CLEAR CONTRACT LANGUAGE REGARDING PAYMENT IS IMPORTANT

Clear contract language is important.  While clear contract language is important in all cases, it is especially important when it comes to determining how you are to get PAID for your work.  An ambiguity with respect to the manner in which you get paid is counter-productive.  Likewise, not appreciating clear language in your contract regarding the manner in which you get paid is counter-productive.  If you are doing unit cost work where you are getting paid based on a defined measurement, you want to understand how that measurement is calculated.

In a dredging dispute before the United States Court of Federal Claims, North American Landscaping Construction and Dredge Company, Inc. v. U.S., 2020 WL 2090121 (Fed.Cl. 2020), a contractor was hired by the government to dredge a creek.  The contractor was to be paid a unit cost for dredging based on a comparison of before and after survey data.  In particular, the contract stated the contractor would be paid “measured by the cubic yard in place by computing the volume between the bottom surface shown by soundings of the last surveys made before dredging, and the bottom surface shown by the soundings of surveys made as soon as practicable after the work has been completed.”

A dispute arose when the government paid the contractor for 46,065 cubic yards of material removed from the creek. The contractor claimed it was underpaid.  The problem for the contractor, though, was that the contract was clear that payment would be “based on a comparison of before-and-after-dredging survey data.”  North American Landscaping Construction and Dredge Company, Inc., supra at *3.  And, this is how the contractor was paid.  Case closed!

The unit cost payment measurement was included in the contract.  It was clear.  The contractor, apparently, did not appreciate certain aspects of the methodology that applied to contractually required corrective work that was factored into the comparison.  Regardless, appreciating the payment measurement and what it entails (the methodology) is important to avoid a payment dispute.

 

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.

 

ACTIVELY INTERFERING WITH ANOTHER’S PERFORMANCE GIVES RISE TO A BREACH OF CONTRACT

A bedrock principle under contract law is that one party cannot actively hinder, interfere, obstruct, or delay another’s party’s performance.  Doing so can give rise to a breach of contract.

It is one of the most basic premises of contract law that where a party contracts for another to do a certain thing, he thereby impliedly promises that he will himself do nothing which will hinder or obstruct that other in doing the agreed thing. Indeed, if the situation is such that the co-operation of one party is a prerequisite to performance by the other, there is not only a condition implied in fact qualifying the promise of the latter, but also an implied promise by the former to give the necessary co-operation.

Harry Pepper & Associates, Inc. v. Hardrives Co., Inc., 528 So.2d 72, 74 (Fla. 4th DCA 1988) (citation omitted).

The ruling in Harry Pepper & Associates demonstrates what can happen if a contracting party actively hinders, interferes, obstructs, or delays the other party’s performance.  Here, a paving subcontractor walked off the project prior to performance.   At the time it walked off the job its work could not commence due to prior delays with predecessor activities, revised drawings had not been approved by the governing building department, change orders had not been issued to deal with different site conditions, and the subcontractor was not offered an increase in its original contract price.  For these reasons, it called it quits.  The general contractor claimed the subcontractor did not have the contractual right to walk off the project.  There was a no-damage-for-delay provision in the subcontract and the subcontractor’s only remedy for delays was extensions of time for delayed performance. The general contractor, therefore, sued the subcontractor for the additional costs incurred in hiring a replacement paving subcontractor.  Conversely, the subcontractor was not seeking additional costs due to the delays but simply the right to cancel the contract.

The appellate court, affirming the trial court, held that regardless of the no-damage-for-delay provision, it was rendered unenforceable by the active interference of the general contractor: “There is competent and substantial evidence in the record that the general contractor did not cooperate with the subcontractor and engaged in conduct which hindered or obstructed the performance of the contract.”  Harry Pepper & Associates, 528 So.2d at 74.

Remember, regardless of whether your contract addresses delays or production, a party that actively interferes, hinders, obstructs, or delays another’s performance can give rise to a breach of contract.

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.

 

NOW IS THE TIME TO REVISIT CONTRACT LANGUAGE IN LIGHT OF COVID-19 TO ADDRESS FUTURE CONTRACTS


Now is the time!  Today!  If you are currently in the process of negotiating or executing contracts, now is the time to ensure the contract protects your interest in light of this new world we enter into.   The impacts associated with COVID-19 may have been realized by some parties, but not others.  Regardless, the full extent of the COVID-19 impacts has likely been realized by no one — we are dealing with an unknown, prospective impact.

