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 We’ve discussed three cases so far this year*, and the opinion in one of these cases has been withdrawn, substituted and refiled**, but the result did not change.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