When Enough is Enough and Justifies Termination

A question frequently asked by owners and contractors is when enough is enough and termination is justified. As a preliminary matter, immediate termination for a non-compliant contractor or subcontractor is never a good idea. Mississippi jurisprudence requires that notice (preferably in writing) should be given to the non-compliant party with an opportunity to cure the alleged defect. The decision to terminate is never easy and viewed by the court as an extreme remedy. Nonetheless, the court has also recognized that termination may be warranted where repeated attempts to cure have been ineffective.

Any notice of termination should be in writing identifying the "material breach" justifying the termination and entitlement to damages associated with completing the terminated scope of work. The owner or contractor should also secure a number of quotes/prices to complete the work. This will assist the owner or contractor from being accused of securing an unreasonable or excessive price to complete the terminated scope of work. Remember, any change in the original scope of work or "betterment" could be grounds for the terminated party to challenge all or a portion of the claimed damages.

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.

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.

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.