Architects Beware – You Better Be Licensed In The Project Location, Even If It’s Foreign Soil

By: Lawrence M. Prosen, K&L Gates, Washington, D.C.

Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 11 A.3d 251 (D.C. 2011)

In a case of first impression in the District of Columbia (“D.C.”), an Architect has been barred from recovering fees for architectural services in the District of Columbia where the architect lacked a license to practice in D.C. when it negotiated terms for a services contract.  This bar was upheld even where (a) the architect was licensed in another jurisdiction; and (b) the project was actually on “foreign soil” in that it was for the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”) located in the United States.

The case arose from a 1993 design competition held by the UAE for its Washington, D.C. embassy and chancery building.  Sturdza, an architect licensed in Maryland and Texas, but not in D.C., submitted a design and won the competition.  Sturdza and the UAE then entered into contract negotiations and exchanged proposals for the next 2 years.  Thereafter, the UAE stopped communications, never signing a contract.  During this time period, Sturdza agreed to perform work and defer billing for her services.

Move forward a few years, and in 1998, Sturdza filed suit against the UAE and another architect who had subsequently been hired to design the embassy.  Sturdza claimed that the new architect’s design was copied from her earlier design.  Following the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s granting summary judgment to the defendants, on appeal the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit certified the following question to the D.C. Court of Appeals (the highest “state” court in the District):

Under District of Columbia law, is an architect barred from recovering on a contract to perform architectural services in the District or in quantum meruit for architectural services rendered in the District because the architect began negotiating for the contract, entered into the contract, and/or performed such services while licensed to practice architecture in another jurisdiction, but not in the District?

In response, the Court of Appeals answered, “Yes”, the architect was barred.  This was based upon the fact that the D.C. Architect’s Registration Act required that all architects practicing in the District be licensed.  The acts stated purpose was to, in part, “safeguard life, health, and property, and to promote the public welfare.”  Under the current law, nobody was permitted to practice architecture in D.C. unless licensed in the District, and the “practice of architecture” was defined as meaning the “rendering or offering to render services in connection with the design and construction, enlargement, or alteration of a structure…that have as their principal purpose human occupancy or habitation….includ[ing] planning and providing studies, designs, drawings, specifications, and other technical submissions, and the administration of construction contracts.”  Therefore, the court concluded that the practice of architecture was not limited to formal architectural services but also the negotiation and agreement to provide such services.  Accordingly, Sturdza did “practice architecture” in D.C. without a license and was barred from recovery.  Id. at 258.

The Court also noted that while the property was a foreign mission, the Foreign Missions Act of 1982, 22 U.S.C. §§4301 et seq., stated that foreign missions were required to comply with D.C.’s building and related codes, and that no State or municipal laws relating to, among other things, health, safety and welfare were precluded by foreign or other Federal laws.  Likewise, the International Center Act, 22 U.S.C. §4306(g), also required foreign entities to comply with the D.C. codes and regulations dealing with construction.  Therefore, the non-D.C. licensed architect was precluded from recovering her fees.

While a case of first impression, this ruling comes as no surprise, as it is the continuation of a trend in this court dealing with licensure obligations.  In a prior case (in which K&L Gates filed an amicus curiae brief), the Court held that a contractor performing work in the common elements of a condominium was nonetheless a “home improvement contractor” and was, therefore, obligation to carry a license for that work.  As the contractor had no license, the contract was illegal and void ab initio, thereby precluding recovery for work performed.  See, Carlson Const. Co. v. Dupont West Condominium, Inc., 932 A.2d 1132 (D.C. 2007).

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