NOT ALL WORK IS COVERED UNDER THE FEDERAL MILLLER ACT

The recent opinion out of the Eastern District Court of Virginia, Dickson v. Forney Enterprises, Inc., 2021 WL 1536574 (E.D.Virginia 2021),  demonstrates that the federal Miller Act is not designed to protect ALL that perform work on a federal construction project.   This is because NOT ALL work is covered under the Miller Act.

In this case, a professional engineer was subcontracted by a prime contractor to serve on site in a project management / superintendent capacity.  The prime contractor’s scope of work was completed by January 31, 2019.  However, the prime contractor was still required to inventory certain materials on site, which was performed by the engineer.  The engineer claimed it was owed in excess of $400,000 and filed a Miller Act payment bond lawsuit on February 5, 2020 (more than a year after the project was completed).

There are two immediate questions that pop out that this court deal with: (1) are the type of project management / superintendent-type services the engineer performed covered under the Miller Act; and 2) did the engineer timely file the Miller Act payment bond lawsuit within the statute of limitations if the project was completed more than a year prior to the engineer filing suit.   Both answers resulted in a resounding No!

MILLER ACT PROTECTS LABOR

The Miller Act protects labor, and while “labor” is not a defined term under the Miller Act, “courts have limited the term to refer only to physical toil or manual labor.” Dickson, supra, at *2.   Supervisory work is generally not considered labor unless it also includes manual labor.  Id.   “[C]lerical or administrative tasks [] even if performed at the job site, do not involve the physical toil or manual work necessary to bring them within the scope of the Miller Act.” Id. (citation omitted).

Here, the engineer was hired in a management and superintendent (supervisor) capacity.  He was subcontracted to oversee manual labor.  Any manual labor, to the extent there was any such as field measurement or inspections performed by the engineer, were incidental to his supervisory duties and “[t]aking field measurements and inspecting materials…were administrative tasks incidental to his role as project manager….[and] they do not rise to the level of physical toil necessary to recover under the Miller Act.” Dickson, supra, at *2 (citations omitted).

The type of work the engineer performed and sought payment for was NOT work covered under the Miller Act.

MILLER ACT STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

The Miller Act requires a plaintiff to file suit “no later than one year after the day on which the last of the labor was performed or material was supplied” by the plaintiff. Dickson, supra, at *3 citing 40 U.S.C. s. 3133(b)(4).

Here, the project was concluded as late as January 31, 2019.  “Work performed after the termination of the prime contract, like the inventory [the engineer] conducted February 8, 2019 is a post-project task and thus not recoverable under the Miller Act.” Dickson, supra, at *3.

Putting aside that inventory control would be deemed a clerical task and not “labor” covered under the Miller Act, the engineer cannot extend the one-year statute of limitations beyond one-year after the termination / completion of the project.  Id.

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.

 

TIMELY FILE YOUR MILLER ACT PAYMENT BOND LAWSUIT

imagesIf you are a subcontractor, sub-subcontractor, or supplier on a federal construction project, please make sure to preserve your Miller Act payment bond rights.  This includes filing suit in a federal district court against the payment bond surety.   The Eleventh Circuit’s ruling in Thomas v. Burkhardt, 2016 WL 143351 (11th Cir. 2016) illustrates what can happen if you do not properly pursue your Miller Act payment bond rights.

 

In Thomas, a subcontractor sued a contractor in state court and recovered a judgment against the contractor.  When the subcontractor could not collect on its judgment, it sued the contractor’s Miller Act payment bond surety.  The problem was the subcontractor filed its lawsuit many years after the statute of limitations expired on the Miller Act.  The subcontractor argued the contractor’s surety should be bound by the state court judgment against the contractor (the principal of the payment bond). The Eleventh Circuit said “No!”  The surety was not bound by the state court judgment. Indeed, even if the surety had notice of the subcontractor’s state court suit against the contractor, the Eleventh Circuit still maintained that the surety would not be bound by the state court judgment and would not be estopped from raising the statute of limitations as a defense:

 

[T]he doctrine of estoppel against the surety rests on the principle that a surety with knowledge of a suit against the principal has a “full opportunity to defend” the suit and to protect its rights. But there is no such equitable principle at work here. The surety cannot protect its rights by joining in the defense of the suit. It cannot intervene as defendant any more than it could be named as defendant in the first place.

Thomas, supra, at *3 quoting U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Hendry Corp., 391 F.2d 13, 17 (5th Cir. 1968).

 

The morale is to timely file your Miller Act payment bond claim against the payment bond surety.  There is no reason not 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.