Will projects get suspended?  Will they stop and start back up due to disinfecting?  Will they slow down due to health concerns and preventative measures?  Will there be unanticipated material lead times?  Will current material lead times or material orders  be delayed?  Will material prices increase?  Will there be a labor shortage and/or inefficiencies with the labor force?  Will labor costs increase in order to address the preventative measures and anticipated inefficiencies?

These are some questions you may be asking, plus more.   You are asking these questions because of the unknown factor associated with COVID-19 and any future health crisis.  This is the reason now is the time — the time to ensure your contract best captures the risk of the unknown.

Here are considerations:

1.  Force majeure wording. –   This needs to be beefed up and tweaked to address COVID-19 and, potentially, other pandemics / health crisis.   You need to have an understanding who is bearing the cost risk for a project being shut down (by the government or otherwise), suspended, or slowed-down due to this issue.    Leaving it alone is a mistake.  All contracts until this pandemic hit left it alone meaning no contract truly addressed the global pandemic we are all facing.

2.  Additional safety and preventative health measures. – This needs to be factored in as the additional measures will add a cost to the project.  The measures may also add a cost in that they will add certain inefficiencies into the project that need to be factored into the schedule and general conditions.

3.  Material price escalations.- Could the cost of materials increase due to supply chain issues?  It is certainly a possibility and should be considered.  Further, it is likely that to avoid this issue, a party wants to accelerate the ordering of materials at today’s price, and there may be additional storage costs associated with doing this.   Conversely, what if the price of materials skyrocket post-contract?  This issue could break a party’s performance, profitability, and financial wherewithal to perform.  A party may want to address protection from any uncertainty with material price escalations.

4.  Material lead times and material delays.- If there are delays tied to COVID-19, how this being allocated?  There could be a realistic delay in material deliveries that impacts the project’s schedule.  The delay is not the ordering party’s fault but the result of impacts associated with the pandemic.  Based on this concern, this may result in the discussion of material accelerations and the additional storage costs associated with doing this (also discussed above).

5.  No-damage-for-delay.-  A no-damage-for-delay provision is common.  However, a party may want to deliberately carve-out from this issue delays associated with or tied to COVID-19 or any pandemic / health crisis.  The carve-out language should be broad and include language “arising out of or relating to” COVID-19 or any pandemic / health crisis based on the uncertainty as to how impacts may be realized.

6.  Contingencies.- Certain contracts, such as GMP contracts, contain a contingency.  Parties may want to add a contingency in the contract for COVID-19 and pandemics / health crisis.  A certain sum is built into the contract sum to address the unknown costs that could be incurred.

7.  Dispute resolution.- Knowing that the onslaught of COVID-19 cases will start affecting the judicial system, parties may want to revisit their dispute resolution provisions to see how disputes can be more efficiently resolved.  Parties may consider turning towards more specific arbitration provisions that modify standard contractual language.  Since arbitration is a creature of contract, parties can essentially start negotiating the rules of arbitration within the parameters of the contract.  Parties may demand pre-suit mediation provisions, executive settlement meetings, or partnering agreements as vehicles to efficiently resolve disputes and avoid delays or inefficiencies with the judicial system.

These are some talking points.  There will be others based on the scope.  I remain available to assist any party that wants to revisit their standard form contracts or needs help in drafting or negotiating contracts.   A party should not rely on their same-ole contract forms.  Also, a party should not rely on the same-ole negotiation as COVID-19 brought new issues to the table and highlighted the significance of other issues and contractual provisions.

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.

 

GENERAL TIPS WHEN IT COMES TO CONSTRUCTION CONTRACT DRAFTING AND NEGOTIATION

When it comes to construction contracts, there are many good industry form templates that can be used.   All are templates and all are designed to be modified to conform to the jurisdiction’s law and, of course, the parameters of the project.  There are industry form templates from the American Institute of Architects, ConsensusDocs, Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee, and Design-Build Institute of America.  All include good provisions.  Regardless of the industry form template utilized, or whether your own template is utilized, contract drafting and negotiation is all about assessing risk and allocating risk to the party best equipped to manage that risk.  Oftentimes, management of the risk is considered in conjunction with insurance coverage to cover that associated risk.  Construction contract drafting and negotiation should not be taken lightly because “you want to know what you are getting into” so that you can best manage and address issues that arise, and you know issues always arise in construction.

