Category Archives: NC case law

The Subcontract’s Unsigned, the Work is Complete and a Dispute Has Arisen — Now What?

In order for an agreement to constitute a valid contract that courts or arbitrators will enforce, both parties to the agreement must mutually assent to all of the terms of the deal.  The fancy Latin term for this mutuality requirement is “aggregatio mentium;” we Americans call it a “meeting of the minds.”  And as between general contractors and subcontractors in the construction industry, the signatures of the parties typically signify their mutual intent to be bound.

But what if the subcontract isn’t signed, and the parties proceed with performance of the underlying scope anyway?

That’s the conundrum the North Carolina Court of Appeals (“COA”) confronted in its April 19, 2016 decision in Southeast Caissons, LLC v. Choate Construction Company.

The general contractor and caisson subcontractor in that case went back and forth repeatedly on various drafts of a written subcontract.  The sub’s scope was commenced — and completed about three months later — without a final deal being reached on all terms.

When the subcontractor wasn’t paid, it sued for breach of contract (among other claims) in the Forsyth County Superior Court.  The unsigned subcontract called for dispute resolution in Wake County, prompting the general contractor to move for dismissal of the sub’s suit or, in the alternative, a change in venue.  The trial court determined that the subcontractor was not bound by the unsigned subcontract, and that venue was proper in Forsyth County.  The GC appealed.

In affirming the trial court’s Order, the COA relied on the rule that the absence of a signed, written instrument is evidence of the parties’ intentions not to be bound by the proposed contract.  On  the rights set of facts, that evidence could be outweighed by other evidence demonstrating that both parties accepted and acted upon the unsigned terms.  That wasn’t the case in Southeast Caissons, however — to the contrary, the COA concluded that virtually all of the evidence suggested that the parties never achieved a “meeting of the minds” on all of the subcontract’s terms.

Does that mean no deal existed between the GC and the sub?  Not necessarily.  The COA remanded the case back to the trial court for a determination of whether a contract “implied-in-fact” existed between the parties by virtue of their actions.  Even in the absence of a contract implied-in-fact, the subcontractor might still prevail on its payment claim under an equitable quantum meruit (i.e., unjust enrichment) claim for relief.

The takeaway?  Southeast Caissons makes it clear that general contractors seeking to utilize their standard subcontract forms should insist upon a signed agreement before permitting work to begin.  Allowing your subcontractor to proceed with its scope without first obtaining its “John Hancock” risks losing the benefits of those favorable subcontract terms your construction attorney spent so long drafting for you.

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Filed under Construction Risk Management, Forum Selection Clauses, Local law, policy & news, NC case law, State law, State law, policy & news, Subcontractors

Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Including the Construction Litigation (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second of a three-part series exploring the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Zachry Construction Corp. v. Port of Houston Authority of Harris County.  A summary of the case can be found at Part 1 of the series.  Part 3 will address the lien waiver issues raised by the decision.  This post considers the “no-damages-for-delay” aspects of the case, specifically exceptions to enforcement of such contract clauses.

What Zachry Says About No-Damages-for-Delay Clauses

The Texas Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that as a general rule, a contractor can assume the risk of, and not seek damages for, construction delays by agreeing to a no-damages-for-delay clause (“NDFD clause”) in a construction contract.  The court, however, then went on to note five “generally recognized exceptions” to the enforcement of such clauses:

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Filed under Case law from other states, Delay Claims, NC case law, No Damages for Delay Clauses

It’s Not Enough to Read Before Signing; Always Strive to Understand Before Signing

An unpublished decision from the North Carolina Court of Appeals yesterday demonstrates how important it is to not only read, but also to fully understand, legally binding documents before signing them.

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Filed under Indemnity Claims, Lien Law, NC case law, No Damages for Delay Clauses

N.C. Supreme Court Reverses the Court of Appeals, Holds a 20-Year Warranty Means What It Says

In September 2013, I blogged about the decision of the North Carolina Court of Appeals (“COA”) in Christie v. Hartley Construction, Inc., which held that owners of an improvement to real property could not recover money damages under a supplier’s express 20-year warranty because the lawsuit was filed outside of North Carolina’s applicable six-year “statute of repose.”  That statute, codified at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-50(a)(5), bars damages actions arising from improvements to real property asserted more than six years after substantial completion.  The COA’s Christie decision effectively meant that the statute of repose trumped an express warranty of a longer duration.

As I mentioned in my prior blog post, however, one of three COA judges on the Christie panel dissented from the majority’s opinion, giving plaintiffs the right to appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.  They did.  And that Court reached the opposite conclusion of the COA majority, ruling that the protection provided by the six-year statute of repose could be waived without violating North Carolina public policy.

Let’s break down the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in Christie:

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Filed under NC case law, policy & news, State law, Warranty Claims

Have a Lien Claim Arising from an Improvement to Leased Property? Aim for the Right Target.

In most cases, the “owner” of a tenant improvement project is NOT the record owner of the real property, but rather the tenant who entered into the contract for the improvement.

That distinction can be critical when perfecting and enforcing mechanics liens in North Carolina.

Take, for example, the fireproofing contractor who asserted a mechanics’ lien enforcement action against both the landlord and the tenant of a leased premises in yesterday’s unpublished Court of Appeals decision in Century Fire Protection, LLC v. Heirs.

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Filed under Lien Law, NC case law

Bound, But Determined: How Subs Might Evade Terms Binding Them to Decisions of Architects

It’s typical for subcontracts to include a clause binding the subcontractor to the decisions of the project architect.  Such terms help general contractors and construction managers at-risk avoid obligations to subs below that can’t be passed through to owners above.  That’s a sensible and enforceable risk allocation most of the time.

But not all of the time.

