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Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc.

Supreme Court of South Carolina

July 6, 2016

Gregory W. Smith and Stephanie Smith, Respondents,
D.R. Horton, Inc., Tom's Vinyl Siding, LLC, Lutzen Construction, Inc., Boozer Lumber Company, All American Roofing, Inc., Myers Landscaping, Inc., Defendants, of whom D.R. Horton, Inc. is the Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2013-001345

          Heard March 3, 2015

         Appeal From Dorchester County Edgar W. Dickson, Circuit Court Judge


          Matthew Kinard Johnson and W. Kyle Dillard, both of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, PC, of Greenville, for Petitioner.

          Phillip Ward Segui, Jr., of Segui Law Firm, of Mt. Pleasant, John T. Chakeris, of Chakeris Law Firm, and Michael A. Timbes, of Thurmond Kirchner Timbes & Yelverton, PA, both of Charleston, for Respondents.


         D.R. Horton, Inc., asks this Court to reverse the court of appeals' decision in Smith v. D.R. Horton, Inc., 403 S.C. 10, 742 S.E.2d 37 (Ct. App. 2013), affirming the circuit court's refusal to compel arbitration between Gregory and Stephanie Smith (collectively, the Smiths) and D.R. Horton. We affirm.

         Facts/Procedural Background

         D.R. Horton is a corporation specializing in residential construction. In March 2005, the Smiths entered into a home purchase agreement (the Agreement) with D.R. Horton for the design and construction of a new home in Summerville, South Carolina.

         The Agreement is organized into numbered paragraphs and lettered subparagraphs, and sets forth the various responsibilities of the parties prior to and immediately following closing.[1] Paragraph 14 of the Agreement is titled "Warranties and Dispute Resolution, " and consists of subparagraphs 14(a) through 14(j). Subparagraphs 14(c) and 14(g) contain provisions stating that the parties agree to arbitrate any claim arising out of D.R. Horton's construction of the home, as well as any disputes related to the warranties contained in the Agreement. However, in the majority of the remaining subparagraphs of paragraph 14, D.R. Horton expressly disclaims all warranties for the home-including the implied warranty of habitability-except for a ten-year structural warranty. Moreover, subparagraph 14(i) stipulates that D.R. Horton "shall not be liable for monetary damages of any kind, including secondary, consequential, punitive, general, special or indirect damages." (Emphasis in original). In August 2005, D.R. Horton completed construction of the Smiths' home, and the Smiths closed on the property and received the deed. Thereafter, the Smiths experienced a myriad of problems with the home that resulted in severe water damage to the property. D.R. Horton attempted to repair the alleged construction defects on "numerous occasions" during the next five years, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

         In 2010, the Smiths filed a construction defect case against D.R. Horton and seven subcontractors. In response, D.R. Horton filed a motion to compel arbitration. The Smiths opposed the motion, arguing, inter alia, that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable.

         The circuit court denied D.R. Horton's motion to compel arbitration, finding that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable. The court based its ruling on "a number of oppressive and one-sided provisions, " including D.R. Horton's attempted waiver of the implied warranty of habitability, as well as subparagraph 14(i)'s prohibition on awarding money damages of any kind against D.R. Horton. D.R. Horton made a motion to reconsider pursuant to Rule 59(e), SCACR, but the circuit court again denied the motion to compel.[2]

         D.R. Horton appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the circuit court's order. See Smith, 403 S.C. at 10, 742 S.E.2d at 37. The court of appeals found the arbitration agreement was unconscionable, citing subparagraph 14(i) and its prohibition on awarding money damages against D.R. Horton. Id. at 15, 742 S.E.2d at 40-41. Further, the court of appeals sua sponte conducted a severability analysis to determine whether subparagraph 14(i) could be severed from the remaining provisions of the arbitration agreement. Id. at 17, 742 S.E.2d at 41. The court of appeals ultimately concluded that severing the subparagraph would be inappropriate. Id.

         D.R. Horton petitioned the court of appeals for rehearing, asserting that the court of appeals made two fundamental errors. First, D.R. Horton argued that the court of appeals' unconscionability analysis was flawed because it did not discuss whether the Smiths lacked a meaningful choice in entering the arbitration agreement. See Simpson v. MSA of Myrtle Beach, Inc., 73 S.C. 14');">373 S.C. 14, 24-25, 644 S.E.2d 663, 668 (2007) (stating that an unconscionability analysis has two prongs, one of which is whether one of the parties to the contract lacked a meaningful choice in agreeing to arbitrate (citing Carolina Care Plan, Inc. v. United HealthCare Servs., Inc., 361 S.C. 544, 554, 606 S.E.2d 752, 757 (2004); S.C. Code Ann. § 36-2-302(1) (1976))).

         Second, D.R. Horton asserted that the court of appeals' decision violated the United States Supreme Court's holding in Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Manufacturing Co. See 388 U.S. 395, 406 (1967) (holding that courts may only consider the threshold question of whether the arbitration agreement is fraudulently induced and thus invalid, not whether the contract as a whole is invalid); see also S.C. Pub. Serv. Auth. v. Great W. Coal (Ky.), Inc., 312 S.C. 559, 562-63, 437 S.E.2d 22, 24 (1993) (adopting a broad interpretation of Prima Paint in South Carolina, and holding that "a party cannot avoid arbitration through rescission of the entire contract when there is no independent challenge to the arbitration clause" (the Prima Paint doctrine)). In D.R. Horton's view, the arbitration agreement was contained exclusively in subparagraph 14(g), and therefore, the court of appeals' consideration of the allegedly one-sided terms in subparagraph 14(i) was inappropriate.[3]

         Ultimately, the court of appeals denied the petition for rehearing, and we granted D.R. Horton's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision.


         Whether the arbitration agreement is unconscionable?

         Standard of Review

         Arbitrability determinations are subject to de novo review. Bradley v. Brentwood Homes, Inc., 398 S.C. 447, 453, 730 S.E.2d 312, 315 (2012). However, a circuit court's factual findings will not be reversed on appeal if any evidence reasonably supports the findings. Id. at 453, 730 S.E.2d at 315.


          I. The Prima Paint Doctrine

         As an initial matter, we address D.R. Horton's argument regarding the court of appeals' alleged failure to heed the Prima Paint doctrine.[4]

         In Prima Paint, the Supreme Court held that to avoid arbitration, a party must assert a contractual defense to the arbitration agreement itself, and not to the contract as a whole. See 388 U.S. at 406. Thus, for example, a party must allege that the arbitration agreement is unconscionable, not that the entire contract is unconscionable. See S.C. Pub. Serv. Auth., 312 S.C. at 562-63, 437 S.E.2d at 24. Similarly, in conducting an unconscionability inquiry, courts may only consider the provisions of the arbitration agreement itself, and not those of the whole contract.

         Here, the parties fundamentally disagree on the application of the Prima Paint doctrine to the Agreement. D.R. Horton asserts that the arbitration agreement is wholly contained in subparagraph 14(g). Therefore, according to D.R. Horton, the Court may not consider any of the remaining subparagraphs of paragraph 14-such as subparagraph 14(i)'s damages limitation-in determining whether the arbitration agreement is unconscionable. We disagree.

         Like the lower courts, we construe the entirety of paragraph 14, entitled "Warranties and Dispute Resolution, " as the arbitration agreement. As the title indicates, all the subparagraphs of paragraph 14 must be read as a whole to understand the scope of the warranties and how different disputes are to be handled. The subparagraphs within paragraph 14 contain numerous ...

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