YOU CANNOT ARBITRATE CLAIMS NOT COVERED BY THE ARBITRATION AGREEMENT

Regardless of the type of contract you are dealing with, “[a]rbitration provisions are contractual in nature, and therefore, construction of such provisions and the contracts in which they appear is a matter of contract interpretation.”  Wiener v. Taylor Morrison Services, Inc., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D3012f (Fla. 1st DCA 2019).   This means if you want to preserve your right to arbitrate claims you want to make sure your contract unambiguously expresses this right.  Taking this one step further, if you want to make sure an arbitrator, and not the court, determines whether the claim is arbitrable if a dispute arises, you want to make sure that right is expressly contained in the arbitration provision.

For example, in Wiener, a homeowner sued a home-builder for violation of the building code – a fairly common claim in a construction defect action.  The homeowner’s claim dealt with a violation of building code  as to exterior stucco deficiencies.   The home-builder moved to compel the lawsuit to arbitration based on a structural warranty it provided to the homeowner that contained an arbitration provision.   The structural warranty, however, was limited and did not apply to non-load-bearing elements which, per the warranty, were not deemed to have the potential for a major structural defect (e.g., a structural defect to load-bearing elements that would cause the home to be unsafe or inhabitable).  The trial court compelled the dispute to arbitration pursuant to the arbitration provision in the structural warranty.

But, the First District Court of Appeal held the trial court was wrong to compel the dispute to arbitration.  Why?  The homeowner did not sue the home-builder for a breach of the structural warranty.  Even if the homeowner was trying to navigate around the structural warranty, the warranty was limited in nature and would NOT apply to a claim dealing with defective stucco, which is not a load-bearing issue, to say the least.  See Wiener, supra (“[C]onsidering the plain meaning of the structural warranty agreement, the [plaintiff’s] complaint does not raise claims subject to arbitration under that agreement.”).  The home-builder could not have its cake and eat it too — it could not exclude claims from the warranty and then try to arbitrate those very excluded claims per an arbitration provision in the warranty.

Here, the issue of whether the claim was arbitrable (subject to arbitration), was decided by the court, as it typically is.  The arbitrability of a claim is typically a question for the court.  Wiener, supra. This does not mean that it needs to be that way.   Parties can clearly include in their arbitration provision that the determination of the arbitrability of a claim is a determination for an arbitrator, and not the court.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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