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I was out-scooped yesterday by good friend and fellow Raleigh construction lawyer Brian Schoolman, who announced via Twitter that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has approved the filing of North Carolina mechanics’ liens even after a party higher up in the contractual chain seeks bankruptcy protection:
I highly recommend clicking the link and reading Brian’s blog post. It does a terrific job summarizing the Court’s rationale and discussing how CSSI puts the last nails in the coffins of the 2009 Shearin, Mammoth Grading and Harrelson Utilities decisions of a lower court that had reached the opposite result, before subsequently reversing itself a few years later in CSSI, which the 4th Circuit has now affirmed. (For additional legal context, check out my previous blog post on the Mammoth Grading and Harrelson Utilities cases.).
I write today to emphasize how important the 4th Circuit’s CSSI decision is to your construction business. Specifically, I write to answer this question: Why does having the right to file a mechanics’ lien, after the party immediately above you in the contractual chain seeks bankruptcy protection, matter?
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There is no milestone more significant to a commercial construction project than substantial completion. For an owner, it’s the long-awaited moment it can make beneficial use of its investment. For prime contractors, it’s the moment the owner’s rights to terminate and/or assess liquidated damages is cut off. For subcontractors, it’s the moment contractual warranties typically begin to run. The list goes on and on.
In light of how many legal rights and defenses are tied to the moment of substantial completion, you would think that contracting parties would take extra care to (1) define what constitutes “substantial completion” and (2) ensure that “substantial completion” is achieved in accordance with that carefully crafted contractual definition.
That’s not always the case, as a 2013 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (which includes North Carolina) reveals.
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The Monday Memo in recent weeks has focused on North Carolina laws and policies bearing on the Tar Heel State’s construction industry. Today I turn my gaze to our nation’s capitol, where public hearings are underway on OSHA’s proposed rule to lower the permissible exposure limit (“PEL”) for airborne crystalline silica, a by-product of such common construction operations as concrete and stone cutting.
The hearings began on Tuesday, March 18 and continue through Friday, April 4, with a variety of construction industry and safety voices scheduled to be heard.
Here are five key points to bear in mind as the process moves forward:
Most second-tier Miller Act subs and suppliers understand that in order to recover under a prime contractor’s Miller Act payment bond, written notice of the claim must be made to the contractor “within 90 days from the date on which the person did or performed the last of the labor or furnished or supplied the last of the material for which the claim is made.” 40 U.S.C.A. § 3133(b)(2). With that 90-day rule in mind, consider the following hypothetical:
You’re a second-tier supplier who last furnished materials to a first-tier subcontractor on a Fort Bragg project on December 13, 2013. Today is the 89th day since your last furnishing, and you still haven’t been paid. Realizing your claim notice deadline is fast approaching, you send your claim to the prime contractor by certified mail, return receipt requested this morning. The prime will receive the notice and sign the green card on March 14, the 91st day after your last furnishing. Was your notice of claim timely?
If I were to tell you that unforeseen subsurface conditions — for example, wetter-than-expected soils requiring a change to a building’s foundation — resulted in a substantial cost-overrun on a publicly bid project, you’d probably say, “that’s lousy news.” In the context of that one project, I’d have to agree with you; unexpected cost increases can create uncomfortable financial, PR and political pressures for a public project’s participants, not to mention unwelcome additional costs for John Q. & Jane Q. Taxpayer.
But what if I told you that the contractor’s entitlement to increased compensation on that one project would ultimately save the government much more money on future projects? “Sounds great,” you might respond, “but I don’t believe in fairy tales.”
You don’t have to. You just have to believe in the differing site conditions (“DSC”) clause.
To limit the risk of litigating in multiple jurisdictions, regional and national prime contractors usually seek to centralize dispute resolution by including a forum selection clause in their subcontracts. But some states, North Carolina included, have statutes on the books declaring such clauses unenforceable as against public policy. See N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 22B-2, 3. The legislatures in states like North Carolina apparently have concluded that subs should be able to litigate in the state in which the project is being built. While that public policy is no doubt embraced by local subs, it might irk primes who perform work across state lines.
Which begs this question: can prime contractors circumvent such anti-forum selection statutes and ensure home field advantage when litigating against first-tier subcontractors?
1. Scott Wolfe of Zlien.com tweeted about the pros and cons of filing a claim of lien on real property in advance of a construction mediation. The linked blog post notes that while a claim of lien might enhance the claimant’s negotiation leverage, it might simultaneously generate adversarial tension up the chain, which in turn could make a mediated resolution more difficult to achieve.
It’s an interesting strategic question, particularly now that N.C. Gen. Stat. § 44A-23(d) expressly gives subs and suppliers the option to file their lien claims within 120 days of the prime contractor’s date of last furnishing, as opposed to their own date of last furnishing. More than ever, timing is everything. Continue reading
1. Now that North Carolina lawmakers have embraced public-private partnerships as a project delivery option for public works, what size projects might we see developed via P3? Well, if the $4.8 billion (yes, that’s billion, with a “b”) expansion of I-35E in Texas is any indication, the sky’s the limit. Here’s AGC SmartBrief editor Jennifer Hicks’ tweet about the big news from the Lone Star State:
As of this writing, our, ahem, “leaders” in Washington appear incapable of avoiding a shutdown of the federal government. Barring a political breakthrough, at least a partial shutdown is likely, beginning tomorrow morning. And depending on the duration of the stalemate, the consequences of a shutdown could be felt deeply and painfully throughout our economy, including the construction industry.
Should the federal government shut down, what should contractors do to mitigate the damage? Continue reading
Back in 2010, when a group of construction, real property and bankruptcy lawyers first started meeting to consider potential revisions to North Carolina’s lien and bond statutes, one of the driving forces behind those discussions — particularly for those who typically represent subcontractors and suppliers — was protection for downstream project participants after an upstream player filed for bankruptcy. Such protection, known commonly as the “Bankruptcy Fix,” was included in the package of revisions signed into law last summer. This post explores the origins of the Bankruptcy Fix and discusses how the 2012 lien law legislation protects the right of subs and suppliers to serve a Notice of Claim of Lien Upon Funds even after a party above them in the contractual chain files for bankruptcy.