The Duty to Proceed--Do I really have to do change order work without getting paid?

During the course of construction, contractors will sometimes find that the owner and/or architect are demanding more work than the contractor reasonably interprets the plans and specifications to require. The typical owner and/or architect solution to the dispute is simply to tell the contractor its interpretation is incorrect and direct the contractor to proceed with what the contractor considers additional work. Later, the owner may attempt to rely upon the lack of a written change order authorizing the performance to deny compensation and/or time for performance of additional work.

Does the contractor walk off the job or proceed with the additional work notwithstanding this dispute? Most contracts require contractors to proceed with the work notwithstanding the existence of a dispute; otherwise, the contractor might be subject to a default termination. However, such provisions also typically require the owner to continue payments under the contract for undisputed work. The idea is to keep the project moving forward—i.e., to prevent the contractor from bringing the project to a halt pending resolution of disputed items and to prevent the owner from holding the contractor’s funds hostage pending the resolution of the dispute.The contractor must therefore generally proceed with the performance of additional work without immediate compensation for that work.

However, it does not mean that the contractor is performing the work gratuitously. The refusal of the owner to issue a change order for the additional work may not insulate it from liability. "[U]nder Mississippi law, where the owner orders the contractor to perform extra work outside the contract, the contractor is entitled to compensation for that work, despite the fact that no change order was issued." See Sentinel Industrial Contracting Corp. v. Kimmins Industrial Service Corp. In Sentinel, the Mississippi Supreme Court recognized the inherent inequity in allowing the contractor to demand a subcontractor perform extra-contractual work without a change order and then deny compensation because a change order had not been issued.

This same rationale should apply to the situation where an owner directs the contractor to perform work without a change order. When this occurs, the contractors must place the owner and/or architect on written notice of its objection to the additional work and reserve its right to recover the costs and/or time associated with the change order work. Simply stated, the duty to proceed does not entitle the owner to avoid paying for legitimate change order work even in the absence of a written change order.