PROVING IMPACTS TO CRITICAL PATH TO DEFEAT LIQUIDATED DAMAGES ASSESSMENT

When a contractor is staring down the barrel of an owner’s assessment of liquidated damages, the burden will fall on the contractor to establish that the delay was attributable to the owner and the owner’s agents.  The contractor will want to do this not only to defeat the assessment of liquidated damages, but because it will want to establish that the delay caused it to incur extended field overhead (general conditions) for which the owner is responsible.   A contractor supports its burden by proving the impacts to its critical path.  “In general, proving an allegation of government-caused delays without a means of showing the critical path is a steep prospect.”  James Talcott Construction v. U.S., 2019 WL 1040383, *8 (Fed. Cl. 2019) (unreported opinion) (finding that because contractor did NOT present a critical path analysis it could not support its claim for delay caused by the government).

Avoiding the assessment of liquidated damages means the contractor needs to support that it encountered excusable delay and it is/was entitled to an extension of time to complete the project.

An excusable delay is one due to causes that are unforeseeable, beyond the contractor’s control, and not resulting from its fault or negligence.  The delay must be to overall contract completion, meaning ‘it must affect the critical path of performance.’  If the failure is excusable, then appellant [contractor] would be entitled to time extensions and thus remission of LDs [liquidated damages].

Appeal of – Maruf Sharif Construction Co.,ASBCA No. 61802, 2019 WL 410470 (2019) (internal citation and quotation omitted).

A contractor presenting a critical path analysis allocating delay may become imperative when seeking remission of a liquidated damages assessment and, potentially, proving its own entitlement to extended general conditions.  Again, the burden falls on the contractor; therefore, not proving the impacts to the critical path and the excusable delay the contractor should be entitled to will likely result in the contractor failing to carry its burden.

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.

THE CONSTRUCTION PROJECT IS LATE – ALLOCATION OF DELAY

images-1The construction project is late.  Very late.  The owner is upset and notifies the contractor that it is assessing liquidated damages.   The contractor, in turn, claims that the project is late because of excusable, compensable delays and, perhaps, excusable, noncompensable delays.  This is a common and unfortunate story between an owner and contractor on any late construction project.  Now the fun begins regarding the allocation of the delay!

 

Through previous articles, I discussed that in this scenario the burden really falls on the contractor to establish that the liquidated damages were improperly assessed against it and, thus, it is entitled to additional time and/or extended general conditions as a result of excusable delays.   Naturally, this requires the contractor to develop a critical path analysis (time impact analysis) allocating the impacts / delays (and the reasons for the impacts/ delays) to the project completion date. The reason the burden really falls on the contractor is because the owner’s burden is relatively easy – the project was not complete on time pursuant to the contract and any approved changed orders. 

 

In a recent opinion, East Coast Repair & Fabrication, LLC v. U.S., 2016 WL 4224961 (E.D.Va. 2016), the court contained a very detailed and sound discussion regarding this common story between an owner and contractor.   Although this is a case involving a ship repair company overhauling and repairing a Navy  (government) vessel, the court’s discussion would apply to any late construction project and the allocation of delay to a late project.   Please take the time to read the Court’s discussion below as it lays the framework for the allocation or apportionment of delay. 

 

In the context of litigating liquidated damages assessed by the government in a construction contract, the government first must meet its initial burden of showing that “the contract performance requirements were not substantially completed by the contract completion date and that the period for which the assessment was made was proper.” Once the government has met that burden, the burden then shifts to the contractor “to show that any delays were excusable and that it should be relieved of all or part of the assessment.

In order for the contractor to carry its burden it must “demonstrate that the excusable event caused a delay to the overall completion of the contract, i.e., that the delay affected activities on the critical path” because the contractor “is entitled to only so much time extension as the excusable cause actually delayed” completion of the contract.

***

Having considered the somewhat conflicting positions taken on this issue in prior federal cases, this Court finds that the better legal interpretation regarding the proper treatment of “sequential delays” (where one party causes a delay followed by a separate-in-time delay caused by the other), is that “apportionment” should be permitted when the evidence provides a reliable basis on which to determine which party is responsible for which delay. Stated differently, the fact that the Government was solely responsible for some delays in this case…does not preclude the Government as a matter of law from recovering some amount of liquidated damages as a result of subsequent, and conceptually distinct, delays deemed to be solely the fault of ECR/Técnico [Contractor and its subcontractor].

