Oral contracts - be careful what you say.

There are plenty of different ways that a contractor can get in trouble with an owner or its subcontractors.  One is to talk too much and wind up entering into a separate enforceable oral contract.  The existence of an oral contract is a factual issue that will be decided by a jury or a judge in a trial without a jury, also known as a bench trial.  However, the formation of a contract requires three (3) simple elements: (1) an offer, (2) acceptance of the offer, and (3) consideration. If those elements are proven by one of the parties, an enforceable contract may have been formed and someone may have to pay.  There are some limited situations in which the law requires that a contract be in writing.  Nevertheless, the best course of action is to speak with caution so that there is no opportunity to argue that an oral contract was made.

And remember, the statute of limitations for an oral contract is three (3) years. Miss. Code Ann. §15-1-29. So, you may want to watch what you agree to do or you may lose sleep for quite some time until the statute of limitation expires.

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.   

Beware of Tolling Agreements

A tolling agreement is an agreement to suspend or extend the statute of limitation (the time within which you are required to file a lawsuit or lose the right to sue). These types of agreements are typically proposed to delay the filing of a lawsuit while parties attempt to settle the matter in dispute. However, you should proceed with caution when considering such agreements, because Mississippi has another law that forbids changing certain statutes of limitation.

Recently, the Mississippi Supreme Court considered these types of agreements again. Although the Court decided that the statute of limitation could be tolled for certain kinds of actions, the Court also ruled that the statute of repose cannot be touched. The statute of repose is a maximum period of time under which a lawsuit can be filed no matter what the circumstances may be.

The Court also listed five requirements that must be met in those situations where a tolling agreement is allowed:

A tolling agreement may be enforceable if (1) it is not prohibited by statute; (2) it contains a definite and reasonable time period; (3) it is formed after the cause of action has accrued, or in the instance of a statute of repose, after the plaintiff has notice of the cause of action; (4) it is not made at the same time as, or part of , the obligation sued upon; and (5) it is entered into before the expiration of the applicable limitations period.

If you are considering entering into a tolling agreement, don’t make that decision alone. You can be giving up substantial rights if a Mississippi court refuses to recognize the agreement. Before signing, consult with legal counsel experienced in contract law.

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.

When do I have to file a demand for arbitration?

 

Parties frequently include arbitration clauses in their construction documents. In such instances, when a dispute arises, the party with a claim may ultimately need to pursue it by filing a demand for arbitration. When the arbitration clause requires compliance with the American Arbitration Association’s ("AAA") Construction Industry Arbitration Rules, or another alternative dispute organization, the claimant can simply file a demand for arbitration with that organization. When the agreement does not specify an alternative dispute organization or a method for the initiation of arbitration, the claimant must rely upon the procedures set forth in the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act ("the Act"), Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-101, et seq. (Rev. 2004). Under the Act, the claimant shall:

...within the time specified by the contract, if any, file with the other party a notice of an intention to arbitrate which notice shall contain a statement setting forth the nature of the dispute, the amount involved, and the remedy sought....

According to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, such a "demand for arbitration" must be initiated within three (3) years from the time the cause of action accrues. This issue was addressed by the Court of Appeals in Haycraft v. Mid-State Construction Company, Inc. In that case, Haycraft filed suit against Mid-State sometime in 1994. Mid-State filed a motion to have Haycraft’s complaint dismissed because the agreement between the parties included a provision that permitted Mid-State to require arbitration. The court therefore dismissed Haycraft’s lawsuit.

Approximately six years later Haycraft filed an application for arbitration. Mid-State filed an objection to Haycraft’s demand for arbitration with the circuit court. The court found Haycraft’s application for arbitration untimely based upon the general three (3) year statute of limitation found at Miss. Code Ann. §15-1-49 (Rev. 2003). The Court of Appeals agreed and found Haycraft’s right to demand arbitration began when its cause of action accrued. It was therefore Haycraft’s obligation to initiate an application for arbitration within three (3) years from that date or its cause of action would be barred by the statute of limitation. Because Haycraft did not timely pursue its right to arbitrate, Haycraft’s claim was barred.

The key point to remember is that a claimant must act timely to preserve its right to arbitration. A demand or application for arbitration must be timely submitted to the opposing party or the claim’s right to relief may be barred by the three (3) year statute of limitation.

MISSISSIPPI SUPREME COURT COMPELS ARBITRATION AGAINST PURPORTED NON-SIGNATORY TO AGREEMENT

The Mississippi Supreme Court handed down a decision this month upholding the proposition that an arbitration agreement can be enforced against someone who did not sign the agreement. However, the facts of the case were unusual in that the individual (Donna Stuckey) against whom arbitration was ordered presented evidence that at least some of the documents involved in the transactions contained forged signatures.

