Late Payment on Private Projects--When can a contractor recover late payment interest under Miss. Code Ann. §87-7-3?

If you are a contractor and submitted an application for a progress payment on a private construction project the owner should make timely payment under the terms of the contract.  However, all too frequently the owner does not make that timely payment.  If this occurs, contractors should look to Miss. Code Ann. §87-7-3 for relief.  It provides, with regard to progress payments as follows:

…If they [partial, progress or interim payments] are not paid within thirty (30) calendar days from the day they were due and payable, then they shall bear interest from the due date at the rate of one percent (1%) per month until fully paid.

Miss. Code Ann. §87-7-3(a).

This statute also provides the same relief where final payment is requested by the contractor and payment is not made within thirty (30) calendar days from the first occurrence of either (1) substantial completion under the terms of the contract, (2) beneficial use and occupancy by the owner, or when the project is certified as complete by the architect or engineer. Miss. Code Ann. §87-7-3(b).

Unfortunately, this interest is not automatic unless the amount requested is liquidated.  This was made clear by the Mississippi Supreme Court in a recent decision.  There was a dispute between the owner and the contractor concerning the amount due and owing under the contract.  The contractor demanded pre-judgment interest under Miss. Code Ann. §75-17-1 Ann. and late payment interest under Miss. Code Ann. §87-7-3.  In denying both of these requests the Court concluded:

Neither Section 75-17-1 nor Section 87-7-3 mentions whether monies owed contractors must be liquidated in order for the respective statute’s grant of prejudgment interest to apply.  However, the same considerations which preclude a recovery of prejudgment interest for unliquidated amounts owed under Section 75-17-1 apply to Section 87-7-3.  Therefore, Stubbs [the contractor] must show that his claims against the Falkners [the owner] were liquidated prior to the judgment in order to recover prejudgment interest under either statute.

Falkner v. John E. Stubbs d/b/a Mississippi Polysteel, 121 So.3d 899, 903 (Miss. 2013).  Damages are considered unliquidated if they are not set forth in the contract or cannot be established by a fixed formula. Id.

The bottom line is that contractors need to make sure that the payment provisions of the contract are clear and that any schedule of values is sufficiently detailed to identify the item of work and the value which the parties have agreed to assign to this item.  Of course, any change order work should also be priced and agreed to avoid creating a disputed and unliquidated amount.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Delay in Issuance of Time Extension May Constitute Active Interference or Bad Faith

Contractors frequently encounter circumstances where they are entitled to an extension of the contract time and request the extension, but, in some instances, the owner and/or architect refuses to timely act on the request by either granting or denying the request. When a contractor encounters such a circumstance, it must decide whether to accelerate its performance to avoid missing the contract completion date and being assessed damages by the owner or maintain its schedule based upon the assumption the contractor will receive the extension and risk a potential termination for default by the owner for not making adequate progress toward the completion date. This is the very reason why the Mississippi Supreme Court suggested that the "refusal to grant extensions on a timely basis can reasonably be interpreted as active interference or bad faith" and could justify the award of damages to a contractor.

Contractors should therefore not just request an extension of time with supporting documentation but also demand a timely response. If no response is forthcoming, the contractor should then advise the owner and/or architect of the consequences of a further delay in a decision.

Waiver of Right to Assess Liquidated Damages

Contractors who have a liquidated damage provision in their contracts should be aware that their assessment can be waived by the conduct of the owner.  The Mississippi Supreme Court has found that an owner was estopped from asserting delay damages where it failed to timely assert that right.  Contractors faced with a liquidated damage provision may therefore be able to defend against assessment of these damages where the owner fails to affirmatively and timely assert the right to them.  This may occur when the owner waits until the end of the project, long after the completion date has passed, to claim its right to liquidated damages without deducting them as they accrue.

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.

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.

