Does Mississippi need a statute voiding forum selection clauses?

Recently the United States Supreme Court took a close look at the enforceability of forum selection clauses in Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.  In that decision, the Supreme Court found that such forum selection clauses, when properly drafted, are enforceable.  Only where there is an overwhelmingly strong public interest should a venue selection provision be ignored.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision, there are some twenty-four (24) states that have enacted statutes which render such forum selection clauses void.  Whether these statutes can withstand constitutional scrutiny was not addressed by the Supreme Court in Atlantic Marine.  An example is Arizona’s statute that provides as follows:

A. The following are against this state's public policy and are void and unenforceable:

1. A provision, covenant, clause or understanding in, collateral to or affecting a construction contract that makes the contract subject to the laws of another state or that requires any litigation arising from the contract to be conducted in another state.

2. A provision, covenant, clause or understanding in, collateral to or affecting a construction contract stating that a party to the contract cannot suspend performance under the contract or terminate the contract if another party to the contract fails to make prompt payments under the contract pursuant to section 32-1129, 32-1129.01 or 32-1129.02.

B. Any mediation, arbitration or other dispute resolution proceeding arising from a construction contract for work performed in this state shall be conducted in this state.

A.R.S. §32-32-1129.05.

It may be time for Mississippi to consider adopting a similar statute to protect resident contractors from having to pursue remedies against a non-resident contractor in a foreign jurisdiction and also being subjected to that state’s laws.

If you have any thoughts or comments on this issue, please contact Lee Nations, Executive Director for Associated General Contractors of Mississippi at (601) 9811-1144 or at lee@msagc.com.

SBA Increasing Size Standards - Issues Interim Final Rule Effective July 14, 2014

Today the Small Business Administration issued an interim final rule that increases revenue-based size standards.  The adjustment is made, in part, to take account of inflation since the last inflation-adjustment in 2008.  In Sector 23, Construction, for example, the $35 million size standard increased to $36.5 million.

To see all size standard adjustments in the interim rule, click here.  The interim final rule takes effect July 14, 2014, but the SBA will receive comments on it through August 14, 2014.

What?! I thought being named as an additional insured gave me coverage for any defective construction by my subcontractor.

Contractors frequently require subcontractors to specifically name the contractor as an additional insured in the subcontractors’ commercial general liability (CGL) policies. The "proof" of compliance frequently provided to the contractor is the Certificate of Insurance. Contractors can generally rely upon benefits of being an additional insured when there is a problem with the subcontractor’s work that causes property damage. It may also provide the contractor with the cost of a defense where it has been sued by the owner for the subcontractor’s defective work and property damages. However, timing is critical. Both the Mississippi Supreme Court and the Firth Circuit Court of Appeals have opined that "ongoing operations" coverage may not give the contractor coverage as an additional insured for damage that arises after the subcontractor has completed its work.

In Noble v. Wellington Assoc., Inc, [Link to Decision] the contractor hired a subcontractor to perform site work for a home. After the home was completed the owners experienced settlement and substantial cracks in the home. The contractor claimed the insurance carrier had a duty to defend it against claims for defective construction under the subcontractor’s CGL policy as an additional insured. The insurer argued that the defects did not develop until after the subcontractor had completed its site work and there was no duty to defend or coverage. The contractor argued it was the subcontractor’s "ongoing operations" during construction that ultimately resulted in the damage to the home. The Mississippi Supreme Court concluded "in order for ‘ongoing operations’ to have any meaning, it cannot encompass liability arising after the subcontractor’s work was completed".

The same conclusion was reached by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Carl E. Woodward, L.L.C v Acceptance Indemnity Insurance Company. [Link to Decision] Here, the allegation was that the subcontractor’s failure to comply with the plans and specifications caused the construction defect which manifested after a condominium complex was completed. The subcontractor’s additional insured endorsement limited coverage to "ongoing operations". The Fifth Circuit found, much like the Court in Noble, that "liability for construction defects, while created during ongoing operations, legally arises from completed operations." The contractor was therefore left to pay the defense cost when it believed it would be protected by the subcontractor’s additional insured endorsement.

The lesson to be learned from these decisions is that contractors must obtain a copy of the insurance policy and additional insured endorsement to ensure that there is coverage not only for "ongoing operations" but also "completed operations". Relying upon a certificate of insurance alone as evidence of coverage may lead to an unhappy finding that there is no coverage at the very time you need it. Further, absent an additional insured endorsement that includes "completed operations" coverage, the contractor may be left without the insurance coverage for defective construction by its subcontractor.

Right to Recover Under Federal Miller Act Overrides State Law Barring Recovery

California’s Business and Professions Code bars a non-licensed contractor from an action to collect for unpaid services. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that this state law ban on such actions has no application if the services were provided to a federal project and suit is filed to collect under a Miller Act payment bond.

Plaintiff Technica, Inc. was a sub-subcontractor to Candelaria Corporation, a prime contractor on a federal fence replacement contract. Carolina Casualty Insurance Company issued the payment bond required by the Miller Act (40 USC § 3131 et seq.). Technica submitted invoices in excess of $800,000 to Otay Group, Inc. (a subcontractor) and Candelaria. After Candelaria terminated Otay and full payment had not been made to Technica, Technica sued Candelaria and Carolina Casualty in federal district court under the Miller Act.

