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. 

With Payment Bond Claims, Different Rules Apply to the Bond Claimant and the Surety

As previously discussed in this Blog, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 49-41 requires each general contractor on a public works projects valued over $100,000 to post a payment bond that guarantees payment to the general contractor’s subcontractors and suppliers.  The payment bond also guarantees payment to each subcontractors’ sub-subcontractors and suppliers.

The procedure by which such subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, and/or suppliers may make claim against such payment bonds is described in Conn. Gen. Stat. § 49-42.  With the exception of claims for retainage, the statute requires those making claim on the payment bond to submit their “notice of claim” within 180 calendar days after the last day that it worked and/or supplied materials.  The statute then provides the surety that issued the payment bond with 90 calendar days to pay or deny the claim.  Until recently, both time provisions were mandatory.  See Barreira Landscaping & Masonry v. Frontier Ins. Co., 47 Conn. Supp. 99, 110, 779 A.2d 244, 252 (Super. Ct. 2000)(holding that both the notice of claim and the surety’s response both much be made within the time specified by statute.)

With regard to the 90 day time limit, the court in Barreira Landscaping &

Beware of No Damages for Delay Clauses

It is common for construction contracts to state that, if the project is delayed by the owner, the contractor shall be entitled to an extension of contract time but will not be entitled to any addition compensation.  Such a contract provision is known as a “no damages for delay” clause.  The Connecticut Supreme Court has held that “‘no damages for delay’ clauses are generally valid and enforceable and are not contrary to public policy. [unless]: (1) [the] delays [are] caused by the [owner’s] bad faith or its willful, malicious, or grossly negligent conduct, (2) [the delays] uncontemplated …, (3) [the] delays so unreasonable that they constitute an intentional abandonment of the contract …, and (4) [the] delays [result] from the [owner’s] breach of a fundamental obligation of the contract.  White Oak Corp. v. Department of Transp., 217 Conn. 281, 288-89, 585 A.2d 1199, 1203 (Conn.,1991).  The list of exceptions; however, may not actually be that broad.  In a recent decision, the Superior Court analyzed the applicability of the aforesaid exceptions to a typical “no damages for delay” clause.

In C & H Elec., Inc. v. Town of Bethel, an electrical contractor was substantially delayed because of the additional asbestos abatement work that was required. 

Understanding Unabsorbed Home Office Overhead

It is readily apparent that – if a project is delayed – the contractor is losing money.  The increased direct costs associated with the labor and equipment on site are obvious. The more complex question arises when considering the effect a delayed project has on a contractor’s recovery of its home office overhead, where “home office overhead” is defined as the cost of the contractor’s main office including, but not limited to, rent, utilities, executive and management salaries, staff, office equipment, office supplies, taxes, insurance, etc.  Everyone intuitively understands that a delayed project increases such costs in the same manner that that delays increase the project’s direct costs but increases in home office overhead cannot be directly correlated to any one project because a contractor typically has several projects with overlapping schedules underway at any given time.  Over the years, courts have attempted to determine the damages necessary “to compensate a contractor for its indirect costs that cannot be allocated to a particular contract for the period during which the government has made contractual performance impossible.”  Charles G. Williams Constr., Inc. v. White, 326 F.3d 1376, 1380-1381 (Fed. Cir. 2003).  “As a result, there are at least nine formulas that have been used,

After Nine Years, There is Still Ambiguity in The State’s Prequalification Program

On October 1, 2004, acting through its Department of Administrative Services (“DAS”), the State of Connecticut implemented a prequalification program for all contractors bidding on certain public projects.  2003 Ct. ALS 215, 1.  Specifically, “[t]he DAS Contractor Prequalification Program (C.G.S §4a-100) [(the “Program”)] requires all contractors to prequalify before they can bid on a contract or perform work pursuant to a contract for the construction, reconstruction, alteration, remodeling, repair or demolition of any public building or any other public work by the state or a municipality, estimated to cost more than $500,000 and which is funded in whole or in part with state funds, except a public highway or bridge project or any other construction project administered by the Department of Transportation.”  DAS website, http://www.das.state.ct.us/cr1.aspx?page=10.  On October 1, 2007, the Program was expanded to apply to subcontractors whose contract exceeded $500,000.  http://www.das.state.ct.us/fp1.aspx?page=111.  Still, questions remain as to whether an apparent low bid submitted by a DAS prequalified contractor may be rejected by a public owner and/or its construction manager and the information that a bidder may have to submit to be awarded a project can be unduly burdensome and repetitive.

