CONFLICT BETWEEN A SUBCONTRACTOR’S MILLER ACT PAYMENT BOND CLAIM AND A PRIME CONTRACTOR’S CONTRACT DISPUTES ACT CLAIM

Unknown-1The 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).

 

UnknownHow Does a Prime Contractor Account for this Risk?

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

STAYING MILLER ACT PAYMENT BOND LAWSUIT PENDING ARBITRATION

imagesIn a prior posting, I discussed how federal courts have discretion to stay a subcontractor’s lawsuit against a payment bond surety pending an arbitration between the subcontractor and general contractor.  This posting did not pertain to a Miller Act payment bond.  However, low and behold, this same rationale would apply to a subcontractor’s lawsuit against a Miller Act payment bond.

 

In U.S. f/u/b/o John Jamar Construction Services v. Travelers Casualty and Surety Co. of America, 2015 WL 757858 (S.D.Tex. 2015), a subcontractor sued the prime contractor’s Miller Act payment bond.  The prime contractor countered that the subcontractor materially breached the subcontract causing it to terminate the subcontractor for default. 

 

The subcontract contained an arbitration provision and the prime contractor served an arbitration demand on the prime contractor.  The surety was not bound by the arbitration provision (as it was not a party to the subcontract) but moved to stay the Miller Act lawsuit pending the outcome of the arbitration between the prime contrator and subcontractor.  The federal district court agreed with the surety and stayed the litigation because the factual and legal issues between the prime contractor and subcontractor substantially overlapped with the subcontractor’s claims against the Miller Act payment bond surety.

 

Accordingly, if you are a prime contractor and involved in a dispute with a subcontractor where your subcontract contains an arbitration provision–such as in this case where the prime contractor terminated the subcontractor for default–there is little downside in demanding arbitration pursuant to the subcontract.  If the subcontractor initiates a Miller Act lawsuit, there is authority that the lawsuit will be stayed pending the outcome of the arbitration.

 

Conversely, if you are a subcontractor and involved in a dispute with a prime contractor where your subcontract contains an arbitration provision, there is upside in moving forward with the Miller Act lawsuit to ensure the lawsuit is filed within the one-year limitations period.  However, if there is concern the prime contractor will move to demand arbitration under the subcontract (as a means to stay the Miller Act litigation), you may want to consider simultaneously moving to demand arbitration against the prime contractor to preserve your status as the claimant (plaintiff) in the arbitration.

 

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.

 

 

 

STAYING LITIGATION AGAINST A PAYMENT BOND SURETY PENDING THE OUTCOME OF ARBITRATION INVOLVING THE GC AND SUB

canstock3275078The all-too-common dilemma: If the subcontract includes an arbitration provision, but the payment bond does not, can the subcontractor pursue a simultaneous lawsuit against the payment bond surety while there is an arbitration proceeding involving the general contractor? And, can the general contractor or the payment bond surety stay the litigation pending the outcome of the arbitration involving the subcontractor?

 

Hofer, Inc. v. Fidelity and Deposit Co. of Maryland, 2014 WL 644598 (N.D. Fla. 2014), is an interesting opinion that involves this very dilemma. In this case, a payment dispute arose where the subcontractor claimed it was owed money for work it performed for an apartment project and the general contractor claimed the subcontractor was not owed money for deficient work. A familiar fact pattern! The subcontract contained an arbitration provision. Before arbitration came into play, the subcontractor filed a lawsuit against the payment bond. (The payment bond was not an unconditional payment, but rather, a conditional payment bond meaning that if the owner did not pay the general contractor, the subcontractor would have lien rights, not payment bond rights.) After the lawsuit was filed, the general contractor demanded arbitration with its subcontractor pursuant to the subcontract. The payment bond did not contain an arbitration provision nor did it incorporate by reference the subcontract’s arbitration provision. Thus, there was no way the surety could be compelled to arbitration. After the arbitration proceeding commenced, the payment bond surety moved to stay the lawsuit pending the outcome of the arbitration proceeding involving the subcontractor and general contractor. Naturally, the subcontractor contested this motion–it was the party that initiated the dispute first.

