Previously, I discussed the statute of limitations for a Miller Act payment bond claim and the equitable tolling of the limitations based on a claimant’s late filing of a Miller Act payment bond lawsuit.
Another decision came out in U.S. ex rel. Walter Toebe Construction Co. v. The Guarantee Co. of North America, 2014 WL 7211294 (E.D. Mich. 2014), dealing with the exact same subject matter of a claimant raising equitable tolling to overcome filing a Miller Act payment bond lawsuit outside of the statute of limitations. Understanding the statute of limitations for a Miller Act payment bond claim is vital to a claimant’s rights on a federal construction project because the doctrine of equitable tolling (of the statute of limitations) is not designed to simply allow a careless claimant to untimely file a lawsuit.
In this case, a sub-subcontractor was hired to install drilled shafts on a federal project. The sub-subcontractor was owed approximately $500,000 and demanded arbitration with the subcontractor that hired it and the Miller Act payment bond surety. The surety apparently participated in the arbitration hearing and on the last day of the hearing the arbitrators dismissed the surety from the arbitration pursuant to the surety’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The arbitrators then issued an award in favor of the sub-subcontractor against the subcontractor that was confirmed by a Michigan circuit court. The subcontractor failed to pay the judgment and the sub-subcontractor demanded that the Miller Act payment bond surety pay the judgment. The surety (properly) refused stating that the sub-subcontractor failed to file a lawsuit within the one year limitations period set forth in the Miller Act.
The sub-subcontractor then filed a Miller Act payment bond lawsuit in federal court and argued that the statute of limitations to file a Miller Act payment bond lawsuit should be equitably tolled in light of the arbitration proceeding and the surety’s participation in the arbitration (until it was dismissed because there was no jurisdiction to bind the surety to an arbitration award).
A Miller Act payment bond lawsuit must be brought no later than one year after a claimant’s final / last furnishing of labor or materials. Here, it was clear that the lawsuit was filed well outside of the one-year statute of limitations. Appreciating this, the sub-subcontractor argued the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled.
“Equitable tolling allows a federal court to toll a statute of limitations when a litigant’s failure to meet a legally-mandated deadline unavoidably arose from circumstances beyond that litigant’s control.
To determine whether equitable tolling is available to a plaintiff, a court considers five factors: (1) the plaintiff’s lack of notice of the filing requirement; (2) the plaintiff’s lack of constructive knowledge of the filing requirement; (3) the plaintiff’s diligence in pursuing her rights; (4) an absence of prejudice to the defendant; and (5) the plaintiff’s reasonableness in remaining ignorant of the particular legal requirement.”
United States ex. rel. Walter Toebe Construction Company, supra, at *3-4 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
Unfortunately for the sub-subcontractor, its failure to file a lawsuit within the one-year limitations period did not fit into any of the equitable tolling factors. The sub-subcontractor did not suggest, nor could it really, that it did not have notice of the statute of limitations to file a Miller Act claim. The sub-subcontractor could not argue that it actively took steps to timely file the lawsuit, because it did not. And, the sub-subcontractor could rely on no law to support its argument that the statute of limitations should be tolled pending an arbitration; and, in fact, there is law that states otherwise.
This case has important considerations:
- It is important for a potential Miller Act payment bond claimant on a federal project to know what it needs to do to preserve payment bond rights including the timely filing of a lawsuit no later than one year from its last furnishing of labor or materials.
- It is important for a potential Miller Act payment bond claimant to timely file its lawsuit in federal district court to ensure its lawsuit is timely filed. Even if a claimant wants to arbitrate with the party that hired it, it is still imperative that the claimant timely files the lawsuit to preserve its payment bond rights and avoid any argument that the lawsuit was not timely filed.
- Equitable tolling is a challenging doctrine, especially in the Miller Act context where claimants have statutory notice of their rights. Claimants certainly do NOT want to be in a position where they are trying to rely on this doctrine to overcome the late filing of a Miller Act payment bond claim because it is more often than not a losing argument.
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