Construction Law & Litigation Blog

IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING, MECHANIC’S LIENS AND PAYMENT BONDS REALLY DO PROTECT THOSE THAT SUPPLY LABOR, MATERIALS AND/OR SERVICES

In poker, you have to play the cards you are dealt, but, if you have a bad hand, you can fold. In litigation, if you do not have a strong argument, you should negotiate a settlement, but that is not always possible because the opposing party’s demands may be so unreasonable that you might as well go to trial and see what happens. It is at those times where an attorney might attempt to get creative. Recently, our Appellate Court upheld a trial court decision that held a surety liable on both a payment bond and a mechanic’s lien substitution bond despite the nine special defenses that it raised. See O & G Indus. v. Am. Home Assur. Co., 204 Conn. App. 614 (2021). Some of these special defenses were novel, and, as a result, this decision gives us some greater insight into lien and bond claims.

In O & G Indus. v. Am. Home Assur. Co., the plaintiff brought an action against a surety that had issued both the subject project’s payment bond and a bond that was substituted for the plaintiff’s mechanic’s lien. Id. By way of brief background,

VERBAL AGREEMENTS ARE JUST AS GOOD AS WRITTEN CONTRACTS (ALMOST)

I have often heard many people say that they did not have a contract and/or change order when they actually meant that they did not reduce their agreement to writing and/or sign a written document. Whenever someone performs work in exchange for a promise of payment, they have a legally enforceable agreement. The question is whether the contract was verbal or written.

There are two areas where the issue of not having a fully executed written agreement repeatedly arises in construction. The first is when the parties exchange a written contract but do not fully execute it, and the second is when the parties ignore the requirement in their contract that any changes in the work only be performed pursuant to a written change order. In both these cases, there can still be an enforceable verbal contract.

As you might expect, having a written contract is often better than a verbal, which is why there are many publicly available forms that can be obtained for construction projects. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) produces the most well-known and widely used forms of agreement, but there are competitors that offer similar (if not better) products. The point is that there is no excuse for not having a signed written agreement for any construction project,

A RECENT APPELLATE DECISION THAT PURPORTS TO EXPLAIN THE MEANING OF “CARDINAL CHANGE” ACTUALLY ONCE AGAIN DEMONSTRATES THE IMPORTANCE OF NEGOTIATING A FAIR CONTRACT

Change order provisions, which appear in most constructon contracts and contemplate changes being made to the work, contradict a fundamental premise of contract law.  Specifically, in order for there to be a legally enforceable agreement, “there must be mutual assent or a meeting of the minds.”  C.A.D.S., LLC v. Sundance Realty, LLC, 2019 Conn. Super. LEXIS 29, *25 (July 2, 2018).  A contract is supposed to be “based on an identical understanding of the parties.” Id. at *25-26.  Yet, as anyone in construction is aware, the project owner may order changes during the performance of the work that the contractor is contractually bound to perform, subject to appropriate adjustments in monetary compensation and the time to complete the work.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, there are limits in an owner’s ability to order changes in the work, because the owner is not allowed to require a contractor to perform “cardinal changes.”  “A ‘cardinal’ change is a change outside the general scope of the contract.”  Philip L. Bruner & Patrick J. O’Connor, Jr., Bruner & O’Connor on Construction Law § 4:13.  The significance of a cardinal change is that it is not covered by a standard change order provision. 

Are Contractors and Subcontractors Allowed to Rob Peter to Pay Paul When it Comes to Paying Subcontractors and Suppliers?

One of the main problems most contractors (and subcontractors) face is cashflow. When the economy is going well, most contractors still find their payments lagging 60 to 90 days behind the 30 days required by most construction contracts. When an owner fails to make timely payment, general contractors end up in arrears with their subcontractors, who end up in the arrears with their subcontractors (i.e. sub-subcontractors) and suppliers. Often well intended contractors (and subcontractors) may end up using monies received from one project to pay subcontractors (and/or sub-subcontractors) on another. The reasons for paying subcontractors from one project with funds received from another may be because the subcontractors on the second job have gone longer without payment and/or are more in need. The question is whether that is legal.

In Connecticut, it has recently become riskier for contractors to pay their subcontractors (and for their subcontractors to pay their sub-subcontractors and suppliers) with funds received from another project. Connecticut has long had prompt payment statutes which require contractors to pay subcontractors “not later than twenty-five days after the date the contractor receives payment from the owner” on private projects and “within thirty days after payment to the contractor by the state or a municipality” on public projects.

