The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in a case dealing with contract clauses that determine in which courts a dispute may be heard. But attorneys who specialize in construction issues are divided about what the decision means for the industry.
In its opinion issued on Dec. 3 in the case, Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, the high court said such “forum-selection” clauses, which are common in construction contracts, generally should be the controlling factor in deciding where a firm may bring a lawsuit.
The case deals with a dispute between prime contractor Atlantic Marine Construction (AMC) of Virginia Beach, Va., and subcontractor J-Crew Management Inc., Killeen, Texas.
The two firms had a contract for work on an Army Corps of Engineers child-development center project at Fort Hood, Texas.
J-Crew contended that AMC owed it $159,000 for work it carried out on that project and sued AMC in federal court in Texas. The contract, however, specified that suits would have to be brought in state or federal court in Virginia.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said that a federal district court "should not consider arguments about the parties' private interests" in considering a request to transfer a contract-dispute case to a location other than the one specified in the contract.
But Alito also said that in such forum-transfer requests, a district court "may consider arguments about public-interest factors only," adding that "the practical result is that forum-selection clauses should control except in unusual cases."
He said, “A forum-selection clause, after all, may have figured centrally in the parties’ negotiations and may have affected how they set monetary and other contractual terms; it may, in fact have been a critical factor in their agreement to do business together in the first place.”
Alito said, “In all but the most unusual cases, therefore, ‘the interest of justice’ is served by holding parties to their bargain.”
Michael Sterling, an attorney for AMC, says that for construction firms, the ruling's major point is that “contractors, whether they be general or subcontractors or vendors, can know that they’re able to rely on the terms of the contract they enter into. So they can have some certainty in their business relations.”