 

As to performance delays deemed to be “concurrent,” (both parties causing a delay at the same time), the established law reveals that ECR [Contractor] is permitted to seek an extension of the project completion date for such delay, as long as the delay caused by the Government would have disrupted the “critical path” in the absence of the delay caused by the contractor. However, while ECR may seek an extension of the performance period for a concurrent delay, ECR is precluded by law from obtaining a monetary award to compensate it for “delay damages” for such delays, with the appropriate relief being only the extension of the project completion date (which, in effect, results in a day-for-day reduction of the Government’s liquidated damages claim). 

East Coast Repair & Fabrication, supra, at *13-14 (internal quotations omitted).

 

 

 

 

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.

LIQUIDATED DAMAGES IN CONSTRUCTION CONTRACTS – WHO BEARS THE BURDEN?

imagesLiquidated damages are in many, many construction contracts.   They are designed to capture an owner’s damages if a project, or portion thereof, is not substantially completed by an agreed date.  The liquidated damages provision contemplates that the contractor will be liable for a daily rate of “x” for each day of delay beyond the substantial completion date (or any agreed change to this date).   Sometimes there is a cap on the contractor’s liquidated damages exposure (say, capped at the contractor’s fee) and sometimes there is no cap.   On private projects, the liquidated damages provision is a negotiated provision.  Typically, on public projects, the liquidated damages provision is not negotiated, but is known upfront and the contractor can try to account for that risk in any bid or proposal.

 

Assume a project is completed 100 days beyond the agreed-upon substantial completion date.  The contract provides for liquidated damages of $2,000 per day with no cap.  This means the contractor has liquidated damages exposure in the amount of $200,000.  The question, however, is who bears the burden relating to the 100-day delay that triggers the application of the liquidated damages provision. Understanding this burden is important, especially if you are the contractor looking to challenge this assessment and, perhaps, support a claim for extended general conditions / overhead.

 

The owner’s initial burden is typically an easy burden—known as the burden of persuasion.  The owner really just needs to produce evidence that the project was not substantially completed by the agreed-upon date.  Once the owner does this, the burden shifts to the contractor to prove that the owner prevented performance, there was excusable delay such as concurrent delay, or the owner caused the delay or a portion of the delay (e.g., design-changes, late change orders, etc.).   The contractor will want to do this to not only establish it is not liable for a majority or all of the assessed liquidated damages, but that the owner is liable for the contractor’s extended general conditions / overhead associated with delay.  Once the contractor does this, the burden of proof then shifts back to the owner since the owner carries the overall burden relating to its assessment of liquidated damages. 

 

This sentiment was conveyed In the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeal’s decision in In re Idela Const. Co., ASBCA No. 45070, 2001 WL 640978 (ASBCA 2001) (internal quotations and citations omitted):

 

In order to assess liquidated damages the Government [owner] must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the contractor is in default, that it did not prevent performance or contribute to the delay, and that the appellant was the sole cause of the days of delay. The Government has established that substantial completion did not occur until 109 days after the adjusted contract completion date.

 

In order to defeat the Government’s claim for liquidated damages, the appellant [contractor] must come forward with evidence to show that the Government prevented performance or contributed to the delay or that the delay was excusable. Because liquidated damages is a Government claim, the Government continues to have the overall burden of proof, and if the responsibility for days of delay is unclear, or if both parties contribute to the delay, for the Government [t]o recover liquidated damages the Government must prove a clear apportionment of the delay attributable to each party.

  

See also Sauer, Inc. v.  Danzig, 224 F.3d 1340, 1347 (Fed. Cir. 2000) “(As a general rule, a party asserting that liquidated damages were improperly assessed bears the burden of showing the extent of the excusable delay to which it is entitled.); A.G. Cullen Const., Inc. v.  State System of Higher Educ., 898 A.2d 1145, 1162 (Pa. 2006) quoting PCL Constr. Servs., Inc. v. U.S., 53 Fed. Cl. 479, 484 (2002) (“As to the applicable burden of proof in a liquidated damages claim, the government has “the ultimate burden of persuasion as well the initial burden of going forward to show that the contract was not completed by the agreed contract completion date and that liquidated damages were due and owing.”).

 

 

Remember, a liquidated damages provision is a common provision in construction contracts.  Make sure you appreciate how this clause is triggered, the application of the clause, and who carries what burden when its comes to assessing and challenging liquidated damages.

 

 

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.

