The Importance of Reading and Understanding Your Construction Contract

Everyone knows that they ought to eat right and exercise; yet, far too few of us do it. Similarly, proper construction contract management requires a contractor to thoroughly understand their contracts but many fail to do so. Of course, the reason that contractors are often largely ignored are understandable. Most construction contracts have the same substantive provisions with which contractors are already familiar; the specific requirements for any given project will be discussed at the preconstruction meeting; and the more specific details of any contract tend to only really matter in the rare occasions that the parties end up in a dispute they cannot resolve on their own. However, the few instances that result in litigation may make having proper practices in place for every project worthwhile.

On a positive note, most contractors that I encounter are now reading their contracts before signing them, as opposed to only reading them after a problem develops. As obvious as this may sound, actually taking the time to thoroughly read a contract before a project begins is the only way to be certain that you will fully comply with all your obligations. In addition, reading a contract before signing can prevent a contractor from experiencing an unfortunate surprise.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARE NOT BEING PAID

The most common issue I confront as a construction attorney is what to do when my client is not being paid. The standard approaches include sending a demand letter, making a demand for disputed funds to be placed in escrow in accordance with the prompt payment statute, and, of course, filing mechanic’s liens and/or bond claims. The larger issue becomes what to do when my client can no longer to perform its work without payment.

As a general rule, a contractor is better off completing its work, and then fighting about the monies due, as opposed to walking off the job. While it is true that there are Connecticut cases which hold that a contractor is excused from finishing its work if progress payments are not made when due, but reliance on such cases is fraught with potential problems.

If you ever forced to litigate, you want to be viewed as the one wearing the white hat. You want to be the injured party that is as pure as the driven snow. If at all possible, you do not want to give the other side any arguments to raise. Thus, if you walk off the job for nonpayment,

Contractors Have Statutory Rights That They May Assert During Payment Disputes

A recurring problem in the construction industry is the failure of owners to issue timely payments.  The problem not only affects contractors but also the subcontractors and/or suppliers who have to wait for the money to pass through the project’s general contractor and/or a higher tier subcontractor.  Most contractors are aware of their right to secure payment of the monies owed through a mechanic’s lien (private work) or by filing a payment bond claim (public work or private work if applicable) but there are statutory rights of which contractors should be aware.

Connecticut General States § 42-158i defines a “construction contract” as “any contract for the construction, renovation or rehabilitation in this state on or after October 1, 1999, including any improvements to real property that are associated with such construction, renovation or rehabilitation, or any subcontract for construction, renovation or rehabilitation between an owner and a contractor, or between a contractor and a subcontractor or subcontractors, or between a subcontractor and any other subcontractor” but excludes contracts between a contractor and any local, state, or federal government, and it excludes contracts for building residential structures with less than 4 units.  Id.

According to § 42-158i,

A Cautionary Tale for All Subcontractors

The Connecticut Appellate Court recently handed down a decision that should have all subcontractors carefully reviewing their subcontracts.  In Suntech of Connecticut, Inc. v. Lawrence Brunoli, Inc., 143 Conn. App. 581 (2013), Suntech of Connecticut, Inc. (“Suntech”) agreed to “provide glass doors, glass, glazing, an aluminum framing system, and a metal framing system” as a subcontractor on a state project.  Id.  As a result of an error in the plans and specifications, Suntech incurred substantial additional costs. Typically, when an error in the plans and specifications results in a contractor incurring additional costs, the contractor is entitled to a change order but that is not what occurred in this case.

The Suntech decision appears to go against two principles of Connecticut construction law.  First, in Southern New England Contracting Co. v. State, 165 Conn. 644, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a decision consistent with the Spearin doctrine which states that, because the contractor agrees to build the project in accordance with the plans and specifications, the contractor will not be held responsible for damages should the plans and specifications end up being defective.  Second, while not conclusively determined,

Connecticut Statutes Provide Assistance with Receiving Prompt Payment on Public and Private Construction Projects

Under Connecticut law, an owner should pay its general contractor within 30 days of having received the general contractor’s application for payment; the general contractor, in turn, is required to pay its subcontractors and suppliers within 30 days of having received payment from the owner; and the subcontractors should then pay their sub-contractors and suppliers within 30 days of having received payment from the general contractor and so on down the line.  See Gen. Stat. § 49-41a and Conn. Gen. Stat. § 42-158j.