In this case, the defendants had pledged certain property to the bank as collateral for loans made to their cattle business. Mrs. Stuckey’s name appeared approximately fifty-five times on documents containing arbitration provisions. However, Mrs. Stuckey claimed the only document she actually signed was one deed of trust which did not include an arbitration provision. Mrs. Stuckey admitted she was one of the owners of the cattle business. She asserted numerous claims, including forgery, against the bank and one of its employees who was also an owner of the cattle business. She further claimed she suffered damages when the bank employee took profits from the sale of cattle without her knowledge or permission. Because the only document which Mrs. Stuckey admitted had been signed by her did not include an arbitration provision, she disputed the matter was subject to arbitration.

The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that it did not matter whether Mrs. Stuckey’s signature was forged and it did not matter that the deed of trust had no arbitration clause. The Court held since Mrs. Stuckey was a co-owner in the cattle business she was a third-party beneficiary to the loan agreements which included arbitration provisions. The Court also concluded that Mrs. Stuckey was equitably estopped from claiming she was not subject to arbitration on the basis that she could not claim breaches of duties associated with the loan documents and at the same time claim that she was not bound by the provisions in those documents.

This decision serves as a reminder of two principles: (1) You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The Mississippi Supreme Court recognizes and disfavors simultaneous attempts to claim the benefits of a contract and to disclaim application of certain contract provisions. (2) Arbitration continues to be favored by courts.

No Certificate of Responsibility = Null and Void Contract

On July 21, 2009, the Mississippi Court of Appeals made it clear that any contract entered into by a party with an unlicensed contractor is null and void. United Plumbing & Heating Company v. AmSouth Bank (Ct. App. No. 2007-CA-01194). This is the first reported decision that addresses the interpretation of Miss. Code Ann. § 31-3-15. This statute provides in pertinent part as follows:

No contract for public or private projects shall be issued or awarded to any contractor who did not have a current certificate of responsibility issued by said board [of contractors] at the time of submission of the bid…Any contract issued or awarded in violation of this section shall be null and void.

In United, the general contractor [United] entered into a contract with an owner [Wee Care] for the construction of a building. The contractor and its subcontractors were not paid for their work. The owner filed bankruptcy and the contractor filed suit against the lender [AmSouth] to recover its contract balance. AmSouth filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that because United did not have a valid certificate of responsibility, the contract was null and void. United argued that it did hold a certificate of responsibility, even though the certificate was issued in a classification different from the type of work being performed for Wee Care. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of AmSouth. United appealed the decision but the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling finding:

[T]he contract entered into between United and Wee Care was null and void because United failed to possess the appropriate certificate of responsibility for the type of work it undertook to perform. Having found that United’s contract with Wee Care was void, it follows that any contractual obligations AmSouth [the lender] may have owed [United or] the subcontractors are also void.

(emphasis added). If a contractor or subcontractor does not have a current certificate of responsibility, it may find itself in the position of having furnished labor and material on a project and not being paid. This could result in a financial disaster for one party and a windfall for the other party.

United makes it abundantly clear that owners, contractors and subcontractors should always check Mississippi State Board of Contractors to determine if the contractor or subcontractor holds a license for the work to be performed. It is also prudent for a party to confirm with the licensed entity that the qualifying party is currently an "owner, or a responsible managing employee, or a responsible managing officer, or a member of the executive staff…" See, Who Can be a "Qualifying Party" for a Contractor’s Certificate of Responsibility? Posted on this blog site by Christopher Solop, May 13, 2009.  (The State Board of Contractors has recently proposed an amendment to Rule L shortening the period to replace a qualifying party after the individual holding the certificate of responsibility leaves the employment of the company from 180 days to 90 days. This change will take effect on October 8, 2009.)

 

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.

Arbitration Clauses - A Balancing Act

The Mississippi Court of Appeals just released a decision addressing the scope of arbitration clauses. Although the case dealt with an employment agreement, the decision is certainly a warning sign for arbitration clauses in any contract.

At issue in the case was whether tort claims for assault and battery were included within the arbitrable claims of the employment agreement. The agreement required arbitration of "all matters directly or indirectly related to your recruitment, potential employment, or possible termination of employment, including, but not limited to, claims involving and/or against the Company, employees, supervisors, officers, and/or director of [Company] or any affiliates, as well as any other common law claims for wrongful discharge or other similar claims." Even though the Court determined that the foregoing language was broad and that the claims stemmed from a supervisor’s alleged actions while on a business trip, the Court nevertheless ruled that the arbitration provision did not include claims for assault and battery.

One judge disagreed with the Court’s majority. In a separate opinion, the dissenting Justice noted that in a case decided four years prior an agreement that required "any dispute under this agreement" to be arbitrated included intentional tort claims.

The current decision does not overrule the older court decision, and distinguishing factual circumstances can be found between the two decisions. However, the current decision at least constitutes a warning signal that the Court will look more closely when considering whether intentional torts fall within the ambit of arbitration provisions. A delicate balancing act will be required to make arbitration provisions broad enough to capture as much as possible, yet specific enough to include what might be considered more remote claims. Everyone should revisit the language of its contractual arbitration provisions or risk being in court to settle disputes rather than arbitration.

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.