 

BURDEN OF PROOF CHALLENGING ASSESSMENT OF LIQUIDATED DAMAGES

UnknownA contractor is working on a project that includes a contractual liquidated damages provision.  The liquidated damages provision says the contractor is liable for $2,000 per day in liquidated damages if the contractor does not achieve substantial completion by January 1, 2016, a date extended through agreed-upon change orders.  Substantial completion has not been achieved by this date and is not projected to be achieved until May 1, 2016.  The owner already notified the contractor that it plans to assess liquidated damages and such assessment will be deducted from the contractor’s payment (retainage payment application). 

 

When it comes to liquidated damages, who has the burden of proof: the owner or the contractor? 

 

The owner’s burden is actually quite simple. It is merely a burden of persuasion.  All the owner has to do is establish that the project was not substantially completed in accordance with the contract and any approved extensions of time.  Typically, an easy burden of persuasion.

 

This shifts the burden of proof to the contractor challenging the assessment of liquidated damages to establish that the owner was the cause of delays to the substantial completion date (or other contractual date triggering the enforcement of liquidated damages) (e.g., design errors, change orders, change order directives, permit delays, differing site conditions, etc.).  See, e.g., PCL Const. Services, Inc. v. U.S., 53 Fed.Cl. 479 (2002) (government has initial burden of persuasion showing contract was not completed on time shifting burden of proof to contractor to establish excusable delays); accord K-Con Bldg. Systems, Inc. v. U.S., 97 Fed.Cl. 41 (2011) (contractor failed to establish owner caused delays precluding the owner from assessing liquidated damages); Carrothers Const. Co. v. City of S. Hutchinson, 755, 207 P.3d 231, 241 (Kan. 2009) (“By placing the burden of proof on the party challenging a liquidated damages clause, we promote a public policy favoring settlement and avoidance of litigation, and allowing parties to make, and live by, their own contracts.”); TAL Fin. Corp. v. CSC Consulting, Inc., 844 N.E.2d 1085, 1092 (Mass. 2006) (“The burden of proof regarding the enforceability of a liquidated damages clause, therefore, should rest squarely on the party seeking to set it aside.”).  

 

When you sign a construction contract with a liquidated damages provision, understand the application of this provision if the project is not completed in accordance with the provision.  Make sure to ask for and document extensions of time and excusable delays.  In other words, preserve your rights under any notice provisions in the contract asking for extensions of time or notifying the owner of scheduling impacts.  Also, consult with a scheduling consultant, as may be necessary, to analyze the critical path of the schedule to isolate excusable delay and any concurrent delay establishing that although the project was late there were events or issues that would reduce or fully negate the number of days the owner is assessing liquidated damages for.

 

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.

 

 

A LETTER OF INTENT CAN FORM THE BASIS OF AN ENFORCEABLE CONTRACT

letter of intentJust because there is not an executed subcontract, does not mean there is not an enforceable written contract between a contractor and subcontractor.   While it is good practice for there to be an executed contract in place, this does not always occur.  But, this lack of occurrence does not necessarily mean a performing subcontractor can escape contractual obligations merely because it never signed the subcontract.  Indeed, many times a subcontractor starts performing based on a letter of intent that it received from the contractor.  The letter of intent may indicate that a formal subcontract will be furnished to the subcontractor such as when the contractor is awarded the project or after the subcontractor starts performing under the letter of intent. If the subcontractor starts performing based on the letter of intent that it received, this letter of intent can certainly form the basis of an enforceable contract!

 

The decision in Sealevel Construction, Inc. v. Westcoast Corp., 2014 WL 3587264 (E.D.La. 2014) exemplifies how a letter of intent can form the basis of a written contract.  Here, a subcontractor on a federal project solicited bids from sub-subcontractors to perform aspects of its work based on the plans and specifications for the project.  The specifications, among other things, contained a liquidated damages section.  A sub-subcontractor submitted a bid to install concrete piles. The subcontractor accepted the bid and issued the sub-subcontractor a letter of intent. The letter of intent was signed by both the subcontractor and sub-subcontractor and referenced the specifications. The letter of intent further stated that a formal subcontract would be entered between the parties; however, a subcontract was never executed.