Sometimes, the architect doesn’t play fairly.  Sometimes, the prime contractor fights hard for itself, but not hard enough for its subs.  And sometimes, a statute might provide a remedy when the subcontract does not.

On such occasions, as discussed below, subcontractors might avail themselves of an escape hatch:

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Filed under Change Orders, Delay Claims, NC case law, Subcontractors

When Resolving Construction Disputes, Three Is Company, Too

You’re a general contractor on a large commercial construction project impacted by significant delays.  You place most of the blame for the delays on the project architect, who you contend issued a wrongful stop work order arising from the performance of one of your subcontractors and performed other construction administration services negligently.  Both you and the sub have incurred significant extended general conditions as a result of the work suspension, and you invite the sub to make a delay claim you intend to pass through as a component of your own claim to the owner, who, under the contract documents, is legally responsible for the acts of its architect.

The sub wants to participate in a pre-litigation mediation you’ve scheduled with the owner, but you’re hesitant to oblige.  The owner, after all, will spend mediation blaming your sub for the issues giving rise to the stop work order, and you worry your sub’s presence could actually hamper, rather than facilitate, the settlement negotiations.

Wednesday WisdomAre you better off refusing the sub’s request to participate in the mediation, trying to settle with the owner first, and then circling back to resolve open issues with your sub once things are squared away up-the-chain?

That would be a risky play, as a 2011 North Carolina Court of Appeals decision demonstrates.

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Filed under Construction Risk Management, Damages, Delay Claims, NC case law

Lienguard, Inc. Found Itself in the N.C. State Bar’s Crosshairs; Might LiensNC, LLC Be Next?

LienguardCrosshairs

As the Lienguard case discussed in my prior blog post (immediately below) makes abundantly clear, the North Carolina State Bar is willing to prosecute unauthorized practice of law (“UPL”) claims against online mechanics’ lien service providers lacking a license to practice law in North Carolina.

Friday ForumThere’s been a boisterous reaction to the decision in the blogosphere, and in the Friday Forum spirit, I commend to your reading the following: “Business Court Makes North Carolina Safe for Construction Lawyers” by Mack Sperling of Brooks Pierce; “Can Software Practice Law? The Unauthorized Practice of Law and Technology” by Nate Budde of zlien.com; and “NC Business Court Enjoins National Lien Filing Firm for UPL” by Brian Schoolman of Safran Law, all of which were promoted on Twitter over the past 10 days or so:

I also highly recommend checking out the Comments section of my previous blog post.  Among the thoughts posted there are those of Scott Wolfe, Jr., founder of zlien.com, one of Lienguard, Inc.’s competitors.  Scott makes a number of thought-provoking and response-worthy arguments in support of his belief that online lien filing services do not engage in UPL.

The subject of this blog post is Scott’s argument that under the logic of the Lienguard decision, LiensNC, LLC, the limited liability company which operates the LiensNC.com website created to facilitate the filing of Designations of Lien Agent and Notices to Lien Agent under North Carolina’s new Mechanics’ Lien Agent statute, engages in UPL:

As to preliminary notices — the NC court in this case does not, and really cannot not, distinguish between preparing a preliminary notice versus preparing a lien notice. They are both legal documents.

This case calls LienGuard’s preparation of notices illegal, but the UPL statute clearly enables or allows LiensNC, LLC – “a coalition of title insurance underwriters” – to assist contractors and suppliers with the state’s preliminary notices. See: http://www.liensnc.com/LiensNC__LLC.html

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[T]here is some momentum to distinguish between “serious” legal documents and maybe “easy” legal documents.  The UPL “practice of law” definition and the case law surrounding it offers no opportunity to make this distinction.  Preliminary notices … are all “legal documents.”

I’ve given a fair amount of thought to these comments over the past week in trying to predict whether LiensNC.com might be among the State Bar’s next targets.  For the three reasons set forth below, I highly doubt it: Continue reading

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Filed under Lien Law, NC case law, State law, policy & news

N.C. Business Court: Online Lien Filing Service Engaged in Unauthorized Practice of Law

Screen shot of Lienguard's home page

Screen shot of Lienguard, Inc.’s home page on April 9, 2014. Click image to explore the site.

In a decision likely to impact out-of-state suppliers furnishing materials to North Carolina construction projects, the North Carolina Business Court ruled on April 4, 2014 that Lienguard, Inc., an online mechanics’ lien filing service, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by preparing liens for others without first acquiring a license to practice law in the Old North State.

In The North Carolina State Bar v. Lienguard, Inc., Judge Jim Gale declared that Lienguard violated North Carolina’s statutes governing the licensure of attorneys (Chapter 84 of the N.C. General Statutes) by preparing liens, providing advice about liens and holding out that it was competent to file liens in North Carolina, all without being licensed to do so.  Judge Gale also ruled that the State Bar was entitled to a permanent injunction prohibiting Lienguard from engaging in similar acts in the future, giving the parties 20 days to draft and submit an appropriate order for the Court’s consideration. Continue reading

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Filed under Lien Law, NC case law, State law, policy & news, Subcontractors

When the Plans & the Code Don’t Mix, Can a Sub Sue a Design Professional for Negligence?

Photo by CGehlen via Flickr

Photo by CGehlen via Flickr *

Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

You’re an electrical sub who notices during your performance that installing certain light fixtures per plans would run afoul of the manufacturer’s instructions and violate the building code.  You bring the issue to the attention of your general contractor, who submits an RFI.  The architect’s response directs you to proceed per plans.  The system later malfunctions, and you incur significant cost researching the problem, ultimately concluding that the installation method directed by the architect is the culprit.  The architect refuses to pay your costs for researching the issue.

Might you have a claim for negligence against the architect?

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Filed under Building Codes, Construction Risk Management, NC case law, Subcontractors