If you are a subcontractor on federal construction projects, the opinion by the District Court of Alaska in U.S. f/u/b/o Brice Environmental Services Corp. v. Bhate Environmental Associates, Inc., 2016 WL 544406 (D.Alaska 2016), provides an interesting or not-so-interesting outlook on subcontractors that participate (perhaps by choice) in the request for equitable adjustment (REA) and Contract Disputes Act dispute resolution process. (See this article for more on this outlook that creates a conflict between a subcontractor’s Miller Act payment bond rights and a prime contractor’s participation in the Contract Disputes Act dispute resolution process.)
In this matter, a soil remediation subcontractor submitted an REA to the prime contractor for approximately $3 Million associated with the prime contractor’s standby and additional work directives. The subcontractor claimed that most of the REA was unrelated to issues caused by the owner, but rather, caused by the prime contractor. The subcontractor and prime contractor agreed to a mutual termination of the subcontractor and the subcontractor reduced its REA to approximately $1.1 Million (to include only incurred costs versus anticipated costs). The prime contractor then submitted a change order request to the federal government. The subcontractor shortly thereafter sued the prime contractor and its Miller Act payment bond surety.
The prime contractor and its Miller Act payment bond surety moved to stay the lawsuit pending the completion a Contract Disputes Act resolution and, if required, completion of arbitration thereafter. The subcontractor did not oppose staying its Miller Act payment bond claim pending arbitration with the prime contractor, but opposed staying the case pending the resolution of the prime contractor’s Contract Disputes Act claim. However, the subcontractor acknowledged that claims attributable to the federal government are passed through to the government and that the subcontractor shall not maintain any proceeding against the prime contractor with respect to government-related (owner) claims until resolution of Contract Dispute Act claims. Moreover, the subcontract provided for the completion of the Contract Disputes Act resolution process between the prime contractor and federal government before the subcontractor could maintain any proceeding against the prime contractor in connection with any omission, default, or act by the federal government.
Here, the subcontractor could not establish that the federal government’s acts did not contribute to its claims against the prime contractor; and, the prime contractor submitted a change order to the federal government that included the subcontractor’s costs supporting its position that the federal government’s acts were connected to the subcontractor’s claim. Nonetheless, the subcontractor argued it would be unfair if it had to bear the brunt of waiting for the resolution of any Contract Disputes Act claim between the prime contractor and federal government before the subcontractor could pursue its claim against the prime contractor. The Court dismissed this argument and stayed the action pending the outcome of the Contract Disputes Act resolution process between the prime contractor and federal government expounding:
The economic strain of awaiting resolution of the CDA procedures between Defendant Bhate [prime contractor] and AFCEC [federal government] is, while burdensome, still a reasonably foreseeable event under the Subcontract. Furthermore, denying the Motion to Stay and allowing this matter to proceed would bifurcate the matter, creating parallel proceedings involving many of the same facts and witnesses. Additionally, it could potentially force Defendants [prime contractor and surety] to take inconsistent positions in the simultaneous proceedings, supporting Plaintiff’s claims against AFCEC while defending against them in the arbitration between the parties. An order staying this matter is supported not only by the contract, but also the promotion of judicial economy and efficiency.
Bhate Environmental Associates, supra, at *4.
This is undoubtedly a harsh ruling for a subcontractor that is now forced to wait a potentially long time while the prime contractor participates in the Contract Disputes Act resolution process. While harsh, the subcontractor agreed to bear this risk in its subcontract. And, from the Court’s rationale, even if the subcontractor did not bear this risk, the Court still found that staying the subcontractor’s claims promoted judicial economy since it prevented the prime contractor from dealing with simultaneous disputes (one with the subcontractor and another with the federal government) and taking inconsistent positions.
From the prime contractor’s perspective, this language that requires the subcontractor to bear this risk and stay any dispute pending the outcome of the Contract Disputes Act resolution process is extremely important language (based on the precise reasoning by the Court quoted above).
From the subcontractor’s perspective, this reinforces the notion that it is imperative for parties to appreciate the risks they are agreeing to in their contracts, particularly as it relates to the resolution of disputes. Also, this reinforces the risk that a subcontractor performing federal construction work may have to bear irrespective of the subcontract.
Although the subcontractor is now in a wait-and-see mode while the Contract Disputes Act process runs its course, the subcontractor was smart by perfecting its Miller Act payment bond rights by timely filing suit. Even though the prime contractor’s Contract Disputes Act resolution process may take some time, the prime contractor and its payment bond surety will ultimately have to deal with this dispute if the outcome of its Contract Disputes Act claim does not fully resolve the subcontractor’s claim to the subcontractor’s satisfaction.
Please contact David Adelstein at email@example.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.