 

pilingThe sub-subcontractor started to perform its scope of piling work based on the letter of intent.  Thereafter, the subcontractor notified the sub-subcontractor of delays with the sub-subcontractor’s scope of work.  The sub-subcontractor was unable to cure the delays and the subcontractor hired another entity to supplement its sub-subcontractor’s work.  Nevertheless, as a result of delays to the sub-subcontractor’s scope of work, the government assessed liquidated damages against the prime contractor.  The prime contractor, in turn, withheld the amount of the liquidated damages from the subcontractor in addition to the prime contractor’s own extended general conditions.  The subcontractor then withheld this money from its sub-subcontractor in addition to its own extended general conditions. 

 

The Eastern District of Louisiana found that the letter of intent served as an enforceable contract between the subcontractor and sub-subcontractor and the sub-subcontractor breached the letter of intent through its delayed performance.  As a result, the subcontractor was entitled to withhold / back-charge the sub-subcontractor for (i) the costs spent on the supplemental entity to mitigate the sub-subcontractor’s delay and (ii) the portion of liquidated damages attributable to the sub-subcontractor’s delay.  The court did not, however, allow the subcontractor to back-charge the sub-subcontractor for other delay-related costs (such as the prime contractor’s and the subcontractor’s extended general conditions) since the sub-subcontractor never contractually agreed to these types of damages unlike the liquidated damages section that was included in the specifications referenced in the letter of intent.

 

 

Take-aways:

  • If a letter of intent is issued, the letter of intent should identify the subcontract amount, the applicable scope of work, and reference the plans and specifications.  The more detail in the letter of intent the better so that if the subcontractor starts performing based on the letter of intent there is a strong argument that the detailed letter of intent served as the contract between the parties (such as if the subcontractor refuses to sign the subcontract, the parties are unable to agree on the formal written subcontract, or if the subcontract is never issued).

 

  • It is good practice to have both the contractor and subcontractor sign the letter of intent.

 

  • An unexecuted contract does not mean there is not a written contract between the parties.  Parties need to consider this before taking an extreme position that a contract does not exist or that they are not bound by certain requirements.

 

  • It is  good practice for a party subcontracting work to be able to flow-down damages such as liquidated damages and their own extended general conditions.  In this case, the subcontractor would have been able to flow-down the prime contractor’s and its extended general conditions attributable to the sub-subcontractor’s delay had this been identified in the letter of intent or clarified by an executed written 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.

LIQUIDATED DAMAGES PROVISIONS IN SUBCONTRACTS (PARTICULARLY SUBCONTRACTS FOR PUBLIC PROJECTS)

imagesThe assessment of liquidated damages should be a consideration to contractors on all projects, specifically public (federal and state) projects where the prime contract routinely contains a liquidated damages provision for delays to the completion of the project.  Many times, the subcontract will contain a provision that will allow the prime contractor to pass-through liquidated damages assessed by the government (owner) to the responsible subcontractor.  Well, what if the government did not assess liquidated damages?  Can the prime contractor still assess liquidated damages against a responsible subcontractor in accordance with the subcontract?  The opinion in U.S. f/u/b/o James B. Donahey, Inc. v. Dick Corp., 2010 WL 4666747 (N.D.Fla. 2010), would allow a prime contractor to assess liquidated damages against a subcontractor even if the government did not assess liquidated damages against the prime contractor.

 

In this case, a prime contractor entered into a contract to design and build four buildings at the Pensacola Navy Station and provided a Miller Act payment bond.  The prime contractor hired a subcontractor to perform the plumbing and mechanical work.   Due to delays the general contractor believed were caused by the subcontractor, it withheld substantial payment from the subcontractor.  The prime contractor contended that the subcontractor caused 63 days of delay to the occupancy of the Visitors Quarters building and 32 days of delay to the Aviation Rescue Swimmers School building.  The subcontract provided that in the event of delays, liquidated damages would be assessed in the amount of $5,400 per day for delay to the Aviation Rescue Swimmers School and $24,898 per day for delay to the Visitors Quarters.

 

 

The subcontractor filed a Miller Act lawsuit against the prime contractor and its surety (amongst other causes of actions).  The prime contractor filed a counterclaim based on the liquidated damages that it assessed against the subcontractor, an amount in excess of what it was withholding.  The subcontractor moved for summary judgment arguing that the liquidated damages provision was unenforceable (and the prime contractor could not assess liquidated damages) because the provision was a pass-through provision; thus, because the government did not assess liquidated damages against the prime contractor, the prime contractor could not assess liquidated damages against the subcontractor.  The subcontractor further argued that the liquidated damages provision is unenforceable because it is being treated as a penalty because the subcontractor is not being provided the benefit of extensions of time granted by the government to the prime contractor that would negate delays.   The prime contractor countered that nothing in the subcontract stated that liquidated damages could only operate as a pass-through claim, that being that the government had to assess liquidated damages before the prime contractor could assess liquidated damages against the subcontractor.  The prime contractor further countered that the extensions of time granted by the government were irrelevant since they did not pertain to the subcontractor’s scope of work or affect the subcontractor’s milestone completion dates.