Here are some general tips when it comes to construction contract drafting and negotiation:

  • Work with a construction attorney. Yes, I had to go there, because too frequently parties want to draft the contract without legal assistance, or negotiate without legal assistance, and this is not always fruitful.  Working with a construction attorney can at least help you assess the risk and ensure that a contract is sufficiently drafted or negotiated based on your understanding and appreciation of risk. I am routinely involved in some capacity when it comes to construction contract drafting and negotiation.

 

  • Obtain documents that are incorporated or flowed-down into the contract. Most contracts will either incorporate other documents or, in the case of a subcontract, contain flow-down provisions that flow-down obligations from the prime contract into the subcontract.  To best understand and appreciate the risk you are accepting, including risk associated with your scope of work, obtain these documents incorporated or flowed-down into the contract.   Not doing so is a mistake when these documents will impose obligations or requirements on you.

 

  • Review the insurance coverage language and consult with your insurance broker to make sure you have the required insurance. Insurance coverage is key.  Many times, contracts require heightened insurance coverage requirements that, realistically, are not available to a certain contractor.  Consider the insurance coverage requirements and consult with your insurance broker (and your construction attorney, if possible) regarding the insurance coverage, additional premium associated with the coverage, whether the coverage is available to you, and whether there is additional insurance coverage you should consider based on your scope of work.

 

  • Have an appreciation of the following driving provisions that will be important no matter the project:
    • Indemnification
    • Insurance coverage
    • Dispute resolution including forum selection, prevailing party attorney’s fees, joinder, and abatement or staying of certain disputes or claims
    • Termination for default and for convenience
    • Default and notification of default and any cure period
    • Suspension of work
    • Payment timing and requirements including any pay-if-paid language and conditions precedent to payment
    • Claims procedures including timing requirements when to submit claims and the waiver of claims
    • Change orders and directives
    • Scope of work to make sure you understand the scope of work in the contract as it will likely include work and risk not included in your proposal
    • No-damage-for-delay and all schedule-based language (since time is money)

The construction contract serves as the backbone governing your relationship with the project.  Do not neglect the importance of the construction contract or deprioritize its importance.

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.

 

 

ENFORCEMENT OF CONTRACTUAL TERMS (E.G., FLOW-DOWN, FIELD VERIFICATION, SHOP DRAWING APPROVAL, AND NO-DAMAGE-FOR-DELAY PROVISIONS)

What you contractually agree to matters, particularly when you are deemed a sophisticated entity.  This means you can figuratively live or die by the terms and conditions agreed to.   Don’t take it from me, but it take it from the Fourth Circuit’s decision in U.S. f/u/b/o Modern Mosaic, Ltd. v. Turner Construction Co., 2019 WL 7174550 (4th Cir. 2019), where the Court started off by stressing, “One of our country’s bedrock principles is the freedom of individuals and entities to enter into contracts and rely that their terms will be enforced.”  Id. at *1.

This case involved a dispute between a prime contractor and its precast concrete subcontractor on a federal project.  The subcontractor filed a Miller Act payment bond lawsuit.   The trial court ruled against the subcontractor based on…the subcontract’s terms!  So, yes, what you contractually agree to matters.

Example #1 – The subcontractor fabricated and installed precast concrete panels per engineering drawings. However, the parking garage was not built per dimensions meaning the panels it fabricated would not fit. The subcontractor had to perform remedial work on the panels to get them to fit.  The subcontractor pursued the prime contractor for these costs arguing the prime contractor should have field verified the dimensions. The problem for the subcontractor, however, was that the subcontract required the subcontractor, not the prime contractor, to field verify the dimensions.  Based on this language that required the subcontractor to field verify existing conditions and take field measurements, the subcontractor was not entitled to its remedial costs (and they were close to $1 Million).  Furthermore, and of importance, the Court noted that the subcontract contained a flow down provision requiring the subcontractor to be bound by all of the terms and conditions of the prime contract and assume those duties and obligations that the prime contractor was to assume towards the owner.  While this flow-down provision may often be overlooked, here it was not, as it meant the subcontractor was assuming the field verification duties that the prime contractor was responsible to perform for the owner.

