Associated General Contractors

The Mississippi Legislature has passed and on April 2, 2018, sent to the Governor HB 1306 for his signature. [Click here for link to House Bill 1306.] This legislation provides that "[a] provision in any contract, subcontract, or purchase order for the improvement of real property in this state or to provide materials therefor, is void and against public policy if it makes the contract, subcontract, or purchase order subject to the laws of another state, or provides that the exclusive forum for any litigation, arbitration or other dispute resolution process be located in another state." This means that Mississippi residents do not have to travel to foreign jurisdictions to have disputes resolved on projects located in Mississippi or have the laws of a foreign jurisdiction apply to a dispute arising out of or related to the improvement [construction or repair] of real property in this state.

This legislation provides Mississippi residents with a "home court" advantage that previously did not exist. HB 1306 will be effective for contracts entered into on or after July 1, 2018.

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

On February 2, 2009, I posted a blog on forum selection clauses and their enforceability. [Link to prior blog article] On May 10, 2016, in Rigsby v. American Credit Counselors, Inc., the Mississippi Court of Appeals found a forum selection clause included in American Credit Counselors, Inc.’s Program Guidelines unenforceable. In so doing, the Court provides an excellent analysis of when forum selection clauses may be found to be unenforceable. [Link to Decision]

Ms. Rigsby was in serious financial problems and decided to engage the assistance of American Credit Counselors, Inc. ("ACCI") to assist in managing the payment of her debts. She was provided "Program Guidelines" which included a forum selection clause. The clause provided in pertinent part as follows:

…the parties agree that any arbitration brought with respect to this Agreement shall be brought exclusively in The State of Florida, County of Palm Beach, and the parties irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of Palm Beach County, Florida.

When a dispute developed between Ms. Rigsby and ACCI she filed suit in the County Court of Harrison County, Mississippi. In its answer, ACCI claimed the protection of the forum selection clause and filed a motion to dismiss which was granted by the county court and affirmed on appeal by the circuit court. The Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court finding the forum selection clause unenforceable.

The Court, citing Titan Indem. Co. v. Hood, 895 So. 2d 138, 145 (Miss. 2004), acknowledged that "[a] clause is ‘mandatory’ if it purports to require litigation in the specified forum only and to prohibit litigation in any other forum." It therefore found the use of the word "solely" to be "sufficient to make it [the forum selection clause] mandatory."

Nonetheless, the Court continued with its analysis to determine whether, although mandatory, the clause was enforceable. In doing so, the Court considered the following guidance from the Mississippi Supreme Court:

Forum selection clauses are ‘presumptively valid and enforceable’ unless the resisting party can show:

(1) Its incorporation into the contract was the result of fraud, undue influence or overweening bargaining power;

(2) The 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) The enforcement of the clause would contravene a strong public policy of the forum in which the suit is brought, declared by statute or judicial decision.

The Court then considered the facts presented to the trial court and decided that there was no evidence of fraud or overreaching associated in the inclusion of the forum selection clause. However, the Court did find that Ms. Rigsby had satisfied the second consideration because of her age and financial condition she ‘will for all practical purposes be deprived of [her] day in court.’ Titan Indem., 895 So. 2d at 146.

The lesson for any contracting party is to consider the forum selection clause in any contract before placing your signature on the dotted line. Verify whether the forum selection clause is mandatory or permissive and that you can follow the requirements if the clause is enforced. Finally, do not assume you will be able to get out of a mandatory clause under the "deprivation of day in court" exception as it is a higher burden to meet and will be easier to negotiate terms you can live with before you ever sign the contract.

 

The 2015 Mississippi Legislature has made a number of changes to the statutes governing the Mississippi State Board of Contractors, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 31-3-1, et seq. and Miss. Code Ann. §§ 73-59-1, et seq. The enumerated changes are found in Senate Bill 2508 [click here for SB 2508], which have been sent to the Governor for his signature. Listed below are some of the changes:

     

  • Demolition is added to the list of activities covered by the statute for which a certificate of responsibility will be required.

     

  • The thirty (30) day waiting period for an application for a Certificate of Responsibility has been removed.

     

  • The number of entities for which a qualifying party may appear is limited to three (3) unless special permission is granted.

     

  • Grants the Board of Contractors to issue citations to any commercial or residential contractor preforming work with a Certificate of Responsibility and may order the work to be stopped.

