Know the Fine Print – Dispute Resolution

Fine Print by CJ Sorg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Fine Print by CJ Sorg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Every contract needs a dispute resolution clause – every contract. It’s something you should look for in every contract you read. If you’re given a contract to sign that doesn’t have one, I strongly recommend adding one in. That’s what I would do.

The dispute resolution clause in a contract is the how-we’re-going-do-deal-with-problems provision. It lays out how and where problems will be resolved when they occur.

How Problems will be Resolved
There are three main ways people general resolve problems in a contract:

  • Mediation: Hire a mediator to help you resolve the problem – more likely to results in “splitting the baby” and not a winner and loser.
  • Arbitration: Hire an arbitrator (or panel of arbitrators) to hear/review your arguments and make a decision. (This is what they used in Erin Brockovich.) Sometimes arbitration is faster and more cost effective than litigation, but not always.
  • Litigation: This is the traditional civil lawsuit. This is what I recommend for most contracts I write for clients.

You’re not limited to only these three options. You can have anything in your dispute resolution clause as long as it’s legal. So if you want to resolve disputes by throwing darts or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, you can.

Where Problems will be Resolved
The dispute resolution clause should specify in which county and state disputes will be resolved. If you’re writing the contract, you want the opposing party to have to fight you on your turf if there’s a problem. This is why most contracts I write for clients require them to resolve all disputes in Maricopa County, Arizona and that all parties agree to that jurisdiction. Without such a provision, you may find yourself having to travel to fight disputes in the opposing party’s state, and possibly needed to employ a local lawyer for additional assistance.

Which Law Applies
The laws in each state are slightly different. This is why it’s imperative that your contract state which state’s law will govern the contract for all non-federal claims. Federal claims (like many intellectual property issues) are governed by federal law. You don’t want to have a dispute within the dispute about which law applies to the state-law claims.

There may be other provisions in the dispute resolution clause like a requirement to notify the other party in writing if you believe they’ve breached the agreement and a set time in which they have to cure/fix it before you can take further action against them. Another clause to look for is a provision that requires the loser in a dispute to pay for the winner’s attorney’s fees. I like to add this into contracts I write. It makes people think twice before going after the other.

Next time you buy a ticket for a show, professional sports, travel, or sign up for an account on a website – read the fine print. See what the dispute resolution clause requires. You’ll quickly see that whoever writes the contract, does so with their (or their client’s) best interests (not yours) in mind.

If you need help writing or reviewing a contract, speak to a business lawyer about your needs and options. If you have questions about contracts that you want to discuss with me, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

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