Example #2 – The subcontractor also argued that the prime contractor should bear its remedial costs to the precast panels because it accepted its shop drawings for the panels.  However, the subcontract and prime contract (that was flowed down) required the subcontractor to obtain the approval of the prime contractor for the shop drawings before it started fabricating the panels.  The subcontractor did not have the contractual right to begin fabrication prior to approval.  The subcontractor, not uncommonly, started fabrication before the shop drawings were approved by the prime contractor.  But even if the subcontractor obtained the approval, the subcontract provided that such approval does not relieve the subcontractor of performing the work per the plans and specifications and the proper matching and fitting of its work.

Example #3 – The subcontractor claimed it incurred additional costs due to soil remediation from another subcontractor. This required the subcontractor to wait many months for the soil to be properly prepared before it could finish its work.  The subcontractor also incurred storage costs during this time.  The prime contractor argued that the subcontract contained a no-damage-for-delay provision that barred the subcontractor’s damages.  The trial court, affirmed by the appellate court, agreed that the subcontractor’s damages due to the delay were barred by the no-damage-for-delay provision it agreed to in the subcontract.

And, as the Court strongly concluded: “When parties, particularly sophisticated commercial entities like [prime contractor] and [subcontractor], negotiate and enter into written agreements, they have a right to expect the provisions of those agreements will not be cast aside when a dispute arises.”  Id at 6.    The Court started off and concluded its decision with the same principle

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.

 

GENERAL CONTRACTOR SUPPORTING A SUBCONTRACTOR’S CHANGE ORDER ONLY FOR OWNER TO REJECT THE CHANGE

The opinion in Westchester Fire Ins. Co, LLC v. Kesoki Painting, LLC, 260 So.3d 546 (Fla. 3d DCA 2018) leads to a worthy discussion because it involves a common scope of work occurrence on construction projects involving a general contractor and subcontractor.  The contractor submits a subcontractor’s change order request to the owner and the owner rejects the change order.   What happens next is a scope of work payment dispute between the general contractor and subcontractor.   Yep, a common occurrence.

In this case, a general contractor hired a subcontractor to perform waterproofing and painting.  A scope of work issue arose because the specifications did not address how the window gaskets should be cut and then sealed. The owner wanted the window gaskets cut at a 45-degree angle and the subcontractor claimed this resulted in increased extra work.    The general contractor agreed and submitted a change order to the owner to cover these costs.  The owner rejected the change order claiming it was part of the general contractor’s scope of work even though the cutting of window gaskets at a 45-degree angle was not detailed in the specifications.

After the subcontractor filed a suit against the general contractor’s payment bond surety, the project architect further rejected the change order because gasket cutting was part of the specification requirements.  (Duh! What else was the architect going to say?  It was not going to concede there was an omission that resulted in a change order to the owner, right?)

Importantly, the subcontract agreement stated that, “If a dispute arises between the Contractor and the Subcontractor regarding the Scope of Work, or in the interpretation of the Contract Documents, and the parties hereto do not resolve that dispute, the decision of the [Architect] shall be final.”   As it pertains to this provision, while the appellate court noted the enforceability of the provision, it found that it did not apply because there was not a scope of work dispute between the general contractor and its subcontractor.  The general contractor agreed that this resulted in a change order condition, i.e., that there was a change to the subcontractor’s scope of work, and submitted a change order to the owner for the scope of work change.  Ouch!  The payment bond surety was on the hook to pay for this change order.

A few things that I find noteworthy.

First, the opinion does not include a lot of discussion on language in the subcontract. This tells me that there may not have been great language in the subcontract dealing with the subcontractor’s scope of work.  It is not uncommon to hear that a specification does not include every single detail so if the subcontractor was always required to cut gaskets in performing its scope of waterproofing work then there may be an argument there is not a scope of work change.  Either way, detailing the scope of work in the subcontract is important to account for the inevitable scope of work dispute.

Second, I understand the logic from the general contractor’s perspective of having the architect decide scope of work disputes between a general contractor and subcontractor because the architect is going to naturally disfavor scope of work changes or changes of work associated with its plans and specifications.  This will benefit the general contractor as a rejection of a scope of work change will support the denial of a change order.  With that said, I am generally not in favor of the finality of such a decision from an architect, particularly when addressing the scope of work dispute may warrant a detailed analysis of the governing subcontract. Also, the court in this case seemed to dismiss such language because the general contractor supported the subcontractor’s change.

