Our Illinois consumer protection attorneys were pleased to see a recent victory in an Illinois appeals court for consumers concerned about the effects of mandatory binding arbitration. In Artisan Design Build, Inc. v. Bilstrom, No. 2-08-0855 (Ill. 2nd Sept. 22, 2009), David and Jody Bilstrom of Hinsdale, Ill., hired Artisan Design Build of Wisconsin to remodel their home. Their contract provided, among other things, an arbitration clause saying disputes “shall be subject to and decided by mediation or arbitration.” The repairs required eight changes to the original contract, significantly increasing the overall price of the work. The Bilstroms paid the first six bills, but refused to pay the seventh despite multiple requests. On Sept. 20, 2006, they locked Artisan out of the project and told it they had hired someone else to finish the job. Artisan claimed they owed $208,695.69.
In April of 2008, Artisan sued the Bilstroms to foreclose its mechanic’s lien; for breach of contract; and for unjust enrichment. The Bilstroms filed a motion to dismiss, claiming Artisan had violated the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act by failing to finish its work within the contracted time; failing to carry insurance; and failing to provide them with a consumer rights pamphlet. The parties continued the case several times while they tried without success to reach a settlement. When that proved fruitless, Artisan filed a complaint with the American Arbitration Association. The Bilstroms moved to stay the arbitration, saying Artisan had voided that part of the contract by suing first, and by violating the Home Repair and Remodeling Act. The trial court agreed with them, prompting an amended complaint from Artisan. The trial court dismissed that and Artisan appealed, arguing that it did not violate the Act or waive the arbitration clause.
On appeal, the Second District first considered whether Artisan had violated the Act by failing to furnish a consumer rights pamphlet. The Bilstroms had argued that the Act’s language makes any violation an unlawful act that nullifies the contract. Artisan countered that the Act does not require courts to dismiss an otherwise valid claim just because a contractor fails to provide the pamphlet. The appeals court agreed, finding that the plain language of the Act provides no remedy other than a Consumer Fraud Act lawsuit. Furthermore, the court wrote, the legislature could not possibly have intended to allow consumers to void contracts for failure to provide the pamphlet, because allowing this would allow consumers to essentially steal from contractors. Thus, the appeals court found that the trial court was wrong to dismiss Artisan’s amended complaint.
Artisan had less luck on the question of whether it had waived its right to arbitration by filing a lawsuit first. Section 15.1 of the Act also requires contractors to advise clients of binding arbitration and waiver of jury trial clauses, which consumers should be able to reject or accept.
Failure to advise, or to obtain acceptance, explicitly voids the clause. Artisan clearly failed to do so in this case, the Second District wrote, because there are no signatures or “accept” or “reject” notations in the appropriate place on the contract. This argument does not reach the issue of whether Artisan waived its right to binding arbitration, the court said, but it can affirm on any grounds in the record. It did affirm the trial court’s decision on the arbitration clause, and remanded the case for further proceedings on Artisan’s amended complaint.