Whether an arbitration agreement requires, or only permits, arbitration is a continuing issue under arbitration law. In building contracts, this issue often arises when the agreement states that arbitration will follow mediation or the involvement of the consultant on the project. The questions that can arise is whether arbitration is mandatory if mediation or the consultant’s involvement does not occur.

This issue was recently considered by the Alberta Court of Appeal in A.G. Clark Holdings Ltd. v HOOPP Realty Inc.  In that case, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench had concluded that, since the dispute had not been dealt with by the consultant, the parties could proceed to litigation in court, and that arbitration was not mandatory. The Court of Appeal reversed and held that arbitration was mandatory.

The dispute resolution clause in question was a variant of that found in one of the standard forms of building contract used in the Canadian construction industry, namely, the CCDC 2 Stipulated Price contract.  Accordingly, the Alberta Court of Appeal’s decision provides important insight into when and whether a dispute resolution clause similar to that found in the CCDC documents will be held to be mandatory or permissive.

Background

In 1999, Clark Builders and HOOPP had entered into a Design-Build Agreement. Under that agreement, Clark was to design and build a warehouse for HOOPP, the owner. The warehouse was built in 1999 and 2000. As a result of alleged deficiencies in construction, HOOPP commenced an action against Clark in 2002 alleging breach of contract and negligence.

Clark brought a motion to stay the action and require the claim to be dealt with by arbitration. The judge hearing the motion held that the dispute resolution clause in the agreement did not mandate arbitration, and so he dismissed Clark’s motion, and Clark appealed.

The dispute resolution clause in the building contract followed, to some extent, the wording in the standard form CCDC 2 Stipulated Price Contract.  The clause in the contract stated as follows (with less relevant portions excluded, and the most relevant portions emphasized):

 Part 8 Dispute Resolution

GC 8.1 AUTHORITY OF THE CONSULTANT

8.1.1.  Differences between the parties to the Contract as to the interpretation, application, or administration of the Contract or any failure to agree where agreement between the parties is called for, collectively referred to as disputes, which are not resolved in the first instance by findings of the Consultant as provided in GC 2.1 – CONSULTANT, shall be settled in accordance with the requirements of Part 8 of the General Conditions – DISPUTE RESOLUTION. . . .

GC 8.2 NEGOTIATION, MEDIATION AND ARBITRATION. . .

8.2.3 The parties shall make all reasonable efforts to resolve their disputes by amicable negotiations and agree to provide, without prejudice, frank, candid and timely disclosure of relevant facts, information and documents to facilitate these negotiations.

8.2.4 After a period of 10 Working Days following receipt of a responding parties notice in writing of reply under paragraph 8.2.2, the parties shall request the Project Mediator to assist the parties to reach agreement on any unresolved disputes. The mediated negotiations shall be conducted in accordance with the latest edition of the Rules for Mediation of Construction Disputes …

8.2.5 If the dispute has not been resolved within ten (10) Working Days after the appointment of the Project Mediator either party may by notice to the other withdraw from the mediation process.

8.2.6 All disputes, claims and differences not settled as herein provided, arising out of or in connection with the Contract or in respect of any defined legal relationship associated with it or derived from it, shall be referred to and finally resolved by arbitration in accordance with the Alberta Arbitration Act. … [emphasis added]

During negotiation, the parties had discussed a form of dispute resolution clause that read as follows:

8.2.6 By giving notice in writing to the other party, not later than 10 Working Days after the date of termination of the mediated negotiations under paragraph 8.2.5, either party may refer the dispute to be finally resolved by arbitration … .

8.2.7 On expiration of the 10 Working Days, the arbitration agreement under paragraph 8.2.6 is not binding on the parties and, if a notice is not given under paragraph 8.2.6 within the required time, the parties may refer the unresolved dispute to the courts or to any other form of dispute resolution, including arbitration, which they have agreed to use. [emphasis added]

Those familiar with the CCDC 2 Stipulated Price Contract will recognize the latter wording as coming from General Condition 8.2 of that contract.

