THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS ON A MILLER ACT PAYMENT BOND CLAIM AND THE DOCTRINE OF EQUITABLE TOLLING

UnknownComplying with the one-year statute of limitations to assert a Miller Act (40 USC s. 3133) payment bond claim is an absolute must! Not complying will likely deprive the claimant of its payment bond rights. A claimant should never want this scenario as, in most instances, it is always better to file a lawsuit and preserve the rights to the payment bond. In a recent non-Florida federal case, U.S.A ex rel. Liberty Mechanical Services, Inc. v. North American Specialty Ins., 2014 WL 695106 (E.D.Pa. 2014), the Court discussed whether the doctrine known as equitable tolling could toll the statute of limitations to file a Miller Act payment bond action so that a late filed payment bond lawsuit was deemed timely filed.

 

In Liberty Mechanical Services, the Department of Veteran Affairs hired a contractor to preform renovation work. The prime contractor hired a mechanical and plumbing subcontractor. The subcontractor completed its work in January 2012 and was owed approximately $53,000. As a result of nonpayment, it obtained a copy of the prime contractor’s payment bond from the Department of Veteran Affairs in September 2012 (nine months from completing its work–there were allegations that it had difficulty obtaining a copy of the bond from the government). The subcontractor then sent a letter to the surety advising that it would not provide close out documents until it was paid in full and that its lawyer will be filing a claim against the bond. The surety responded that it would get the ball rolling regarding the claim while reserving all of its rights. Subsequently, the prime contractor reached out to the subcontractor and advised that it would pay and, therefore, an action against the bond would not be necessary. However, in February 2013, more than a year after the subcontractor completed its work, it still had not received payment from the prime contractor. Then, the surety told the subcontractor that it would not pay because the subcontractor’s claim was now time-barred by the one-year statute of limitations to sue on a Miller Act bond. Accordingly, in June 2013, approximately fifteen months from the subcontractor’s completion date, it filed a Miller Act lawsuit.

 

The Miller Act mandates:

 

“[E]very contractor on a federal government contract exceeding $100,000 to provide ‘[a] payment bond with a surety … for the protection of all persons supplying labor and material in carrying out the work provided for in the contract. Any supplier or sub-contractor who has not been paid in full within 90 days for labor performed or supplies furnished may bring a civil action on the payment bond for the amount unpaid at the time the civil action is brought and may prosecute the action to final execution and judgment for the amount due… The Act requires that suit must be brought no later than one year after the day on which the last of the labor was performed or material was supplied by the person bringing the action.” Liberty Mechanical Services, supra, *3 (internal citations and quotations omitted).

 

Here, the Miller Act lawsuit was admittedly outside the one-year statute of limitations (more than one year from the subcontractor’s final furnishing date in January 2012); however, the subcontractor argued that the limitations period should be equitably tolled to allow it to move forward with the lawsuit and excuse its late filing.

 

The Third Circuit has explained that the doctrine of equitable tolling can apply to excuse a late filing after the expiration of the statute of limitations under the following circumstances:

 

“(1) where the defendant has actively misled the plaintiff respecting the plaintiff’s cause of action; (2) where the plaintiff in some extraordinary way has been prevented from asserting his or her rights; or (3) where the plaintiff has timely asserted his or her rights mistakenly in the wrong forum.” Liberty Mechanical Services, supra, at *8 quoting Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1387 (3d Cir. 1991).

 

The plaintiff, or late-filer, in applying the circumstances, must show it exercised reasonable diligence in investigating its claim and filing suit on its claim.

 

Notably, Florida district courts have applied equitable tolling under analogous circumstances:

 

(1) the late filing plaintiff has been misled by defendant’s misconduct into allowing the statutory period to expire; (2) the plaintiff was unaware that his/her rights had been violated and therefore of the need to seek redress; or (3) the plaintiff actively pursued his/her judicial remedies but filed a defective pleading during the limitations period, timely filed in an improper forum and has exercised due diligence in all other respects in preserving his legal rights.” Booth v. Carnival Corp., 510 F.Supp.2d 985, 988 (S.D.Fla. 2007) citing Justice v. U.S., 6 F.3d 1474, 1479 (11th Cir. 1993).

 

The subcontractor in Liberty Mechanical Services alleged random facts to support its late filing. It first argued that it took roughly nine months from its final furnishing date to receive a copy of the payment bond from the Department of Veteran Affairs. Yet, this argument failed because the subcontractor still had three months left under the statute of limitations to timely pursue an action on the bond. The subcontractor argued that the prime contractor indicated it would pay so there was no need for the subcontractor to file a bond claim. Yet, this argument failed because nothing prevented the subcontractor from timely preserving its rights and filing a claim. In other words, the prime contractor indicating its intent to pay did not deprive the subcontractor of timely pursuing its rights. And, the subcontractor argued that the surety indicated that it would “get the ball rolling” once it was notified of the claim while reserving all rights. Yet, this argument failed because the surety never represented that it would pay, but, in essence, simply responded that it received and would investigate the claimant’s claim–a common response from a surety.

