In a good, recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit in International Fidelity Insurance Co. v. Americabe-Moriarity, JV, 2018 WL 5306683 (11th Cir. 2018), held that Florida Statute s. 57.105(7) cannot be used to shift attorney’s fees in a contractual indemnification clause in a dispute between a general contractor and subcontractor’s performance bond surety, when the dispute does not involve an actual indemnification claim stemming from a third-party.
In this case, a prime contractor terminated a subcontractor and looked to the subcontractor’s performance bond surety to pay for the completion work. The subcontractor had a standard AIA A312 performance bond that requires the prime contractor to comply with the terms of the bond, as well as the incorporated subcontract, in order to trigger the surety’s obligations under the bond. The surety filed an action for declaratory relief against the prime contractor arguing that the prime contractor breached the terms of the performance bond through non-compliance thereby discharging the surety’s obligations. The trial court agreed and the surety moved for attorney’s fees.
The surety’s argument for attorney’s fees was threefold: (1) the indemnification provision requiring the subcontractor to indemnify the prime contractor required the subcontractor to indemnify the prime contractor for, among other things, attorney’s fees; (2) Florida Statute s. 57.105(7) provides that one-sided contractual attorney’s fees provisions must apply to both parties (and treated reciprocally), hence the inclusion of attorney’s fees in the indemnification provision means that the surety should be entitled to attorney’s fees; and (3) since the subcontract was incorporated into the performance bond, the surety should be entitled to attorney’s fees since it steps in the shoes of the subcontractor under principles of surety law.
Surprisingly, the trial court agreed with the surety. However, thankfully, the Eleventh Circuit held that the indemnity provision in the subcontract was an indemnity clause that applies only to third-party claims and not suits between the general contractor and subcontractor. Thus, the requirement of reciprocity for attorney’s fees provisions pursuant to Florida Statute s. 57.105 does not apply. The Eleventh Circuit, however, did not enter a ruling as to whether even if s. 57.105 did apply such that attorney’s fees must be reciprocal in an indemnification clause, whether such rationale would allow the performance bond surety to recover attorney’s fees under principles of surety law.
This decision is useful for a few reasons:
(1) If a contractor, subcontractor, etc. is trying to create an argument for attorney’s fees based on an indemnification clause, this decision is helpful to put that issue to bed since the indemnification provision applies in the context of third-party claims, and is not related to independent claims between the contracting parties;
(2) A party looking to take advantage of a performance bond must, and I mean, must, make sure to properly comply with the terms of the bond. Certain sureties will raise any argument to avoid obligations under a performance bond hoping that the beneficiary of the bond undertakes an act that allows the surety to discharge its obligations; and
(3) General (prime) contractors should explore subcontractor default insurance, which is a first-party insurance policy, as an alternative to performance bonds to avoid the issues associated with delays and other arguments a surety may raise in furtherance of avoiding obligations under the bond.
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.