 

The Northern District maintained that it is has discretion whether to stay the litigation pending the outcome of the arbitration. It explained that there is a heavy presumption that litigation can proceed at the same time as arbitration when the litigation involves a nonarbitrable claim (a claim not subject to arbitration such as the payment bond claim), but “if the arbitrable issues are crucial for the determination of nonarbitrable claims, a court has discretion to stay the litigation.” Hofer, supra, at *1. In other words, if the arbitration is going to resolve issues that are important to the litigation, a court has the discretion to stay the litigation pending the outcome of arbitration.

 

A payment bond surety is entitled to most of the contractual defenses of its bond-principal general contractor. Therefore, it would be entitled to the same defenses / arguments that the general contractor was raising against the subcontractor pertaining to deficient work. So, if the general contractor prevails in its arbitration, the subcontractor’s claim against the payment bond surety could become moot. Because the payment bond was a conditional bond, the surety and general contractor could argue that the subcontractor does not have a payment bond claim because the owner never paid the general contractor for the subcontractor’s work and the subcontract contained a pay-if-paid provision. However, it does not appear this argument was asserted so perhaps the owner did pay the general contractor and the general contractor simply withheld the amount of the back-charge. To this point, the Northern District maintained, “Nothing in the record suggests that whether Apex [general contractor] has been paid for Hofer’s [subcontractor] work will be an issue in the arbitration process.” Hofer, supra, at *2. Indeed, the only issue in arbitration was whether the general contractor paid the subcontractor the proper amounts due under the subcontract. This means that the fact that the payment bond was a conditional bond instead of an unconditional payment bond was of no true significance in this dispute. This is important because since most payment bonds are unconditional payment bonds (that are not conditioned on the payment of the owner and where pay-if-paid is not a defense), the rationale in this case would apply to unconditional payment bonds.

 

The Northern District found that even though the subcontractor was not bound to arbitrate its dispute with the payment bond surety, the litigation should nonetheless be stayed because i) the subcontractor agreed to resolve its disputes with the general contractor through arbitration and ii) the predominant issue in the dispute, that being whether the general contractor owed the subcontractor money, was being decided by the arbitration proceeding.

 

Although the actual facts of the dispute were not discussed, it seems apparent that once the subcontractor filed the lawsuit against the payment bond, the general contractor affirmatively demanded arbitration pursuant to the subcontract in furtherance of having the dispositive facts of the dispute decided by an arbitrator instead of through litigation. This was a good strategy because the general contractor and subcontractor agreed to have such disputes decided by arbitration. Even though the payment bond surety was not bound by the arbitration provision, the surety is typically defended by the general contractor and is raising most of the same defenses the general contractor would raise such as deficient work. Now, because the court had discretion as to whether to stay the litigation or allow it to proceed simultaneously with the arbitration, this is a risk the general contractor took by virtue of the subcontract. It is a risk because if the Northern District denied the surety’s motion to stay, the general contractor could have likely had the facts of this dispute determined by litigation instead of arbitration (depending on which case was tried first) which could have made portions of the arbitration moot.

 

So, what could have been done to prevent this scenario? A couple of thoughts to create the argument to avoid a simultaneous litigation and arbitration:

 

  1. In drafting the arbitration provision in the subcontract, ensure that it includes the general contractor’s surety. The provision could state something to the effect that if the subcontractor initiates a claim against the general contractor’s surety, the surety, at its option, can invoke and demand arbitration pursuant to this arbitration provision as the surety is an intended third party beneficiary of the right to demand arbitration in this provision. The key is that if the subcontractor files suit and the general contractor/surety prefer arbitration, they have a contractual provision that would make it compelling to dismiss the litigation or, more likely, stay it pending the outcome of arbitration.
  2. The other option, although far, far less common, is to include in the bond that the dispute resolution procedure is the same as in the subcontract of the claimant. There may be arguments around such a provision and the surety may not want its fate determined in an arbitration where there are not any appellate rights (and, perhaps, it may have concerns over the indemnification it is receiving from the general contractor).

 

For more information on arbitration provisions, please see: http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/deference-given-to-arbitration-agreements/ and http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/appreciating-the-risks-or-frustrations-of-arbitration/.

 

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.