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 We’ve discussed three cases so far this year*, and the opinion in one of these cases has been withdrawn, substituted and refiled**, but the result did not change.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)

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Upscale Mt. Pleasant Condo Project Subject of Arbitration Clause Dispute

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Court of Appeals sides with roofing supplier

The South Carolina Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 1 that will delight the drafters of corporate contracts who imbed arbitration clauses within their warranty provisions.  Whether the South Carolina Supreme Court will approve remains to be seen.

The dispute arises over the construction of One Belle Hall, an upscale condominium community in Mt. Pleasant. Tamko Building Products, Inc. was the supplier of the asphalt shingles for the community’s four buildings, and placed a mandatory binding arbitration clause within its warranty provision. The warranty purported to exclude all express and implied warranties and to disclaim liability for all incidental and consequential damages.

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At some point after construction was completed, the owners’ association determined that the buildings were affected by moisture damage, water intrusion and termite damage, all resulting from various alleged construction defects. The developer contacted Tamko to report a warranty claim on the roof shingles, contending they were blistering and defective.  Tamko sent the developer a “warranty kit”, requiring the claimant to provide proof of purchase, samples of the allegedly defective shingles and photographs. The developer failed to respond.

Two years later, the owners’ association filed a proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of all owners, alleging defective construction against the community’s various developers and contractors. Tamko filed for a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration.

Circuit Court Judge J. C. Nicholson, Jr. denied the motion and ruled that Tamko’s sale of shingles was based on a contract of adhesion and that the condominium owners lacked any meaningful choice in negotiating the warranty and arbitration terms. The trial court held the arbitration clause to be unconscionable and unenforceable because of the cumulative effect of several oppressive and one-sided terms in the warranty.

The Court of Appeals begged to differ. It held that the circuit court erred in finding the arbitration clause in the warranty was unconscionable. It stated that our supreme court has made it clear that adhesion contracts are not per se unconscionable. The underlying sale of Tamko’s shingles was stated to be a typical modern transaction for goods in which the buyer never has direct contact with the manufacturer to negotiate warranty terms.

The court found it significant that the packaging 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.

The appellate court also found it significant that the arbitration clause did facilitate an unbiased decision by a neutral decision maker and that the arbitration clause was separable from the warranty.

Consider the exact opposite approach of 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 a May 12 blog entitled “CFPB’s proposed rule would allow consumers to sue banks”.

It’s interesting to see such different approaches by two authorities on an issue affecting consumers in the housing arena. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more to come from either ruling.

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