 

While equitable tolling could possibly work to support the basis for a late filed Miller Act payment bond claim, the plaintiff / claimant must plead and prove: 1) it used due diligence to timely file its claim and 2) the circumstances fit into one of the three limited categories identified above as to why the plaintiff could not have timely filed the lawsuit even exercising due diligence. However, the facts to support equitable tolling should be severe such that equity would require the tolling of the limitations so that a late filed Miller Act lawsuit is excused and deemed timely filed. Otherwise, claimants would simply conjure up excuses to support the late filing and completely water down the intent of the statute of limitations. The key for a claimant is to: 1) know the statute of limitations for a Miller Act payment bond claim, 2) know the final furnishing date, and 3) timely file the payment bond claim – no excuses!

 

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.

PAY-WHEN-PAID AND THE PREVENTION OF PERFORMANCE DOCTRINE

UnknownThe pay-when-paid doctrine is a standard provision in subcontracts to shift the risk of the owner’s nonpayment to the subcontractor. The owner’s payment to the contractor is a condition precedent to the contractor’s payment to the subcontractor. However, if there is a payment bond in place, a surety in Florida cannot rely on this contractual defense to defeat a subcontractor’s claim. (Notably, in other jurisdictions, a surety can rely on this defense.) The pay-when-paid doctrine has been discussed numerous times in the following articles: http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/pay-when-paid-provisions-and-payment-bonds/ and http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/subcontractors-and-unjust-enrichment-claims/ and http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/careful-drafting-of-pay-when-paid-provisions/.

 

Sometimes, there is not a payment bond in place and the subcontractor is forced to assert a direct claim against the contractor. Or, perhaps, the subcontractor may not have properly preserved its lien / bond rights and its best recourse is to assert a claim against the contractor. In this situation, the contractor will be able to rely on the pay-when-paid provision in its subcontract assuming it can prove that it was not paid for the subcontractor’s work that is the subject of the dispute. This defense, however, may not be absolute. There is a legal doctrine known as the prevention of performance” doctrine.

 

Florida law provides:

 

Under the doctrine of prevention of performance, one who prevents the happening of a condition precedent upon which his liability is made to depend, cannot avail himself of his own wrong and thereby be relieved of his responsibility to perform under the contract.” Florida Ins. Guar. Ass’n v. Somerset Homeowners Ass’n, Inc., 83 So.3d 850, 852, n.1 (Fla. 4th DCA 2011) (internal quotation omitted).

 

 

This doctrine really has not been analyzed in the context of a pay-when-paid defense under Florida case law. Yet, now and again, a case outside of Florida addresses interesting points that are worthy of discussion.

 

In Moore Brothers Co. v. Brown & Root, Inc., 207 F.3d 717 (4th Cir. 2000), the Fourth Circuit (interpreting Virginia law) analyzed the prevention of performance doctrine in the context of a contractor raising the pay-when-paid defense. In this case, the contractor entered into a contract to build a private toll road in Virginia. (The contractor was also an equity partner in the ownership group.) During the drafting of the prime contract, several design issues were referenced that would result in additional payment to the contractor. One of those issues was changing the thickness of the pavement subbase material. There was strong uncertainly over the initial pavement design and it was anticipated that the thickness of the pavement subbase material would change. The construction lenders wanted to contain construction costs and insisted on certainty in determining the costs. The lenders did not want to authorize a prime contract that did not provide this certainty and the draft prime contract with examples of additional costs the lenders may have to fund did not sit well with them. To appease the lenders, the owner and the contractor agreed to remove examples of design changes or issues that would result in increased construction costs. The owner and contractor further assured the lenders that they did not anticipate substantial changes in the work (such as a change in the pavement subbase thickness). Of course, what the contractor and owner assured the lenders was not really what they believed because they anticipated a design change regarding the thickness of the pavement subbase material. Thus, the owner and contractor entered into a side agreement that was not shared with the lenders concerning the design changes / issues that would result in increased costs to the contractor.

 

The contractor then hired subcontractors to perform scopes of work relative to the road construction. The subcontracts contained pay-when-paid provisions. The contractor did not advise the subcontractors that design changes such as a potential change in the thickness of the pavement subbase material were hidden from the lenders and that such a change would likely not be funded by the lenders. The contractor did not seem as concerned with this because it had pay-when-paid language shifting the risk of nonpayment to the subcontractors (although the contractor did have a payment bond in place). Naturally, there was a design change that changed the thickness of the pavement subbase material and this work was performed by the subcontractors. A payment dispute originated in arbitration involving the owner, contractor, and subcontractors regarding this additional work. The arbitrator ruled that the owner must pay the contractor for this additional work and the contractor, after receiving payment, must pay the subcontractors. The owner did not pay so the contractor never paid the subcontractors contending that the pay-when-paid language does not contractually require it to pay.

