INDEMNIFICATION PROVISIONS DO NOT CREATE RECIPROCAL ATTORNEY’S FEES PROVISIONS

shutterstock_121868692In a good, recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit in International Fidelity Insurance Co. v. Americabe-Moriarity, JV, 2018 WL 5306683 (11th Cir. 2018), held that Florida Statute s. 57.105(7) cannot be used to shift attorney’s fees in a contractual indemnification clause in a dispute between a general contractor and subcontractor’s performance bond surety, when the dispute does not involve an actual indemnification claim stemming from a third-party.

 

In this case, a prime contractor terminated a subcontractor and looked to the subcontractor’s performance bond surety to pay for the completion work.  The subcontractor had a standard AIA A312 performance bond that requires the prime contractor to comply with the terms of the bond, as well as the incorporated subcontract, in order to trigger the surety’s obligations under the bond.  The surety filed an action for declaratory relief against the prime contractor arguing that the prime contractor breached the terms of the performance bond through non-compliance thereby discharging the surety’s obligations.  The trial court agreed and the surety moved for attorney’s fees. 

 

The surety’s argument for attorney’s fees was threefold: (1) the indemnification provision requiring the subcontractor to indemnify the prime contractor required the subcontractor to indemnify the prime contractor for, among other things, attorney’s fees; (2) Florida Statute s. 57.105(7) provides that one-sided contractual attorney’s fees provisions must apply to both parties (and treated reciprocally), hence the inclusion of attorney’s fees in the indemnification provision means that the surety should be entitled to attorney’s fees; and (3) since the subcontract was incorporated into the performance bond, the surety should be entitled to attorney’s fees since it steps in the shoes of the subcontractor under principles of surety law.

 

Surprisingly, the trial court agreed with the surety.  However, thankfully, the Eleventh Circuit held that the indemnity provision in the subcontract was an indemnity clause that applies only to third-party claims and not suits between the general contractor and subcontractor.  Thus, the requirement of reciprocity for attorney’s fees provisions pursuant to Florida Statute s. 57.105 does not apply.  The Eleventh Circuit, however, did not enter a ruling as to whether even if s. 57.105 did apply such that attorney’s fees must be reciprocal in an indemnification clause, whether such rationale would allow the performance bond surety to recover attorney’s fees under principles of surety law. 

 

This decision is useful for a few reasons:

 

(1)  If a contractor, subcontractor, etc. is trying to create an argument for attorney’s fees based on an indemnification clause, this decision is helpful to put that issue to bed since the indemnification provision applies in the context of third-party claims, and is not related to independent claims between the contracting parties;

(2) A party looking to take advantage of a performance bond must, and I mean, must, make sure to properly comply with the terms of the bond.  Certain sureties will raise any argument to avoid obligations under a performance bond hoping that the beneficiary of the bond undertakes an act that allows the surety to discharge its obligations; and

(3) General (prime) contractors should explore subcontractor default insurance, which is a first-party insurance policy, as an alternative to performance bonds to avoid the issues associated with delays and other arguments a surety may raise in furtherance of avoiding obligations under the 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.

 

PROPERLY TRIGGER THE PERFORMANCE BOND

unknownA performance bond is a valuable tool designed to guarantee the performance of the principal of the contract made part of the bond.   But, it is only a valuable tool if the obligee (entity the bond is designed to benefit) understands that it needs to properly trigger the performance bond if it is looking to the bond (surety) to remedy and pay for a contractual default.  If the performance bond is not properly triggered and a suit is brought upon the bond then the obligee could be the one materially breaching the terms of the bond.  This means the obligee has no recourse under the performance bond.  This is a huge downside when the obligee wanted the security of the performance bond, and reimbursed the bond principal for the premium of the bond, in order to address and remediate a default under the underlying contract.

 

A recent example of this downside can be found in the Southern District of Florida’s decision in Arch Ins. Co. v. John Moriarty & Associates of Florida, Inc., 2016 WL 7324144 (S.D.Fla. 2016).  Here, a general contractor sued a subcontractor’s performance bond surety for an approximate $1M cost overrun associated with the performance of the subcontractor’s subcontract (the contract made part of the subcontractor’s performance bond).  The surety moved for summary judgment arguing that the general contractor failed to property trigger the performance bond and, therefore, materially breached the bond.  The trial court granted the summary judgment in favor of the performance bond surety.  Why?

 

The performance bond in this case appeared to be an AIA performance bond (the AIA Document A312 Performance Bond or modified version thereof).   This appears clear from the following finding by the court:

 

Under the bond in this case, Arch’s [performance bond surety] obligations are not triggered unless Moriarty [general contractor-obligee]: (1) first provides notice to R.C. [subcontractor-principal of bond] and Arch that it is “considering declaring a Contractor Default”; (2) “declares a Contractor Default, terminates the Construction Contract and notifies [Arch]”; and (3) “agree[s] to pay the Balance of the Contract Price … to [Arch] or to a contractor selected to perform the Construction Contract.” …Once Moriarty complies with those three conditions precedent, the bond then requires Moriarty to allow Arch to mitigate its damages by arranging for the completion of the subcontract itself. Lastly, before Moriarty may properly make a demand under the bond, it must provide seven days’ notice to Arch.”

 

The general contractor, as commonly done, notified the subcontractor and subcontractor’s surety that it was considering declaring the subcontractor in default, but never (i) formally declared the subcontractor in default, (ii) terminated the subcontractor, or (iii) agreed to pay the subcontract balance to the performance bond surety.  Thus, the general contractor (obligee) never allowed the surety to mitigate damages by arranging completion of the subcontract upon the subcontractor’s (bond principal) default.

 

Remember, in order to preserve a performance bond claim it is important to properly trigger the performance bond and the surety’s role under the bond.  This means dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s when it comes to declaring the bond principal in default under the specific terms of the bond.   Moreover, if you are the obligee, consider preparing the performance bond form so that you can remove some of the underlying notice provisions in the bond to make the bond more favorable to you.

 

 

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.