NEGOTIATING A CONSTRUCTION CONTRACT CLAIM CAN FEEL LIKE LEGALIZED EXTORTION

Contractors often end up with monetary claims for nonpayment, changed conditions and/or additional work that are difficult to negotiate. Such claims are often met with counterclaims for defective work, and/or contractual defenses such as lack of notice and/or the lack of a written change order. Defeating such counterclaims are often difficult, but, when it comes to negotiating a settlement of a contractor’s monetary claim, the real difficulty is with the potential attorneys’ and/or costs associated with litigation or arbitration. Even a contractor with a six figure claim amount must seriously consider the attorney’s fees associated with litigating a matter to a final judgment or award in addition to the costs associated with the time its organization spends preparing for and attending any dispute resolution proceeding not to mention the risks associated with putting your fate in the hands of a third party whether that be a judge, jury or arbitration panel.

Anyone who has participated in a mediation has likely heard a mediator say, “Well, if you don’t like that offer, you are going to have to pay your attorneys a majority and/or all of the difference between your claim amount and what is being offered now, and,

UNDERSTANDING HOW THE COURTS WILL INTERPRET YOUR CONTRACT

A well drafted, written contract expresses the intent of the parties in clear language without any ambiguity. For that reason, when a court interprets a written contract, it seeks “to determine the intent of the parties from the language used interpreted in the light of the situation of the parties and the circumstances connected with the transaction.” MJM Indus. v. Henley Co., 2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 427, *6. In fact, according to the “parol evidence rule,” if the written contract contains the full expression of the parties’ agreement, a court is generally not allowed to look beyond the language of the written agreement itself. The prior negotiations between the parties will be considered irrelevant. Anything that may have been said verbally or in writing during the parties’ contract negotiations that was not made part of the final written contract is typically not enforceable by either party.

A contract that contains the full agreement of the parties is referred to as a fully integrated agreement. Again, “[i]n order to determine whether a written agreement is integrated, a court must look to the intention of the parties.” Giorgio v. Nukem, Inc., 31 Conn. App.

HERE’S AN UPDATE ON THE EFFECT OF PRIOR RULINGS ON SUBSEQUENT LITIGATION

In a prior post, this blog explained how the Supreme Court held that an owner’s claims against subcontractors were barred because they were either brought or could have been brought in the owner’s prior arbitration against the general contractor. Girolametti v. Michael Horton Assocs., Inc., 332 Conn. 67, 71 (2019). The court ultimately determined that the contractual relationship between a general contractor and its subcontractors was sufficient to determine that they were “sharing the same legal right.” Therefore, “the rule of claim preclusion,” which prevents the re-litigation of a claim once the claim has had a full and fair hearing “regardless of what additional or different evidence or legal theories might be advanced in support of it,” applied in this case even though the subcontractors did not participate in the arbitration. Id. at 75.

Girolametti involved a situation where the dispute between the owner and general contractor included claims that the work performed by subcontractors was defective. Although the subcontractors were not parties to the arbitration, they were no doubt happy with the result and more than willing to have that decision applied to the owner’s subsequent lawsuit against them.

In my prior post,

DON’T LET YOUR MECHANIC’S LIEN RIGHTS LAPSE DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

Because of the current crisis, the state has closed the courts to all activities except essential functions. Almost the entire civil docket has been suspended. In order to mitigate those effects, the Governor’s Executive Order No. 7G (the “Executive Order”) suspends “all time requirements, statutes of limitation or other limitations or deadlines relating to service of process, court proceedings or court filings” including “all time limitations in Chapters 959, 959a, 960 and 961 of the General Statutes.” The problem is that a mechanic’s lien is recorded on the land records (not in court) and mechanic’s liens are discussed in Chapter 847 of the General Statutes, instead of the chapters specifically mentioned above. Thus, regardless of whether the omission was intentional, mechanic’s liens are not expressly covered by the Executive Order.

Because land records are maintained by Connecticut’s municipalities, the Executive Order does not extend the deadline to record a mechanic’s lien. However, the problem with recording mechanic’s liens during the pandemic is that most City and Town Clerk’s offices are not open to the public. Each City and Town is handling the situation differently. Some are accepting submissions online. Others have a drobox outside City Hall or Town Hall.

PROPOSED LEGISLATION IN NEED OF SUPPORT

In a previous post, I explained that the way Connecticut substitutes bonds for mechanic’s liens needs to be changed. I have now been honored to participate in a group that drafted proposed legislation for this purpose, which has been presented to the Connecticut General Assembly as Raised Bill No, 5428.

On Tuesday, March 10, 2020, there is a public hearing on the Raised Bill. If I were allowed to testify, I would offer the following:

Our mechanic’s lien laws serve the important purpose of allowing those who provide labor, materials, and/or services for the improvement of real property without payment to obtain a security interest in improved property, but it was never the intention of our mechanic’s lien laws to prevent the free transfer of real property. For that reason, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 49-37 allows a person interested in the improved property to substitute a surety bond for the mechanic’s lien. In that situation, the lienor’s alleged debt is still secured, but the property owner may sell or refinance the improved property. The problem is that the process required by Conn. Gen. Stat. § 49-37 is cumbersome and time consuming.