 

Since the arbitration award was never paid, the subcontractors filed suit in federal district court which was appealed to the Fourth Circuit. Among other issues discussed in the case, the Fourth Circuit analyzed whether the contractor was required to pay the subcontractors for the additional work associated with the pavement subbase thickness in light of the pay-when-paid provision. The Fourth Circuit found that the trial court correctly applied the prevention of performance doctrine to hold the contractor responsible for the payment of the additional work.  The Fourth Circuit agreed that the contractor could not rely on the pay-when-paid language in the subcontract because it was responsible for the non-payment or non-occurrence of the condition precedent (i.e., owner’s payment). Specifically, the contractor knew that the additional work would most likely need to be performed which is why this design change was called out in the draft prime agreement. However, because of lender issues, it removed this language from the final prime contract and assured the lenders that additional work was not anticipated. It then contemporaneously entered into a side agreement with the owner that was not shared with the lenders regarding the same anticipated additional work (that it assured the lenders it was not anticipating). The Fourth Circuit held:

 

The prevention [of performance] doctrine does not require proof that the condition would have occurred ‘but for’ the wrongful conduct of the promisor; instead it only requires that the conduct have ‘contributed materially’ to the non-occurrence of the condition.” Moore Brothers, 207 F.3d at 725.

 

 

imagesIt is easy to see how the facts in this case as presented by the Fourth Circuit warrant the application of the “prevent of performance” doctrine. It is uncertain from this case what the lenders would have done if construction costs were increased to specifically cover the highly anticipated design change to the pavement subbase thickness or why this change was not funded through any contingency funds / line item in the loan (perhaps there was none because the lenders insisted on certainty with the costs). It is also uncertain what the lenders would have done (or what they did) regarding the submission of these additional work costs since the parties could not dispute that the work was additional contractual work. And, it is uncertain why the contractor did not obtain bids for the additional work from the subcontractors before hiring them and try to negotiate perhaps a more palatable cost knowing this additional work was likely going to occur. Even though the contractor appeared to try to appease the lenders so this project could move forward, it knew funding for the additional work would be a huge concern and it was not up front with its subcontractors regarding this potential lack of funding. Had it been up front with the subcontractors, perhaps this risk could have been specifically accounted for in the subcontract through specific language or better pricing that could have been presented to the lenders.

 

Notwithstanding, in the event a contractor raises a pay-when-paid defense, a subcontractor may be able to rebut this defense by arguing the “prevention of performance” doctrine, that being that the contractor caused the very non-occurrence of the payment and, therefore, should not be entitled to rely on this defense. Although this argument seems like a tough hurdle for the subcontractor since not all facts will be as egregious as the facts in this case, the contractor should still take steps to eliminate this argument by showing that it took steps to obtain payment from the owner. Subcontractors, on the other hand, that may not have bond / lien rights or want to pursue substantial claims for additional work against the contractor, may want to rely on this argument in furtherance of trying to get around the expected pay-when-paid defense.

 

 

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.

 

 

MILLER ACT – CONSIDERATIONS INVOLVING SUBCONTRACTOR WHEN GOVERNMENT ASSESSES LIQUIDATED DAMAGES

imagesPrime contractors and subcontractors that work on federal construction projects often find themselves in the garden variety payment dispute dealing with (1) entitlement and liability for additional work and  (2) project delays, especially when the government assesses liquidated damages. These issues can put the prime contractor in the undesirable position because it may not have been paid for the additional work items and the government may be assessing liquidated damages against the prime contractor for the delays.

 

The case of U.S. ex rel. W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractor, Inc. v. Walbridge Aldinger Co., 2013 WL 5859456 (11th Cir. 2013), illustrates this garden variety construction payment dispute scenario between a subcontractor and prime contractor on a delayed federal project. This case involves a subcontractor asserting a Miller Act payment bond claim (pursuant to 40 U.S.C. s. 3133) against the prime contractor’s surety for unpaid retainage and additional work items, as well as a breach of contract claim against the prime contractor for the same amounts. The prime contractor argued that it was entitled to withhold payment from the subcontractor due to delays to the completion date of the project that the subcontractor was responsible for causing. In particular, the prime contractor was being assessed sizable liquidated damages from the government (Navy) and although it was appealing the liquidated damages exposure through the Contract Disputes Act, it wanted to offset monies that were owed to the subcontractor based on its potential liquidated damages exposure. The prime contractor relied on subcontract provisions that contained that “time is of the essence” as to the subcontractor’s performance; that it was entitled to withhold sums from the subcontractor for its breach of contract; and that the subcontractor may be liable for liquidated damages and other damages for causing delays in the progress of the project.