The district court granted the prime contractor and surety’s motion for summary judgment on grounds that Technica did not hold a California contractor’s license. The Ninth Circuit reversed, following United States Supreme Court precedent and decisions by the Eight and Tenth Circuits. Distinguishing this case from others that dealt with the substantive law of contracts, the Ninth Circuit held that the California statutory limitation on the right to maintain an action "does not apply to an action under the Miller Act." The rationale was that "application of California’s licensing statute as a defense to a Miller Act claim would…condition the rights of a subcontractor on the procedural requirements of state law … and … result in the nullification of those rights entirely." The Ninth Circuit’s opinion is attached here for convenience.

New Mississippi Lien Law, SB 2622-A Summary of the Vast Changes

The Legislature has completely rewritten the Mississippi lien law for commercial and residential projects.  Senate Bill 2622 has now been sent to the Governor for his signature and provides lien rights to prime contractors, subcontractor and material suppliers. [Link to SB 2622]  The new lien law will require those seeking to file a lien to comply carefully with strict notice and filing requirements.  An error in complying with these requirements could lead to a “claim of lien” being ineffective or unenforceable. 

Some of the key points in the new lien law are:

     

  • There are no lien rights if a contractor has provided a payment bond. (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-431)

     

  • To have lien rights the party filing a "claim of lien" must be properly licensed by the Mississippi State Board of Contractors.  However, it should be noted that there are counties and municipalities that also have licensing requirements. (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-403)

There are numerous ways that a contractor and/or subcontractor or materialman can lose its "claim of lien", including:

     

  • If the contractor fails to provide a list of subcontractors to the owner within a reasonable period of time after requested or if the subcontractor fails to furnish a list of its subcontractors to the contractor within a reasonable period of time after requested (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-407).

     

  • If lien claimant fails to file its "claim of lien" within ninety (90) days following the last labor, services or materials provided (Miss. Code. Ann. §85-7-405(1)(b)).

     

  • If a subcontractor not in privity with the contractor fails to send written notice to the contractor, or, if there is no contractor, to the owner, within thirty (30) days after the first delivery of labor, services or materials to the property. (Miss. Code. Ann. §85-7-407(2))

     

  • If the owner has made payment to the contractor in reliance upon a lien waiver issued by the lien claimant (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-413(1)(a)).

     

  • If a "payment action" is not commenced within one hundred eighty (180) days after the "claim of lien" is filed, the "claim of lien" is unenforceable (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-421(1)).

The basic requirements for filing a "claim of lien" are set forth in Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-405.  If a party fails to comply with any of the requirements the "claim of lien" shall not be effective or enforceable.  The filing of a "claim of lien" is not intended to prejudice a party’s right to arbitration.

     

  • The right to claim a lien cannot be waived in advance of furnishing labor, service or materials (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-419).

     

  • The "special lien" granted by the statue to contractors, subcontractors and materialmen is limited to the amount due and owning under the terms of the express or oral contract, subcontract or purchase order (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-403(3)).  The "special lien" also includes interest (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-403(4)).

     

  • A judgment secured in a "payment action" to enforce a "claim of lien" is limited to a judgment in rem against the property and does not impose any personal liability upon the owner (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-405(1)(d)(ii)).

     

  • If payment is made by the owner in reliance of a lien waiver or statements of the contractor, the aggregate lien amount of the subcontractors and materialmen not in privity with the contractor shall not exceed the unpaid balance of the contract price between the owner and the contractor at the time the first notice of lien is filed (Miss. Code Ann.§85-7-405(5)(a)).

     

  • Party seeking to assert a "claim of lien" must be in "substantial compliance" with the contract, subcontract or purchase order (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-405(1)(a)).

     

  • "Claim of lien" must be filed in the chancery court of the county by a contractor, subcontractor or materialman where the property is located and within ninety (90) days of the last labor, services or materials provided.  It must also contain certain language notifying the owner of its right to contest the lien and be sent to the owner and contractor within two (2) days after it is filed (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-405(1)(b)).

     

  • A subcontractor or material supplier not in privity with the contractor, or, if there is no contractor, with the owner, must provide notice within (30) days following the first delivery of labor, services, or materials as a condition precedent to filing a "claim of lien" (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-407(2)).

     

  • The "claim of lien" can be amended at any time provided there is compliance with certain procedures (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-405(1)(e)).

     

  • All liens under Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-403 have equal priority.  If the proceeds are insufficient to satisfy all liens, distribution is on a pro-rata basis (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-403(3)(d)).

     

  • A "payment action" (lawsuit) to enforce the "claim of lien" must be commenced within one hundred eighty (180) days from the date of the filing of the "claim of lien" (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-405(1)(c)).  This period can be shortened by the owner or contractor filing a "Notice of Contest of the Lien". (See, Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-423(1))

     

  • A lis pendens notice must be filed with commencement of the "payment action" and furnished to the owner and contractor (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-405(1)(d)(ii)).

     

  • The court in its discretion may award reasonable costs, interest and attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in an action against the owner to enforce a lien against the property (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-405(3)(c)).

     

  • The statute provides a procedure for "bonding off" a lien.  The amount of the bond is required to be one hundred ten percent (110%) of the amount of the "claim of lien" (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-415).

There are also substantial penalties for not complying with certain aspects of the lien law and filing a false "claim of lien".