 

 

The Northern District of Florida agreed with the prime contractor and denied the subcontractor’s motion for summary judgment because it found the liquidated damages provision enforceable.  The Northern District explained as it pertained to the subcontractor’s Miller Act payment bond claim:

 

In considering a Miller Act claim, the trier of fact must thus look to the subcontract to determine the amount due. ‘[I]f the subcontract provides for a condition precedent to payment, or a part thereof, which is not fulfilled, the subcontractor cannot recover labor and material expenditures against the surety on the payment bond.’ In other words, if there has been a default by the subcontractor, the general contractor may assert recoupment or setoff as a defense. Because there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the timeliness of Donaghey’s [subcontractor] performance and, therefore, Donaghey’s entitlement to the amounts withheld by Dick [prime contractor], summary judgment is inappropriate as to Donaghey’s Miller Act claim.”

Dick Corporation, 2010 WL at *3 quoting U.S. f/u/b/o Harrington v. Trione, 97 F.Supp. 522, 527 (D.C.Colo. 1951).

 

Stated differently, the Miller Act payment bond surety was entitled to rely on the prime contractor’s assessment of liquidated damages as a set-off  / recoupment defense  to the subcontractor’s Miller Act claim.  Also, if there were other conditions precedent that the subcontractor failed to comply with, the Miller Act surety would be entitled to many of these defenses as well.

 

 

Unknown-1The Northern District further maintained that a liquidated damages provision under Florida law will be enforceable if the provision does not operate as a penalty, meaning damages upon a breach must not be readily ascertainable at the time of the contract and must not be grossly disproportionate to any damages reasonably expected to follow from the breachDick Corporation, 2010 WL at *4 quoting Mineo v. Lakeside Village of Davie, LLC, 983 So.2d 20, 21 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008). The Court held that the liquidated damages provision did not operate as a penalty and it was not intended to operate only as a pass-through mechanism.  See, e.g., U.S. f/u/b/o Sunbeam Equip. Corp.  v. Commercial Constr. Corp., 741 F.2d 326, 328 (11th Cir. 1984) (“The fact that the Navy did not assess liquidated damages as such against Commercial [prime contractor], would not foreclose recovery of delay damages, if Commercial could demonstrate that damages arising out of the subcontract with Sunbeam [subcontractor] were not otherwise compensated.”)

 

There are three important take-aways from this opinion:

 

  • Liquidated damages provisions in subcontracts can operate as more than a pass-through provision for liquidated damages assessed by the government (owner).  These provisions can operate as a mechanism to assess liquidated damages against the subcontractor even if the government / owner has not assessed liquidated damages against the prime contractor.  Prime contractors and subcontractors need to keep this in mind when drafting and negotiating liquidated damages provisions.  If the intent is for the provision to only operate as a pass-through provision, this intent should be clearly stated in the subcontract.  If the intent is for it to operate more than as a pass-through provision, then this risk needs to be considered by the subcontractor.

 

  • Liquidated damages are typically going to be deemed enforceable if they are not intended to operate as a penalty.

 

  • A Miller Act payment bond surety will be entitled to rely on set-off / recoupment affirmative defenses contained within the subcontract including, without limitation, the prime contractor’s assessment of liquidated damages or other delay damages against the subcontractor pursuant to 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.

 

MILLER ACT – CONSIDERATIONS INVOLVING SUBCONTRACTOR WHEN GOVERNMENT ASSESSES LIQUIDATED DAMAGES

imagesPrime contractors and subcontractors that work on federal construction projects often find themselves in the garden variety payment dispute dealing with (1) entitlement and liability for additional work and  (2) project delays, especially when the government assesses liquidated damages. These issues can put the prime contractor in the undesirable position because it may not have been paid for the additional work items and the government may be assessing liquidated damages against the prime contractor for the delays.

