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Arbitration Clause Found Ambiguous in Construction Defect Case

October 28, 2011 — CDJ Staff

The California Court of Appeals ruled on September 28 in the case of Burch v. Premier Homes. Ms. Burch bought a home after negotiating various addendums to the contract. The contract was a standard California Association of Realtors contract to which both the buyer and seller made additions. At issue in this case was paragraph 17 of the contract which included that “Buyer and Seller agree that any dispute or claim in Law or equity arising between them out of this Agreement or resulting transaction, which is not settled through mediation, shall be decided by neutral, binding arbitration.”

The seller/defendant’s Addendum 2 “included provisions relating to the arbitration of disputes that may arise.” Ms. Burch’s realtor, Lisa Morrin, told Burch that “she had never seen a proposed contractual provision that would require a home buyer to agree to arbitrate with a builder over construction defects.” Ms. Burch told Morrin that she did not want to buy the property if she would have to give up her rights under California law.

As part of Addendum 2, the buyer had to buy a warranty from the Home Buyers Warranty Corporation. The sale was held up for a while, as Ms. Burch waited for a copy of the warranty. When she received it, she took further exception to Addendum 2. Scott Warren of Premier Homes said he could not sell the property without Addendum 2. Ms. Burch told her realtor that despite the claims made by Mr. Warren that this was for her benefit, she felt it was more to the benefit of Premier Homes. Don Aberbrook of HBW agreed to the clause, contained in the final sentence of Addendum 2, being struck.

Subsequent to buying the home, Burch submitted a claim concerning construction defects. HBW denied the claim and Burch began an action against the defendants. Premier filed a motion to compel arbitration which Burch opposed.

The trial court ruled that the striking out of the arbitration clause at the end of Addendum 2 “created a conflict with respect to the parties’ intent as to the scope of arbitration.” The trial court found that “the parties’ intention was to preserve Burch’s right to make state law claims including her right to a jury trial for any non-warranty claims against the builder.”

The appeals court in their ruling looked at the standard of review and concluded that the purchase agreement was ambiguous and that extrinsic evidence was required to resolve that ambiguity. As the contract contained contradictory provisions as to whether or not arbitration was required, it was necessary for the trial court to examine these claims. The appeals court found that the evidence supported the conclusions of the trial court.

Finally, the appeals court found that “there was no valid agreement to arbitrate disputes.” The court noted that arbitration can only happen by mutual consent and “it is clear that Burch did not enter into an agreement to arbitrate any construction defect disputes she might have.”

Read the court’s decision…

Arbitration Clause Found Ambiguous in Construction Defect Case