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.

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.

When the Breach of a Construction Contract is not a Breach

The doctrine of substantial performance holds that a contractor’s breach of a construction contract does not entitle the owner to damages because the contractor’s performance was close enough to that which the contract required. “Technical violations are excused not because compliance [is] impossible, but because actual performance is so similar to the required performance that any breach that may have been committed is immaterial. Substantial performance occurs when, although the conditions of the contract have been deviated from in trifling particulars not materially detracting from the benefit the other party would derive from a literal performance, [the other party] has received substantially the benefit [it] expected, and is, therefore, bound to perform.” United Concrete Prod., Inc. v. NJR Constr., LLC, No. CV176011932S, 2018 WL 5733720, at *4 (Conn. Super. Ct. Oct. 17, 2018). The classic example of this doctrine is a situation where the contract specifies a product manufactured by Company A but the contractor provides the same product manufactured by Company B. Because the contract expressly stated that the product shall be manufactured by Company A, the installation of the same product manufactured by a different company is a breach of the contract. However, because the products are identical other than the name of the manufacturer,

FILING A MECHANIC’S LIEN WITHOUT AN ATTORNEY IS ALLOWED BUT DIFFICULT TO DO SO CORRECTLY

I don’t recommend that contractors file their own mechanic’s liens without the aid of an attorney. Every client and/or potential client that has ever come to me asking that I foreclose a mechanic’s lien that they filed on their own had some fatal defect. The reason for that is the arguably conflicting laws in the statutes and in the court decisions interpreting those laws.

A prime example of something that is not readily apparent by reading the mechanic’s lien laws is the notice and service requirements. According to our courts, “[r]ead together, [Sections] 49-34 and 49-35 [of the Connecticut General Statutes] require the [contractor filing the lien] to serve a copy of the certificate upon each owner of the property within 90 days after he ceased performing services or furnishing materials.” Steeltech Bldg. Prod., Inc. v. Viola, 2000 WL 726367, at *2 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 16, 2000). Of course, one may not reach that same conclusion reading [Sections] 49-34 and 49-35 on their own. According to Connecticut General Statutes § 49-34, “[a] mechanic’s lien is not valid unless the person performing the services or furnishing the materials [records a certificate of mechanic’s lien in the land records] within ninety days after he has ceased to do so…” However,

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.

A Recent Superior Court Decision May Affect Subcontractor/Supplier Mechanic’s Liens

In a recent decision, the Superior Court discharged the mechanic’s liens of several subcontractors, because the general contractor had already filed a lien for the unpaid contract balance. Wegrzyniak v. Hanley Constr., LLC, WL 5706192 (Conn. Super. Ct. Oct. 30, 2017). Insofar as any substantial construction project will involve a general contractor, subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, and suppliers, there are obviously many potential lien claimants. Nonetheless, the court said that “[f]or good reasons, the mechanic’s lien statutes don’t permit multiple liens,” and with regard to the subcontractor whose lien included a claim for extra work, the court said that “[w]ithout an agreement to support the additional work…, [the subcontractor’s] lien must be discharge.” Id. In light of the foregoing, Wegrzyniak may stand for the proposition that subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, and/or suppliers are precluded from filing mechanic’s liens when the general contractor files a mechanic’s lien covering the entire project, but, in my opinion, subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, and suppliers should continue filing their own mechanic’s liens.

To summarize the reasoning of the Wegrzyniak decision in plain English, because the court understood that the property owner should not be held liable for more than the amount it agreed to pay the general contractor,