Third, just because a general contractor supports a subcontractor’s change order request does not mean that it and its surety should automatically be bound by the change and finance the change.  Again, there was little discussion as to language in the subcontract and it does not appear the surety tried to make an argument under the pay-when-paid clause. While such defense is generally not applicable to payment bond sureties, the (creative) argument could be different when dealing with a change order to preclude the effect of a surety and general contractor being on the hook for every change order submitted to the owner that the owner rejects.

And, fourth, this opinion does not address how the general contractor handled or pursued this with the owner.  That is important because if the general contractor agreed and supported the change, there should have been an effort to collect this amount from the owner.  This leads to another important consideration.  In this scenario, the subcontract could include language that any claim the subcontractor initiates stemming from a dispute involving the owner should be stayed pending the resolution of the dispute with the owner.  On the other hand, if the general contractor elects not to pursue the dispute with the owner but recognized the change, then it having to pay for the change makes sense based on the business decision it made.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

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.

LUMP SUM SUBCONTRACT? PERHAPS NOT.

Lump sum subcontract?   Perhaps not due to a recent ruling where the trial court said No!” based on the language in the subcontract and contract documents generally incorporated into the subcontract.

 

This is a ruling on an interpretation of a subcontract and contract documents incorporated into the subcontract that I do not agree with and struggle to fully comprehend.  The issue was whether the subcontract amount was a lump sum or subject to an audit, adjustment, and definitization based on actual costs incurred.  Of course, the subcontractor (or any person in any business) is not just interested in recouping actual costs, but there needs to be a margin to cover profit and home office overhead that does not get factored into field general conditions.  

 

In United States v. Travelers Casualty and Surety Company, 2018 WL 6571234 (M.D.Fla. 2018), a prime contractor was hired to perform work on a federal project.  During the work, the Government issued the prime contractor a Modification that had a not-to-exceed value and required the prime contractor to track its costs for this Modification separate from other contract costs.  In other words, based on this Modification, the prime contractor was paid its costs up to a maximum amount and the prime contractor would separately cost-code and track the costs for this work differently than other work it was performing under the prime contract.   

 

The prime contractor hired a subcontractor to perform a scope of fireproofing work relative to the Modification.  The subcontract amount was $646,886 and the subcontractor claimed it was due and owing $376,609 upon completing the work and filed a lawsuit against the prime contractor’s Miller Act payment bond.  

 

The prime contractor argued that the subcontract amount was not lump sum and was subject to definitization, auditing, adjustment, and change, although it certainly is not uncommon by any means that a prime contractor working under a cost-plus scenario to enter lump sum subcontracts.   The subcontract contained the following language:

 

  • The Contractor agreed to pay the Subcontractor for the complete performance of the Subcontract the sum of $646,886, subject to additions and deductions for changes agreed upon in writing…and Contractor further agreed to make all partial and final payments in accordance with the terms and provisions of the Subcontract Documents.
  • The Subcontractor had to submit a complete and accurate schedule of various parts of the Subcontractor’s work aggregating the total sum of the Subcontract, itemized and detailed as required by the Contractor and supported by such evidence as to its correctness as the Contractor may direct.
  • Each partial payment and final payment would be subject to final audit and adjustment and Subcontractor agreed to reimburse the Contractor for overpayment.
  • The Contractor was entitled to make changes in the work that could cause an increase or decrease in the work.
  • The Contract Documents including certain Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) clauses were incorporated into the Subcontract.

 

The subcontractor argued that this was not a unit cost contract, but a lump sum contract, and it did not agree to any such changes (such as those that would have removed a scope of its work).  Thus, the subcontractor completed its work and should be entitled to the subcontract amount.

 

The trial court did not agree with the subcontractor: “The Court finds that the Subcontract contains unambiguous language which shows the Subcontract amount was subject to definitization, adjustment, and audit, rather than being a fixed-price amount.”  United States, supra, at *6. 

 

Huh!!??!!

