Tag Archives: trial court

He Who Sits On His Rights Loses Them

Never Ignore the Statute of Limitations
The Wisconsin Court of Appeal was called upon to resolve a dispute over the application of a statute of limitations in a suit against American Family Mutual Insurance Company, Gage Creighbaum, Sherry Lagios, and Dimitrios Lagios (the “defendants”) who appealed an order denying their motion to dismiss. The trial court held that the defendants waived their statute of limitations defense by not raising it prior to filing their notice of appearance and serving their request for admissions in response to Maas’ amended complaint. In Justin M. Maas v. American Family Mutual Insurance Company, Gage M., No. 2011AP1661 (Wis.App. 08/01/2012) the Wisconsin Court of Appeal resolved the issue.

Background
On August 20, 2007, Creighbaum crashed his vehicle into a vehicle operated by Maas, resulting in personal injury to Maas. On August 18, 2010, two days before the end of the three-year statute of limitations period, Maas filed a summons and complaint against the defendants related to his injuries. Maas failed to serve any of the defendants with the summons and complaint.

Maas filed an amended summons and complaint on February 15, 2011, which he served on the defendants. The amended summons and complaint contained the same cause of action and named the same defendants as the original summons and complaint. The defendants filed an answer to Maas’ amended summons and complaint alleging Maas failed to obtain proper service of process on Creighbaum and the Lagioses and the court therefore lacked personal jurisdiction over them and alleged that Maas’ claim was barred by the statute of limitations.

The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the defendants’ failure to raise their jurisdictional objection prior to filing the notice of appearance and serving the request for admissions constituted a waiver of their statute of limitations objection. The court further held that Maas’ action was properly commenced and that the amended complaint related back to the original complaint.

Analysis
On appeal, the defendants argued that even though Maas filed his original summons and complaint two days prior to the running of the three-year statute of limitations period, his claim is barred because he failed to serve any of the defendants with the summons and complaint within ninety days of the filing as required by Wisconsin statutes.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeal concluded that the statutes are clear. An action to recover damages for personal injuries shall be commenced within 3 years or be barred. An action is commenced as to any defendant when a summons and a complaint naming the person as defendant are filed with the court, provided service of an authenticated copy of the summons and of the complaint is made upon the defendant within 90 days after filing. Thus, if service is not made within ninety days of the filing of the summons and complaint, the action is not commenced. If not commenced within the three-year statute of limitations period, the action is barred.

It was undisputed that Maas failed to serve any of the defendants with the original summons and complaint within ninety days of filing. Wisconsin procedure requires, therefore, that the court conclude his action was never commenced prior to the running of the limitation period and is therefore barred.

Maas’ failure to serve the defendants with the original summons and complaint within ninety days was a fundamental defect which deprived the trial court of personal jurisdiction over the defendants and rendered the original pleading a legal nullity. The trial court conclusion that the defendants waived their jurisdictional objection by failing to raise the objection when they filed their notice of appearance and served their requests for admissions in response to Maas’ amended pleading fails since there was nothing for the defendants to waive.

Conclusion
Maas’ failure to serve the defendants with the original summons and complaint within ninety days resulted in the three-year statute of limitations period expiring without an action having been commenced. The failure was a fundamental defect which rendered the pleading a legal nullity and could not be remedied by the subsequent filing of an amended pleading after the statute of limitations period expired.

Statutes of limitation were designed to protect people against stale claims because, if suit is not filed promptly, memories fade and witnesses can move away from the jurisdiction. Parties and lawyers that wait until the last moment to sue are taking a chance of losing those rights because of their sloth. Mr. Maas is not without a remedy, however, because his lawyer’s failure to serve the defendants within the 90 days allowed by statute might allow for a case against the lawyer for failing to act within the custom and practice of lawyers in his community.

Although the waiver argument was original and successful in the trial court it did not stand up to scrutiny since no one can waive a nullity nor can a cause of action be created by waiver.

Arbitration Decision Can Make Condominium Developers More Insurable

Effective Underwriting Requires Review of CC&R's
Every insurer that insures developers of condominium projects in California for their liability for claims of construction defects should carefully review the decision of the California Supreme Court in Pinnacle Museum Tower v. Pinnacle Market Development, No. S186149 (Cal. 08/16/2012). The holding of the California Supreme Court should be kept in mind during the underwriting process before agreeing to insure the developer against the risk of loss by claims of construction defects. The prudent insurer might insist that an effective arbitration agreement be included in the covenants, conditions and restrictions (“CC&R's”) before selling any units to a buyer.

The Supreme Court resolved a dispute between an owners association and the original developer over an arbitration agreement made part of the CC&R's  before the owners association came into existence. The association filed a construction defect action against a condominium developer, seeking recovery for damage to its property and damage to the separate interests of the condominium owners who compose its membership. In response, the developer filed a motion to compel arbitration, based on a clause in the recorded declaration of CC&R's that provided that the association and the individual owners agreed to resolve any construction dispute with the developer through binding arbitration in accordance with the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”).

