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.

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.

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

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

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

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

Consider these facts: You hire a female to work as your leasing manager for your apartment complex on Monday, August 3rd. The manager’s workplace is a desk in a small front office. During her first week, two male maintenance workers enter her office and hover over her at her desk and "sniff" her. The two men sometimes go to the office alone and at other times go together. Despite being told several times by the female worker that their behavior was bothering her, the men continued the conduct. In fact, over the course of her first few days, the men "sniffed" her twelve times each.

On Wednesday of this first week of employment, the female worker complained to her supervisor. The supervisor responded to "let it slide" because "you know how men are like when they get out of prison." By Thursday, the supervisor decided to have a meeting to air the complaints. In the meeting, the female worker said that she did not like the men "sniffing" her. One maintenance worker claimed to have a medical condition, while the other worker stated that he "needed to get a release."

How would you handle this situation? What do you do now? In this case, the supervisor fired the female worker the same afternoon as the group meeting. The supervisor gave no reason for the firing. Unsurprisingly, the female worker sued for sexual harassment and retaliation. Before the case was ever tried by a jury, the lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. The lower court determined that the conduct of the maintenance worker was not objectively unreasonable so as to create a hostile work environment so there could be no sexual harassment. The lower court then concluded that, because a reasonable person would not believe that sexual harassment had occurred, the female could not have been fired for complaining about an unlawful employment practice and thus her claim of retaliation was unsupported.

The employer was probably rejoicing at this point, but the celebration didn’t last long. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Royal v. CCC&R res Arboles, L.L.C. considered the case on appeal. Click here to read the decision.  For whatever reason, the female worker did not appeal the sexual harassment claim itself, but only appealed the claim of retaliation. Needless to say, the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment and sent the retaliation claim back to the lower court for trial.

In evaluating the case, the Fifth Circuit first discussed whether the maintenance workers’ conduct could constitute an unlawful practice under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The conclusion was that a reasonable jury could determine that the workers’ conduct violated Title VII because it was carried out in a small, confined space over a short period of time with multiple instances of such behavior. The appeals court concluded that, in fact, "the only thing interrupting this conduct seems to have been [the female worker’s] termination." The court then addressed whether the female could have been fired in retaliation for her reporting of the conduct. The employer claimed the female was fired for "swatting a fly harder than was necessary and slamming a door." The court noted that those reasons are "legitimate," although they may not be "plausible." However, the termination of the female worker on the same day as the meeting was clearly an adverse employment action that, combined with all the other factors, could lead a reasonable jury to believe that the termination was done in retaliation. Therefore, the case was sent back to the lower court for a jury to decide.

If you are thinking that this must be a very old case because the facts are so far-fetched, think again. These events occurred in 2009 and the Fifth Circuit just issued its opinion on November 21, 2013. Even though Title VII has been around since 1964, it does not mean that employees know what they should and should not do in the workplace, nor does it mean that supervisors know how to properly handle complaints. Many employers become trapped in a false sense of security that everyone knows how to act. Don’t be one of those employers. A training program for all employees—both workers and supervisors—will educate your workforce on acceptable behavior and will go a long way in defending against claims of this kind.

If you need assistance training your workforce you should call your attorney to review your current program, develop a training session for you and do on-site training at your convenience. Don’t wait until you face a claim in court to decide to be proactive!

Where in the Mississippi Procurement Statutes does it require subcontractors to be listed with a bid?  The correct answer is NO WHERE!!  So why use it to decide whether to award the contract to a prime contractor who is the low bidder with a valid certificate of responsibility from the Mississippi State Board of Contractors?

Rule 12 of the Mississippi State Board of Contractor’s Rules and Regulations states:

… the Prime Contractor on or before the date of being awarded the prime Contract, shall submit to the awarding agency a list of all subcontracts, exceeding Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) with respect to public projects…

(Emphasis added.)

The Department of Finance and Administration’s Procurement Manual provides as follows concerning the requirement for the listing of subcontractors:

600.55

SUBCONTRACTOR’S LIST

The Contractor will submit to the Bureau a list of all Subcontractors to be used on the Project within seven (7) days after written notice of contract award. Any Subcontractor listed must be acceptable to the Bureau. [Miss Code 1972, Annotated, Sections 31-3-1 through 31-3-23.]

(Emphasis added.)

