Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Determination that Mississippi "Stop Notice" Statute is Unconstitutional

On October 10, 2013, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court determination that Mississippi Code Annotation § 85-7-181 is unconstitutional. As prime contractors and owners know, an owner’s receipt of a stop-payment notice or "stop notice" could bring the flow of contract payments to a grinding halt. Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-181 required an owner to hold sufficient funds, otherwise due to a prime, to cover the amount alleged to be due and owing to a first-tier subcontractor who sent written notice that it was claiming the benefits of the "stop-payment" notice statute. Depending upon the amount of contract funds still remaining in the owner’s hands, if the owner paid the prime over the notice and thereby diminished sufficient funds available to pay the subcontractor, the stop-payment notice statute made the owner directly liable to the subcontractor. Owner-compliance, as intended by the statute, gave subcontractors (at least the first-tier) their only powerful tool to enforce payment rights on private, un-bonded projects.

The "stop-notice" statute has been in place for year, but on April 12, 2012, the Northern District of Mississippi ruled the statue unconstitutional on its face because it deprived prime contractors of property without due process. Noatex, an unlicensed California prime contractor, was hired by Auto Parts Manufacturing Mississippi ("APMM") to build an auto parts manufacturing facility. Noatex got into a billing dispute with its Mississippi subcontractor, King Construction of Houston, L.L.C. When King Construction sent a stop-payment notice to APMM asserting it was due over $260,000 from Noatex, that amount became bound in the hands of APMM. Noatex filed a declaratory judgment action, challenging the stop-payment notice statute as facially invalid and invalid as applied. The State of Mississippi, through the Attorney General’s Office, intervened in support of the stop-payment notice statute. Judge S. Allan Alexander agreed with Noatex, holding that simply by giving written notice of an alleged debt a contractor’s payment became bound in the hands of the owner—with no hearing before the money was bound—and thus the contractor was deprived of its property without due process.

The Fifth Circuit upheld Judge Alexander’s analysis. Among other things, the Fifth Circuit noted that the statute is "profound in its lack of procedural safeguards": no posting of a bond, no showing of exigent circumstances, and no sworn statement setting out the facts of the dispute. You can read the decision here.

Unless there are changes to the current stop payment law or the United States Supreme Court agrees to consider this issue, if appealed by the Mississippi Attorney General, there will be no "lien rights" for first-tier subcontractors. Only contractors with a direct contractual relationship with the owner will have lien rights.  Subcontractors may want to seek legal counsel concerning how to address stop payment notices that were to be filed or have been filed and to determine other remedies that may be available if their prime has failed to make payment.   

VA Issues Final Rule on Re-Verification of VOSBs and SDVOSBs

The Veterans Administration has published its final rule requiring re-verification of Veteran Owned Small Business and Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business status every 2 years instead of annually.  The 2-year period for verification had previously been an interim rule.  Click here for the final rule.  The final rule is effective August 22, 2013.

Fifth Circuit Upholds Mississippi's $1 Million Cap On Noneconomic Damages

Yesterday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion upholding as constitutional the Mississippi statute that caps the award of noneconomic damages at $1 million. Miss. Code § 11-1-60(2)(b) provides:

[i]n any civil action filed on or after September 1, 2004, …in the event the trier of fact finds the defendant liable, they shall not award the plaintiff more than One Million Dollars ($1,000,000.00) for noneconomic damages.

The term "noneconomic damages" is defined in §11-1-60(1)(a) to include "subjective, nonpecuniary damages arising from" death, pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of consortium, and other nonpecuniary damages. However, "noneconomic damages" do not include punitive or exemplary damages.

Lisa Learmonth was injured in an automobile accident and sued Sears, Roebuck and Co. for her injuries. A total award of $4 million was made by a jury, and $2.2 million of that amount was deemed to be for her noneconomic damages. When the district court reduced the $2.2 portion of the award to $1 million under §11-1-60(2)(b), Learmonth challenged the law as violating the Mississippi Constitution’s jury trial guarantee and separation of powers provisions.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s application of the $1 million cap. Noting it was Learmonth’s duty to prove the statute unconstitutional, the Fifth Circuit determined that burden was not met on the issues she presented on appeal. The Fifth Circuit rejected Learmonth’s argument that the legislature could not enact a legal remedy which limited an award of damages made by a jury. The Fifth Circuit also rejected her argument that the statute impermissibly allowed the legislature to dictate to the judiciary procedures or guidelines for determining awards. You can find the opinion here.