Challenge to Arbitration Award Untimely

Once a party receives an arbitration award, it does not necessarily mean that it will voluntarily be paid. Frequently, the party receiving the arbitration award must have it confirmed by the court and converted into a judgment. However, the party against whom the award has been made may challenge the award and seek to have it vacated. If the dispute involves an agreement related to construction, the parties must follow the procedures set forth in the Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-101, et seq. If the dispute is unrelated to construction, the parties must follow the procedures set forth in the Mississippi Arbitration Act ("MMA"), Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-1, et seq. In a recent decision, the Mississippi Court of Appeals found the party against whom an award had been granted failed not only to timely challenge the arbitration award but also failed to set forth sufficient grounds to justify vacating the arbitration award and reversed the trial court’s findings. [click here to view decision].

In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals first considered the timeliness requirements for vacating an arbitration award under both the MMA and the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA"), 9 U.S.C. §§1, et seq. Under the FAA, a motion to vacate must be served within three months after the award is filed or delivered. 9 U.S.C.§12. However, under the MMA provides as follows:

An application to vacate or modify an award shall be made to the court at the term next after the making and publication of the award, upon at least five days’ notice, in writing, being given to the adverse party, if there be time for that purpose; and if there be not time, such court, or the judge thereof, may, upon good cause shown, order a stay of proceeding upon the award, either absolutely or upon such terms as shall appear just, until the next succeeding term of court.

 

Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-27.  Because the challenging party complied with neither of these provisions, the Court of Appeals found the trial court had erred when it concluded the challenger's motion for vacation was timely.

In addition, the challenger did not set forth any of the grounds that might justify the vacating of an arbitration award. These grounds are very limited and set forth in 9 U.S.C. §10(a) or under Miss. Code Ann. §11-15-23. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court for finding otherwise.

Although this case dealt with the MMA, the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act also has strict filing deadlines for challenging an arbitration award and extremely limited grounds for challenging an award. It is therefore imperative that upon receipt of the arbitration award contractors consult their lawyer or the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act to determine the time limitations for modifying or vacating an arbitration award.

Who can be a "Qualifying Party" for a Contractor's Certificate of Responsibility - Update

On May 13, 2009, I published a blog titled "Who can be a "Qualifying Party" for a Contractor’s Certificate of Responsibility". [Click to view blog post] The blog article states that the requirement for a contractor’s Certificate of Responsibility for a public contract is $50,000 and a private contract is $100,000. Since the writing of that blog article, the statute has been amended and effective July 1, 2010, a Certificate of Responsibility is required on all contracts, both public and private, in excess of $50,000.

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.  

 

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.

Mississippi District Court Finds Mississippi Stop Payment Statute Unconstitutional

On April 12, 2012, United States Magistrate Judge S. Allan Alexander issued an order and opinion finding Mississippi’s "stop payment" statute, Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-181 (1972) unconstitutional stating:

 

[T]he court is compelled to hold that Mississippi’s stop notice statute violates due process by authorizing what is in practical effect the prejudgment attachment of funds without prior notice and hearing, or an acceptable post-seizure remedy.  Consequently, §85-7-181 is facially unconstitutional...

 

The decision has been appealed.  Because the district court’s decision is based upon an "Erie guess", the State courts in Mississippi are not bound to follow the district court’s decision.  Nonetheless, subcontractors that have previously relied upon "stop payment" rights may see this decision cited by general contractors and owners to challenge a stop payment notice.

 

It will be interesting to see how this decision develops on appeal. Stay tuned for more information.

Construction Industry Legislation for 2012

There are only two pieces of construction related legislation that passed during the 2012 session worthy of mention.  The first piece of legislation is HB 1301.  Click here to see HB 1301.  This bill amends Miss. Code Ann. § 85-7-185 to add the requirement that an owner or contractor furnish a copy of a payment bond when requested by a subcontractor or supplier.  The second bill is SB 2902.  Click here to see SB 2902.  This bill makes it a misdemeanor for a contractor to negotiate a joint check "tendered in payment for material or equipment furnished or labor performed" without the authorization of the other party.  The offending contractor could also be fined up to $500.00, ordered to make full restitution and be required to pay the attorney’s fees.

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.

Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) offers E-Verify Assistance

In an article published on June 9, 2011, by Brenda Redfern, employers were reminded that effective July 1, 2011, the Mississippi Employment Protection Act requires all Mississippi businesses to E-Verify all new employees. In conjunction with this statutory mandate, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security ("MDES") has announced it will E-Verify any prospective employees for employers who are looking to retain workers through MDES.  Click here to see the article published regarding this e-verify service in the Mississippi Business Journal on July 18, 2011.  An employer simply has to place a job order with MDES by calling 888-844-3511 or contacting a WIN Job Center. MDES will send a list of prospective employees, all of whom will be E-Verified. When an individual is hired, the employer simply notifies MDES and it will send an official "Certification of I-9 Completion" to the employer. This service can assist contractors in identifying potential employees and save many administrative hours and headaches.

In addition, MDES has also agreed to implement a process it calls "reversal referrals". This is where an employer identifies a prospective employee and can send him/her to a WIN Job Center where the individual is E-Verified. The name of the individual is sent back to the prospective employer by MDES and, if hired, MDES will send the required certification. Employees that use MDES for E-Verification may relieve themselves from potential liability under the Mississippi Employment Protection Act.

Contractors should consider taking advantage of this free service by MDES in these difficult economic times.

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.

Claims for Construction Defects--Where did I put my insurance policy?

Mississippi contractors should know that Mississippi law (§15-1-41) allows a party to bring suit for defective construction within six (6) years “after the written acceptance or actual occupancy or use, whichever occurs first, of such improvement by the owner thereof.”   The last thing a contractor wants to be confronted with, especially if the contractor is no longer in business, is a demand or lawsuit to address allegedly defective work. This scenario may not have seemed likely five years ago, but with the downturn in the economy, many contractors are being forced to close their doors.  Don’t panic—yet. Your insurance or that purchased by your subcontractors where you were identified as an additional insured may provide you with defense and indemnity protection. 

When you do get a demand or served with a lawsuit from a former client alleging defective construction, you should contact your legal counsel and insurance agent. Your legal counsel can advise you how to respond to the demand or lawsuit and your insurance agent can help you find the policy in place when the project was constructed. You will then be in a position to notify your insurance carrier of the situation. Hopefully, your policy will either cover the claim of defective construction or pay for the cost associated with defending against the claim. If your insurance carrier or that of your subcontractor sends you a letter denying coverage, do not take no for an answer—at least not right away. You should have your attorney review the applicable policy language to verify whether there is coverage. 

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.

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.

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.)

 

Mandatory Pre-Bid Meetings - Do I really have to attend?

There is an emerging trend in public bids to include a requirement for a mandatory pre-bid meeting. The requirement to attend the pre-bid meeting is typically set forth in the Instructions to Bidders ("ITB") and provides that a contractor’s failure to attend will result in its bid being rejected as non-responsive.  

As a preliminary matter, there is no Mississippi statute or regulation which requires a public agency to conduct a pre-bid meeting or for a contractor to attend a pre-bid meeting to qualify it to submit a bid.  This is a "requirement" typically included in the Instructions to Bidders by the Owner/Architect.  One reason it may be included is to give "local" contractors an advantage over "foreign" contractors. "Foreign" contractors are forced to expend additional time and effort to attend the pre-bid meeting, and cannot simply throw a bid together and submit it to the public agency. Another reason the requirement is included may be to give the opportunity for the Owner/Architect to give final, pre-bid information on the project requirements and, sometimes, even to serve as an alternative (though not a good one) to an amendment to the ITB.

A contractor that does not attend the pre-bid meeting risks the potential for having its bid rejected as non-responsive.  If the Owner/Architect truly intends to enforce this requirement, at bid opening the Owner/Architect should examine each bid to determine the identity of the bidder and compare it to the list of attendees at the pre-bid meeting.  If the bidder did not attend the pre-bid meeting, the Owner/Architect should return the bid unopened.