The Courts’ Decisions

The judge hearing the motion held that Part 8 of the agreement set out a series of steps which must be followed before the arbitration clause became applicable or mandatory. He found that only those disputes “which are not resolved in the first instance by findings of the Consultant” could proceed to the next steps in the process. Since the parties had not referred the dispute to the consultant, the judge held that the arbitration procedure had not been invoked and was not mandatory.

The Court of Appeal disagreed for two reasons:

First, that court found that the wording of Articles 8.1.1 and 8.2.6 were clear and required arbitration whether or not the parties had referred the dispute to the consultant. Article 8 contained a complete dispute resolution regime which did not require either party to refer the dispute to the consultant for it to be applicable.

Second, the Court of Appeal looked at the drafts of Article 8 and held that those drafts demonstrated that the parties had contemplated a permissive arbitration regime and had discarded it in favour of a mandatory regime.  The court held that:

The notion of “Dispute Resolution” could, of course, encompass litigation, as was evident in the original form of the Agreement. The deliberate decision of the parties to remove reference to litigation from the dispute resolution provisions of the Agreement emphasizes that their mutual intention at the time of drafting was to refer disputes to arbitration rather than proceed to litigation. HOOPP’s current position, that it is entitled to bypass arbitration in favour of litigation, is coloured by that earlier decision.

The Court of Appeal effectively held that the dispute resolution clause allowed for two routes to mandatory arbitration, one after consideration by the consultant, and the other without the involvement of the consultant.  In its view, this interpretation was “rational” from two aspects.

First, it recognized that allegations of negligence could not properly be dealt with by the consultant, but could be dealt with by arbitration.

Second, it allowed the parties to go through a mediation type process with the consultant if they wished to, but did not require them to do so before proceeding to arbitration.

How does this decision affect the interpretation of GC 8.2 of the CCDC 2 Stipulated Price Contract? Some might see that provision as an “opt-in” arbitration procedure.  Under that view, arbitration is mandatory once one of the parties elects arbitration under GC 8.2.6, and the meaning of the word “may” in that clause means that one of the parties may choose, but is not required to choose, arbitration, but once chosen, arbitration is binding on both parties.  The other view might be that the word “may” means that arbitration is entirely voluntary.

What does appear clear from GC 8.2.7 of CCDC 2 Stipulated Price Contract is that, if neither of the parties asks for arbitration within the 10 day period referred to in that clause, then either party can go to court. In the Clark v HOOPP case, the Alberta Court of Appeal held that, by their amended form of dispute relation, the parties had eliminated that choice and provided for arbitration to be the only form of dispute adjudication.

Another interesting aspect of the Court of Appeal’s decision is its conclusion that Clark was permitted to appeal the motion judge’s decision. Section 7 of the Alberta Arbitration Act states that the court shall stay an action brought in breach of an arbitration agreement, subject to certain exceptions. Sub-section 7(6) states that “There is no appeal from the court’s decision under this section.” The court held that this prohibition against appeal only applies when the merits of a stay motion are being considered. If the issue is whether the motion judge mis-interpreted his or her jurisdiction to make the stay decision, then the prohibition does not apply.  The Court of Appeal held that this was the situation before it:

Only if that agreement contained a mandatory arbitration clause would s 7 of the Arbitration Act apply. The chambers judge concluded that the agreement did not contain such a clause and he did not, therefore, address the application of s 7 to these parties and this dispute. The chambers judge’s decision on that preliminary issue is subject to appeal.

Accordingly, since dispute resolution, properly interpreted, did give rise to a prohibition of a court action under section 7 of the Act, then there was a right of appeal from the motion judge’s erroneous determination of that issue.

See Heintzman and Goldsmith on Canadian Building Contracts, 4th ed,, chapter 10, part 6

A.G. Clark Holdings Ltd. v HOOPP Realty Inc., 2013 ABCA 101.

Arbitration  -  Construction law  -  Mediation  -  Mandatory or Permissive arbitration  -  Stay of Arbitration Proceedings -  Appeal from Stay Application

Thomas G. Heintzman O.C., Q.C., FCIArb                                                                 June 9, 2013

www.heintzmanadr.com

www.constructionlawcanada.com