Federal Arbitration Act Controls Dispute Between Construction Companies, Third District Finds

Our Illinois mediation and arbitration attorneys were interested in a court ruling on the controlling legal authority in a dispute over whether an issue is arbitrable. R.A. Bright Construction Inc. v. Weis Builders Inc., No. 3-09-0910 (Ill. 3rd June 9, 2010) pits construction company Weis Builders against its subcontractor, R.A. Bright Construction. A dispute later arose in which Bright claimed Weis owed it $765,701 under two contracts the parties had signed. Bright sued and Weis moved to dismiss, or alternatives, to compel arbitration. The trial court denied the motion, but two judges from the Third District Court of Appeal reversed that decision under the Federal Arbitration Act. A third dissented, saying the FAA cannot apply because no interstate commerce was involved in the dispute.

Weis, a Minnesota company with offices in four states, was originally hired to build a Wal-Mart in Lockport, Ill. Weis in turn hired Bright to do concrete work for $2.93 million, and later, underground utilities work for $679,567. Neither party alleged fraud or misrepresentation in those contracts. For reasons the opinion does not discuss, Bright alleged that Weis owed it $765,701 on those two contracts, which Weis denied. Bright sued and Weis filed a motion to dismiss and compel arbitration, or alternatively, to stay and compel arbitration, under the Federal Arbitration Act. Before that motion could be heard, Bright filed an amended complaint seeking to enforce a mechanic’s lien against Wal-Mart for the money. The trial court later denied the motion from Weis and this appeal followed.

In its appeal, Weis argued that section 2 of the FAA compels arbitration because the Illinois Supreme Court has found that the FAA mandates judicial enforcement of arbitration agreements “in any … contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce.” Bright disagreed for two reasons. It argued that the FAA does not apply because no interstate commerce was involved in this transaction. And even if it does, Bright said, the clause in question violates the Illinois Building and Construction Contract Act.

The Third started with the issue of whether the contract between Weis and Bright was interstate commerce. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the FAA preempts state laws hostile to arbitration and is intended to exercise power over interstate commerce to the fullest, the court noted. To interpret this situation, it relied in part on Allied-Bruce Terminix Cos. v. Dobson, 513 U.S.265, 278, 130 L. Ed. 2d 753, 767, 115 S. Ct. 834, 841 (1995), in which the Supreme Court overturned the Alabama Supreme Court on a motion to compel arbitration. In that case, a homeowner was suing a pest control company for inadequate work, and the pest control company argued that the FAA applied because it had a “slight nexus” with interstate commerce. While the work was contracted and performed locally, the companies were multistate and some materials came from out of state.

Despite the intention of the parties to stay local, the Supreme Court wrote, a strict reading of the facts showed that the commerce was in fact interstate. Similarly, the Third wrote, the transaction between Bright and Weis was an interstate transaction in fact. Weis is a multistate corporation and Bright bought some materials from a Wisconsin company. Thus, their contract was interstate commerce within the meaning of the FAA and that law applied.

The Third next disposed of Bright’s argument that the clause violates the Illinois Building and Construction Contract Act, because the FAA allows consideration of contract defenses “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” While this is valid, the court said, a defense based on the Act is not grounds to contest “any contract”; it is grounds only to contest construction and building contracts. It noted that the state Supreme Court had recently made a similar ruling in Carter v. SSC Odin Operating Co., No. 106511 (Il April 15, 2010). Finally, the Third rejected a forum non conveniens defense, saying this is not a general contract defense but a procedural mechanism. Thus, a two-judge majority reversed the trial court and remanded the case with orders to stay and compel arbitration. The dissenter, Justice McDade, disagreed that the contract between Bright and Weis was a transaction involving interstate commerce, and thus argued that the FAA does not apply to this case. “Nothing beyond ‘the multistate nature of one of the parties’ (slip order at 8) demonstrates that the transaction ‘in fact’ involved interstate commerce.”

If your business is looking for an experienced professional mediator or arbitrator or a Chicago alternative dispute resolution lawyer, Lubin Austermuehle can help. To speak to us about your case or learn more about how we can help, contact Lubin Austermuehle today at 630-333-0333 or send us a message through our website.

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