For those subcontractors and suppliers providing labor, services, or materials to federal construction projects, understanding your rights under the Federal Miller Act (40 USC s. 3131 et seq.) is important. Among other things, the Miller Act advises what a subcontractor and supplier need do to preserve a right against the prime contractor’s payment bond, from providing the prerequisite notice of nonpayment to the surety within 90 days from final furnishing / performance (if there is no privity of contract with the prime contractor) to ensuring suit is filed in federal court within a year from final furnishing / performance. Obtaining a copy of the payment bond and understanding these timeframes is critical to an unpaid subcontractor or supplier; otherwise, their claim will be barred against the payment bond.
One of the downsides to Miller Act bond claims is that there is no statutory right to the recovery of attorneys’ fees under the Federal Miller Act. This means that every dollar spent on lawyers is potentially reducing the amount in recovery because there is no avenue to recoup those attorneys’ fees under the Miller Act. Unless this claim is significant, this downside often demotivates a supplier or subcontractor from filing suit in federal court against a Miller Act payment bond.
There are, however, arguments to recover attorneys’ fees in a Miller Act action. The first argument is if there is an underlying contract involving the claimant relating to the project that provides for attorneys’ fees (such as the contract between the subcontractor and prime contractor), the claimant can recover its attorneys’ fees. See, e.g., U.S. f/u/b/o Southeastern Mun. Supply Co., Inc. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburg, 876 F.2d 92 (11th Cir. 1989) (finding that attorneys’ fees provision in contract between supplier and subcontractor was enforceable to enable supplier to recover attorneys’ fees against Miller Act surety).
There is also a second argument that attorneys’ fees should be recoverable in Florida against a Miller Act bond under a 1968 Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. v. Hendry Corp., 391 F.2d 13, 20-21 (5th Cir. 1968). This case analyzed Florida law to fill in the gap to determine whether attorneys’ fees were recoverable under the Miller Act (since the Act is silent on the issue). In doing so, the Fifth Circuit analyzed Florida’s Insurance Code and maintained that provisions in Florida’s Insurance Code (still in effect today) allow for the recoverability of attorneys’ fees in a Miller Act bond dispute.
Parties pursuing Miller Act actions for Florida-based federal projects should plead for attorneys’ fees whether through a contractual provision and/or the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Hendry Corp. Now, it is uncertain whether the Fifth Circuit’s ruling would still apply today; however, it is an argument that should still be pursued in furtherance of trying to recover attorneys’ fees in an action against a Miller Act payment bond, especially if there is not an underlying contract that provides for attorneys’ fees.
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