Forum-selection Clauses and Their Impact on the Construction Industry

With the national housing market poised for slow but steady growth in 2014, U.S. contractors expect a good year for business, and the number of contracts and subcontracts for construction work is expected to increase. Many of these contracts will contain forum-selection clauses, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling brings to light the importance of these clauses and coming changes in their enforceability.

WHAT IS A FORUM-SELECTION CLAUSE?

A forum-selection clause is a contractual provision in which the parties establish the place for specified litigation between them. These clauses have become increasingly common in construction contracts, particularly with general contractors who do business in two or more states. Often, general contractors have a form subcontract agreement they require or ask all subcontractors on a particular project to sign. If general contractors work in multiple states, forum-selection clauses can help them make potential litigation less costly and easier to manage by guaranteeing the litigation will take place in the company’s home state, where its executives and attorneys likely work.

An example is a general contractor based in New York but working on a North Carolina project and entering into a roofing subcontract with a North Carolina roofer. The general contractor can present the subcontractor with a forum-selection clause mandating any legal claims arising from the subcontract may only be brought in a New York court. For a North Carolina contractor, finding counsel and filing suit in New York will likely be more difficult and costly than doing so in North Carolina, especially when evidence and witnesses are located in North Carolina. In this example, the forum-selection clause makes litigation more predictable and cost-effective for the general contractor and also decreases the likelihood the subcontractor will actually be able to sue, so it most likely favors the general contractor.

To protect local contractors, many state laws have declared out-of-state forum-selection clauses unenforceable in construction contracts. These states include Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. Additionally, state laws in Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas make forum-selection clauses unenforceable in certain circumstances that sometimes, but do not necessarily, encompass construction contracts. In the first category of states, local contractors have been able to file suit locally despite forum-selection clauses because courts in these states can apply the state laws and disregard the clauses. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision on these clauses will severely limit the reach of these laws and will ensure that forum-selection clauses are enforced in many more cases.

CASE BACKGROUND

In December 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case of Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. The court held that defendants in federal court can use forum-selection clauses to transfer their cases to the state specified in the clause, even if the suit is brought in a state with a law deeming these clauses unenforceable. Essentially, forum-selection clauses may be enforced by a venue transfer motion.

The case involved Atlantic Marine Construction (AMC) Co., a general contractor based in Virginia. AMC won a federal contract from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a building at Fort Hood, Texas. AMC subcontracted with J-Crew Management, a local Texas company, to perform some of the work. AMC’s contract, which J-Crew Management signed, included a forum- selection clause dictating that any legal disputes between AMC and J-Crew Management arising from the contract had to be brought in state or federal court in Norfolk, Va.

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