APPELLATE ATTORNEY’S FEES AND THE SIGNIFICANT ISSUES TEST

shutterstock_379140319The significant issues test to determine the prevailing party in construction lien actions (which, by the way, also applies to breach of contract actions) applies to appellate attorney’s fees too!  Under this test, the trial court has discretion to determine which party prevailed on the significant issues of the case for purposes of attorney’s fees.  The trial court also has discretion to determine that neither party was the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees

 

In a recent decision, Bauer v. Ready Windows Sales & Service Corp., 42 Fla. L. Weekly D1417a (Fla. 3d DCA 2017), there were competing motions for appellate attorney’s fees.   Both parties believed they should be deemed the prevailing party under Florida Statute s. 713.29 (statute that authorizes prevailing party attorney’s fees under Florida’s Construction Lien Law).    The appellate court held that neither party was the prevailing party under the significant issues test:  “[W]e conclude that each party lost on their appeal, while each party successfully defended that part of the judgment in their favor on the other party’s cross-appeal. Because both parties prevailed on significant issues, this Court finds that appellate fees are not warranted for either party.” Bauer, supra

 

Attorney’s fees can very easily drive construction lien and bond disputes.  Just remember, the significant issues test to determine the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees applies to fees incurred at the trial court and appellate court levels.  This test has a subjective component that gives a court an easy out—determine that neither party prevailed on the significant issues or, as in the above case, both parties prevailed on the significant issues, meaning neither party is entitled to attorney’s fees. 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

TIMELY WRITTEN NOTICE TO INSURER AND COOPERATING WITH INSURER

shutterstock_651871066I harp on notifying a liability insurer in writing once a claim is asserted against you.  As soon as possible.  I harp on this because as an insured you want to remove any doubt or argument that the insurer was prejudiced due to a lack of timely notice. 

 

In a recent opinion, Zurich American Insurance Co. v. European Tile and Floors, Inc., 2017 WL 2427172 (M.D.Fla. 2017), the insurer moved for summary judgment in a coverage action arguing that its insured failed to provide it timely written notice.  Specifically, the insurer argued that the insured violated the clause in the liability policy that states:

 

2. Duties in the Event of Occurrence, Offense, Claim or Suit

b. If a claim is made or “suit” is brought against any insured, you must:

1. Immediately record the specifics of the claim or “suit” and the date received; and

2. Notify us as soon as practicable.

You must see to it that we receive written notice of the claim or “suit” as soon as practicable. 

c.  You and any other insured must:

1. Immediately send us copies of any demands, notices, summonses or legal papers received in connection with the claim or “suit”;

2. Authorize us to obtain records and other information;

3. Cooperate with us in the investigation, settlement or defense of the claim or “suit”; and

4. Assist us, upon our request, in the enforcement of any right against any person or organization which may be liable to the insured because of injury or damage to which this insurance may also apply.

 

Here, the insured claimed it orally called the insurer about the nature of the suit and a representative told it that there would be no coverage for the lawsuit.   The insurer, however, claimed it has no record of such a call and only learned of the lawsuit after a judgment had already been entered against the insured.  Particularly, a seven-figure judgment was entered against the insured and the judgment creditor then sued the insurer which prompted the insurer to file a coverage lawsuit. 

 

The insurer argued that there should be no coverage because the insured violated the clause regarding being provided timely written notice of the lawsuit.  An insured can forfeit otherwise valid coverage by failing to provide timely notice to the prejudice of the insurer.

 

Under Florida law, if an insured’s notice is untimely, a presumption of prejudice arisesEuropean Tile and Floors, supra, at *5.  The insured can only prevail if it rebuts the presumption of prejudice by demonstrating with competent evidence that the insurer was not prejudiced by the untimely notice.   Id.   However, although the policy required written notice, this requirement can be waived when the insurer has actual notice of the claimId

 

In this case, the Middle District denied the insurer’s motion for summary judgment because there was a material fact dispute as to whether the insured provided notice of the lawsuit to the insurer—the insured claims it did so through an oral call which the insurer disputes.

 

The insurer also moved for summary judgment arguing the insured failed to cooperate with it.  An insurer may deny coverage for an insured’s failure to cooperate when “(1) the lack of cooperation was material, (2) the insurer exercised diligence and good faith in bringing about the cooperation of its insured and itself complied in good faith with the terms of the policy and (3) the lack of cooperation substantially prejudiced the insurer.”  European Tile and Floors, supra, at *6 quoting Mid-Continent Cas. Co. v. Basdeo, 477 Fed.Appx. 702, 706-07 (11th Cir. 2012).

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

VENUE FOR SUING PUBLIC PAYMENT BOND

shutterstock_96191135Public payment bonds (excluding FDOT payment bonds) are governed under Florida statute s. 255.05.  As it pertains to venue—the location to sue a public payment bond–the statute provides in relevant portion:

 

 

(5) In addition to the provisions of chapter 47, any action authorized under this section may be brought in the county in which the public building or public work is being construction or repaired.

 ***

(1)(e) Any provision in a payment bond…which restricts venue of any proceeding relating to such bond…is unenforceable.

 

Now, what happens if a subcontractor sues only a payment bond but its subcontract with the general contractor contains a mandatory venue provision?  For example, what if the general contractor is located in Lee County and the subcontract contains a venue provision for Lee County, the project is located in Collier County, the subcontractor is located in Miami-Dade County, and the surety issues bonds in Miami-Dade County? Does venue have to be in Lee County per the mandatory venue provision?