     

  • The penalty for filing a knowingly false "claim of lien" is three (3) times the value of the "claim of lien" (Miss. Code Ann. 85-7-429).

     

  • The penalty for not paying a subcontractor after securing a waiver and release of lien without good cause is three (3) times the amount claimed on the face of the waiver and release (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-407(3)).

     

  • There is a penalty of three (3) times the actual damages suffered by an owner, purchaser or lender if the contractor falsely and knowingly submits a statement that the agreed price or reasonable value of the labor, services or materials has been paid or waived in writing by the lien claimant. (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-413(1)(b))

     

  • There is a penalty for failing to cancel a "claim of lien" if not accomplished within fifteen (15) days after fully paid of not less than $500/day plus reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-421(3))

Residential projects require a slightly different process.  Lien claimants on residential projects must give the residential owner a pre-lien notice at least ten (10) days notice before filing a "claim of lien". (Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-409(2))

This is just a taste of what the new Mississippi lien law contains and is neither intended to be a complete summary of the new lien law nor should it be solely relied upon in filing a "claim of lien".  The new statues are filled with hoops to jump through and hazards for those who have not carefully read it.  If you have any questions about this Mississippi’s new lien law you can contact Christopher Solop at csolop@bislawyers.com, Lynn Thompson at lynnthompson@bislawyers.com or go to the website for Biggs, Ingram & Solop, PLLC at www.bislawyers.com.

Senate Bill No. 2622--Proposed Legislation Changing Mississippi Lien Law

The Mississippi construction industry is about to undergo a radical change to its lien law in response to the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Noatex Corp. v. King Construction of Houston, LLC, 732 F.3d 479 (5th Cir. 2013). Noatex affirmed a district court’s ruling that Mississippi’s "stop payment" statute was unconstitutional because it included no due process.  Construction Law Toolbox reported on this decision on October 15, 2013 [Click here to view Noatex post].  Rather than revise the "stop payment" law to cure the due process issue, legislators have decided to re-write Mississippi’s lien laws.  Senate Bill No. 2622 was introduced and would extend lien rights to second tier subcontractors and suppliers who currently have no lien or "stop payment" rights in Mississippi. [Click here to view SB No. 2622] This legislation can be followed by logging into www.legislature.ms.gov/. ‎

Biggs, Ingram & Solop, PLLC’s construction attorneys Christopher Solop and Lynn Thompson are closely monitoring the legislation. When a new lien law is passed lenders, owners, contractors, subcontractors and suppliers will need to understand the intricacies of all lien rights, including effectively filing a lien, penalties for false representation of actual and conditional payments; defending or eliminating a claim of lien, deadlines for initiating litigation or arbitration of a claim of lien, and penalties for false liens.

PREGNANCY COSTS J.C. PENNEY $40,000 - WHAT WILL IT COST YOU?

On January 16, 2014, the EEOC issued a press release advising the public that J.C. Penney had agreed to pay $40,000 to settle a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by the EEOC. In the lawsuit, the EEOC charged J.C. Penney refused to hire a female applicant for a salon position after she told the manager she was pregnant. Such actions are in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA"). The EEOC tried to resolve the matter without litigation, but was unsuccessful. The settlement also requires J.C. Penney to implement an equal employment opportunity training and reporting program including posting of anti-discrimination notices.

The EEOC reports 4,901 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed in FY2006, up approximately 1,000 cases over FY 1997. However, there was a jump in cases beginning FY2007 that has remained high. In FY2011, 5,797 complaints were filed with the EEOC. Importantly, in FY 2011, employers paid out $17.2 million in monetary benefits, excluding amounts awarded in litigated cases, arising out of pregnancy discrimination claims. Such cases are costly not just in terms of cash outlay, but also in terms of employee morale, workplace environment and employer reputation.

Are you next? The PDA was passed in 1978 as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unfortunately, after such an extended period of time, employers become lured into a false sense of security that everyone understands what they can and cannot do in the workplace. That simply is not true and employers who want to avoid costly claims such as that experienced by J.C. Penney must be proactive.

Construction companies are not immune to PDA claims. There are ways for all employers to reduce the risks to such claims. If you do not have a plan in place to address discrimination in the workplace, contact an attorney experienced in employment law to assist you in developing a program.

Wait Just a Minute--No Certificate of Responsibility may Entitle Contractor to Recovery Under Quantum Meruit or Unjust Enrichment

On May 28, 2013, I published a blog entitled "No Certificate of Responsibility—No Payment for Work Performed" based upon a May 21, 2013, decision from the Mississippi Court of Appeals. [click here for decision]  On June 6, 2013, the Mississippi Supreme Court issued a decision suggesting that an unlicensed contractor may be entitled to recovery under the theory of quantum meruit or unjust enrichment. [click here for decision]

In Ground Control, LLC v. Capsco Industries, Inc., et al., the general contractor was W.G. Yates and Sons Construction Company ("Yates"), the subcontractor was Capsco Industries, Inc. ("Capsco") and its subcontractor was Ground Control, LLC ("Ground Control").  Neither Capsco nor Ground Control held a Certificate of Responsibility from the Mississippi State Board of Contractors.  Neither Yates nor the Owner was a party to the contract between Capsco/Ground Control.  Yates terminated Ground Control for default due to safety issues and Ground Control sued for payment of work performed under its contract with Capsco.  The trial court had determined that because the contract was null and void under Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-15, Ground Control was not entitled to payment for the work it had performed. Ground Control appealed.