 

The case of U.S. ex rel. W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractor, Inc. v. Walbridge Aldinger Co., 2013 WL 5859456 (11th Cir. 2013), illustrates this garden variety construction payment dispute scenario between a subcontractor and prime contractor on a delayed federal project. This case involves a subcontractor asserting a Miller Act payment bond claim (pursuant to 40 U.S.C. s. 3133) against the prime contractor’s surety for unpaid retainage and additional work items, as well as a breach of contract claim against the prime contractor for the same amounts. The prime contractor argued that it was entitled to withhold payment from the subcontractor due to delays to the completion date of the project that the subcontractor was responsible for causing. In particular, the prime contractor was being assessed sizable liquidated damages from the government (Navy) and although it was appealing the liquidated damages exposure through the Contract Disputes Act, it wanted to offset monies that were owed to the subcontractor based on its potential liquidated damages exposure. The prime contractor relied on subcontract provisions that contained that “time is of the essence” as to the subcontractor’s performance; that it was entitled to withhold sums from the subcontractor for its breach of contract; and that the subcontractor may be liable for liquidated damages and other damages for causing delays in the progress of the project.

 

At the trial court level, the district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the subcontractor finding that the subcontractor was entitled to payment for the retainage and additional work. Attorneys‘ fees were also granted to the subcontractor.

 

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit first discussed the purpose of the Miller Act and what a party needs to do to assert a Miller Act claim:

 

The MIller Act protects subcontractors on federal projects by requiring contractors to post a bond to ensure payment to their subcontractors. To establish a Miller claim, W.W. Gay [subcontractor] must show (1) that it supplied labor and materials for work in the particular contract at issue; (2) that it is unpaid; (3) that it had a good faith belief that the materials were for the specified work; and (4) that jurisdictional requisites are met.” Walbridge Aldinger, 2013 WL at *1 (internal citations omitted).

 

Irrespective of favorable contractual provisions, the Eleventh Circuit held that the prime contractor “has failed to produce more than a ‘scintilla of evidence’ that W.W. Gay’s alleged delays resulted in the liquidated damages assessed against it by the Navy.” Walbridge Aldinger, 2013 WL at *2.  Although the prime contractor tried to rely on deposition testimony that correspondence was sent to the subcontractor regarding the delays, this was not proof that the subcontractor actually caused delays to the project. This is especially true because the prime contractor was also arguing that the Navy caused delays to the project, i.e., the likely reason it was appealing the liquidated damages assessment.

 

The Eleventh Circuit further analyzed the issue of whether the subcontractor was entitled to monies for additional work pertaining to re-routing an underground storm pipe. The Court found that the record reflected that when the subcontractor learned of the issue regarding the planned location of the storm pipe it notified the prime contractor and the prime contractor directed the subcontractor to install the pipe in the planned location. The prime contractor then waited six weeks before sending a request for information to the government and the government responded telling the prime contractor to re-route the pipe. The prime contractor then directed the subcontractor to re-route the pipe (through the constructive change directive provision or CCD provision in the subcontract). The subcontractor then notified the prime contractor that it expects to get paid for this work and the prime contractor indicated it would pay. The government, however, only paid for a fraction of the additional work item. For this reason, the prime contractor argued that even though it directed the extra work it was only responsible for paying the subcontractor the amount allowed by “applicable provisions” of the prime contract (agreement with the government). In support of this, the prime contractor relied on the following language in its subcontract:

 

Contractor may, without invalidating the Subcontract or any bond given hereunder, order extra and/or additional work, deletions, or other modifications to the Work, such changes to be effective only upon written order of Contractor. Any adjustment to the Subcontract Price or the time for completion of the Work shall be made in accordance with the applicable provisions of the Agreement between Owner and Contractor and the lump sum or unit prices set forth in Exhibit E or, in the absence of such provisions on an agreed, equitable basis. Notwithstanding any inability to agree upon any adjustment or the basis for an adjustment, Subcontractor shall, if directed by Contractor, nevertheless proceed in accordance with the order, and the Subcontract shall be adjusted as reasonably determined by the Contractor with any dispute to be resolved after the completion of the Work. If requested by the Contractor, the Subcontractor shall perform extra work on a time and material basis, and the Subcontract price shall be adjusted based on time records and materials checked by the Contractor on a daily basis.”