     

  • The definition of "resident contractor" has been clarified to include a nonresident person, firm or corporation that has been qualified to do business in this state and has maintained a permanent full-time office in the State of Mississippi for two (2) years prior to submission of the bid.

 

     

  • Board of Contractors now has the authority to issue public reprimands for violations of the statutes and/or regulations.

     

  • The appeal process for commercial and residential contractors from a decision of State Board of Contractors has been clarified and defines content of administrative record which is to be considered on appeal.

     

  • The Board of Contractors has that authority to require residential builders and remodelers issued licenses after July 1, 2015, to have two (2) hours of continuing education per year.

Commercial and residential contractors and subcontractors should read these amended statutes and check the website for the Mississippi State Board of Contractors at http://www.msboc.us/ for any changes to its Rules and Regulations resulting from these legislative changes.

Just because you have included an arbitration provision in your contract does not mean that any dispute arising out of or related to the contract will be arbitrated. The Mississippi Supreme Court found in Sanderson Farms, Inc. v. Gatlin, that the refusal to pay the required share of the American Arbitration Association ("AAA") fee resulted in Sanderson Farms, Inc. ("Sanderson") waiving its right to arbitration. In that case, the arbitration clause provided in pertinent part as follows:

The cost of such arbitration will be divided equally among the parties to the arbitration. Each party will bear the costs of their own expenses and attorney’s fees. Failure to arbitrate all such claims or controversies arising under or related to this Agreement shall be deemed a breach of the Agreement.

Gatlin paid its share of the arbitration fees but Sanderson failed to pay its share. Gatlin filed suit in circuit court against Sanderson who filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the dispute was subject to arbitration. The circuit court denied Sanderson’s motion to dismiss. On appeal the Supreme Court held:

Sanderson farms waived its right to arbitrate by refusing to pay its one-half of the cost associated with the filing and administrative fees and/or the additional charges presented for payment one month before the scheduled arbitration hearing. This refusal amounts to an act inconsistent with the right to arbitrate. By waiving its right to arbitrate, Sanderson Farms has relinquished the right to seek the protections of the arbitration provision in the boiler contract.

It should also be noted that Rule 54 of the AAA Commercial Rules and Rule 56 of the AAA Construction Industry Arbitration Rules provide for procedures where a party has not paid its share of the arbitrator compensation or administrative charges.

The bottom line is a party may waive its right to arbitration if it does not comply with the requirements set forth in the arbitration clause and find itself in court rather than in arbitration.

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.

The new year brings with it annual reporting requirements for companies doing business in Mississippi. All corporations and limited liability companies formed in Mississippi or qualified to do business here are required to file with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office an annual report which must be completed online. The process is easy and takes only a few minutes of your time. However, failure to file your annual report may have serious consequences.

The reporting forms are available for completion on the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website. Take the time now to go complete your report so you won’t forget. You will be finished quickly and can mark that task off your "to-do" list until next year rolls around! It will be one less thing for you to worry about this year.

To file the annual report for a CORPORATION, click here.

To file the annual report for a LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY OR LLC, click here.

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.

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.   

I recently came across a decision form the District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that caught my attention. Although it was not construction related, it addressed a situation where the parties had included the right to appeal an arbitration award in their agreement to arbitrate. [click for decision] This would appear to be inconsistent with the concept of finality, which is one of the public policy reasons for arbitration. Further, under the Mississippi Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-1, et seq. and the Mississippi Construction Arbitration Act, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-15-101, et seq. there are extremely limited grounds for having an arbitration award challenged.

Nonetheless, in this district court decision, the federal judge thought that even though there were no Mississippi court decisions addressing this issue, that if confronted with the question of whether parties could include a right to appeal an arbitration award for reasons stated in the arbitration clause, the Mississippi court would enforce the provision allowing an appeal. The district court, quoting the Fifth Circuit, stated that "when, as here, the parties agree contractually to subject an arbitration award to expand judicial review, federal arbitration policy demands that the court conduct its review according to the terms of the arbitration contract." (citation omitted)

There remain no Mississippi decisions adopting the position of the district court. However, this decision should highlight the need for contractors to carefully read arbitration clauses included in their contract. If you have concerns with any aspect of the arbitration clause, those concerns should be resolved before you sign the contract.