The Mississippi Supreme Court began its analysis by stating that "[t]his Court has never determined whether a party to an illegal contract is barred from recovery under theories of unjust enrichment or quantum meruit." It went on to find as follows:

Capsco knowingly solicited Ground Control to enter into an unlawful contract, allowed Ground Control to perform a substantial part of the work, made an interim payment to Ground Control, and obtained payment from Yates for Ground Control’s work.  To allow Capsco to use the void contract to shield itself from any obligation to pay for the work performed by Ground Control is unconscionable.  Enforcing the statute in such a way as to preclude any recover is inequitable, invites fraudulent activity, and violated the Remedy Clause of our State Constitution. See Miss. Const. art. 3, § 24.

Although the contract is void pursuant to Section 31-3-15, Ground Control should not be precluded from having the opportunity to proceed in court under a claim for the value of what it expended in labor and supplies on the project.  We do not address the issue of other penalties, if any that may be appropriate for the trial court to address.

Interestingly, the Mississippi Supreme Court did not mention Ace Pipe Cleaning, Inc. v. Hemphill Const. Co., Inc. and Federal Ins. Co., but the Ground Control decision seems to suggest Ace Pipe Cleaning, Inc. is now overruled.

There is now a glimmer of hope for those who have failed to comply with the statutory requirement for a Certificate of Responsibility.  However, recovery under quantum meruit may not be without the assessment of a civil penalty by the Mississippi State Board of Contractors under Miss. Code Ann. § 31-3-21(4) or criminal penalty or fine under Miss. Code Ann. § 31-3-21(1). [click here for statute]

When all the dust has settled, the rule of thumb remains that before soliciting bids or entering into a construction contract in Mississippi, check with the Mississippi Board of Contractors to determine if a Certificate of Responsibility is required.

No Certificate of Responsibility--No Payment for Work Performed

How would you feel if you performed thousands of dollars of work on a construction project and were then told you would not be paid anything?  That is exactly what has happened with a recent decision from the Mississippi Court of Appeals.  The Court’s opinion makes it absolutely clear that any contract entered into in violation of Miss. Code Ann. §31-3-15 is null and void.  [click here for decision]  This means if a contractor does not have a Certificate of Responsibility (“COR”) from the Mississippi State Board of Contractors for work in excess of $50,000 on a private or public project, the contract is null and void and the contractor is not entitled to ANY compensation under ANY legal theory if it performed work without the appropriate COR.  

In this particular case, the subcontractor did not have a COR but entered into a contract with the prime contractor.  When the subcontractor sued for payment, the prime contractor claimed the subcontract was null and void and refused to pay the subcontractor.  The trial court agreed and the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.  

This decision is an important reminder for prime contractors and subcontractors at all tiers to make sure that you have the required COR for the work to be performed.  If there is any doubt, contractors should contact the Mississippi State Board of Contractors at (601) 354-6161, (808) 880-6161 or visit their website at www.msboc.us.  

 

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.

Failure of Prime Contractor to Comply With "Percentage of Work" Requirements Entitles Government to Damages

In a case of first impression, the United States Civilian Board of Contract Appeals upheld a contracting officer’s final decision assessing damages against a prime contractor that failed to comply with the requirement to perform at least 50% of the on-site work. On a contract awarded by the Federal Highway Administration ("FHWA"), prime contractor, Singleton Enterprises ("Singleton") subcontracted the vast majority of its work to Talley Construction ("Talley"). Singleton’s only employees on-site were supervisors, which Singleton apparently borrowed from Talley but paid directly. It was unclear whether Singleton had paid for equipment used on the site, but the CBCA determined that whether or not Singleton had paid for equipment costs, it still performed substantially less than 50% of the value of on-site work.

The FHWA decided that if Singleton did not perform the on-site work, it was not entitled to the benefit of the unit prices it charged for that work. Talley was essentially acting as prime contractor so the FHWA decided it should only pay Singleton what Singleton was paying Talley. To calculate its damages, once the final quantities were determined, the FHWA multiplied Talley’s unit price to Singleton for the work, which was less than Singleton’s unit price to the FHWA for the work. Singleton had already been paid more than the FHWA would have paid based on Talley’s pricing. The appeal upheld not only the FHWA’s decision that it was entitled to recoup its "overpayment" damages from Singleton for not meeting the percentage of work requirement but also the reasonableness of the FHWA’s method of calculating its damages for that breach.

The decision notes that it has no precedential value. However, in similar circumstances, contractors should expect both the Department of Transportation and the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals to act as they did here. See Singleton Enterprises v. Department of Transportation, CBCA No. 2716, June 14, 2012.

Mississippi Code Section 31-5-41 Not Applicable to Performance Bonds

The Mississippi Supreme Court recently decided an appeal concerning whether Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-41 applied to a performance bond surety where the performance bond incorporates the terms and conditions of a construction contract. Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-41 provides that all public or private construction contacts that contain a provision agreeing to "indemnify or hold harmless another person from that person’s own negligence is void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable." It also states that "[t]his section does not apply to construction bonds or insurance contracts or agreements."