 

Yet, the prime contractor never advised what “applicable provisions” of the prime contract supported its argument. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit maintained that the subcontractor should be entitled to be paid for its work on a time and materials basis based on time sheets per the very provision the prime contractor relied upon. Notably, the Eleventh Circuit minimized the significance of the contractual language by stating:

 

“Even assuming that the interpretation of the contract raises issues of material fact, Walbridge is still liable, as the district court found, under the duty of good faith and fair dealing implied in all contracts. Walbridge ordered W.W. Gay to install the storm pipe despite the problem that W.W. Gay had promptly called to Walbridge’s attention; Walbridge then waited six weeks to ask the Navy for advice; and after W.W. Gay had already finished installing the pipe, Walbridge ordered W.W. Gay to reroute the pipe. W.W. Gay understandably insisted that it receive full compensation for its work, and Walbridge accepted, or at least manipulatively encouraged, this expectation. Moreover, the only reason that the Navy did not pay for W.W. Gay’s work is because of Walbridge’s initial error in judgment. Thus, Walbridge cannot now invoke the Navy’s refusal to pay to avoid its obligations to W.W. Gay.” Walbridge Aldinger, 2013 WL at *5.

 

 

CONSIDERATIONS:

Unknown

  • It’s hard to play both sides of the fence. In this case, the prime contractor wanted to play both sides by arguing on one hand that the Navy (government) caused delays it was assessing liquidated damages for and on the other side arguing that the subcontractor caused delays. It takes more than “conjecture” or argument to establish an actual delay. If a party argues delay, it needs to prove the delay (to the critical path that contributed to the overall delay to the project’s schedule) and not just that it “may” have caused delay or that it “could” have caused the delay based on the outcome of the dispute with the government over the assessment of liquidated damages. If the prime contractor wants to employ this tactic, it should include a provision that would allow it and its surety to withhold sums for any potential delay, although unsupportable, if the government assesses liquidated damages until the government’s assessment of liquidated has been resolved and that all claims between the parties regarding such sums shall be stayed pending the resolution. Naturally, such a clause needs to be ironed out with much more specificity and thoroughly considered because there are pros and cons to the provision including whether such a provision would be enforceable against a Miller Act surety (considering suits against the surety must be filed within a year from the subcontractor’s final furnishing). Otherwise, playing both sides can be challenging unless the prime contractor is taking the position with supportable schedule analysis that the subcontractor actually caused delays to the critical path.

 

  • The entitlement to additional work items is a common dispute between subcontractors and prime contractors. Thus, it is important to ensure that there are good notice provisions in the subcontract and that the subcontract clearly specifies what a subcontractor needs to do to be entitled to additional work. In this case, the subcontractor did send notice and was directed to proceed with the work and maintained time sheets verifying its additional work amounts. Too often subcontractors do not keep track of such amounts on a time and materials basis as specified in the subcontract and/or fail to submit timely notice.

 

  • The Eleventh Circuit’s discussion of the implied obligation of good faith and fair dealing is an interesting discussion. The reason being is that it creates an argument that a subcontractor could be entitled to additional work items even if it did not truly comply with contractual provisions, especially if the subcontractor was directed to perform the work pursuant to a construction change directive or another provision.

 

For more information on the a Miller Act payment bond, please see http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/522/ and http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/an-argument-to-recover-attorneys-fees-against-a-miller-act-payment-bond/

 

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.

 

 

WHAT IS SUBSTANTIAL COMPLETION?

 

 

AIA_G704_Certificate_of_Substantial_CompletionThe term “substantial completion” is in most construction contracts. And, it should be. This date marks the date the owner expects to be able to use its project for its intended purpose and, if it cannot, the contractor will (likely) be assessed liquidated damages for the delay to the substantial completion date. The owner’s contractual ability to assess liquidated damages serves to motivate the contractor to substantially complete the project by the agreed date and to reimburse the owner for delay-related damages that cannot be ascertained with a reasonable degree of certainty at the time of the contract.

 

 

A.   How is Substantial Completion Defined

 

 

Under the general conditions of the AIA (American Institute of Architects A201 Document 2007), substantial completion is the stage in the progress of the Work when the Work or designated portion thereof is sufficiently complete in accordance with the Contract Documents so that the Owner can occupy or utilize the Work for its intended use.” (AIA Document A201 s. 9.8.1)   Under the AIA, the architect is required to conduct inspections to determine the date of substantial completion and certifies this date.