 

The language in the subcontract was relatively standard subcontract language included in most subcontracts.   The changes clause is standard that allows the contractor to increase or decrease the work and the subcontractor is required to proceed with any changes.  The schedule of values language is standard, which is nothing more than an administrative vehicle for purposes of allocating payment based on percentages of work performed.   The overpayment clause is relatively standard.  As the subcontractor argued, the subcontract amount was not based on specific unit costs measured against a specific unit of measurement.  The subcontract did not unequivocally state that the subcontractor would be paid a cost of the work plus a specific markup for profit and overhead.   Nothing of the sort and nothing identifying what should be construed a permissible cost of work versus an impermissible cost of work so that the subcontractor could specifically track its costs of work.  There was nothing that identified the subcontract amount would be reconciled based on the subcontractor’s actual costs of the fireproofing work.  If it did, then the argument that it was not a lump sum amount makes sense.  But, what is there to audit?  The subcontractor’s actual costs should be less than the fixed amount in light of a profit and overhead margin.  The subcontract did not identify what this margin should even be.  If it were a unit cost contract, that margin would be built into the unit costs.  If it were a cost of the work subcontract, as mentioned, it would clearly specify what the agreed markup was and the permissible costs of work to be tracked.  Also, nothing in the subcontract mentioned the subcontractor would only be paid its time and materials based on a specific labor rate where the profit and overhead would be built into the labor rate.

 

As it pertains to the FAR clauses, the trial court held that, “Incorporation by general reference only incorporates the quality and manner of the subcontractor’s work from the prime contract, not the rights and remedies he may have against the prime contractor.”  United States, supra, at *8.   This makes sense and, for this reason, the trial court held that the general incorporation by reference language only incorporated the FAR clause or the Modification at-issue only if they refer to the quality and manner of the subcontractors’ work.  Based on this, the trial court explained that language in the Modification requiring the prime contractor to track its costs was incorporated  into the subcontract because it related to the manner in which the work was to be completed.  This does not make sense as the prime contractor is tracking the fireproofing costs by buying out that scope at a fixed amount.  

 

The trial court’s interpretation based on rather common and standard subcontract language could ultimately turn every fixed price subcontract that requires an audit as a requirement of the subcontractor to track actual costs without any true understanding as to how actual costs are determined, reconciled, or what the appropriate markup should even be.

 

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.

GENERAL CONTRACTOR’S ABILITY TO SUPPLEMENT SUBCONTRACTOR PER SUBCONTRACT

shutterstock_142349770As a subcontractor, you need to appreciate that the subcontract you (more than likely) sign is going to have you bear risk associated with furnishing manpower to maintain the prime contractor’s schedule and progress.   A subcontractor can factor some of this risk into the lump sum amount it agrees to in the subcontract.  But, from the general/prime contractor’s perspective, it is very important that this risk is borne by the subcontractor because there is no such thing as a schedule written in stone.  The baseline schedule, whether attached to the subcontract or not, will change.  Activities will be re-sequenced.  Activities will be added.  Activities will overlap.  Activity start dates and finish dates will change.  It is the nature of construction.  As a subcontractor, you know all of this because it is the same no matter the project. Schedules are never written in stone — they change on a regular basis.

 

The subcontract will include a number of provisions that address the schedule, the prime contractor’s discretion to adjust the schedule and supplement the work, and the subcontractor’s requirement to maintain progress.  These are provisions that shift risk to the subcontractor including:

 

  • The subcontractor will furnish all manpower to complete its scope of work;
  • Time is of the essence with respect to the subcontractor’s performance of its work;
  • The prime contractor has the right to decide the time and order of various portions of the subcontractor’s work;
  • The subcontractor must prosecute its work in a prompt and diligent manner and at such times as the prime contractor directs;
  • The subcontractor must keep itself thoroughly informed as to the overall progress of the project;
  • The subcontractor must not delay, hinder, or interfere with the progress of the project;
  • The subcontractor must notify the prime contractor within “X” days after the occurrence of the circumstances giving rise to a change (or delay) or else waive such claim for additional time or compensation;
  • If the subcontractor fails to furnish sufficient manpower or prosecute the work with promptness and diligence, which is not corrected after “X” days after receiving notice, the prime contractor can declare the subcontractor in default, supplement the subcontractor, terminate the subcontract in whole or in part, and/or complete the subcontract work at the expense of the subcontractor;
  • The prime contractor can withhold payments if the subcontractor is unable to comply with subcontractual obligations, perform its work, or is delaying or is in reasonable danger of delaying the work; and
  • The subcontractor is required to indemnify the prime contractor for damages resulting from its breaches of the subcontract (which may be an indemnification provision separate from an indemnification for personal injury or property damage claims).

