court case that appeared to take the opposite approach. ** A national residential construction company’s contract contained a number of “oppressive and one-sided provisions”, including an attempted waiver of the implied warranty of habitability and a prohibition on awarding 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.

SCORE:  15-all.

Note that Justices 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.

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

In a case dated August 17***, the majority decision is written by Chief Justice Pleicones with Justice Kittredge concurring. (Do you see a pattern here?) This case involved a residential subdivision that had been built on property previously used as an industrial site. The developer had demolished and removed all visible evidence of the industrial site and removed underground pipes, valves and tanks.

The plaintiffs bought a “spec” home in the subdivision and later discovered on their property PVC pipes and a metal lined concrete box containing “black sludge”, which tested positive as a hazardous substance. The present lawsuit was brought, alleging the developer failed to disclose the property defects. The developer moved to compel arbitration.

Paragraph 21 of the purchase agreement stated that the purchaser had received and read a copy of the warranty and consented to its terms. The purchasers had been provided with a “Homeowner Handbook” containing the warranty.

The circuit court, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, found the arbitration clause was enforceable for two reasons:

  1. it was located within the warranty booklet, making its scope limited to claims under the warranty. The Supreme Court held that the plain and unambiguous language of the arbitration clause provides that all claims, including ones based in warranty, are subject to arbitration.
  2. The alleged outrageous tortious conduct of the developer in failing to disclose concealed contamination made the outrageous torts exception to arbitration enforcement applicable. The Supreme Court overruled all South Carolina cases that applied to outrageous torts exception, making that exception no longer viable in South Carolina.

The Supreme Court discussed the heavy presumption in favor of arbitration by the FAA and in the federal courts and the push to place arbitration agreements on equal footing with other contracts and enforce them in accordance with their terms.

SCORE30-15 in favor of arbitration

You won’t be surprised to learn that there was a dissent, this time by Acting Justice Toal, and a concurrence, by Justices Hearn and Beatty.

And remember that the CFPB recently announced a proposed rule that would ban financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny consumers the right to join class action lawsuits.

SCORE:  30-all

All of these authorities affect matters involving dirt law. So the tennis match involving arbitration clauses in our area is still being played, and we will continue to watch!

*One Belle Hall Property Owners Association 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 27643 (July 6, 2016)
*** Parsons v. John Wieland Homes, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27655 (August 17, 2016

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

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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).

CFPB’s Proposed Rule Would Allow Consumers to Sue Banks

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Arbitration clauses would be limited

At a hearing on May 5, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray announced that the agency has issued a proposed rule that would ban consumer financial companies from using mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to deny their customers the right to join class action lawsuits.

The proposed rule can be read here, and is also found on CFPB’s website. When the proposal is published in the Federal Register, the public will have 90 days to comment.

pen mightier than swordDirector Cordray stated in his comments last Thursday that this rule is a benefit to consumers because it will discontinue the practice of entities inserting arbitration clauses into contracts for consumer financial products and services and literally “with the stroke of a pen”, blocking any group of consumers from filing class actions. He said the CFPB’s research indicates that these “gotcha” clauses force consumers to litigate over small amounts ($35 – $100) acting alone against some of the largest financial companies in the world.

Some authorities are arguing that consumers will not be benefited by the proposal because of the high cost of class actions and the fact that it is often lawyers, not consumers, who benefit financially from them. The proposal does seems contrary to the Federal Arbitration Act and legal precedent and also demonstrates the power of the agency, the power that has already been challenged in several lawsuits nationwide. Some might suggest that the agency is the entity that acts “with the stroke of a pen.”

The proposed rule does not reach to title insurance and real estate settlement services. The rule applies to products and services that extend, service, report and collect credit.

One fact seems certain. The CFPB has not completed its efforts to shake up the market!