An architect licensed in the state of Maryland but not in Washington, D.C. entered into, and won, a competition for the architectural design of a new embassy and chancery building in Washington, D.C. for the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”).  Because she was not licensed in Washington, she was found by the court to have violated the licensing statute and therefore not entitled to recover any fee from the UAE for the services she had performed.    The architect argued that she was not required to have a license as of the date she entered into the competition but that she would have obtained the license once she had a signed contract.   In rejecting that argument, the court stated that the architect went beyond submitting bides and actually performed architectural services without a license.  The court concluded: “District of Columbia law bars an architect from recovering (i) on a contract to perform architectural services in the District or (ii) in quantum meruit for architectural services rendered in the District, if the architect lacked a District of Columbia architect’s license when he or she began negotiating the contract, entered into the contract, or performed the architectural services, even if the architect was licensed to practice architecture in another jurisdiction at such times…. There is no exception for international design competitions or the submission of bids to perform architectural services for foreign embassies (or public buildings or monuments) in the District.”

After winning the UAE’s design competition, the architect entered into contract negotiations with the UAE, and while negotiations were ongoing she modified her original design and worked with an engineer to address technical issues raised by the UAE and to make changes requested by the Ambassador.  The UAE did not ultimately execute the contract and instead, several years later, awarded the contract to someone else.  The architect then sued the UAE in the U.S. District Court for breach of contract and for quantum meruit.  The court granted UAE’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the architect was barred from recovery because she was not licensed.  This was appealed to the United States Circuit court for Washington, D.C. which concluded that it could not decide the case without first certifying a question back to the D.C. courts to answer how the licensing statute was interpreted locally by the courts.

In the subsequent decision by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals answering that question, the court described the statute as follows:

In its current form, the D.C. Code provides in pertinent part that “[u]nless licensed to practice architecture under this subchapter, no person shall engage, directly or indirectly, in the practice of architecture in the District….”  The same prohibition was in effect at the time of the events giving rise to this case.  For licensing purposes, the “practice of architecture” is defined to mean “rendering or offering to render services in connection with the design and construction, enlargement, or alteration of a structure or group of structures 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.” The “practice of architecture” thus encompasses not only the performance of architectural services, but also any negotiations and agreement to provide such services.

The architect argued that the licensing statute was intended to benefit the general public in Washington, D.C. and should not be applied when the client was a sophisticate foreign government that was building an embassy.  She argued that insistence on licensure would disable and diminish international architectural competition in the District, because “leading international architects cannot be expected to apply for and await receipt of local licenses in every jurisdiction to which they bend their talents.”  In addition to rejecting those arguments, the court also rejected her arguments that the licensing statute was pre-empted by either the Foreign Missions Act of 1982 or the International Center Act.  The court concluded:

The rule is well-established in the District of Columbia “that a contract made in violation of a licensing statute that is designed to protect the public will usually be considered void and unenforceable, and [that] the party violating the statute cannot collect monies due on a quasi-contractual basis” either. Although the operation of this rule may appear to be “harsh and disproportionate” in some cases, we have “uniformly” rejected appeals to deviate from or mitigate it; the “potential unfair applications of the rule at the margins have not persuaded us to sacrifice the benefits of a clear-cut, unmistakable requirement, with equally clear consequences for noncompliance, in this area of consumer protection.” Architects who practice without a license are not exempted from the general rule. We have held that one who engages in the “practice of architecture” in this jurisdiction without having secured the necessary District of Columbia license is barred from recovering for his or her services in an action for breach of contract or quantum meruit.

For the foregoing reasons, the court concluded that the licensing law prevents the Architect from recovering under the theories of breach of contract or quantum meruit for the services she provided.

About the author: Article written by J. Kent Holland, Jr.,  a construction lawyer located in Tysons Corner, Virginia,  with a national practice (formerly with Wickwire Gavin, P.C. and now with Construction Risk Counsel, PLLC) representing design professionals, contractors and project owners.  He is founder and president of a consulting firm, ConstructionRisk, LLC, providing consulting services to owners, design professionals, contractors and attorneys on construction projects.  He is publisher of Report and may be reached at or by calling 703-623-1932.  This article is published in Report, Vol. 13, No.7  (July 2011).

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