 

These types of provisions are crafted a number of different ways, are perhaps more onerously drafted, but the intent is the same relating to the subcontractor assuming risk and ensuring the prime contractor has recourse against the subcontractor associated with that risk.   (An example of such risk-shifting provisions in a subcontract can be found here.)  Again, these are important provisions for prime contractors to include in subcontracts.  They are also important provisions for subcontractors to factor in the risk associated with the subcontract amount.

 

In a recent bench trial, MWH Constructors, Inc. v. Brown and Brown Electric, Inc., 2018 WL 2087687 (S.D.Fla. 2018), a prime contractor sued its electrical subcontractor for breach of subcontract and contractual indemnification associated with the subcontractor’s inability to maintain progress during the construction of a water treatment project.  The subcontractor counter-sued for its contract balance.  The subcontract at-issue contained all of the provisions discussed above.

 

During the subcontractor’s scope of work, its president and qualifier died.  Thereafter, it began to fall behind schedule and was not furnishing sufficient manpower. There were numerous discussions between the prime contractor and subcontractor regarding the subcontractor’s inability to timely complete its work.  It was discussed that the subcontractor needed additional manpower and needed to work on Saturdays to recover lost time.   The subcontractor, however, was unable to abide by its commitments.  Further meetings were held and notifications were sent to the subcontractor. The public owner notified the prime contractor the job was delayed, the electrical subcontractor was behind schedule, and was threatening to assess liquidated damages.  Finally, after the subcontractor was unable to improve its progress, the prime contractor declared the subcontractor in default and supplemented its work with another electrical subcontractor and back-charged the subcontractor for such costs.

 

Due to the supplementation, the prime contractor paid the supplemental electrical subcontractor in excess of the defaulted subcontractor’s contract balance.  The prime contractor also had to pay the defaulted subcontractor’s lower tiered subcontractors and suppliers because the defaulted subcontractor did not pay them (likely because it did not have the cash flow due to the prime contractor withholding contract balance). 

 

The trial court entered judgment in favor of the prime contractor against the subcontractor finding that the prime contractor was justified supplementing the subcontractor in accordance with the numerous contractual provisions.  The prime contractor put on evidence at trial supporting the justification in conjunction with its rights under the prime contract. 

 

Of importance, the trial court was not going to rewrite the subcontract or the risks the subcontractor assumed in the subcontract:

 

Contracts are voluntary undertakings, and contracting parties are free to bargain for-and specify-the terms and conditions of their agreement.  That freedom is a constitutionally protected right.

***

Thus, [i]t is not the function of the courts to rewrite a contract or interfere with the freedom of contract or substitute their judgment for that of the parties thereto in order to relieve one of the parties from the apparent hardship of an improvident bargain.

***

Rather, the court’s task is to apply the parties’ contract as-written, not rewrite it under the guise of judicial construction.

 

MWH Constructors, Inc., 2018 WL at *6 (internal citations and quotations omitted).

 

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.

 

EXCULPATORY PROVISIONS IN BUSINESS CONTRACTS

shutterstock_734837968-644x316An exculpatory provision in a contract is a provision that relieves one party from liability for damages.  It shifts the risk of an issue entirely to the other party.   Such a provision is generally drafted by the party preparing the contract that is looking to eliminate or disclaim liability associated with a particular risk, oftentimes a risk within their control.  These provisions are also known as limitation of liability provisions because they do exactly that — limit liability as to a risk.   For this reason, they can be useful provisions based on the context of certain risks, and are provisions that are included in business contracts (such as construction contracts).

 

While such clauses are disfavored, they are enforceable if they are drafted clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally.  If they are unclear, ambiguous, or equivocal, they will construed against enforcement.  See Obsessions In Time, Inc. v. Jewelry Exchange Venture, LLP, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D1033a (Fla. 3d DCA 2018) (finding exculpatory clause in lease ambiguous and, therefore, unenforceable as to lessor looking to benefit from the exculpatory clause).   

 

Exculpatory clauses are enforceable only where and to the extent that the intention to be relieved from liability is made clear and unequivocal. The wording must be so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he is contracting away. A phrase in a contract is ambiguous when it is of uncertain meaning, and thus may be fairly understood in more ways than one.