The provisions in § 49-41a and § 42-158j are substantially similar except that:

1.) Only private owners are required to make payment to their general contractors within a specified number of days after receiving an application for payment; and

2.) The statute only applies to public projects for which a payment bond is required, which is any public works project whose contract amount exceeds $100,000.

Both statutes also have similar enforcement procedures.  Either a subcontractor on a public project to which the statute applies or general contractors and subcontractors on a private project can make demand for payment by way of registered or certified mail and, within 10 days,

Another Step Closer to Understanding Pay-When-Paid Clauses

No provision in a standard construction contract has been more debated than the requirement for the general contractor to pay its subcontractors after its receipt of payment from the owner.  In situations where the owner does not pay the general contractor, the general contractor typically argues that it has no obligation to pay the subcontractor even if the reason for the owner’s nonpayment had nothing to do with the subcontractor.  Conversely, the subcontractor argues that – when the reason for the owner’s nonpayment is not the subcontractor’s fault – the general contractor must pay the monies the subcontractor is due.  Generally, the courts have said that contract language which states that the subcontractor shall not be paid until after the general contractor’s receipt of payment from the owner merely sets forth the time for payment and does not transfer the risk of the owner’s insolvency from the general contractor to the subcontractor.  “Normally and legally, the insolvency of the owner will not defeat the claim of the subcontractor against the general contractor.”  Sil/Carr Corp. v. Bartlett, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1665 (Conn. Super. Ct. June 26, 2012).  It is, however, possible for the contractor to transfer the risk of the owner’s nonpayment to the subcontractor. 

Act Promoting Fairness In Private Construction Contracts? Hardly.

A new law has recently gone into effect in Massachusetts that drastically changes the relationships between private owners, contractors and subcontractors; and some people are going to suffer severe financial hardship as a result. For some inexplicable reason, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has decided to interfere in what has been traditionally been the private right to contract. The new law has three main points; each more insidious than the next.

First, “pay when paid” and/or “pay if paid” provisions commonly found in subcontracts are now prohibited by statute in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Many general contractors simply are unable to pay their subcontractors until they receive payment from the owner. Thus, they write their subcontracts to make the subcontractor’s payment due a reasonable time after the contractor receives payment from the owner. Now, “every contract for construction shall provide reasonable time periods within which” an application for payment shall be submitted, approved and paid. Contract provisions that first require that the contractor to receive payment from the owner are void except in cases where the subcontractor has performed defective work or is insolvent.

Second, general contractors must abide by the time requirements for the review and approval of pay applications or suffer an extremely harsh result.

“Pay when Paid” versus “Pay if Paid”

Most subcontracts contain language, which state that the contractor shall pay the subcontractor within so many days after the contractor’s receipt of payment from the owner.  The question then becomes, “what happens if the owner never pays the contractor?”  It is a complicated question that has been the subject of much litigation.  The general rule is that – provided the owner is not withholding payment due to a failure by the subcontractor – the subcontract will be interpreted as requiring payment within a reasonable time. In other words, even if the owner does not pay the contractor for the subcontractor’s work, the contractor will still be expected to pay the subcontractor despite the fact that the subcontract requires the owner to first pay the contractor.

Of course, as with almost every legal issue, there are exceptions to the general rule.  For example, there are “magic words” that will make it more likely that the court will find that the subcontractor has given up its right to payment should the owner not pay the contractor.  Examples of such “magic words” are as follows:

• Contractor’s receipt of payment from owner is a “condition precedent” to the subcontractor’s right to payment;