 

According to the decision in Travelers Casualty and Insurance Co. of America v. Community Asphalt Corp., 42 Fla. L. Weekly D1318a (Fla. 3d DCA 2017), a claimant can sue a public payment bond anywhere where venue is permitted irrespective of a mandatory venue provision in a subcontract.  In this case, the project was in Collier County and the subcontract contained a mandatory venue provision for Lee County.  However, the subcontractor sued the public payment bond in Miami-Dade County.   The Third District held that the subcontract’s venue provision could not be read into the bond because it would be unenforceable since Florida Statute s. 255.05 renders such language that restricts venue unenforceable

 

The Third District, however, did importantly note that this ruling may likely have been different if the subcontractor also sued the general contractor in the lawsuit.  Because the subcontractor only sued the public payment bond, the venue provision in the subcontract did not apply.

 

Strategically, there are reasons why a payment bond claimant (e.g., subcontractor) does not want to sue the general contractor.  One such reason is venue, as in the instant case.  The subcontractor did not want to sue in Lee County and had a strong argument to sue the public payment bond in Miami-Dade County, a more preferable and convenient venue to it, and was able to do so notwithstanding the venue provision in the subcontract.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

ARBITRATION PROVISION IN HOMEBUILDER’S WARRANTY AGREEMENT WITH HOMEOWNERS IS UNENFORCEABLE

shutterstock_17206660Buying a new home from a homebuilder is an exciting time.  How could you not be excited about buying and moving into a new home?   It is a big milestone.  When buying a new home from a homebuilder, it is common that you are provided a limited warranty agreement to sign that outlines your rights if there is a “warranty” claim, the length of the warranty period, what constitutes a valid warranty claim, and includes an arbitration provision requiring you to arbitrate claims arising out of the agreement or home.  It is also common that such limited warranty agreement contains important disclaiming language.  Homeowners should always consider what they sign, but the reality is that most homeowners are going to absolutely sign what the homebuilder wants them to sign (and the homebuilder may even be unwilling to sell a home without certain signatures that offsets their risks).   

 

A recent case, Anderson v. Taylor Morrison of Florida, Inc., 42 Fla. L. Weekly D1232a (Fla. 2d DCA 2017), potentially changes certain business practices of a large homebuilder, and perhaps many homebuilders, when the arbitration provision in its limited warranty agreement was deemed void against public policy.  The homebuilder’s limited warranty agreement is likely a standard form agreement that all of its homeowners sign with identical language.  Thus, this ruling impacts not only the enforceability of the arbitration provision in this case, but of any claim by a homeowner that signed the same limited warranty agreement.  This is certainly not what the homebuilder wanted when it thought it was containing disputes to arbitration and not litigation.

 

In this case, homeowners sued the homebuilder years after completion for a defect in the stucco system of their home.  One of the claims was a statutory violation of building code claim.  The homebuilder moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the limited warranty agreement that contained in material portion:

 

This Dispute Settlement provision sets forth the exclusive remedy for all disputes, claims or controversies arising out of, or in any manner related to, this Warranty or any alleged issues in your home or property. All disputes, claims or controversies which cannot be resolved between TM [the Builder] and you shall be submitted by you, not later than ninety (90) days after the expiration of the applicable warranty period, to the American Arbitration Association (“Arbitrator”) for resolution in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Arbitrator. The final decision of the Arbitrator shall be binding on all parties and shall include final decisions relating to enforcement of the terms and provisions of this Warranty. 

***

BUYER AGREES THAT THIS LIMITED WARRANTY SHALL BE THE EXCLUSIVE REMEDY FOR ANY ISSUES IN DESIGN, MATERIALS OR WORKMANSHIP. BUYER HERBY [sic] ASSUMES THE RISK OF ALL OTHER LOSS RESULTING FROM SUCH ISSUES, INCLUDING ANY CLAIMS FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE OR PERSONAL INJURY, AND WAIVE [sic] ALL OTHER CLAIMS, WHETHER IN CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE.

 

The trial court compelled arbitration per the limited warranty agreement.  On appeal, however, the Second District Court reversed finding that the arbitration provision was unenforceable against public policy because it prohibited the homeowners from pursing a statutory building code violation claim (i.e., that the stucco system was not installed as required by the governing building code).  See Anderson, supra (“The arbitration provision in the Warranty indicates that all issues related to the Warranty, the home, or the property are to be arbitrated. But read in context with other provisions in the Warranty, particularly the disclaimer provision, it is evident that the alleged building code violations cannot be remedied through arbitration because the claims are not covered by the Warranty and all non-Warranty claims are waived… Simply put, the arbitration provision here effectively limits the Andersons’ [homeowner] remedies to Warranty claims, as defined in the documents, and does not just substantially diminish the Andersons’ statutory remedy for a violation of the building code but totally eliminates it.”). 

 

 

Here, the import of the issue, in my opinion, is not necessarily the arbitration provision, but the capitalized disclaiming language that ultimately operates to disclaim liability for latent defects – or defects not readily observable, particularly at the time of closing.  A latent defect is a defect oftentimes discovered beyond the warranty period.  A warranty period really pertains to the period where the contractor or builder agrees to show back up to the property to address post-punchlist related items.  When this period expires (whether it is a contractual warranty period or statutory warranty period in the case of condominiums) does not mean a homeowner no longer has any recourse.  That recourse is based on whether the defect is a latent defect.    The disclaiming language in the limited warranty agreement limits a homeowner’s remedies for certain latent defects.  When this language is read in conjunction with the arbitration provision, the homeowner is waiving rights for claims unrelated to true warranty claims, such as a statutory building code violation claim, while agreeing to arbitrate “permissible” claims under the limited warranty agreement arising out of the home.   This has the effect of preventing homeowners from arbitrating certain, valid claims.

 

It is uncertain how a trial court or appellate court will treat such disclaiming language other than any dispute arising out of the home needs to be litigated and not arbitrated.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.