 

At the trial court level, the district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the subcontractor finding that the subcontractor was entitled to payment for the retainage and additional work. Attorneys‘ fees were also granted to the subcontractor.

 

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit first discussed the purpose of the Miller Act and what a party needs to do to assert a Miller Act claim:

 

The MIller Act protects subcontractors on federal projects by requiring contractors to post a bond to ensure payment to their subcontractors. To establish a Miller claim, W.W. Gay [subcontractor] must show (1) that it supplied labor and materials for work in the particular contract at issue; (2) that it is unpaid; (3) that it had a good faith belief that the materials were for the specified work; and (4) that jurisdictional requisites are met.” Walbridge Aldinger, 2013 WL at *1 (internal citations omitted).

 

Irrespective of favorable contractual provisions, the Eleventh Circuit held that the prime contractor “has failed to produce more than a ‘scintilla of evidence’ that W.W. Gay’s alleged delays resulted in the liquidated damages assessed against it by the Navy.” Walbridge Aldinger, 2013 WL at *2.  Although the prime contractor tried to rely on deposition testimony that correspondence was sent to the subcontractor regarding the delays, this was not proof that the subcontractor actually caused delays to the project. This is especially true because the prime contractor was also arguing that the Navy caused delays to the project, i.e., the likely reason it was appealing the liquidated damages assessment.

 

The Eleventh Circuit further analyzed the issue of whether the subcontractor was entitled to monies for additional work pertaining to re-routing an underground storm pipe. The Court found that the record reflected that when the subcontractor learned of the issue regarding the planned location of the storm pipe it notified the prime contractor and the prime contractor directed the subcontractor to install the pipe in the planned location. The prime contractor then waited six weeks before sending a request for information to the government and the government responded telling the prime contractor to re-route the pipe. The prime contractor then directed the subcontractor to re-route the pipe (through the constructive change directive provision or CCD provision in the subcontract). The subcontractor then notified the prime contractor that it expects to get paid for this work and the prime contractor indicated it would pay. The government, however, only paid for a fraction of the additional work item. For this reason, the prime contractor argued that even though it directed the extra work it was only responsible for paying the subcontractor the amount allowed by “applicable provisions” of the prime contract (agreement with the government). In support of this, the prime contractor relied on the following language in its subcontract:

 

Contractor may, without invalidating the Subcontract or any bond given hereunder, order extra and/or additional work, deletions, or other modifications to the Work, such changes to be effective only upon written order of Contractor. Any adjustment to the Subcontract Price or the time for completion of the Work shall be made in accordance with the applicable provisions of the Agreement between Owner and Contractor and the lump sum or unit prices set forth in Exhibit E or, in the absence of such provisions on an agreed, equitable basis. Notwithstanding any inability to agree upon any adjustment or the basis for an adjustment, Subcontractor shall, if directed by Contractor, nevertheless proceed in accordance with the order, and the Subcontract shall be adjusted as reasonably determined by the Contractor with any dispute to be resolved after the completion of the Work. If requested by the Contractor, the Subcontractor shall perform extra work on a time and material basis, and the Subcontract price shall be adjusted based on time records and materials checked by the Contractor on a daily basis.”

 

Yet, the prime contractor never advised what “applicable provisions” of the prime contract supported its argument. Thus, the Eleventh Circuit maintained that the subcontractor should be entitled to be paid for its work on a time and materials basis based on time sheets per the very provision the prime contractor relied upon. Notably, the Eleventh Circuit minimized the significance of the contractual language by stating:

 

“Even assuming that the interpretation of the contract raises issues of material fact, Walbridge is still liable, as the district court found, under the duty of good faith and fair dealing implied in all contracts. Walbridge ordered W.W. Gay to install the storm pipe despite the problem that W.W. Gay had promptly called to Walbridge’s attention; Walbridge then waited six weeks to ask the Navy for advice; and after W.W. Gay had already finished installing the pipe, Walbridge ordered W.W. Gay to reroute the pipe. W.W. Gay understandably insisted that it receive full compensation for its work, and Walbridge accepted, or at least manipulatively encouraged, this expectation. Moreover, the only reason that the Navy did not pay for W.W. Gay’s work is because of Walbridge’s initial error in judgment. Thus, Walbridge cannot now invoke the Navy’s refusal to pay to avoid its obligations to W.W. Gay.” Walbridge Aldinger, 2013 WL at *5.