In most instances, the Owner/Architect will open the bids and address the issue only if the apparent low bidder has not attended the pre-bid meeting.  The bigger the spread between the apparent low bidder and the second low bidder, the more likely it is that failure to attend the mandatory pre-bid meeting will be waived. The Mississippi Attorney General has opined that "a bidding irregularity may be waived if: (1) the irregularity does not destroy the competitive character of the bid by affecting the amount of the bid thereby giving the bidder an advantage or benefit over other bidders and (2) the irregularity does not involve noncompliance with a statutory or regulatory requirement."  Because the requirement to attend a pre-bid meeting is not a statutory or regulatory requirement, Owners/Architects frequently waive the pre-bid meeting requirement without a challenge.  

If, however, the Owner/Architect does not agree to voluntarily waive the irregularity, an argument can be made that by opening the contractor’s bid that did not attend the pre-bid meeting; the Owner/Architect has already waived the requirement.   

There is another alternative. A contractor that is concerned about the requirement for a mandatory pre-bid meeting can file a pre-bid protest with the public agency challenging this requirement as unduly restrictive on competition and not in the best interests of the public.   

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.

Who Can be a "Qualifying Party" for a Contractor's Certificate of Responsibility?

To perform any public contract of at least $50,000 or private contract of at least $100,000, a contractor must hold a Certificate of Responsibility issued by the Mississippi State Board of Contractors.  It makes no difference whether the "contract" to be performed is a prime contract or subcontract at any tier.  Miss. Code Ann. 31-3-15.

Moverover, Mississippi law does not permit the "borrowing" of certificates of responsibility.  Only a responsible managing officer, employee, or member of the executive staff of the applicant for the certificate can serve as its qualifying party.  The statutes creating the State Board of Contractors, which governs the licensing of contractors, and that Board's regulations implementing those statutes are designed to prevent one person from serving as the qualifying party for entities in which he or she has not personal or managerial stake or responsibility.  To allow otherwise would dilute the requirements which are meant to ensure the integrity, financial capacity, and technical capability of all entities performing construction in Mississippi.

Miss. Code Ann. 31-3-1 defines a "certificate of responsibility" as a "certificate numbered held by a contractor issued by the board under the provisions of this chapter after the payment of the special privilege license tax..."

Miss. Code Ann. 31-3-13(a) defines who can be the "qualifying party" or an applicant of a certificate of responsibility, whether such application is for a new certificate or a renewal certificate.  Specifically, it states:

The board shall take applicants under consideration after having examined him or them and go thoroughly into the records and examinations, prior to granting any certificate of responsiblity.  If the applicant is an individual, examination may be taken by his personal appearance for examination or by the appearance for examination of one or more of his responsible managing employees; and if a co-partnership or corporation or any other combination or organization, by the examination of one or more of the responsible managing officers or memebers of the executive staff of the applicant's firm, according to its own designation.

The intent clearly is that a qualifying party be a responsible managing employee for or officer of the applicant, whether it's a sole proprietorship or corporation.  The true "responsibility" for which the certificate is issued cannot be determined otherwise.  In construing this requirement the State Board of Contractors promulgated the following regulation which, again, leaves no doubt that the "qualifying party" must be intimately involved in the management and/or ownership of the entity claiming him or her as their qualifying party.  Rule L states:

When the qualifying party terminates employement with the Certificate holder, the Mississippi State Board of Contractors must be notified in writing, by the qualifying party and the Certificate holder, within thirty (30) days of the disassociation and another party must qualify within one hundred eighty (180) days or Certificate holder will be subject to suspension or revocation of its Certificate of Responsibility.

(Emphasis added).

Thus, where a purposed "qualifying party" for Company A is neither a managerial employee nor an officer of that company but, in fact, owns or is the officer of another, unrelated Company B, but Company B routinely serves as a subcontractor to Company A, Company A and its purported "qualifying party" are in violation of MIssissippi law and the Rules and Regulations of the State Board of Contractors.  (This is typically done where owners of two companies do not want to commingle business assets, finances, or interests, but they do want to pursue and perform contracts together.)  Company A's Certificate of Responsibility is null and void as a matter of law.