According to DAS,

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,

You Should (Almost) Never Request a Jury for a Construction Case

Construction Contract disputes are complicated legal matters.  Both sides usually have valid points to make.  The winner is determined by the application of relatively complex facts to the law.  Such cases often involve information beyond the knowledge and understanding of the average juror.  Although it is true that most judges do not have a construction background either, judges have likely heard a prior construction case; and, as trained jurists, have a good understanding of the legal arguments that are being raised.  In addition, judges are being paid to pay attention to your case.  Conversely, the average juror has no understanding of construction or the law; typically does not want to be serving as a juror; and is missing out on a day’s pay. In light of the foregoing, I almost never recommend that my clients request a jury.

There is one area, however, where choosing a jury may be the right choice.  Until relatively recently, it was understood that a contractor had no claim for damages arising out of a bid protest.  See Lawrence Brunoli, Inc. v. Town of Branford, 247 Conn. 407, 412 (1999) (holding that the only remedy to be afforded unsuccessful bidders under the municipal bidding statutes is injunctive relief);

Subcontractors Only Have Very Limited Rights Against Public Owners

On private construction projects, subcontractors and/or suppliers that furnish labor, material, or services but are not paid by the project’s general contractor have a variety of claims that they may assert against a private owner.  For example, such subcontractors and/or suppliers may assert claims for unjust enrichment or file a mechanic’s lien.  No such rights exist, however, where the project owner is the State of Connecticut or one of its cities or towns.

As an alternative to the typical claims a subcontractor or supplier has against a private owner, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 49-41 requires general contractors that enter contracts for public projects over a certain dollar amount to post surety bonds that guarantee payment to their subcontractors and suppliers.  The exact language of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 49-41 states that “[e]ach contract . . . [for] any public building or public work of the state or a municipality shall include a provision that the person to perform the contract shall furnish . . . a bond . . . for the protection of persons supplying labor or materials . . .”  By the plain language of the statute, the onus is put on the general contractor to supply the bond;

A Contractor That Acts as His Own Expert Witness May Inadvertently Waive Attorney Client Privilege

The general rule is that a party does not have to disclose communications with its attorney seeking legal advice.  A recent Superior Court decision, Noble v. the City of Norwalk, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2017, however, has found an exception to the attorney client privilege that contractors need to be aware about.

During a trial, witnesses are not allowed to give their opinion unless they are qualified as an “expert.”  Under the legal definition, an “expert” is anyone that has knowledge through education, training or experience that would be helpful to the jury given the subject matter of the lawsuit.  Based upon the foregoing definition, almost anyone can qualify as an expert if the right case came along.  For example, my 13-year-old daughter has been taking ballet lessons since she was 3.  If ballet ever became relevant to a key issue in a lawsuit, my daughter would qualify as an expert on that subject.

In construction litigation, there are always questions that are not clearly fact or opinion.  For example, the amount of time that the forms have to remain in place after a concrete pour is a subject upon which there is disagreement and often depends upon the structure that was poured and the conditions under which the concrete was placed. 

The Contract and Not Common Sense Determines the Proper Parties to an Arbitration

Many construction contracts require the parties to resolve their disputes through alternate dispute resolution procedures such as mediation and arbitration.  Arbitration is intended to be a cost effective alternative to litigation.  The issue of whether arbitration works as well as intended will be the subject of a future post on this Blog but the topic of discussion here is the question of determining the proper parties to any given arbitration.  The answer is counterintuitive.

When it comes to arbitration, there are several well settled rules.  For example, courts favor arbitration, arbitration is a creature of contract, and no party will be forced to arbitrate when it has not agreed to do so.  In light of the foregoing, you might believe that a party, who is named in a demand for arbitration, files an answer to the demand, and participates in the arbitration hearing, has agreed to arbitrate and should be held liable for any arbitrator’s award that enters against it.  If you did believe that, however, you’d be wrong.

In CDIFUND, LLC v. Lenkowski, disputes arising out of home construction contracts were arbitrated.  CDIFUND, LLC v. Lenkowski, 2011 Conn. Super.