 

 

The general conditions of the EJCDC (Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee C-700 Document 2007) defines substantial completion similarly as:

 

 

The time and date at which the Work has progressed to the point where, in the opinion of Engineer, the Work is sufficiently complete, in accordance with the Contract Documents, so that the Work can be occupied and/or utilized for the purposes for which it is intended….Substantial Completion cannot occur before the Project is issued a Certificate of Occupancy (or Completion, if applicable) by the governing building department that allows Owner to utilize the entire Project for the purposes for which it is intended.” (EJCDC Document C-700 s. 1.01.46)
Whether it is an AIA, EJCDC, or other industry form document, substantial completion is routinely defined as that point in time when the owner can utilize its project for the purposes for which it is intended.

 

 

A leading case in Florida discussing substantial completion is J.M. Beeson Co. v. Sartori, 553 So.2d 180 (Fla. 4th DCA 1989). This case involved an owner assessing liquidated damages against its contractor. The contractor was hired to construct a shopping center that required substantial completion within 300 days of commencement. The contract provided that substantial completion occurred when “construction is sufficiently complete in accordance with the Contract Documents, so the owner can occupy or utilize the work or designation portion thereof for the use for which it is intended.” J.M Beeson, 553 So.2d at 181. Although two anchor tenants in the shopping center received Certificates of Occupancy within the 300 days, another tenant did not. The owner took the position that substantial completion had not been achieved, irrespective of the Certificates of Occupancy, because items such as landscaping were not completed. The Fourth District dismissed the owner’s position finding:

 

 

“[W]hen the owner can put tenants in possession for fixturing and can begin to collect rents, the owner begins to utilize the work for its intended purpose. When the owner was able to occupy and fixture the constructed space, the construction was substantially completed.”  J.M. Beeson, 553 at 182-83 (internal citations omitted).

 

 

The Fourth District indicated that the substantial completion date occurred no later than the date the shopping center was able to obtain certificates of occupancy for the tenants.  Notably, if the contractor in J.M. Beeson was simply required to build shell retail space where the tenants were responsible for their own tenant improvements, the substantial completion would likely occur when an applicable certificate of completion was issued for the shell space pursuant to the shell permit that would entitle the tenants to begin their individual improvements. See, e.g., Hausman v. Bayrock Investment Co., 530 So.2d 938 (Fla. 5th DCA 1988) (finding that test for substantial completion for property tax purposes is the date property is put to use for which it is intended; in this case, since contactor was building shell retail space, substantial completion occurred when shells were completed).

 

 

If an owner is in a position to use its project for its intended purpose (whether for personal use, public use, whatever the project entails), this really should mark the substantial completion date. This is more of an objective date determined by the governing building department through the issuance of a certificate relating to the permit.

 

 

B.  Contract Drafting / Understanding Tips

 

 

I prefer the substantial completion definition in the general conditions of the EJCDC (above) because it references that this point in time should not be earlier than the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy (or applicable Certificate of Completion). Even though most contracts give certain discretion to the design professional to determine and certify the date, the fact remains that the Certificate of Occupancy is realistically the date that determines when an Owner can use its project for its intended purpose since it permits occupancy. I often like to tie the substantial completion date in the contract to the Certificate of Occupancy date or Temporary Certificate of Occupancy date (since the TCO date may be the date that allows occupancy under certain conditions) since this more accurately reflects the date the Owner can use its project for its purpose (or, if it is a project for shell space, the Certificate of Completion date that authorizes the tenant to construct finishes / improvements).  Also, this removes some of the discretion from the design professional and shifts their focus to generating the punchlist and working towards final completion.

 

 

From an owner’s perspective, if it agrees to a mutual waiver of consequential damages in the contract, it must absolutely include a liquidated damages provision tied to the substantial completion date. If it does not want to include a liquidated damages provision, then the owner needs to ensure there is not a mutual waiver of consequential damages provision and, if there is a delay to the substantial completion date, be in a position to prove its actual delay-related damages.

 

 

From a contractor’s perspective, it wants to agree to a substantial completion date where arguably there is float built into its schedule to ensure it has enough time to substantially complete the project. Also, it will want to ensure through flow-down provisions in its subcontracts that it has the ability to flow down assessed liquidated damages to responsible subcontractors that impact its critical path.

 

 

From a subcontractors’ perspective, it needs to understand the contractor’s schedule and how the work is sequenced and ideally have input particularly relating to durations for its activities based on the sequencing of the work. Otherwise, the subcontractor could be putting itself in a position where it will be notified of delays since it is unable to meet its required durations.

 

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.