Peterson v. Flare Fittings, Inc., 177 So.3d 651, 654 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015) quoting Tatman v. Space Coast Kennel Club, Inc., 27 So.3d 108, 110 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009). 

 

 

Because such clauses are disfavored and will be narrowly construed against the party who benefits from the clause, there are certainly public policy considerations that may come into play. See, e.g., Loewe v. Seagate Homes, Inc., 987 So.2d 758 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008) (exculpatory provision in agreement for purchase and construction of new home unenforceable to the extent it relieved homebuilder for an intentional tort and homebuilder could not contract around complying with building code). 

 

When negotiating a contract with an exculpatory provision in a contract, make sure you appreciate the risk associated with the clause.  The risk could be significant and outside of your control.  Make sure the provision is drafted in a clear, unequivocal. and unambiguous manner.  If you are dealing with such a provision after-the-fact, consult with counsel to best analyze arguments pertaining to the enforceability of that provision.

 

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.

ACCOUNT FOR THE IMPOSITION OF MATERIAL TARIFFS IN YOUR CONSTRUCTION CONTRACT

shutterstock_138974732After Hurricane Irma, I wrote an article that contractors should revisit the force majeure provisions in their construction contracts.  Not later.  But Now. The force majeure provision is an important provision in a construction contract to account for certain uncertainties that you have NO control over. 

 

Recently, another reason has given rise to contractors needing to revisit their force majeure provisions, as well as any provisions dealing with material escalations. Not later.  But now.  The imposition of raw steel and aluminum tariffs (tax on imported goods) and the back-and-forth regarding a potential trade war leads to the kind of uncertainty that should be assessed as a risk.  A risk in both time and cost from material escalations.

 

Contractors want to revisit their force majeure provisions, as well as any material escalation language, for these two reasons. 

 

First, you want to ensure any delay, to the extent there is any, associated with the tariffs or potential trade war provides for a time extension.    Any impact a contractor has with the delivery or fabrication of raw steel due to the imposition of tariffs should result in an extension of time.

 

 

Second, and probably the bigger concern, is associated with price.  Higher raw steel and aluminum costs could mean you based your price on inaccurate supplier and/or subcontractor pricing (pricing that did not factor in tariffs), particularly if the raw steel has not been pre-ordered or pre-delivered. Escalating material pricing is a concern.

 

 

Moving forward, I suggest including language in the force majeure provision that accounts for the imposition of tariffs and the concern of a trade war just to be safe.  Clarity in a contract is always better.  But, adding this language will account for time, but not the escalation of steel and aluminum pricing due to the tariffs.

 

If you are entering a lump sum contract, consider factoring this issue into your pricing.  Or, alternatively, identify an allowance associated with these materials so that you are not penalized based on actual pricing that accounts for the tariff   Another thing you can do is include a contingency in your lump sum contract with language that allows you to use the contingency for this purpose.  The difference between the allowance and contingency is there is still contractor-risk with the contingency if the costs exceed the contingency agreed upon in the contract.  Finally, you can include a carefully crafted material escalations provision that does not require you to bear the risk of certain material escalations.  

 

If you are entering into a Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP) contract, you want to factor this escalating material pricing into the GMP cap.  Most GMP contracts have (and, if not, they should have) a line item for contingency.  The contingency amount should be increased (or there should be a separate contingency) to account for this issue with language that allows the contractor to use the contingency for escalating material pricing.  Alternatively, you can identify that due to the uncertainty associated with steel or aluminum pricing (or perhaps any other pricing) the GMP includes certain allowance items which will increase the contract through change order if the cost of the item exceeds the allowance. Finally, you can include a carefully crafted material escalations provision so that you are not bearing the risk of this uncertainty, i.e., material escalations entitle you to a change order. 

 

The politics behind the tariffs are irrelevant.  What is relevant, however, is the uncertainty behind the impact and pricing associated with the imposition of tariffs and the risk assessment that needs to be factored in to deal with this uncertainty.   This uncertainty affects the costs and potential time associated with obtaining raw materials to fabricate and incorporate into an owner’s construction project.

 

If this issue is currently impacting an on-going project, be proactive and consult an attorney that can review the language in your existing contract(s) and help, as need be, craft a change order request or claim based upon what has already been agreed to.

 

 

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.