Recent Decision Demonstrates the Importance of Complying with Contract Notice Provisions

A common provision in construction contracts requires a contractor to give notice to the owner within a certain number of days of an event giving rise to a claim. Such provisions have a reasonable basis insofar as they ensure an owner will have a reasonable opportunity to investigate the conditions for which a claim for additional compensation is being made. Traditionally, such notice provisions were not strictly enforced. The general approach seemed to be that — provided the owner was not prejudiced by any delay in giving notice of claim — a claim that was not submitted within the specified time limit would not be barred. The more recent trend, however, has been to more strictly construe such provisions.

 

In J. Wm. Foley, Inc. v. United Illuminating, the Appellate Court held that the contractor’s failure to submit its delay claim within the ten-day time limit specified by the contract was a bar to the claim. This decision is potentially troublesome for a couple of reasons: First, there is no reference to the owner suffering any prejudice as a result of the delay. Second, the decision indicated that the submission of the delay claim required a critical path analysis of the delay.

There’s a New Proposed Law Regarding Emergency Services That Everyone Should Support

Parties are free to enter into contracts with any terms and conditions to which they both agree — but that right is not absolute. Certain contract terms are void by statute or case law based upon public policy considerations. For example, in Connecticut, the General Statutes do not allow contractors to prospectively waive their mechanic’s lien rights and the General Statutes do not allow contracting parties to have another state’s laws govern a dispute arising out of a construction project within Connecticut. However, the most onerous example of a statute that potentially voids an otherwise enforceable contract is the Home Improvement Act.

 

As previously discussed here, the Home Improvement Act can lead to unfair results. As upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court, any contract that does not contain certain elements required by Conn. Gen. Stat. § 20-429 is unenforceable and the contractor that enters into such an agreement with an owner may also be held liable for a violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act. Under the terms of the Home Improvement Act, a contract that does not include notice of cancellation rights violates the statute. Thus, the owner of any home improvement project must be allowed three business days to cancel a home improvement contract after it is executed.

The Importance of Determining the Amount to Which You May Be Entitled After the Breach of a Construction Contract

Litigation is expensive. Before pursuing any particular claim, you need to determine if pursuing the claim makes economic sense. Standing on principle sounds good initially but often starts to seem like less of a good idea as the litigation costs mount.

 

The value of a claim is referred to as the “measure of damages.” In every lawsuit, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant did something wrong that injured the plaintiff, i.e. establish the defendant’s “liability”; and the plaintiff has to prove the amount of money to which it is entitled to receive as a result of the defendant’s wrongful conduct to a reasonable certainty, i.e. establish the plaintiff’s “damages.”

 

Proving damages is just as important as proving liability. The failure of a plaintiff to prove its damages will result in the claims against the defendant being dismissed. See e.g. Shoreline Care Ltd. P’Ship v. Jansen & Rogan Consulting Eng’rs, P.C., 2002 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3715, *15, (Conn. Super. Ct. Nov. 15, 2002). In Shoreline Care Ltd. P’Ship, the project was constructed in phases but,

Generally Speaking, Contracts That Can Be Terminated for Convenience Must Be Terminated In Good Faith

It is not uncommon for a construction contract between an owner and a general contractor to state the owner may terminate the contract for convenience. In other words, the owner may be allowed to terminate the contract even if the contractor had not done anything wrong merely because the owner has had a change in circumstance that no longer makes it reasonable to continue with the subject project. General contractors often include similar provisions in their contracts with their subcontractors. The question is whether there are any limits on one party’s right to terminate a contract when the other party has done nothing wrong. In most jurisdictions, there is a limit to such a right but, unfortunately, not in all.

 

The general rule was expressed by a Maryland an appellate court, which held “that termination for convenience rights … may be enforceable, subject to the implied limitation that they be exercised in good faith and in accordance with fair dealing.” Questar Builders, Inc. v. CB Flooring, LLC, 410 Md. 241, 279 (Md. 2009). By quoting David A. Senter, Role of the Subcontractor, in FUNDAMENTALS OF CONSTRUCTION LAW 133 (italics added),

A Recent Supreme Court Decision Found an Owner of a Construction Company Personally Liable to the Owners of a Project

As most people are aware, one of the benefits of doing business as a corporation or limited liability company is that, generally speaking, the owners of the company cannot be held personally liable for the company’s debts. The exception to that general rule is that a court may pierce the corporate veil and hold the company owners personally liable if the company owners are found to have improperly used the corporate form, or have used the corporate form to commit wrongful acts. Nonetheless, even a cursory of the caselaw indicates that plaintiffs do not often prevail when they are attempting to pierce the corporate veil.

