The 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: https://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/pay-when-paid-provisions-and-payment-bonds/ and https://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/subcontractors-and-unjust-enrichment-claims/ and https://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.
It 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.