And, when the City of Vicksburg questioned whether it could award the contract to the apparent low bidder that had not listed its subcontractors as required on the Bid Form, the Attorney General opined as follows:

In response to your first inquiry, previous opinions have stated that a waiver of an irregularity in a bid received would not be improper in cases where (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. See MS AG Op., Dees (June 7, 1995) and MS Ag Op., Kilpatrick, December 19, 1997). See also Parker Construction Company v. Board of Aldermen of the City of Natchez, 721 So.2d 671 (Miss. App. 1998). In your first inquiry, the irregularity was the failure to list the names of subcontractors on the bid form. We have previously opined that there is no statutory or regulatory requirement that a contractor submit a list of subcontractors upon the submission of his or her bid.  MS AG Op., Dees (June 7, 1995).  In fact, as you have stated, the Rules and Regulations of the State Board of Contractors, Rule 12, specifies that "the Prime Contractor, on or before the date of being awarded the prime contract, shall submit to the awarding agency a list of all sub-contracts, exceeding Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) with respect to public projects…" It is the responsibility of the awarding authority, however, to make a final determination whether an irregularity in a bid may be waived.

(Emphasis added). Mississippi Attorney General Opinion, dated September 22, 2000, addressed to Nancy D. Thomas. See also, Mississippi Attorney General Opinion, date June 7, 1995, addressed to A.J. "Buddy" Dees, Jr. (public agency permitted to award contract where prime contractor’s bid document listed subcontractor did not have a certificate of responsibility but prime contractor substituted licensed subcontractor prior to award).

Nonetheless, the design professionals for most public projects require the listing of subcontractors. Then, when a prime contractor fails to list its subcontractors or makes an error in listing its subcontractor, the design professional and/or public agency decide whether to reject the bid or waive the "irregularity". What are the criteria for deciding which of the two options will be exercised? You tell me.

If the public agency requires the listing of subcontractors it should state in the Instructions to Bidders that the bid will be rejected if subcontractors are not listed properly. It is just that simple. In addition, public agencies should change their rules and regulations to state listing of subcontractors must be submitted with the bid to be considered for award. This would mean that everyone would know the rules for listing of subcontractors. Will this happen? It is doubtful. It appears design professionals and public agencies prefer the flexibility afforded by such an ambiguity in the bidding process rather than the objectivity associated with clear Instructions to Bidders.

Every contractor generally requires proof of insurance from its subcontractors, especially with respect to worker’s compensation insurance. In satisfaction of this contractual requirement, subcontractors commonly provide a certificate of insurance to the prime contractor. Is the certificate of insurance sufficient? It may not be.

Many certificates of insurance contain a disclaimer that the certificate is for informational purposes only and does not extend the policy. The disclaimer is a warning that you must look at the policy itself for specific coverage.

In Complete Roofing Services, et al. v. Doherty Duggan & Rouse Insurors, 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (5th Cir. 2009), a certificate of insurance was issued to a general contractor, but the worker’s compensation coverage denoted in the certificate was limited to occurrences only in Georgia. The subcontractor’s employee was injured in Mississippi. The court determined that the "Georgia only" policy did not provide coverage for the injured employee. As a result, the general contractor’s worker’s compensation was required to cover the claim. In this case, it was a catastrophic claim costing the worker’s compensation carrier over $1,000,000.

The best business "policy" is to always obtain and read the actual insurance policy itself. In reviewing the policy, take into consideration the circumstances related to each particular project. For example, consider the following factors: Is the subcontractor from another state? If so, are the subcontractor’s employees from another state or local? Is the subcontractor’s insurance policy state specific? If so, does it cover the state where the project is located? Will any leased employees be used for the project? If so, does the insurance policy cover leased employees or is other insurance required? Are there any warnings or disclaimers in the policy? If so, take heed and consider whether other additional insurance is necessary.

Although the Complete Roofing Services case dealt with a contractor/subcontractor relationship, these basic rules apply to any situation where one party contractually requires insurance from another party. The bottom line is this: get the full policy and read it. This applies to your own insurance policy as well!

(D. Drew Malone is a member of Robinson, Biggs, Ingram, Solop & Farris, PLLC who practices in the area of insurance defense. Drew personally handled this case and contributed to drafting this blog.)

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.)

 

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.   

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.

 

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.