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. Because of an owner’s failure to make timely payment, general contractors end up in arrears with its 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 projects 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 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.

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,

A Contractor May Still Recover Monies Due For Work Performed Pursuant to an Unenforceable Contract

Despite what might appear to be the parties’ intentions, courts sometimes find contracts unenforceable.  Courts may find contracts unenforceable for any number of reasons including, but not limited to, the contract omitting a material term; the contract having vague or indeterminate terms; the contract violating the statute of frauds; the contract lacking consideration; and/or the contract not reflecting the understanding of both parties.  In those situations, a party that provides labor, materials, and/or services may still be entitled to receive payment for its work under the legal theories of unjust enrichment or quantum meruit.

“[U]njust enrichment and quantum meruit are alternative theories of restitution.”  Nation Elec. Contracting, LLC v. St. Dimitrie Romanian Orthodox Church, 144 Conn.App. 808, 814, 74 A.3d 474, 478 (Conn.App., 2013).  “Unjust enrichment applies whenever justice requires compensation to be given for property or services rendered under a contract, and no remedy is available by an action on the contract.”  Gagne v. Vaccaro, 255 Conn. 390, 401, 766 A.2d 416, 424 (Conn.,2001).  “Quantum meruit is the remedy available to a party when the trier of fact determines that an implied contract for services existed between the parties, and that,

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. 

The Standard Procedure for Obtaining Lien Waivers May Be Ineffective

A recent Superior Court decision should cause general contractors and owners to reevaluate their procedures for obtaining lien waivers.  Typically, signed lien waivers are submitted after the work is performed but before payment is received.  On a basic level, the procedure makes sense because the owner does not want to issue payment to its general contractor unless it is sure that it’s protected from potential mechanic’s liens.  While the general contractor and its subcontractors may argue that they should not have to provide lien waivers until they receive payment, they are generally protected if the owner does not actually issue the payment described in the lien waiver because standard lien waiver language makes it clear that the waiver is not effective unless the payment described therein is actually received.

In Milone & MacBroom, Inc. v. Winchester Estates, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2688, the Superior Court considered whether a lien waiver is valid when:

1. The lien waiver is issued after the work is performed:
2. The lien waiver is executed before payment is received; and
3. The payment described in the lien waiver is received three weeks after the lien waiver was signed.

“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;