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. 

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.

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.

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,

Remedial Work Does Not Extend the Deadline to Commence an Action on a Payment Bond

As most contractors are aware, if they are not paid for their labor, materials, and/or services, they can strengthen their position prior to filing a lawsuit by filing a mechanic’s lien, or by making a claim against the project’s bond claim. Of course, both options are not generally available. Typically, the choice is based upon whether the project is private or public. On private projects, a contractor (or supplier) is allowed to gain a security interest in the property by filing a mechanic’s lien. On public projects, federal and local governments passed laws requiring the general contractor on public projects to post “payment bonds,” which guarantee the payment of those who supply labor, materials, and/or services to the property. In other words, because governments were not willing to let public lands be subject to foreclosure, on public projects, statutorily required payment bonds were created to take the place of mechanic’s liens. Of course, private owners may require general contractors to post payment bonds on private projects as well, but this post only addresses the statutory payment bonds required on public projects.

The law that requires payment bonds on federal projects is known as the Miller Act. The various state laws that require payment bonds on state projects are often referred to as “Little Miller Acts.” The requirements are the Miller Act and the various Little Miller Acts are generally similar.

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,

Slander of Title is Almost Always an Inappropriate Response to a Mechanic’s Lien

On rare occasions, I have had to contend with a claim of “slander of title” being filed in response to a mechanic’s lien. A slander of title claim requires:

  • The making of a false statement pertaining to the owner’s title;
  • The making of the false statement must have been made “with malice”; and
  • The false statement must result in actual damages.

Neri Corp. v. McDermott Rd., LLC, 2016 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2067, *18 (Conn. Super., July 26, 2016). The requirement for the statement to have been made “with malice” means that the lienor either had acknowledged that the statements in its mechanic’s lien were false or that the lienor acted with “a reckless disregard of the truth.” Id. Both are very unlikely in the context of a mechanic’s lien.

As stated previously in this blog, the purpose of a mechanic’s lien is to provide security for an alleged debt arising out of work performed. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the “[f]iling of a mechanic’s lien like that of any other lien can be the basis of a slander of title action as long as all of the elements of the tort are met.” Id.

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.