 

 

CONSIDERATIONS:

Unknown

  • It’s hard to play both sides of the fence. In this case, the prime contractor wanted to play both sides by arguing on one hand that the Navy (government) caused delays it was assessing liquidated damages for and on the other side arguing that the subcontractor caused delays. It takes more than “conjecture” or argument to establish an actual delay. If a party argues delay, it needs to prove the delay (to the critical path that contributed to the overall delay to the project’s schedule) and not just that it “may” have caused delay or that it “could” have caused the delay based on the outcome of the dispute with the government over the assessment of liquidated damages. If the prime contractor wants to employ this tactic, it should include a provision that would allow it and its surety to withhold sums for any potential delay, although unsupportable, if the government assesses liquidated damages until the government’s assessment of liquidated has been resolved and that all claims between the parties regarding such sums shall be stayed pending the resolution. Naturally, such a clause needs to be ironed out with much more specificity and thoroughly considered because there are pros and cons to the provision including whether such a provision would be enforceable against a Miller Act surety (considering suits against the surety must be filed within a year from the subcontractor’s final furnishing). Otherwise, playing both sides can be challenging unless the prime contractor is taking the position with supportable schedule analysis that the subcontractor actually caused delays to the critical path.

 

  • The entitlement to additional work items is a common dispute between subcontractors and prime contractors. Thus, it is important to ensure that there are good notice provisions in the subcontract and that the subcontract clearly specifies what a subcontractor needs to do to be entitled to additional work. In this case, the subcontractor did send notice and was directed to proceed with the work and maintained time sheets verifying its additional work amounts. Too often subcontractors do not keep track of such amounts on a time and materials basis as specified in the subcontract and/or fail to submit timely notice.

 

  • The Eleventh Circuit’s discussion of the implied obligation of good faith and fair dealing is an interesting discussion. The reason being is that it creates an argument that a subcontractor could be entitled to additional work items even if it did not truly comply with contractual provisions, especially if the subcontractor was directed to perform the work pursuant to a construction change directive or another provision.

 

For more information on the a Miller Act payment bond, please see http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/522/ and http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/an-argument-to-recover-attorneys-fees-against-a-miller-act-payment-bond/

 

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.

 

 

MORE ON A SURETY’S RIGHT TO DEMAND COLLATERAL SECURITY FROM THE CONTRACTOR BOND-PRINCIPAL AND BOND GUARANTORS

imagesI previously discussed a surety’s right to demand collateral security from its bond principal and personal guarantors by discussing the case Developers Surety and Indemnity Co. v. Bi-Tech Construction, Inc., 2013 WL 4563657 (S.D.Fla. 2013). (Please see below for the link where this blog article can be located.)

 

To add to this discussion, the Middle District of Florida in Travelers Cas. and Sur. Co. of America v. Industrial Commercial Structures, Inc., 2012 WL 4792906 (M.D.Fla. 2012), a case that preceded Bi-Tech Construction, dealt with a similar issue of a performance bond surety demanding the bond principal and guarantor to post / deposit collateral to offset the surety’s liability exposure. In this case, the surety issued a performance bond to the contractor in connection with a residential project. A dispute arose between the contractor and the owner and the contractor sued the owner for, among other claims, breach of contract and to foreclose a construction lien. The owner countersued the contractor and the performance bond surety (which is not uncommon in a payment dispute where the owner asserts construction defects or incomplete performance). The dispute was hotly contested.

 

During the dispute with the owner, the surety demanded that the contractor post collateral – it demanded that the contractor deposit money into a reserve account that would be used to offset the surety’s liability. When the contractor did not post / deposit the amount of money the surety wanted, the surety filed a lawsuit against the contractor (principal) and the contractor’s guarantors that executed the General Agreement of Indemnity (the agreement the surety requires to be executed before it issues bonds on the principal’s behalf). The surety moved for a preliminary injunction asking the Court to order the contractor to deposit the money into a reserve account. The surety also moved for an injunction demanding that the contractor not transfer or encumber assets, allow the surety to have a full accounting of the contractor and guarantor’s assets, and allow the surety access to the contractor and guarantor’s books and records.

 

The Middle District, analyzing the requirements for a preliminary injunction, agreed with the surety and ordered that the contractor post / deposit collateral into the reserve account. Of interest, the surety prior to the lawsuit demanded collateral of $1.5 million that it subsequently reduced to $300,000. Although the surety in its motion for preliminary injunction demanded that the contractor deposit the $1.5 million in collateral, the court ordered the contractor to deposit $300,000 to the reserve account. (There was some indication in the opinion that the contractor posted approximately $139,000 as collateral, but it is uncertain whether this was collateral provided in connection with the issuance of the bonds or the lawsuit with the owner.)

