December 31, 2009

Court Requires Washington Condominium Associations to Submit Construction Defect Claims to Binding Arbitration

The Washington Supreme Court ruled last week that Washington condominium associations are bound by arbitration clauses contained in purchase and sale agreements between developers and original unit owners even though the Washington Condominium Act guarantees them a day in court. Since such arbitration clauses are almost always present in those agreements, this decision means that most Washington condominium associations no longer have the ability to successfully sue developers for construction defects. They must instead submit those claims to binding arbitration.

Arbitration is a less favorable forum than litigation for condominium associations asserting construction defect claims for at least three reasons. First, the expansive right of associations to obtain information and documents from developers during litigation is significantly curtailed in the arbitration process. Second, arbitrators are not explicitly required to decide matters in accordance with the law (much of which is designed to protect consumers). Third, there is anecdotal evidence that juries of ordinary citizens are more inclined to identify with condominium associations than professional arbitrators selected by developers.

Washington condominium associations still have the right to hold developers accountable if the initial construction of their buildings did not meet applicable standards. However, it is unfortunately difficult to avoid the conclusion that it just got harder for associations to win those claims and obtain enough money to perform necessary repairs.