SBA Finally Issues Final Rule Establishing Women-Owned Small Business Program

On October 4, 2010, the U.S. Small Business Administration published a final rule in the Federal Register establishing a federal contracting programs for WOSBs.  See Press Release.  In a press release of the same date, the SBA says the new WOSB program will be used to help achieve a statutory goal that 5% of federal contracting dollars go to women-owned small businesses. [insert pdf] Under the program, contracts may be set-aside for competition among WOSBs when the anticipated contract price is not expected to exceed $3 million, except in the case of manufacturing contracts, is not expected to exceed $5 million.

The basic requirements to qualify as a WOSB are that the company be owned and controlled at least 51% by one or more women who are U.S. citizens and "small" according to its primary industry classification. According to the SBA, it will "pursue vigorously punitive action against ineligible firms which seek to take advantage of this program and in so doing deny its benefits to the intended legitimate WOSBs."

SIX YEARS AND COUNTING ... WHEN DOES EXPOSURE TO LIABILITY END?

On March 9, 2010, the Mississippi Court of Appeals denied a rehearing in the case of J. Criss Builder, Inc. v. White, but it is not clear the controversy has ended.  The Court has not yet released its opinion for publication which means the decision is still subject to revision or withdrawal.  Perhaps that is because the Court was clearly divided regarding the case as reflected in the four to three decision.

In this case, J. Criss Builder, Inc. ("JCB"), an unlicensed residential contractor, purchased land on which it built a house.  Janie Criss ("Criss"), the owner of JCB and an individually licensed residential contractor, oversaw the construction of the home.  On November 21, 1996, Criss purchased the home from JCB and occupied it as her homestead until February 17, 1997, when it was sold to the Whites.  Even though within one year of moving into the house the Whites noticed a hairline crack in the scored concrete floor which grew bigger over time, the Whites did not file suit for damages from foundation problems until February 12, 2003 – 6 years, 2 months and 22 days after the home had first been occupied by a resident.  On that date, the Whites sued both JCB and Criss, individually.

JCB and Criss sought to have the action dismissed on the basis that the Mississippi statute of repose barred the action.  Specifically, Miss. Code Ann. § 15-1-41 requires an action for damages arising out of construction to be brought "no more than six (6) years after the written acceptance or actual occupancy or use, whichever occurs first." There could be no disputing the fact that the first occupancy of the house occurred on November 21 1996, when Criss purchased the home from JCB for her homestead.  Thus, JCB and Criss contended suit had to be filed by November 21, 2002.  The Court also upheld liability against Criss, individually, even though the property was owned and constructed by JCB "[s]ince Criss was the licensed builder and JCB was legally prohibited from performing residential construction."

The Court majority relied upon a prior decision to conclude that the statute of repose did not apply to circumstances where the possessor and builder were the same and that the statute of repose would not begin to run until the "builder/owner, Criss, undisputably the builder, sold the home to the Whites."  Since suit was filed within 6 years of Criss selling the house to the Whites, the Court ruled the action was not barred.  The three dissenting justices would have barred the action.  They concluded that "Criss-even if considered the builder-purchased the completed home from JCB and actually occupied and used the home in her personal capacity."

The decision leaves more questions than answers.  Would the decision be the same if JCB had been properly licensed?  Residential builders commonly build a home which they occupy first and then sell to someone else.  Under this decision, could a licensed builder build a home, sell to its owner, live in the house ten years, thirty years, or more, and yet the statute of repose still not begin to run until the time the owner sells to a third party?  Clearly, more direction from the Court will be necessary.  Until that time, builders beware: "six years" under the statute of repose may not be six years.

Do you have coverage under your Commercial General Liability Policy for Defective Subcontractor Construction?

Less than one week after placing readers on alert about the pending decision of Architex Association, Inc. v. Scottsdale Insurance Company, the Mississippi Supreme Court has issued its decision in that case addressing the following narrow issue with regard to a Commercial General Liability ("CGL") policy:

Whether the intentional act of hiring subcontractors by an insured general contractor precludes the possibility of coverage?

