The opinion in Westchester Fire Ins. Co, LLC v. Kesoki Painting, LLC, 260 So.3d 546 (Fla. 3d DCA 2018) leads to a worthy discussion because it involves a common scope of work occurrence on construction projects involving a general contractor and subcontractor. The contractor submits a subcontractor’s change order request to the owner and the owner rejects the change order. What happens next is a scope of work payment dispute between the general contractor and subcontractor. Yep, a common occurrence.
In this case, a general contractor hired a subcontractor to perform waterproofing and painting. A scope of work issue arose because the specifications did not address how the window gaskets should be cut and then sealed. The owner wanted the window gaskets cut at a 45-degree angle and the subcontractor claimed this resulted in increased extra work. The general contractor agreed and submitted a change order to the owner to cover these costs. The owner rejected the change order claiming it was part of the general contractor’s scope of work even though the cutting of window gaskets at a 45-degree angle was not detailed in the specifications.
After the subcontractor filed a suit against the general contractor’s payment bond surety, the project architect further rejected the change order because gasket cutting was part of the specification requirements. (Duh! What else was the architect going to say? It was not going to concede there was an omission that resulted in a change order to the owner, right?)
Importantly, the subcontract agreement stated that, “If a dispute arises between the Contractor and the Subcontractor regarding the Scope of Work, or in the interpretation of the Contract Documents, and the parties hereto do not resolve that dispute, the decision of the [Architect] shall be final.” As it pertains to this provision, while the appellate court noted the enforceability of the provision, it found that it did not apply because there was not a scope of work dispute between the general contractor and its subcontractor. The general contractor agreed that this resulted in a change order condition, i.e., that there was a change to the subcontractor’s scope of work, and submitted a change order to the owner for the scope of work change. Ouch! The payment bond surety was on the hook to pay for this change order.
A few things that I find noteworthy.
First, the opinion does not include a lot of discussion on language in the subcontract. This tells me that there may not have been great language in the subcontract dealing with the subcontractor’s scope of work. It is not uncommon to hear that a specification does not include every single detail so if the subcontractor was always required to cut gaskets in performing its scope of waterproofing work then there may be an argument there is not a scope of work change. Either way, detailing the scope of work in the subcontract is important to account for the inevitable scope of work dispute.
Second, I understand the logic from the general contractor’s perspective of having the architect decide scope of work disputes between a general contractor and subcontractor because the architect is going to naturally disfavor scope of work changes or changes of work associated with its plans and specifications. This will benefit the general contractor as a rejection of a scope of work change will support the denial of a change order. With that said, I am generally not in favor of the finality of such a decision from an architect, particularly when addressing the scope of work dispute may warrant a detailed analysis of the governing subcontract. Also, the court in this case seemed to dismiss such language because the general contractor supported the subcontractor’s change.
Third, just because a general contractor supports a subcontractor’s change order request does not mean that it and its surety should automatically be bound by the change and finance the change. Again, there was little discussion as to language in the subcontract and it does not appear the surety tried to make an argument under the pay-when-paid clause. While such defense is generally not applicable to payment bond sureties, the (creative) argument could be different when dealing with a change order to preclude the effect of a surety and general contractor being on the hook for every change order submitted to the owner that the owner rejects.
And, fourth, this opinion does not address how the general contractor handled or pursued this with the owner. That is important because if the general contractor agreed and supported the change, there should have been an effort to collect this amount from the owner. This leads to another important consideration. In this scenario, the subcontract could include language that any claim the subcontractor initiates stemming from a dispute involving the owner should be stayed pending the resolution of the dispute with the owner. On the other hand, if the general contractor elects not to pursue the dispute with the owner but recognized the change, then it having to pay for the change makes sense based on the business decision it made.
What are your thoughts?
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