On January 10, 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issued its proposed regulation to implement the requirement in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA) that only the Small Business Administration (SBA) determine whether concerns are "unconditionally owned and controlled" by veterans or disabled veterans for purposes of veteran-owned and service-disabled veteran owned small businesses programs (VOSB and SDVOSB).

Currently, the VA and SBA maintain separate VOSB and SDVOSB set-aside programs, and their divergent regulations and findings on what constitutes the requisite "ownership and control" have caused inconsistencies and confusion for contractors. For example, in Veterans Contracting Group, Inc. v. United States, No. 17-1188C, issued by the Court of Federal Claims on December 11, 2017, the Court upheld a ruling by the SBA’s Office of Hearings and Appeals that left a concern eligible for the VA’s SDVOSB program but ineligible to participate in the SBA’s SDVOSB program. The Court references that the agencies’ respective programs "have materially diverged" and, as in this case, have produced "draconian and perverse" results.

The NDAA’s requirement that only the SBA issue the regulations and determinations for ownership and control, and the VA’s proposed rule implementing it should remedy this inconsistency and confusion. The VA’s proposed rule and be reviewed here. Comments are due not later than March 12, 2018.

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.

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.

The United States Supreme Court issued a slip opinion today in Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States, 579 U.S. ____ (2016) in which it held the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must set every competitive acquisition aside for veteran-owned small businesses whenever the "Rule of Two" is met.

The Small Business Act requires federal agencies establish annual minimum goals for awarding contracts to small business concerns (SBC), including SBCs owned and controlled by veterans. These annual goals are frequently pursued by setting acquisitions aside for competition only by SBCs. In 1999, Congress added a set-aside goal of 3% for SBCs owned and controlled by veterans. However, agencies were failing to meet these goals. Congress responded, in part, by enacting the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006 (the Act).

The Act required that the VA set more specific annual goals for contracting with Veteran Owned Small Businesses (VOSB) and Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSB). Under 38 USC §8127(b) and (c), the VA can meet its goals by making non-competitive and sole-source awards to veteran owned small businesses if the awards are less than the simplified acquisition threshold or, if less than $5,000,000, to a VOSB that is a responsible source for the required performance and its price is fair.

At issue in this case was 38 USC §8127(d), which applies to all acquisitions not covered by §§8127(b) and (c) and includes the so-called Rule of Two. It states:

Except as provided in subsections (b) and (c), for purposes of meeting the goals under subsection (a) …a contracting officer of the Department shall award contracts on the basis of competition restricted to small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans if the contracting officer has a reasonable expectation that two or more small business concerns owned and controlled by veterans will submit offers and that the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price that offers best value to the United States.

In 2012, the VA decided to procure an Emergency Notification Service for some medical centers, and it did not conduct the competition as a set-aside for VOSBs. Instead, the VA sought prices from vendors on the Federal Supply Schedule ("FSS"). Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. protested to the GAO, asserting that §8127(d) did not allow the VA to purchase from the FSS unless the VA determined the Rule of Two could not be met. GAO found for Kingdomware, but the VA did not follow GAO’s recommendation. Kingdomware then sought relief in the Court of Federal claims. However, this time the VA was the winner, as the Court of Federal Claims granted summary judgment to the VA.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the Court of Federal Claims, but its panel was divided. The majority found that §8127(d) only required mandatory application of the Rule of Two to the extent needed to meet the VA’s annual contracting goals for VOSB set-asides. Judge Reyna dissented, opining that the plain language required application of the Rule of Two for all competitive acquisitions by the VA.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, and Justice Thomas delivered the Court’s opinion that §8127 is mandatory and requires the VA to apply the Rule of Two to all contracting determinations and to award contracts to VOSBs. "The Act does not allow the Department to evade the Rule of Two on the ground that it has already met its contracting goals or on the ground that the Department has placed an order through FSS". Kingdomware Technologies, Inc. v. United States, Slip Op. at p. 8.  Opinion is attached here.

Public agencies may use past performance to award a contract to the lowest and best bidder or reject a bid. Occasionally, construction companies may dissolve or form new companies. The reasons for a change in a company’s corporate structure may vary. However, the good and/or the bad may follow the newly formed company. This issue was addressed a number of years ago by the Mississippi Attorney General and the position explained as follows:

[I]f a bidder presenting a valid COR number is a company with which DFA/BOB has no past experience or past performance history, DFA/BOB may consider past experience with or past performance of the company from which the bidder originated, the bidder’s parent company, or the company with which the bidder merged, partnered, or changed names.

The Attorney General went on to state that a public agency can also reject an apparent low bidder "who submits a bid under the same COR number as its predecessor, predecessor in name, parent company, or merger/partner" where the public agency considers a poor past performer. [Link to AG Opinion No. 2003-649].

The important point to understand is that good and/or poor past performance follows the COR number which is held by the qualifying party.

 

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.

Many subcontracts expressly condition payment to the subcontractor on receipt of payment from the owner by the prime contractor. Such a provision is typically labeled as a "pay-when-paid" clause. This clause postpones the time for payment to the subcontractor until payment is made by the owner or for a reasonable period of time. Thus, "pay-when-paid" clauses simply require a reasonable time to pass before payment is due and owing to the subcontractor, regardless of payment by the owner. Whereas, a "pay-if-paid" clause is intended to shift the risk of non-payment of the owner to the subcontractor and makes payment by the owner an express and absolute condition precedent to the prime contractor’s payment to the subcontractor.

These clauses have been enforced by some courts where the language in the clause makes payment by the owner to the prime contractor an express condition precedent to payment of the subcontractor. Nonetheless, subcontractors may have the ability to recover payment from the prime contractor’s surety where a payment bond has been furnished. As explained by one federal court:

The Miller Act is ‘highly remedial in nature,’ and so ‘entitled to a liberal construction and application in order to properly effectuate the Congressional intent to protect those whose labor and materials go into public projects.’ ‘[C]ommon sense dictates that it would defeat the policy underlying the Miller Act to read a pay-when-paid clause as precluding a subcontractor from bringing suit until its contractor receives payment.’ To enforce a pay-when-paid clause in this context would delay many claims beyond the Act’s one-year statute of limitations, and would thus render the clause an implicit waiver of the subcontractor’s Miller Act rights.

(Citations omitted.) This same rationale could also be applied where there is a "pay-if-paid" clause in the subcontract and under Mississippi’s payment bond statute.

Even if a payment bond has not been furnished on a project, a subcontractor on a private project may be able to file a lien and action to enforce the lien to avoid non-payment by the owner to the prime contractor. See generally, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 85-7-401, et al.

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.

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.

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.