 

The MIddle District elaborated:

 

As one federal court of appeals has succinctly explained, ‘[a] collateral security provision [in an indemnity agreement] provides that once a surety…receives a demand on its bond, the indemnitor must provide the surety with funds which the surety is to hold in reserve. If the claim on the bond must be paid, then the surety will pay the loss from the indemnitor’s funds; otherwise, the surety must return the funds to the indemnitor.’ Moreover, ‘[s]ureties are ordinarily entitled to specific performance of collateral security clauses.’ This is because ‘[i]f a creditor is to have the security position for which he bargained, the promise to maintain the security must be specifically enforced.’ Industrial Commercial Structures, supra, at *2 (internal citations omitted).

 

However, the court did not order the contractor or guarantor to give a full accounting, provide the surety access to books and records, or prohibit the transferring of assets as the surety did not establish it would be irreparably harmed (a requirement for an injunction) if this relief was not granted. Also, the court, unlike the court in Bi-Tech Construction, required the surety to post a $100,000 bond for the injunction to cover damages in the event the injunction was wrongly ordered.

 

Although the court in this case did not discuss the collateral security provisions, such provisions are virtually identical in most General Agreements of Indemnity. Even in a hotly contested dispute between the contractor and the owner (such as the situation in Industrial Commercial Structures), if a claim is asserted against the surety or it is sued, the surety can demand for the principal and guarantor to post collateral into a reserve account to offset the surety’s liability exposure. However, if the surety demands more, such as an accounting, access to books, etc., this case can support the argument that these remedies are not warranted because the surety has not established it will be irreparably harmed if this recourse is not ordered. Now, if the circumstances are different and the surety carries its burden of establishing irreparable harm, it is possible that this recourse will also be ordered; however, this additional recourse should ideally result in a higher injunction bond amount.

 

The objective is for the contractor (bond-principal) and guarantors to understand their rights and options in the event a claim or lawsuit is asserted against the bond.

 

To find out more about this issue and the requirements for a preliminary injunction, please see
http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/a-suretys-right-to-demand-collateral-security/

 

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.

 

PAY-WHEN-PAID PROVISIONS AND PAYMENT BONDS

UnknownPay-when-paid (also known as pay-if-paid) provisions are customary in subcontract agreements. These provisions provide that the contractor must be paid by the owner for the subcontractor’s work as an express condition precedent to the contractor’s payment to the subcontractor. Thus, if the contractor does not get paid by the owner, the subcontractor does not get paid by the contractor. This is a must-include provision to contractors as it shifts the risk of the owner’s nonpayment to the subcontractor.

 

However, on public projects and even many large-scale private projects, the contractor is required to obtain a payment bond that guarantees the contractor’s payment to subcontractors. Importantly, the pay-when-paid language does not protect a payment bond surety; it is not a defense to a payment bond surety. See OBS Co., Inc. v. Pace Construction Corp., 558 So.2d 404 (Fla. 1990) (finding that pay-when-paid language in subcontract does not prevent subcontractor from suing payment bond); see also Everett Painting Co. v. Padula& Wadsworth Const., Inc., 856 So.2d 1059, 1061 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003) (“However, this [pay-when-paid] contract provision is not a defense that is available to Surety.”).

 

From a subcontractor’s perspective, it is important on the front-end to know whether a payment bond is in place and, if so, what steps need to be taken to preserve a payment bond claim in the event of nonpayment. If there is any concern as to whether the general contractor was paid by the owner, it may be advisable to pursue the payment bond directly (instead of the contractor) unless there are reasons not too such as issues with the subcontractor’s compliance with statutory conditions precedent to sue on the bond. (Also, if there are concerns with the venue provision in the subcontract, pursuing a claim against the bond may create an argument to sue in a venue outside of the venue provision in the subcontract.)

 

From the general contractor’s perspective, if there is a payment bond in place, it needs to appreciate that the pay-when-paid defense will not apply to its surety.  One thought is to include a provision in the subcontract that references that the subcontractor understands that the surety is an intended-third party beneficiary of pay-when-paid language and can utilize the pay-when-paid defense in the event the general contractor is not paid for the subcontractor’s work. There is, however, a strong argument that this language would not be enforceable based on caselaw set forth above that does not allow a surety to benefit from the pay-when-paid defense. The leading Florida Supreme Court case, OBS Co. (cited above), that finds that a surety cannot benefit from this pay-when-paid defense, states:

 

“The payment bond is a separate agreement, and any inability to proceed against the general contractor does not necessarily prevent recovery against the sureties under the bond. In this case recovery under the payment bond is in no way conditioned on the owner making final payment to Pace [general contractor]. Nor does the bond incorporate the payment terms of the subcontract.

 

Based on that bolded language, it is an uphill battle to create an argument that the surety can be protected by the pay-when-paid defense because the payment bond does not incorporate each and every subcontract and such language would merely turn the bond into a conditional payment bond, i.e., a bond conditioned on the owner’s payment to the contractor.  Including language in the subcontract that says the surety is an intended third-party beneficiary of the pay-when-paid language is definitely a tough sell, but it has little downside, as the worst that happens is that the pay-when-paid defense does not apply to claims against the surety no matter what, which is likely the case.

