Resolve Construction Disputes More Efficiently With Customized ADR Provisions

Pre-nuptial agreements (or “What Happens When Our Marriage Fails?” agreements) seem awfully cold-hearted. We read about them when the Tiger Woods and Paul McCartneys of the world have marital melt-downs. Most people can’t imagine building a marriage on the foundation of such a document. I quess it goes something like this:“You are my soul mate, my one and only, now sign this…” While many would be reluctant to ask their betrothed to contemplate divorce before the "I dos" are even spoken, construction professionals should not be shy about making contractual arrangements for the disputes that will likely arise during the course of construction. 

Construction professionals often fall in love with an exciting project or can’t wait to be associated with a certain owner or design team, and they enter into contractual relationships without giving much thought to what happens if the project fails. Or they are so enamored with the prospect of a lucrative venture that they do not want to consider what happens if someone breaches the contract. Instead most people rely on boilerplate contractual language that may or may not be suitable for the proposed project, and hope for the best. There is a better way.

Dispute resolution provisions in contracts (or “What Happens When Claims Arise?” provisions) are the product of this cold-hearted reality: the plans and specifications, means and methods of construction and management of a project are rarely perfect. Since everyone knows this why do disputing parties spend so much time and money trying to prove in a court of law that they are right and the other guy is wrong? Why not draft dispute resolution procedures that empower parties to resolve disputes in the most balanced, cost-effective way possible? During my 25 years as a construction lawyer, I was always amazed when sophisticated parties would bemoan the cost and time drain of litigation but never changed their contracts to limit the impact of litigation on their businesses.

There is much that can be done during the contracting phase that can prepare the parties to resolve their disputes in a more cost effective manner. For example, many construction contracts include provisions that require parties to submit to mediation before a lawsuit is even filed. Other contracts require that the parties mediate their dispute as a first step and if that fails, proceed to arbitration. Since arbitration can be as expensive as a trial in civil court, some contracts include limitations on the arbitration process.

An arbitration provision that limited discovery was the subject of a recent California Court of Appeals decision (PDF) in a case where a corporate employer fired one of its in-house attorneys, and he sued for wrongful termination. The corporate employer then filed a motion to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of the employment contract. The lawyer opposed arbitration on the grounds that the arbitration provision was unenforceable due to the discovery limitations imposed by the contract. The trial court found that the provision concerning witness depositions was flawed, declined to sever the provision, and denied the employer’s motion to compel arbitration.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, stating:

We disagree with the trial court for two reasons. First, arbitration is meant to be a streamlined procedure. Limitations on discovery, including the number of depositions, is one of the ways streamlining is achieved. In Armendariz [a California Supreme Court case], the court stated that the parties are entitled to discovery sufficient to vindicate their claims. The court also acknowledged that discovery limitations are an integral and permissible part of the arbitration process. "'Adequate'" discovery does not mean "unfettered" discovery. Armendariz specifically recognized that parties may agree to something less than the full panoply of discovery permitted under the California Arbitration Act, Code of Civil Procedure section 1283.05. (Armendariz, supra, at pp. 105-106; see also Martinez v. Master Protection Corporation (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 107, 118-119 [agreement permitting one deposition and a document request did not as a matter of law fail to afford adequate discovery]; Mercuro, supra, at p. 183 [provision permitting an arbitrator to authorize additional depositions for "good cause" was not unconscionable].)

The discovery provision reviewed by the Court of Appeal is an example of careful pre-dispute lawyering:

Each party shall have the right to take the deposition of one individual and any expert witness designated by the other party. Each party also shall have the right to make requests for production of documents to any party. The subpoena right specified below in paragraph 4 [[e]ach party shall have the right to subpoena witnesses and documents for the arbitration'] shall be applicable to discovery pursuant to this paragraph. Additional discovery may be had where the Arbitrator selected pursuant to this Agreement so orders, upon a showing of need.

I am not suggesting that this provision is ideal in the context of a construction contract, but it does illustrate the benefit of careful draftsmanship to control the dispute resolution process and provide an efficient, cost effective way to manage claims. In addition to discovery issues, and depending on the laws of your state, arbitration provisions could be drafted to cover rules of evidence, the scope of the arbitrator’s authority, trial court review and appellate rights, the definition of prevailing party and the circumstances by which attorney fees and costs are awarded, all of which could be drafted in a way that incentivizes the parties to settle disputes prior to the arbitration proceedings.

The bottom line is this: construction professionals deal with risk every day. Those who manage it best generally do the best. Carefully drafted dispute resolution provisions are an important part of preparing for the risks associated with construction projects. Therefore, you should draft them with the same degree of care that you give to every other aspect of a project, for the success and profitability of a project can not be measured until all disputes are resolved.

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Christopher G. Hill - April 15, 2010 6:13 AM

Great post Ron. Frankly, this opens my eyes to a new possibility in dispute resolution. I regularly put in "choice of procedure" clauses, but hadn't thought about such narrow tailoring of the clauses. Great thoughts!

Ron White - April 15, 2010 6:49 AM

Thanks Chris. I am pleased the post got your creative juices flowing. There is more that could be said about this topic, and I plan to address it again in a future post. The key is to review your state courts' opinions on arbitration clauses and draft provisions that are consistent with them. Most courts seem to defer to the intent of the parties so long as the ADR provisions do not run contrary to statutory requirements.

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