Home Court Rule Introduced by Representative Bell

Representative Bell has introduced House Bill No. 1306 [Click here to view House Bill No. 1306] that would require construction claims for projects located in Mississippi be litigated or arbitrated in Mississippi. This requirement would apply regardless of whether or not the contract had a provision that required the claims to be resolved in another jurisdiction. This is an important bill for Mississippi contractors since many foreign contractors frequently include a venue provision forcing Mississippi contractors to litigate or arbitrate their claims in the foreign contractor’s home state. Without this legislation, the cost to pursue a claim against a foreign contractor could be cost prohibitive and potentially force Mississippi contractors to settle their claim for pennies on the dollar. Mississippi Contractors should keep their eye on this litigation and encourage its passage.

Agreement to Arbitration Trumps Right to Jury Trial

In a recent Mississippi Supreme Court decision the Court considered language in a contract which contained an arbitration provision, which excluded aesthetic-effect claims from arbitration. Click here to see decision. The contract in question was the AIA Document A101-1997 Standard Form of Agreement Between Owner and Contractor and AIA Document A201-1997 General Conditions for the Contract for Construction. The Owner maintained that because the contract stated "[a]ny Claim arising out of or related to the Contract, except Claims relating to aesthetic effect and except those waived…shall, be subject to mediation as a condition precedent to arbitration or the institution of legal or equitable proceedings by either party" there had been no clear waiver of its right to a jury trial. The trial court disagreed and on appeal the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed.

The Court found the language of the contract required arbitration of all claims with the exception of those relating to aesthetic effect. Opinion on whether there had to be an express waiver of the right to a jury trial, the Court stated:

No caselaw suggests that, to be valid, an arbitration agreement must include an express statement which waives the right to a jury trial.

[T]he Constitution does not ‘confer the right to a trial, but only the right to have a jury hear the case once it is determined that the litigation should proceed before a court. If the claims are properly before an arbitral forum pursuant to an arbitration agreement, the jury trial right vanishes.

McKenzie Check Advance of Miss., LLC v. Hardy, 866 So.2d 446, 455 (¶30)(Miss. 2004)(citations omitted). Section 11-15-103 requires only a written agreement to arbitration.

Thus, the Court makes it clear that where a contract includes an agreement to arbitrate disputes, there is no need to have an express waiver of the right to a jury trial.

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.

What do I need to include in a request for equitable adjustment?

The objective of a claim is to explain why the contractor is entitled to equitable adjustment in the contract price and time. This requires the contractor to establish (a) entitlement or the contractual/legal right to additional compensation or time and (b) quantum or the amount of additional compensation to which the contractor is entitled. The contractor provides this information in the form of a narrative statement including all relevant supporting documentation.

The general format for any request for equitable adjustment should include the following:

     

  1. Describe what the contract documents required, citing to the specific portions of the plans and specifications (copy and attach relevant portions of the contract document as part of the claim).

     

  2. Describe how the contractor interpreted the contract documents and relied upon this interpretation in preparing its bid and developing a plan for performance.

     

  3. Explain the contractor’s original plan for performance based upon the representations in the contract documents.

     

  4. Describe how the contractor’s plan for performance was changed or impacted. Include citations to correspondence and other documents to support the change and all notifications to architect/owner. (incorporate photographs if available)

     

  5. Set forth the calculations for quantum and include all supporting data (invoices, payroll documents, green book/corps of engineer pages supporting equipment rates, time sheets and/or daily reports etc.)

In these difficult economic times it is essential that a contractor provides a comprehensive and complete document as the first step in the claim process. If the initial claim is thorough and properly supported, it conveys the message that the contractor knows what he is doing and has legitimate grounds for an equitable adjustment. Conversely, a loosely prepared, unsupported claim sends the message that the contractor is just looking for more money and cannot backup the claim. It takes time to prepare a detailed claim, but it is time well spent.