Factual And Procedural Background
Pinnacle Market Development (US), LLC, and others (collectively Pinnacle) developed a mixed use residential and commercial common interest community in San Diego known as the Pinnacle Museum Tower Condominium (the Project). Pinnacle, as the owner and developer of the Project property, drafted and recorded a “Declaration of Restrictions” to govern its use and operation (the Project CC&R's). The Project CC&R's contain a number of easements, restrictions and covenants.

The individual owners bought condominium units in the Project pursuant to a standard purchase agreement. The Association filed the instant action against Pinnacle, alleging that construction defects caused damage to the Project. As the sole plaintiff, the Association seeks recovery not only for damage to its own property, but also for damage to the interests held by its individual members.

Pinnacle filed a motion to compel arbitration, contending the FAA mandates enforcement of article XVIII's arbitration provisions. The trial court determined that the FAA is applicable and that article XVIII embodies an agreement to arbitrate between Pinnacle and the Association. Nonetheless, the court invalidated the agreement upon finding it marked by slight substantive unconscionability and a high degree of procedural unconscionability.

Discussion
To ensure that arbitration agreements are enforced according to their terms, the FAA preempts state laws which require a judicial forum for the resolution of claims which the contracting parties agreed to resolve by arbitration. The FAA also precludes a court from construing an arbitration agreement in a manner different from that in which it otherwise construes nonarbitration agreements under state law. Nor may a court rely on the uniqueness of an agreement to arbitrate as a basis for a state-law holding that enforcement would be unconscionable, for this would enable the court to effect what the state legislature cannot.

The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of proving the existence of an arbitration agreement, and the party opposing arbitration bears the burden of proving any defense, such as unconscionability.

Settled principles of condominium law establish that an owners association, like its constituent members, must act in conformity with the terms of a recorded declaration.

That a developer and condominium owners may bind an association to an arbitration covenant via a recorded declaration is not unreasonable; indeed, such a result appears particularly important because (1) the Davis-Stirling Act confers standing upon an association to prosecute claims for construction damage in its own name without joining the individual condominium owners and (2) as between an association and its members, it is the members who pay the assessments that cover the expenses of resolving construction disputes. Given these circumstances, an association should not be allowed to frustrate the expectations of the owners (and the developer) by shunning their choice of a speedy and relatively inexpensive means of dispute resolution. Likewise, condominium owners should not be permitted to thwart the expectations of a developer by using an owners association as a shell to avoid an arbitration covenant in a duly recorded declaration.

In sum, even though the Association did not bargain with Pinnacle over the terms of the Project CC&R's or participate in their drafting, it is settled under the statutory and decisional law pertaining to common interest developments that the covenants and terms in the recorded declaration, including those in article XVIII, reflect written promises and agreements that are subject to enforcement against the Association.

The Doctrine of Unconscionability
As indicated, procedural unconscionability requires oppression or surprise. Here, the trial court found no evidence of surprise. Nonetheless, the court perceived a high degree of procedural unconscionability, because the Project CC&R's were drafted and recorded by Pinnacle before any unit was purchased and before the Association was formed. Noting the Association had no opportunity to participate in the drafting of the recorded declaration, the court determined it was oppressive.

By providing for Pinnacle's capacity to record a declaration that, when accepted by the first purchaser binds all others who accept deeds to its condominium properties, the Act ensures that the terms reflected in the declaration — i.e., the covenants, conditions, and restrictions governing the development's character and operation — will be respected in accordance with the expectations of all property owners and enforced unless proven unreasonable. Far from evidencing substantive unconscionability, the consent provision reflects a restrictive term that the Legislature, for policy reasons, has determined is reasonably and properly included in a recorded declaration.

Conclusion
Article XVIII of the Project CC&R's is consistent with the provisions of the Davis-Stirling Act and is not procedurally or substantively unconscionable. Its terms requiring binding arbitration of construction disputes are therefore enforceable.

Writing for the majority, Justice Baxter stated the following:

Even when strict privity of contract is lacking, the Davis-Stirling Act ensures that the covenants, conditions, and restrictions of a recorded declaration — which manifest the intent and expectations of the developer and those who take title to property in a community interest development — will be honored and enforced unless proven unreasonable. Here, the expectation of all concerned is that construction disputes involving the developer must be resolved by the expeditious and judicially favored method of binding arbitration.

We hold that article XVIII's covenant to arbitrate is not unconscionable and is properly enforced against the Association. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remand the matter for further proceedings consistent with the views herein.

Justice Kennard, in dissent, stated that the evidence lacked a showing that the owners association's consented to an arbitration provision in the CC&R's drafted and recorded by the developer before the association's independent existence. In compelling arbitration, which offers no right to a jury, the majority deprives the owners association of its constitutional right to have its construction defect dispute decided by a jury. In the words of our state Constitution: “Trial by jury is an inviolate right and shall be secured to all …” (Cal. Const., art. I, § 16.)

Although this case never mentioned the word insurance, it is an important decision for insurers and may, if properly underwritten, make it possible to insure condominium developers for lower premium because they can effectively avoid litigation and trial and compel the resolution of construction defects by binding arbitration. Since arbitration is usually less expensive and much quicker than litigation and since arbitration does not put the parties at the risk of confusing a jury of 12 who know nothing about construction or construction defects, an actuary can more accurately calculate the potential losses and charge a competitive and fair premium to the developer.