The Court found "that under Scottsdale’s CGL policy, the term ‘occurrence’ cannot be construed in such a manner as to preclude coverage for unexpected or unintended ‘property damage’ resulting from negligent acts or conduct of a subcontractor unless, otherwise excluded or the insured breaches its duties after loss." Slip Op. at page 27. Thus, "[f]aulty workmanship, defective work, et al., may be accidental, intentional, or neither." Slip Op. at page 23.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in ACS Construction Company v. CGU, 332 F.3d 885 (5th Cir. 2003) had previously concluded that since hiring a subcontractor is a deliberate and intentional decision by a general contractor, any subsequent act by the subcontractor must be intentional and not covered under the definition of an "occurrence". The insurance industry has used ACS to deny coverage for defective work by subcontractors, even though many general contractors purchased policies and paid premiums with the understanding that their CGL policy would provide coverage.

The Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in Architex brings clarity to the issue stating that "[w]hile the alleged ‘property damage’ may have been ‘set in motion’ by Architex’s [the general contractor] hiring of the subcontractor, the ‘chain of events’ may not have ‘followed a course consciously devised and controlled by [Architex], without the unexpected intervention of any third person or extrinsic force.’" In other words, hiring a subcontractor will not preclude coverage under a CGL policy.

Even if the insurer does not unequivocally agree that there is coverage under the CGL policy, the insurer may agree to defend the general contractor under reservation of rights. This means the insurer will pay the general contractor for the cost associated with defending the claim of defective workmanship. This does not mean the insurer gets to select the attorney to defend the claim, it means the insurer must pay for the attorney the general contractor selects to defend the claim. Therefore, it would be wise for the general contractor to select a construction lawyer to defend the claim rather than the insurer’s preferred attorney who is likely to have experience in defending slip and fall cases and car wrecks and not complex construction defect cases.

The Architex decision is good news for general contractors. However, the decision also admonishes general contractors that there are other reasons for denial of coverage such as failure to give timely notice of a potential claim. Slip Op. at page 12, fn. 11. This means that general contractors should place their insurance carrier/agent on written notice of any potential claim for which the CGL policy might arguably provide coverage. Otherwise, coverage may ultimately be denied.

Freedom of Information Act Does Not Compel Disclosure of One Company's Emails to a Federal Agency About a Competitor's Eligibility for Contract

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio has ruled that the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") (5 USC § 552) does not require the Department of the Air Force to release a series of emails sent by one contractor about another contractor’s eligibility to participate in an Air Force contracts program. See Tybrin Corp. vs. United States Department of the Air Force, Case No. 3:08-cv-002 (So. Dist. Ohio)(pdf).

The Air Force’s Consolidated Acquisition of Professional Services ("CAPS") program is a five-year indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract under which multiple contract awards can be made. Actual work and services are awarded by the Air Force through subsequent competitions among the awardees. Both Tybrin Corporation and HMRTech2 were CAPS awardees.

In May 2007, Tybrin sent emails to the Air force concerning the eligibility of HMRTech2 to receive awards for work under the CAPS program. In July 2007, the Air Force disqualified HMRTech 2 from further participation in CAPS.

HMRTech2 sought release of the emails form the Air Force, and Air Force officials had determined to release them. Tybrin filed a "reverse FOIA" suit, claiming that the "(b)(4)" exemption under the FOIA prevented disclosure of its emails, and demanding that the Air Force be enjoined from releasing them. The (b)(4) exemption exempts "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential." 5 USC § 552(b)(4).

Tybrin’s position was that its emails were confidential and commercial. The District Court looked to the District of Columbia Circuit for guidance on whether the emails were subject to release under the FOIA. In 1992, the District of Columbia Circuit adopted the following test to determine whether information was "confidential" and therefore not subject to disclosure under FOIA:

financial or commercial information provided to the Government on a voluntary basis is "confidential" for the purpose of [the (b)(4)] exemption] if it is of a kind that would customarily not be released to the public by the person from whom it was obtained.

Critical Mass Energy Project v. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 975 F.2d 871, 879 (D.C.Cir.1992)(en banc).

Thus, the Court considered whether Tybrin treated as confidential emails such as the ones sent to the Air Force concerning HMRTech2. The District Court determined that because Tybrin did not release them to the general public and controlled distribution of them even within Tybrin, the emails were treated by Tybrin as confidential.

Tybrin also argued that its emails were "commercial" because it had a "commercial interest" in them. Some courts have held that if the information submitted by an entity does not reveal anything about the nature, character, finances, revenues, or other business information the release of which would hurt the submitter, it is not "commercial" information protected from disclosure. However, again following a District of Columbia Circuit decision, the District Court in Ohio determined that Tybrin had a "commercial interest" in the emails concerning HMRTech 2’s eligibility to participate in CAPS. The Air Force was prohibited from releasing the emails it received from Tybrin.