The statement of the law with regard to piercing the corporate view is quite simple. In All Phase Builders, LLC v. New City Rests., 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1793, *20-21, 2011 WL 3483368 (Conn. Super. Ct. July 12, 2011), the court ruled:

“In order to pierce the corporate veil, a plaintiff must plead and prove that the corporate shield can be pierced under either the instrumentality rule or the identity rule. The instrumentality rule requires… proof of three elements: (1) Control …; (2) that such control must have been used by the defendant to commit fraud or wrong …;

Contractual Time Limits for Providing Notice of Claim Must be Taken Seriously

The Connecticut Appellate Court recently issued a decision that should cause every contractor some concern.  In J. WM. Foley Inc. v. United Illuminating Co., 158 Conn. App. 27 (Conn.App. 2015), the Appellate Court upheld a decision that denied a contractor’s $4.7 million delay claim because the contractor did not provide proper notice of the claim within the 10 days required by the contract.  The case is disconcerting because the court’s decision appears to be based upon the contractor’s failure to strictly comply with the contract’s notice provision.  There is no discussion indicating that the owner was harmed or prejudiced by the delay in receiving notice of the claim.  Moreover, the decision acknowledges that the contractor had provided the owner with notice of events giving rise to the claim.  In fact, despite denying the delay claim, the trial court awarded the plaintiff over one million dollars for its direct costs, which arose out of the same facts as the delay claim.

 

The project underlying the dispute in J. WM. Foley Inc. was the construction of a utility pipeline.  The parties’ agreement stated that the contractor was expected to encounter subsurface obstructions and that the contractor would be entitled to additional compensation associated with same. 

Only the “Owner” may seek Judicial Discharge of Mechanic’s Liens

The Connecticut Superior Court recently decided a case of first impression regarding the right to file an application for discharge of mechanic’s liens.  The court in Grade A Mkt., Inc. v. Surplus Contrs., LLC held that a lessee did not have “standing” to file an application for discharge of mechanic’s liens and dismissed the tenant’s application.  Grade A Mkt., Inc. v. Surplus Contrs., LLC, 2015 Conn. Super LEXIS 1342 (Conn. Super. May 26, 2015).  In layman’s terms, “standing” is the right to have the court decide your case.  The Grade A Mkt decision is interesting because it limits the ability of a tenant to obtain a discharge of mechanic’s liens even though the tenant’s lease with the owner may require the tenant to obtain a discharge of mechanic’s liens filed by contractors performing work for the tenant.

Mechanic’s liens are a statutory right that the legislature created to provide contractors and/or suppliers that furnish labor, materials, and/or services to a property with security for the alleged debt but mechanic’s liens were not intended to prevent the free transfer of property rights.  For that reason, the statutes provide a few different mechanisms by which an appropriate individual or company may obtain a release of the mechanic’s lien. 

Recent Supreme Court Case Teaches Important Lessons

It is no secret that public works construction is a difficult business.  On any given project there are innumerable ways that things can go wrong. With any project involving excavation and underground utilities, encountering changed conditions should not be a surprise.  Of course, such changed conditions are not the contractor’s responsibility.  What is the contractor’s responsibility, however, is providing the public owner with proper notice of its claims in accordance with the subject agreement.

One of the reasons public works construction projects are more onerous than their private counterparts is because public owners rarely negotiate contract terms. Contracts that are slanted significantly in the public owner’s favor are the norm.  Thus, as the contractor in a recent state Supreme Court decision learned, it is vitally important to read the contract and abide by its terms.

One of the lessons from Old Colony Cosntr., LLC v. Town of Southington, 316 Conn. 202 (Conn. April 21, 2015) is that general assertions of entitlement to damages and/or additional contract time is not sufficient when the contract requires more detail.  During the long duration of the project, the contractor in Old Colony repeatedly indicated that each problem that occurred impacted its schedule and costs. 

Changes to the Prevailing Wage Law Considered

According to Conn. Gen. Stat. §31-53, all public works construction contracts require the wages paid on the project to “be at a rate equal to the rate customary or prevailing for the same work in the same trade or occupation in the town in which such public works project is being constructed. Any contractor who is not obligated by agreement to make payment or contribution on behalf of such persons to any such employee welfare fund shall pay to each mechanic, laborer or worker as part of such person’s wages the amount of payment or contribution for such person’s classification on each pay day.”  The reason for the “prevailing wage” requirement is to level the playing field for those bidding on public projects by requiring non-union companies to pay the equivalent of union wages on such projects.  In the last legislative session, Connecticut lawmakers considered an expansion of the prevailing wage law beyond projects owned by the state or its subdivisions.

The considered legislation expands the prevailing wage law so that it would apply to any project which receives financial assistance from the state.  For example, if your project is funded—or even partially funded—by a loan or a grant from the State Department of Economic Development,

Public Owners Have Substantial Discretion in Determining the Lowest Responsible Bidder

In a recent decision, the Appellate Court reminded us that it is the lowest responsible bidder and not merely the bidder that submits the lowest price that shall be awarded the contract for a public project.  In Good Earth Tree Care, Inc. v. Town of Fairfield, 2014 WL 3408914 (Conn.App.), 2 (Conn.App., 2014), the plaintiff brought an action against the Town of Fairfield (the “Town”) because of the Town did not award the plaintiff the contract to operate the Town’s leaf and yard waste facility (the “Facility”) despite the plaintiff having submitted the lowest bid.  The lawsuit was dismissed after the plaintiff presented its evidence because it failed to prove that the Town engaged in “fraud, corruption, or favoritism.”  Based upon the facts of this case, however, it is easy to understand why the plaintiff thought that there might have been an element of favoritism involved.  Specifically, the Town awarded the 5 year contract to the contractor that had operated the Facility for the previous five years at a higher price than the plaintiff had offered.

In the private sector, it is perfectly permissible for an owner to say that it is willing to pay a familiar entity a higher price than a new company if the private company is happy with the existing company’s performance but public owners do not have that type of discretion.