Fifth District Finds That The Contract Containing the Arbitration Clause Is Not Automatically Unenforceable
With limited exceptions, an unlicensed contractor will find it impossible to collect payment, and may also have to disgorge payments already made. Can an award in favor of the client of an unlicensed contractor be set aside on the grounds of illegality? Our next case, Templo Calvario Spanish Assembly of God v. Gardner, 198 Cal.App.4th 509, 129 Cal.Rptr.3d 574 (2011), answers “no,” at least not when it is the unlicensed contractor trying to avoid the arbitration award.
In Templo Calvario, the dispute between the church and the unlicensed contractor who had agreed to construct the church was subject to an arbitration clause. The arbitrator’s award required the unlicensed contractor to disgorge its fees. The trial court sided with the view that the contract with the unlicensed contractor could not be enforced, because void and illegal, and granted the contractor’s petition to vacate the award.
The church appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed the order that had vacated the award. Relying on MW Erectors, Inc. v. Niederhauser Ornamental & Metal Works Co., Inc., 36 Cal.4th 412, 30 Cal.Rptr.3d 755 (2005) (MW Erectors), the court held that the contract containing the arbitration provision was not automatically illegal and void just because the contractor was unlicensed. MW Erectors had held that a contract entered into by an unlicensed contractor was not void under circumstances where the contractor became licensed during the course of its work.
The Court of Appeal was not persuaded by the California Supreme Court holding in an older case, Loving & Evans v. Blick, 33 Cal.2d 603 (1949) (Loving & Evans). In Loving & Evans, the Supreme Court held that an arbitration clause could not be relied upon by the unlicensed contractor to compel arbitration. Loving & Evans is distinguishable, because in that case, it was the unlicensed contractor seeking to take advantage of the illegality of the provision to compel arbitration, and the Supreme Court refused to allow that. But the Court of Appeal noted that the Supreme Court, in MW Erectors, described Loving & Evans as not a “modern case,” implicitly overruling the holding that a contract containing the arbitration provision was void ab initio, just because the contractor was unlicensed.