In the case decided by the Court, the general contractor was sued by the owner of a building for alleged construction defects. The owner also sued the performance bond surety for breach of the performance bond and bad faith denial of its claims. The surety sought to enforce its indemnity agreement with the general contractor. However, the trial court denied the surety’s claim for indemnification finding its potential liability arouse out of its own negligence. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the trial court simply finding the language of Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-41 provides that it does not apply to "contraction bonds or insurance contracts or agreements." The Court went on to state that "[t]his remains true even if the performance bond incorporates the construction contract by reference."

Even though the general contractor was unable to use Miss. Code Ann. § 31-5-41 as a defense against the surety’s claim for indemnity, this statutory provision does afford the general contractor protection against broad indemnity provisions in other construction related contracts.

When do you have a contract with a public entity?

It can be unclear when a contractor bidding on a public construction project actually has a binding contract with a public entity. This question appears to have been addressed by the Mississippi district court in Northeast Mississippi Community College District v. Vanderheyden Construction Company. In that case, the community college had issued an advertisement for bids from qualified contractors for the construction of a new science and math building. The advertisement reserved the right to reject any and all bids. After bids were opened, Vanderheyden was declared the low bid. The Board of Trustees ("the Board") voted to award the contract to Vanderheyden but after the board meeting the second low bidder challenged the award alleging a number of deficiencies in Vanderheyden’s bid. Rather than risk a lawsuit by the second low bidder, the Board decided to rescind the award and readvertise. At the second bid opening the protester on the original procurement was the low bidder and Vanderheyden was the second low bidder.

The issue presented to the district court was whether the Board could properly rescind its prior award to Vanderheyden and readvertise the project. The district court concluded that "a public entity cannot reject all bids and readvertise the project after it has already accepted the lowest responsible bidder." In analyzing the actions of the Board, the district court when on to state:

[T]he court is of the opinion that once the board chose to accept Vanderheyden’s bid, the reserved right to reject any and all bids had not been exercised and it was no longer operative. To hold otherwise would be contrary to well-established principles of contract law and would permit the possibility of favoritism in public bidding, the very evil which the bidding process statutes were enacted to prevent.

Therefore, once a public entity has officially accepted a bid, there is a binding contract between the parties unless the public entity has expressly conditioned the award upon certain requirements.

Appeals from School Board Orders--Do not delay!

If you are bidding on a project for a school board and are aggrieved by the decision to award the contract to another party, you must appeal the order "within ten (10) days from the date of adjournment of the meeting at which the order is entered."  Miss. Code Ann. § 37-7-115. The procedure for appealing the award decision is the same as set forth in Miss. Code Ann. § 11-51-75 and requires preparing and filing a bill of exceptions with the circuit court.  Because of the short time within which to appeal the decision, a contractor must not delay in deciding whether to appeal or walk away and fight another day.

General Disclaimers in Plans and Specifications

In an attempt to avoid liability for the various deficiencies in its plans and specifications, some architects and engineers rely upon the general disclaimers set forth in the contract documents. However, the United States Supreme Court has held these general disclaimers are unenforceable as a matter of law. In U.S. v. Spearin, the Supreme Court ruled that the Owner is responsible and affirmatively warrants the adequacy of its plans and specifications and that responsibility "is not overcome by the usual clauses requiring builders to visit the site, check the plans, and to inform themselves of the requirements of the work." Similarly, in Baldi Bros. Constructors v. U.S., the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled that such general contractual provisions, even including a provision which states the owner does not guarantee the statements of fact in the specifications, will not relieve the owner from liability for providing misleading information to the contractor

Neither the Owner nor the design professional can fully shield itself from liability for its errors and/or omissions in the plans and specifications through disclaimers in the contract documents. Likewise, disclaimers shifting the burden of costs associated with errors and/or omissions are also generally unenforceable. A contractor is therefore typically entitled to rely on the representations in the plans and specifications, but the contractor should nevertheless perform a reasonable site inspection and review of the plans and specifications so that obvious errors and/or omissions can be addressed prior to bidding.

When a contractor does find itself confronted with such general disclaimers and the owner and/or architect nonetheless issues a directive to proceed, the contractor must document its position with regard to the error and/or omission to protect its position. The lack of such documentation may substantially impair, if not be fatal, to the contractor’s claim for additional compensation and/or time.

July 1, 2011 Deadline for ALL Employers to Comply with Mississippi Employment Protection Act

By now, most employers have heard of the federal "E-Verify" program which is designed to identify and prohibit employment of illegal aliens. In the 2008 legislative session, the Mississippi Legislature adopted the "Mississippi Employment Protection Act" ("MEPA") which has features similar to the "E-Verify" Act, but is broader in its application.

Unlike federal law, the MEPA applies to every employer. An "employer" is defined as "any person or business that is required by federal or state law to issue a United States Internal Revenue Service Form W-2 or Form 1099 to report income paid to employed or contracted personnel in Mississippi." In other words, the MEPA applies to virtually everyone.

So what must the employer do under the MEPA? "Every employer shall register and utilize the status verification system [i.e., the federal E-Verify Program] to verify the federal employment authorization status of all newly hired employees." There are no exceptions! So if you are a small business and hire just one new employee, you are still covered and expected to verify the employment authorization status of the employee. Under the law, employers in the state of Mississippi shall only hire U.S. legal citizens or legal aliens. The E-Verify Program is the authorized means by which employers can verify the employee’s status.

The MEPA was implemented in stages since its adoption. However, effective July 1, 2011, the MEPA is fully implemented and, as mentioned previously, applies to all employers.

