Just 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.
The 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.
- 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.
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