The pay-when-paid provision is an important aspect of a contractor’s subcontract. Under this provision, the risk of an owner’s nonpayment to a contractor for a subcontractor’s scope of work is shifted to the subcontractor. In other words, a contractor is not responsible for paying the subcontractor unless the contractor was specifically paid by the owner for the subcontractor’s work–the owner’s payment to the contractor serves as an express condition precedent to the contractor’s payment to a subcontractor. However, for pay-when-paid provisions to be enforceable, they need to be clearly drafted so that it is unequivocal that the owner’s payment to the contractor for a subcontractor’s work serves as the express condition precedent to the contractor’s payment to the subcontractor.
Subcontractors oftentimes look for arguments to circumvent the pay-when-provision. If the contractor has a payment bond, then the subcontractor does not need to look to the contractor for payment, even if the owner has not paid the contractor for the subcontractor’s work. When there is a payment bond, the subcontractor can sue the bond and the surety that issued the bond cannot raise the pay-when-paid provision as a defense. See OBS Co. v. Pace Construction Corp., 558 So.2d 404 (Fla. 1990).
However, if there is no payment bond, or the subcontractor, for whatever reason, did not properly preserve its rights to pursue a payment bond claim, the recent case of International Engineering Services, Inc. v. Scherer Construction & Engineering of Central Florida, LLC, 2011 WL 5109306 (5th DCA 2011), provides another argument that a subcontractor can raise in an effort to escape the harsh effect of a pay-when-paid provision. In this case, the subcontract incorporated by reference the contractor’s prime contract with the owner. The prime contract provided:
“Neither final payment nor any remaining retained percentage shall become due until the Contractor submits to the Architect (1) an affidavit that payrolls, bills for materials and equipment, and other indebtedness connected with the Work for which the Owner or the Owner’s property might be responsible or encumbered (less amounts withheld by Owner) have been paid or otherwise satisfied.”
The subcontractor successfully argued that this provision in the prime contract, which was incorporated into its subcontract, created an ambiguity with the pay-when-paid provision. The reason being is that this provision maintained that the owner was not responsible for paying the contractor until the contractor paid its subcontractors. Well, this conflicts with a pay-when-paid provision which says a contractor is not responsible for paying a subcontractor until an owner has paid the contractor. By the subcontractor arguing that this provision in the prime contract conflicts and creates an ambiguity with the pay-when-paid provision, the Fifth District held that the pay-when-paid provision was unenforceable because it was ambiguous. Thus, the contractor was responsible for paying the subcontractor!
The outcome of this case is important for both contractors and subcontractors. For contractors, it is important to ensure that language in the prime contract does not conflict with language in the subcontract, particularly the pay-when-paid provision. Typically, all subcontracts incorporate by reference the prime contract. One thing a contractor can do is to include a provision in the subcontract that says something to the effect: “If anything in the subcontract conflicts or creates an ambiguity with anything in the prime contract, the terms of the subcontract shall govern. This includes anything that conflicts with the pay-when-paid provision included in this subcontract and subcontractor therefore understands that owner’s payment to contractor for subcontractor’s scope of work is an express condition precedent to contractor’s payment to subcontractor.”
For subcontractors, it is important to request a copy of the owner’s prime contract with the contractor since it is incorporated into the subcontract. By looking for a provision in the prime contract that may conflict with the pay-when-paid provision in the subcontract–a provision similar to the one referenced above that requires the contractor to pay its subcontractors before the owner is obligated to pay the contractor final payment–can allow the subcontractor to argue that the pay-when-paid provision should be deemed unenforceable thereby making the contractor liable to the subcontractor for payment even if the contractor was not paid by the owner.
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