What are the consequences for failing to comply? Substantial! Any contract with the state or other public body can be cancelled and you can be ineligible for any public contracts for up to three years. You can also lose any license, permit, certificate or other document issued by any public entity which gives you the right to do business in Mississippi for up to one year. Effectively, these consequences could put you out of business, even if you do not hire an illegal alien! The mere failure to follow the verification requirements could subject you to these penalties.

Can the state do this? Yes. On May 26, 2011, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision affirming similar laws in Arizona. In the case of Chamber of Commerce of the U.S.A. v. Whiting, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s law which the Court concluded did not preempt the federal law, but instead merely imposed licensing conditions on businesses operating within the state. The Supreme Court further concluded that nothing prevented states from making mandatory the federal E-Verify program. The MEPA appears to be consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling and, therefore, would likely be upheld.

Bottom line: Comply with the MEPA. If you have not already registered for E-Verify, do so now and learn how to use it so that you will be ready on July 1st.

Bid Protests--Time is not on your side

If you believe you have grounds for protesting the decision of a board of supervisors, or municipal authorities of a city, town, or village to reject a bid or award a contract, you need to act promptly. The clock is ticking and fast.

Under Miss. Code Ann. §11-51-75 (Rev. 2002) you have only ten (10) days from the adjournment of the meeting to appeal the adverse decision of the board of supervisors or municipal authorities to the circuit court. Do not wait for the official copy of the minutes to the meeting. Contact your legal counsel immediately since he/she will need to prepare a bill of exceptions (essentially a statement of the facts) that must be signed by the president of the board of supervisors or the municipal authority and presented to the circuit court clerk to perfect the appeal.

Remember, in the context of bid protests, if you delay you will lose the right to challenge the decision of the board of supervisors or municipal authority.

Choose Your Arbitration Clause Wisely

During the last several decades arbitration has become a valuable method for resolving disputes between parties in the construction setting. A simple arbitration provision might read as follows:

Claims and disputes not resolved shall be decided by arbitration which shall be in accordance with the Construction Industry Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association currently in effect.  The locale of any arbitration shall be Jackson, Mississippi.

Simple and straightforward, but is it enough? It depends on what your expectations are for arbitration. An arbitrator is bound by the requirements of the arbitration clause. Therefore, if you are drafting an arbitration clause, you might want to consider including certain "bells and whistles" that will get you to the finish line faster. Here are some items you might want to consider including in an arbitration clause. 

  • Location of the arbitration proceeding;
  • Number of arbitrators and experience requirements;
  • Limitations on discovery;
  • Specific rules governing admissibility of evidence at hearing, i.e. state or federal rules of evidence verses the liberal rules for admissibility of the AAA;
  • Time within which arbitration hearing must be conducted; and
  • Payment of fees and costs.

Remember, it is your arbitration clause so draft it to suit your business objectives.

Arbitration Again - Is saying it once enough with multiple documents?

The Mississippi Court of Appeals just released yet another decision in its recent review of arbitration provisions. This time the case dealt with multiple documents, one of which did not include an arbitration provision.

The case involved a couple who had borrowed money from a bank. As is typical with loan transactions, numerous documents were signed as a part of the transaction. The loan-related documents contained an arbitration provision which included in part that "any controversy concerning whether an issue is arbitrable shall be determined by the arbitrator". However, the deed of trust contained no arbitration provision.

The borrowers contended that their house and three acres were not included in the property that had been pledged under the deed of trust for the loan; the bank disagreed. The borrowers filed suit and the bank demanded arbitration. The borrowers claimed the deed of trust was not subject to arbitration.

On appeal, the Mississippi Court of Appeals ruled that the arbitration provisions in the loan documents "should be considered incorporated into the deed of trust" because "separate agreements executed contemporaneously by the same parties, for the same purposes, and as part of the same transaction, are to be construed together." Accordingly, the Mississippi Court of Appeals overturned the trial court and ordered arbitration of the matter.

The lesson of the decision is that some statements bear repeating. In this case, the Court concluded that the parties had agreed to arbitration, even though the deed of trust did not specifically so state. However, the result may not be the same in other situations. Although it may seem repetitious, the safest course of action is to include an arbitration provision in every document related to a transaction. Otherwise, you may find yourself fighting to enforce the agreement to arbitrate as the bank did in this case.

When is Enough, Enough - The "Shaken Faith Doctrine"

 

Contractors are occasionally confronted with a subcontractor that just cannot seem to get the job accomplished in a timely or satisfactory manner. Despite repeated warnings, the subcontractor’s performance may not improve. Because termination is an extreme remedy, contractors are generally hesitant to terminate a subcontractor. But when is enough, enough? The Court of Appeals for Mississippi provided some guidance on this issue in Byrd Brothers, LLC v. Herring, 861 So.2d 1070 (Miss. Ct. App. 2003).

In Byrd, the contractor retained a subcontractor to perform plumbing work on a condominium complex. Shortly after the plumbing work commenced there was a dispute concerning the scope of work to be performed by the plumbing subcontractor. There were also issues with the quality of the work performed by the plumbing subcontractor. The contractor repeatedly requested the plumbing subcontractor remedy the deficiencies. However, the plumbing subcontractor failed to adequately address the concerns complaining the contractor was "being too picky". When the contractor discovered billing irregularities, the plumbing subcontractor was asked to leave the project site. The contractor later requested the plumbing subcontractor meet to discuss his performance issues and completion of the project but the plumbing subcontractor refused unless the contractor immediately paid him some money. When this did not occur, the plumbing subcontractor refused to meet and did not to return to the project. The contractor retained another plumbing subcontractor to complete the work.