 

Notably, it is advisable for the general contractor to include language in subcontracts that provides to the extent the pay-when-paid provision conflicts with language in the prime contract, the pay-when-paid language shall govern. The reason being is to avoid any argument that the pay-when-paid language is ambiguous because it conflicts with language in the prime contract (that is incorporated into the subcontract) which would not have a pay-when-paid provision.

 

For motion information on pay-when-paid provisions, please see: http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/careful-drafting-of-pay-when-paid-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.

CARVING OUT EXCEPTIONS IN RELEASES

progress releaseReleases in consideration for progress payments are a routine occurrence in the construction industry. The release language will typically include a release of lien and bond rights through a certain date and it may be broad enough to include a release of other rights through that date, such as a release of any and all claims, damages, costs, fees, amounts, etc. that are known about or incurred through the date of the release.

 
Contractors and subcontractors that have pending or disputed additional / extra work items and/or pending or disputed claims (whether for additional / extra work, delay, lost productivity or inefficiency, acceleration, etc.) need to be sure to carve out the subject matter of the pending items from the release language. It is ok if the specific amount of the carve-out for the additional / extra work or claim is not known as long as the carve-out clearly reflects that the entity is not releasing the amounts associated with the item.

 

 

If an owner (in the case of a contractor) or a contractor (in the case of a subcontractor) refuse to pay the progress payment after it receives the release with items carved out, there is really not much the entity can do because it needs the progress payment. However, to preserve its rights, it should absolutely save the release that was not accepted with the carve-out language and should follow-up with an e-mail or other letter that the owner or contractor, whatever the case may be, refused to pay the entity with the items carved out in the release. This way, if a dispute arises down the road, the entity has done what it can to preserve these items and prevent the opposing party from arguing that the entity waived and released its rights by virtue of the releases it executed in consideration of payment.

 

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.

LIEN TRANSFER BONDS AND VENUE

theVenue(1)The Fourth District Court of Appeals in Attaway Electric, Inc. v. Kelsey Construction, Inc., 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1693a (Fla. 4th DCA 2013)  recently ruled that an action on a lien transfer bond (posted pursuant to Fla. Stat. s. 713.24 in the county where the project is located and lien recorded) needs to be initiated in the county where the bond is recorded. This means that even if there is a contract between the parties that requires a different venue outside of where the lien transfer bond is posted, that venue provision will not be enforced so that an action as to the lien transfer bond and an action under the contract can both be brought in the same county, i.e., where the lien transfer bond is posted.
In Attaway Electric, a subcontractor recorded liens for alleged nonpayment on Broward County projects with the same general contractor. The liens were transferred to lien transfer bonds by the general contractor. The subcontractor moved to foreclose the liens in Broward County and also sued the general contractor for breach of contract. The general contractor then moved to transfer venue to Orange County pursuant to a forum selection provision in the subcontract. The trial court granted the motion and transferred venue. The Fourth District, however, reversed finding that an action on a lien transfer bond must be brought in the county where it is recorded and “contract claims involving the same matters should be brought in the same place to avoid inconsistent rulings.Attaway Electric.

 
This recent decision is important because contractors that want to obtain the benefit of a forum selection provision in a subcontract probably need to have a payment bond and ensure in the subcontract that the forum selection provision covers claims as to the payment bond surety. If there is no payment bond, specifically for a private project, a subcontractor can lien the private project for monies owed. If the general contractor (or even perhaps the owner) then transfers the lien to a lien transfer bond, the subcontractor will be able to foreclose the lien as to the lien transfer bond in the county where the bond is recorded as well as pursue a breach of contract claim against the contractor in the same county, even if the subcontract contains a forum selection provision with a different venue.

 

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.

VENUE FOR PAYMENT BOND DISPUTES IN FLORIDA

theVenue(1)Two main Florida payment bond statutes are Florida Statute s. 713.23 (payment bonds for private projects) and Florida Statute s. 255.05 (payment bonds for Florida public projects-not federal projects). Both statutes prohibit a payment bond issued after October 1, 2012 from restricting venue. In other words, if the payment bond contains a venue provision after this date, it is not enforceable.

 

This prohibition is important because there are times where the project is located in a venue that is not where the subcontractor resides and/or is contrary to the venue provision in the subcontract (typically, a venue where the general contractor resides).

