The recent opinion in U.S. f/u/b/o Marenalley Construction, LLC v. Zurich American Insurance Co., 2015 WL 1137053 (E.D.Pa. 2015) is a great example as to what could happen when a prime contractor submits a Contract Disputes Act claim to the federal government that includes subcontractor amounts and then a subcontractor simultaneously pursues the same amounts from the prime contractor’s Miller Act payment bond surety. The question becomes should the subcontractor’s lawsuit against the Miller Act payment surety be dismissed or stayed pending the outcome of the resolution of the prime contractor’s Contract Disputes Act claim. The ruling in this case held that the subcontractor’s Miller Act claim could proceed, and would not be dismissed or stayed, pending the outcome of the prime contractor’s Contract Disputes Act claim. This was a great ruling for the subcontractor and obviously puts the prime contractor in an uncomfortable position, to say the least, since it becomes hard to dispute a subcontractor’s claim when the merits of that claim have been packaged (or passed through) to the federal government in a certified Contract Disputes Act claim.
In this case, both the prime contractor and subcontractor agreed that the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) caused additional work that increased the cost of the work. As a result, the prime contractor submitted a Contract Disputes Act claim to the VA that included claims and amounts from subcontractors. While the prime contractor’s claim was pending with the VA, a subcontractor sued the prime contractor’s Miller Act payment bond surety. This was a subcontractor that also had its claims and amounts packaged (or passed through) to the VA in the prime contractor’s Contract Disputes Act claim.
The prime contractor argued that the subcontractor’s Miller Act payment bond claim should be dismissed or stayed pending the resolution of the Contract Disputes Act claim. In particular, the prime contractor argued that because the subcontract incorporated a dispute resolution clause (that incorporated the requirements of the Contract Disputes Act), the subcontractor was required to exhaust this administrative process before proceeding with a Miller Act payment bond claim.
Dismissal of Miller Act Payment Bond Claim?
The ruling to deny the prime contractor and surety’s motion to dismiss the Miller Act payment bond claim was an easy decision. To begin with, a Miller Act payment bond claim needs to be instituted within a year from the subcontractor’s last furnishing so if the court dismissed the claim it would potentially be depriving the subcontractor of its rights under the law without any certainty as to if the subcontractor re-filed the lawsuit it would be within the statute of limitations or the statute of limitations would otherwise be tolled. And, pursuant to the Miller Act, a subcontractor cannot contractually agree to waive its Miller Act rights before the subcontractor performed any work. A waiver of Miller Act payment bond rights is only enforceable if the waiver is: 1) in writing, 2) signed by the party waiving its payment bond rights, and 3) “executed after the person whose right is waived has furnished labor or material for use in the performance of the contract.” See 40 U.S.C. s. 3133.
Stay of Miller Act Payment Bond Claim?
The real determination was whether the subcontractor’s Miller Act payment bond lawsuit should be stayed until the completion of the prime contractor’s dispute resolution with the VA. The court held No!:
“The Miller Act entitles Marenalley [subcontractor] to bring suit ninety days after the completion of its work…not when and if Nason [prime contractor] recovers from the VA. Conditioning Marenalley’s right to recover from the [Miller Act] Payment Bond on the completion of Nason’s CDA [Contract Disputes Act] process would be inconsistent with the terms of the Miller Act.
Nason and Zurich [surety] protest that they will be prejudiced in the absence of a stay due to the costs of dual litigation and the risk of inconsistent decisions. The Court is not overly troubled by these arguments. Ordinarily the fact that a prime contractor has a claim for the same amount pending under the disputes clause of the [incorporated] prime contract, does not affect Miller Act cases.
The CDA process will determine the VA’s liability to Nason. The VA, however, has no jurisdiction over the amount that Nason must pay Marenalley and no interest in how that amount is determined. Thus, a stay would subject Marenalley to a substantial, indefinite delay as Nason’s claim passes through the administrative process and court review, only to be left at the end of that process to begin again here to litigate its rights against Nason.”
Marenalley, supra, at *6 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
So, based on this ruling, how does a prime contractor account for this business risk? And, this is a business risk because there may be value to a subcontractor to pursue the Miller Act payment bond claim rather than wait an indefinite period of time for the Contract Disputes Act process to resolve itself and then hope that the prime contractor pays the subcontractor the portion of the subcontractor’s claim that was passed through to the federal government.
Well, there is authority that would entitle the prime contractor to a stay of a subcontractor’s Miller Act payment bond lawsuit. But, this authority is predicated on language in the subcontract that any action filed by the subcontractor will be stayed pending the exhaustion of administrative remedies.
For example, in U.S. f/u/b/o Trans Coastal Roofing Co. v. David Boland, Inc., 922 F.Supp. 597, 598 (S.D.Fla. 1996), the subcontract contained the following language:
“[s]ubcontractor shall first pursue and fully exhaust [the procedures set forth in the standard disputes clause of the primary contract] before commencing any other action against Contractor for any claims it may have arising out of its performance of the Work herein.”
“[Contractor shall] prosecute all claims submitted by Subcontractor under the contractual remedial procedure of the Prime Contract on behalf of and to the extent required by the Subcontractor.”
“[Subcontractor] agree[d] to stay an action or claim against [the prime contractor’s Miller Act bond] pending the complete and final resolution of the Prime Contract’s contractual remedial procedure.”
Because the subcontractor failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, the court dismissed the subcontractor’s Miller Act payment bond claim. Importantly, this case was decided before there were amendments to the Miller Act that now prevents a subcontractor from waiving a Miller Act payment bond claim prior to performing work. Thus, if this case were decided today, the court likely would have stayed the Miller Act payment bond claim instead of dismissing it unless, of course, it was clear that the statute of limitations for pursuing a Miller Act payment bond claim would be tolled pending the exhaustion of the administrative remedies.
Similarly, in U.S. v. Dick/Morganti, 2007 WL 3231717 (N.D.Cal. 2007), the prime contractor and surety moved to stay a subcontractor’s payment bond claim based on the following subcontract language:
“If the Owner [GSA] and the Contractor [Dick/Morganti], pursuant to the General Contract or by agreement, submit any dispute, controversy, or claim between them to arbitration or some other dispute resolution procedure specified in the General Contract and such a matter involves or relates to a dispute, controversy, or claim between the Contractor and the Subcontractor, Subcontractor agrees …to stay any action filed by the Subcontractor until the dispute resolution and appeals process between the Contractor and the Owner is exhausted.”
The prime contractor argued it “intended” to submit a claim to the federal government [GSA] that will include the subcontractor’s amounts and, as such, the provision should operate to stay the subcontractor’s Miller Act payment bond claim. The court agreed provided that the prime contractor did actually submit the claim.
Thus, a prime contractor should absolutely incorporate language in a subcontract consistent with the language in these decisions that reflects that any action filed by the subcontractor, including an action against the prime contractor’s Miller Act payment bond surety, will be stayed pending the complete resolution of any dispute resolution between the prime contractor and federal government that involves or includes the claims and amounts sought by the subcontractor.
And a subcontractor, even if this language is included in the subcontract, should still move forward and timely file any Miller Act payment bond lawsuit.
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