The original plumbing subcontractor sued the contractor for the subcontract balance and the contractor asserted a counterclaim against the plumbing subcontractor for the cost to complete the plumbing work. The trial court found in favor of the subcontractor. In reversing the trial court judgment and ordering a new trial, the Mississippi Court of Appeals articulated the following legal principle:

A party who has breached or failed to properly perform a contract has a responsibility and a right to cure the breach. The non-breaching party must give him a reasonable opportunity to cure the breach. However, the right to cure is not unlimited.

Where the breach is a material one, the non-breaching party has a right to end the contract, but in doing so he is also obligated to minimize his damages. Likewise, when the conduct of the breaching party has been of such a nature as to cause a loss of confidence or "shaken faith," the offended party is entitled to end the contract, but he remains responsible for mitigating damages.

 

(Citations omitted.)

The Byrd decision highlights the importance of providing a breaching party the opportunity to cure its breach. One warning may not be enough. Contractors need to be vigilant in their efforts to document incomplete and deficient performance and afford adequate opportunities for the subcontractor to "do the right thing". If the subcontractor fails to timely and satisfactorily respond to the contractor’s demands to cure the incomplete and/or deficient work, the cumulative impact of the incomplete and/or deficient work and the lack of responsiveness on the part of the subcontractor may result in a lack of confidence, i.e. "shaken faith", sufficient to entitle the contractor to complete the work and mitigate its damages.

Mississippi Bureau of Building, Grounds and Real Property Management's New Standards for Disqualification of Bidder

If you are bidding on projects awarded through the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, Bureau of Building, Grounds and Real Property Management ("the Bureau"), you might not be awarded the contract, even if you are the apparent low bidder.

The Bureau is very particular about with whom it does business. Effective May 18, 2009, the Bureau has expanded the grounds for disqualifying a bidder from competition. (Link to rules.) These recent changes are highlighted below.

1.04 DISQUALIFICATION OF BIDDER: A Bidder may be disqualified for any of the following reasons:

A.  Failure to comply with the bid requirements.  (This provision was in 600.53 but missing in 1.04 of the Instructions to Bidders.

B.  Bidder is in arrears on existing Contract with the Bureau or another state agency.

C.  Bidder is, or anticipates being, in litigation or arbitration with the Bureau or another state agency.

D.  Bidder has defaulted on a previous Contract.

     

    BOB Manual, Instructions to Bidders, Section 00100, Part 1, General, Paragraph 1.04.

Mississippi’s Public Procurement Statute requires award to the "lowest and best bidder". However, the Mississippi Courts have recognized that the lowest bid may not necessarily be the best bid. Thus, state agencies have been afforded considerable deference when deciding which contractor has submitted the "lowest and best bid". One of the areas the Mississippi Supreme Court has recognized may be considered in the evaluation of bids is a contractor’s past performance record. However, in my opinion, the Bureau’s grounds for disqualification impermissibly expand the area of inquiry by seeking to penalize a contractor for exercising its contractual right to pursue a claim against the Bureau or another state agency with which the contractor has a contract.

The Bureau’s new grounds for disqualification gives it the authority to now reject a bid if the contractor "anticipates" being in litigation or arbitration. Hypothetically, this means that if a contractor has a contract with the Bureau or another state agency, writes a "claim" letter stating the contractor believes it has a right to an equitable adjustment in the contract price and/or time and subsequently submits a bid on another Bureau project, the contractor’s bid may be rejected because the letter could be construed as a sign the contractor "anticipates" being in litigation or arbitration with the Bureau. The Bureau may even require a certification as part of its bid requirements wherein the contractor must represent it does not anticipate being in litigation or arbitration with the Bureau or another state agency. The obvious intent of this provision is to discourage contractors from asserting claims against the Bureau or another state agency on construction projects. It appears the Bureau has made the decision that such draconian tactics are more effective then dealing with legitimate claims which the contractor has a right to assert under the Bureau’s contract documents.

Checklist for Mississippi Construction Contractors

If you have ever been the apparent low bidder on a public construction project and had your bid rejected because of an irregularity in the bid documents, you are not alone.  What is even more frustrating, and will make you fighting mad, is when the public agency decides to waive the same irregularity of a competitor when you are the second low bidder.  Perhaps the best way to avoid this situation is to make sure that you have completed your bid in strict accordance with the instructions to bidders.  I know it is difficult to focus on all the particulars when less than an hour before the bid is to be submitted subcontractors and suppliers are sending in prices or changing the ones previously provided.  Here is a simple bid checklist that may help you avoid those last minute mistakes.