 

It is good practice for the general contractor to include in its subcontract a venue provision that applies to its surety such that the subcontractor must sue the payment bond in the same venue that governs the subcontract. While it is uncertain how the new prohibition from restricting venue in a payment bond will apply in this context, the counter-argument is that the payment bond is not restricting venue, rather the “negotiated” subcontract governs the venue of any and all disputes between the parties including claims against the general contractor’s surety (and the general contractor is indemnifying and defending the surety). Worst case scenario is that the venue provision is deemed inapplicable to the surety. However, courts do not favor splitting causes of action (due to, among other things, the concern for conflicting results over the same facts) and should not favor a subcontractor lawsuit against the general contractor in one venue and a simultaneous subcontractor lawsuit against the general contractor’s payment bond surety in another venue. Indeed, courts have refused to enforce venue provisions in subcontracts in order to avoid splitting of causes of action. See, e.g., Miller & Solomon General Contractors, Inc. v. Brennan’s Glass Co., Inc., 837 So.2d 1182 (2003) (refusing to enforce subcontract venue provision when action as to lien transfer bond was filed in correct venue). Including a venue provision that also covers claims against the payment bond surety is useful in the event the general contractor wants to countersue the subcontractor or simply wants to create an argument that its subcontractor disputes should be confined to its preferred venue versus the subcontractor’s preferred venue.

 

On the other hand, there are situations where a subcontractor may not want to sue the general contractor and strategically prefers to just sue the payment bond surety. One situation may be the subcontractor knows the general contractor was not paid and the subcontract contains a pay-when-paid provision which would be enforceable as to the general contractor, but not against the payment bond surety. Another situation may be due to the venue provision in the subcontract; the subcontractor prefers to sue in a venue outside of the venue provision in the subcontract and has a better argument around the venue provision if it does not join the general contractor. There is caselaw that supports an argument to sue a payment bond surety in a venue where the subcontractor (lienor) resides that, depending on the dispute, could be appealing to the subcontractor. See, e.g., American Insurance Co. v. Joyner Electric, Inc., 618 So.2d 799 (Fla. 1st DCA 1993) (finding that action under s. 255.05 public payment bond was proper where lienor / subcontractor resided); Coordinated Constructors v. Florida Fill, Inc., 387 So.2d 1006 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980) (finding that venue was proper under s. 713.23 private payment bond action where lienor / supplier resided).

 

Venue is a pretty heavily litigated procedural strategic issue.   Just like any dispute, venue as to a payment bond claim should not be ignored and should absolutely be considered at the onset of a dispute.

 

For more information on venue provisions, please see:

http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/venue-provisions-read-what-you-sign/

and

http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/subcontractors-read-and-understand-the-implications-of-venue-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.

RECOVERING DELAY RELATED DAMAGES FROM PUBLIC PAYMENT BOND

imagesOne of the advantages to subcontractors of public payment bonds issued under the Federal Miller Act (or even the Little Miller Act) is that there is an argument for the recovery of unexecuted change orders and, and as it particularly pertains to this article, impact-related costs (whether delay or inefficiency / lost productivity). This should not be overlooked although language in the governing subcontract, etc. could dilute these arguments. However, having the argument and opportunity to recover impact-related costs from a payment bond is a huge upside.

 

If a subcontractor is owed money for inefficiency or delay, etc., and there is a public payment bond in place, it should not automatically forego pursuing these claims against the bond. Unlike a lien where these types of costs / damages are not lienable and could render an otherwise valid lien fraudulent in Florida, these are damages that could be pursued against a public payment bond. The subcontractor should carefully craft its argument in furtherance of maximizing its best chance to recover these types of damages.

 

For example, in the opinion of Fisk Elec. Co. v. Travelers Cas. and Sur. Co., 2009 WL 196032 (S.D.Fla. 2009), a subcontractor sought inefficiency / lost productivity damages against a payment bond surety that appeared to be issued under Florida Statute s. 255.05 (also known as Florida’s Little Miller Act). The payment bond surety moved to dismiss the subcontractor’s complaint arguing that these types of damages are not recoverable under the bond. The Southern District, relying on federal cases interpreting the Federal Miller Act, found that a subcontractor can pursue such damages against the payment bond for its out-of-pocket unreimbursed expenses. See, e.g, U.S. f/u/b/o Pertun Const. Co. v. Harvesters Group, Inc., 918 F.2d 915, 918 (11th Cir. 1990) (finding that subcontractor could recover under Federal Miller Act bond for out-of-pocket expenses resulting from prime contractor’s delay).

 

To maximize the recoverability for impact-related costs, the costs should be supportable costs that the subcontractor actually incurred in the performance of its contract work. Organizing the back-up supporting these costs and theory of the impact is critical and the subcontractor looking to pursue these costs from a public payment bond should consult counsel to best position its arguments to support recovery.  On the other hand, the prime contractor should ensure that its subcontract has contractual provisions that will make it challenging and provide hurdles for the subcontractor to recover such damages.

 

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.