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ASA to Support Subcontractor in U.S. Supreme Court Case

A local dispute in Texas over money for work done finds its way to the highest court in the land.

Thu July 11, 2013 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

On Aug. 23, 2013, the American Subcontractors Association will urge the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm an appeals court’s decision in a case concerning whether construction disputes should be resolved in a local forum or, instead, subcontractors can be forced to take their claims to a far off jurisdiction.

ASA will file an amicus curiae brief in Atlantic Marine Constr. Co. v. J-Crew Management, Inc., supporting the subcontractor, J-Crew, in a case in which the country’s highest court will determine whether federal courts are required to enforce contractual forum-selection clauses or whether judges have the right to consider other factors, such as the overall convenience of the parties and witnesses and the interests of justice when deciding if venue is proper.

In the construction industry, out-of-state general contractors commonly require their subcontractors to sign forum-selection and choice of law clauses, arguing that it’s more convenient and less expensive for them to resolve disputes in a jurisdiction of their choice.

“The general contractor’s expediency comes at the detriment of its subcontractors, whose places of business, records, and personnel generally are close to the location of the construction project,” said ASA Chief Advocacy Officer E. Colette Nelson. “Forum-selection clauses can chill a subcontractor’s ability to recover claims by imposing significant and unnecessary impediments and financial costs to the recovery of amounts due.”

If the Supreme Court were to require strict enforcement of such clauses, it would undermine subcontractors’ ability to point to state law voiding or making voidable forum-selection clauses in construction contracts that mandate litigation or arbitration in a state other than the state where the project is located.

“Twenty-two states have enacted laws that void, or make voidable, forum-selection clauses in construction contracts that attempt to require litigation outside the state where the work was performed,” Nelson noted.

In the underlying case, the general contractor, Atlantic Marine, hired J-Crew as a subcontractor to work on a construction project to build a child care facility at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas. The subcontract contained a forum-selection clause requiring that all disputes “shall be litigated in the Circuit Court for the City of Norfolk, Virginia, or the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Norfolk division.”

J-Crew subcontracted much of its work to predominantly local subcontractors and suppliers, almost all of which were located in the Western District of Texas in or around Killeen, Texas, and near the project. All of the subcontract work was performed in Texas. When the project was completed, almost $160,000 remained unpaid to J-Crew, even though it had timely completed its work.

J-Crew ignored the forum-selection clause and sued in Texas, in the federal district where the project was located. Atlantic Marine moved to dismiss or transfer the case to federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia, relying on the forum-selection clause in the subcontract. J-Crew argued that the U.S. Code provides that if a lawsuit is filed in a proper venue, the court may transfer it to another venue “for the convenience of the parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice.” J-Crew asserted that the trial court had to consider interests of justice and the convenience of the parties and witnesses when resolving disputes over venue, and cited case law that courts must weigh in the decision to transfer “according to the individualized, case-by-case consideration for convenience and fairness.”

In this case, the project, the subcontractor, the subcontractor’s office, project records, personnel, and all of the second-tier subcontractors and non-party witnesses who performed the work were located in Texas. J-Crew argued that convenience and fairness supported litigation in Texas instead of Virginia. In addition, there were at least seven non-party witnesses who were beyond the subpoena power of the Virginia Court and could not be compelled to testify in Virginia. Moreover, because project records were in Texas, there were costs and efficiencies from having discovery in the state where the project and principal witnesses were located.

Finally, J-Crew argued that litigating the dispute in the Western District of Texas was important from a policy standpoint, citing Texas law making voidable any forum-selection clause in a construction contract that provided for venue outside of the state.

The trial court agreed with J-Crew and refused to dismiss the case or transfer venue to Virginia. Atlantic Marine called on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to enforce the forum-selection clause, but the appeals court agreed with the trial court’s reasoning. Atlantic Marine appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has granted review.

ASA has retained Kegler, Brown, Hill & Ritter, Columbus, Ohio, to prepare its brief. Firm attorneys Don Gregory and Eric Travers will lead the effort.

ASA’s Subcontractors Legal Defense Fund will finance the brief in this case. The SLDF supports ASA’s critical legal activities in precedent-setting cases to protect the interests of all subcontractors. ASA taps the SLDF to fund amicus briefs in appellate-level cases that would have a significant impact on subcontractor rights.

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