  • Read the "Instruction to Bidders" when you obtain a copy of the solicitation to make sure that there are no unusual or different bid requirements. 
    • Pre-Bid Conference
    • Bid Bond
    • Site Visit
    • Listing of Subcontractors
  • Prepare the bid envelope in advance, identifying (1) the project, (2) the person to whom the bid is to be submitted, (3) the location where the bid is to be submitted and (4) the date and time for the submission of the bid.  ALWAYS PLACE CERTIFICATE OF RESPONSIBILITY NUMBER ON THE OUTSIDE OF THE ENVELOPE.
  • Complete the bid form and check to determine whether all the blank spaces for prices are completed with a dollar amount or a "---" or "-0-".
  • Check your addition and multiplication for unit prices and total bid price.
  • Acknowledge all Amendments/Addenda to the solicitation.
  • List subcontractors, if required.
  • Sign and date the bid documents.
  • Check the bid bond, if required, to make sure that it is in the correct amount and proper form.
  • Place bid documents and bid bond, if required, into envelope and submit.

In the event you are determined to be the apparent low bidder, and your bid is not more than ten percent (10%) above the amount of funds allocated for the project, it is likely that you will be awarded the contract.

Show Me The Money...Now!

In these difficult economic times, an Owner and/or Contractor may be tempted not to make full and final payment after the work is complete and there is beneficial use and occupancy of the facility. The Owner and/or Contractor may justify this conduct even though there is not currently a problem with the work because there "may" be unanticipated future problems with that will need to be addressed. However, withholding payment for potential defects or warranty issues could turn out not to be a wise decision.

An Owner and/or Contractor’s "belief" that it may have warranty claims sometime in the future may be insufficient to justify withholding of final payment as explained by the Mississippi Supreme Court in Crawford Commercial Constructors, Inc. v. Marine Industrial Residential Insulation, Inc., 437 So.2d 15 (Miss. 1983). In that case, a subcontractor sued the general contractor for payment under a roofing contract. The general contractor had refused to pay the subcontractor on the basis that it "believed the roof was improperly installed, so that [the general contractor] will ultimately be required to repair it to satisfy the building’s owner." Id. The Court ruled that the general contractor’s "beliefs" were conjectural. Id. at 16. In affirming the trial court’s decision in favor of the subcontractor, the Mississippi Supreme Court stated:

Under our authorities there must be a present, existent actionable title or interest which must be completed at the time the cause of action is filed. (citations omitted). A mere inchoate right is not sufficient and neither is a prospective danger of injury. (citations omitted)…"It is certainly an undisputable and invariable rule of law that a right of action must be complete when an action therefore is commenced…."…"we consider it to be the well-settled, general rule, that the facts which constitute the ground of a suit must exist at the time the suit is instituted…"

 

Id. at 16.

In addition to this jurisprudence, Mississippi has enacted what are generally known as "Prompt Payment Statutes" for both public and private construction contracts. Both of these statutes require timely final payment once the contract has been determined to be substantially complete or there has been beneficial use and occupancy. There are also "Late Payment Interest Statutes" which apply when a contractor fails to make payment "without reasonable cause" to its lower tier subcontractors or suppliers within fifteen (15) days after receipt of payment.

There is no provision for recovery of attorneys’ fees in either the "Prompt Payment Statutes" or the "Late Payment Interest Statutes." Contractors therefore need to ensure the issue of attorneys’ fees associated with collection efforts are adequately addressed in their contract documents.

You can expect this case law and these statutes to be cited frequently in payment disputes during these difficult economic times.

Bureau of Building, Grounds and Real Property Management Updating Construction Manual

The Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, Bureau of Building, Grounds and Real Property Management is currently updating its BOB Construction Manual.  This is your opportunity to participate in the process.  If you want to be heard, you should email Glenn Kornbrek, the Assistant Director for the Bureau of Building, Grounds and Real Property Management (KornbrG@dfa.state.ms.us).  Mr. Kornbrek’s telephone number is (601) 359-3894.

Forum Selection Clauses

The Mississippi  courts will enforce forum selection clauses when the intent is clear and unequivocal.  When confronted with challenges to the enforcability of a forum selection clause, the  first step in analysis is whether it is mandatory or permissive. Titan Indemnity Company v. Hood, 895 So.2d 138, 146-47 (Miss. 2005) (.pdf). The determination of what language is considered mandatory as opposed to permissive was carefully examined and discussed in Bently v. Mutual Benefits Corp., 237 F.Supp.2d 699 (S.D. Miss. 2002) (.pdf). In Bently, the district court was tasked with determining whether to enforce a forum selection clause with language strikingly similar to the language found in SCP’s terms and conditions. Its analysis followed the two-step inquiry articulated by the Fifth Circuit in Caldas & Sons, Inc. v. Willingham, 17 F.3d 123 (5th Cir. 1994) (.pdf). As to whether the forum selection clause was mandatory or permissive, the district court reasoned that "a mandatory forum selection clause has express language limiting the action to the courts of a specific locale which is clear, unequivocal and mandatory." Bently, 237 F.Supp.2d at 702 (emphasis added). The district court when on to cite a number of decisions discussing the importance of limiting language in the forum selection clause to obviate any uncertainty with regard to the exclusivity of the chosen forum.

If the forum selection clause is considered mandatory, the second step in the legal analysis requires the court to consider (1) whether "Its incorporation into the contract was the result of fraud, undue influence or overweening bargaining power; (2) [t]he selected forum is so gravely difficult and inconvenient that the resisting party will for all practical purposes be deprived of its day in court; or (3) [t]he enforcement of the clause would contravene a strong public policy of the forum in which the suit is brought, declared by statute or judicial decisions." Titan Indemnity Company v. Hood, 895 So.2d 138,146-47 (Miss. 2005).