Construction Contracting

Under the Christian Doctrine, prime contractors face the risk of having a court or a board of contract appeals read a clause into their contracts, even if it was omitted from the contract that they signed. In this entry we discuss whether the Christian Doctrine applies to subcontractors.

The Christian Doctrine is almost certainly inapplicable to subcontractors. For the reasons why, consider the decision in Energy Labs, Inc. v. Edwards Engineering, Inc., (N.D. Ill. June 2, 2015). A subcontractor contracted to manufacture and deliver HVAC systems for the Chicago Transit Authority. In its own contract, the prime contractor certified that the HVAC system would comply with the Buy America Act. But the prime contractor failed to flow the requirement down to the HVAC manufacturer, which planned to manufacture the units in Mexico. After learning that the plan to manufacture the units in Mexico would not meet the Buy America requirement, the prime contractor canceled the order and purchased the units from another manufacturer.

The original manufacturer sued for breach of contract. In its motion to dismiss, the prime contractor made two arguments. The subcontract was “illegal” because it omitted the Buy America requirement. Or it was legal only because the Christian Doctrine meant that the Buy America requirement was read into the subcontract by operation of law. The court rejected both arguments. There was nothing “illegal” about the prime’s failure to include a Buy America requirement in the subcontract. And there was no basis to read the requirement into the subcontract through the Christian Doctrine. “The Christian doctrine . . . was intended to apply to contracts between the federal government and government contractors, not to subcontracts.”

This result is consistent with our experience.
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Arbitration is often seen as a way of getting a more predictable result in complex construction disputes. The subject matter expertise available with experienced arbitrators and the finality of the arbitration process itself are certainly important considerations. But resolving disputes in arbitration can sometimes lead to surprising results, even ones that might be inconsistent with the underlying contract or with applicable state law.

The Eighth Circuit’s recent decision in Beumer Corp. v. ProEnergy Services, LLC, No. 17-2862 (8th Cir. Aug. 9, 2018), is an example of such a case. The arbitrator in this case awarded attorney’s fee of nearly a million dollars more than the liability cap in the contract. Despite the possibility that this result was inconsistent with state law, the Eighth Circuit let the award stand.


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The standard form construction contract documents published by the American Institute of Architects are used widely throughout the construction industry. With assistance from federal agencies, the AIA created specific construction contract documents, such as the B-108-2009, to address the unique nature of federally-funded and insured projects. This year the AIA issued its once-a-decade revisions

After nearly a decade of litigation, justice was finally meted out in an extreme case of Government over-reach against a government contractor. The Government had sought to recover over $1.6 million from a government contractor whose subcontractor had underpaid a handful of employees by $9,900.

When all was said and done, a federal appellate court finally rejected the Government’s legal theory as essentially frivolous and ordered it to pay the contractor’s attorney fees, estimated at roughly $500,000.  When the Government expressed concern that this would have a “chilling effect” on its efforts to vigorously enforce the False Claims Act, the court stated: “One should hope so.”  The case is called U.S. ex rel. Wall v. Circle C Constr., LLC, No. 16-6169, (6th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017).

The story starts when the prime contractor, Circle C Construction, won a contract to construct buildings at the Fort Campbell military base. Circle C hired a subcontractor, Phase Tech, to perform the electrical work. The prime contract required compliance with the Davis-Bacon Act, which is similar to the Service Contract Act but applies to construction work. Like the Service Contract Act, the Davis Bacon Act requires the prime contractor and all subcontractors to pay construction workers the prevailing wages and benefits set by the Department of Labor. The Davis-Bacon Act also requires that the contractor submit certified payrolls as a condition of contract payment.

While Circle C did not have a written contract with its subcontractor Phase Tech, it did provide Phase Tech with the Wage Determinations from its prime contract. But Circle C did not verify whether Phase Tech was in compliance with the Davis Bacon Act. Phase Tech did not submit payroll certifications for two years after the project commenced, and later contended it was not aware it had to do so.

Eventually, one of Phase Tech’s employees brought a qui tam False Claims Act action against both Phase Tech and Circle C based on the under-payment of wages. Phase Tech settled the case by agreeing to pay $15,000, leaving Circle C as the remaining defendant. The Government agreed to take over the case from the employee and pursued the claim against Circle C.

Initially, the case did not go well for Circle C. The federal trial court hearing the case granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and damages of $555,000 (the entire cost of the electrical scope of work on the project), which was trebled to a total award of $1.66 million against Circle C.


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In Joe Tex’s song about unrequited love, the Southern Soul singer belts out, “I gotcha, never shoulda promised to me.” Joe Tex may have thought this approach is the right one for romantic disappointment, but parties to a contract have a different set of obligations.

A lawsuit by Washington State contractor Nova Contracting should serve as an alert to owners dealing with the assessment of a contractor’s performance. Nova’s lawsuit came about because of the owner’s termination of the contract. Nova claimed the owner was using a “gotcha” review process for its submittals that was designed to prevent performance. The trial court agreed with the owner.

Culvert_with_a_dropNova appealed and the court of appeals found sufficient questions of fact to send the dispute back to the trial court. The opinion offers insight into fair dealing and good faith in the performance of construction contracts. Nova Contracting, Inc. v. City of Olympia, No. 48644-0-II (Wash Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2017).
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Claims for personal injuries that can be connected in some way to construction work often include allegations that the contractor was negligent. Even if the injured party sues only the property owner, the owner will often seek to pass this liability through to the contractor. In many states, such negligence claims are barred by the acceptance doctrine, which limits contractor liability to third parties for injuries that occur after the owner has accepted the work.

A recent decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals illustrates and applies this rule. In Wilson v Dura-Seal and Stripe, Inc., No. ED 104570 (Mo. Ct. App. Mar 21, 2017), the plaintiff alleged that she tripped in an area paved by Dura-Seal and Stripe, Inc. Dura-Seal paved a drive lane, but the paving did not extend all the way to the curb. The result was a gutter area and a resulting height differential. Ms. Wilson claimed she tripped on and because of the height differential.  Ms. Wilson sued the school district for which Dura-Seal did the work. The school district then sued Dura-Seal.

The trial court granted summary judgment for Dura-Seal because the work had been accepted. The court of appeals affirmed. Under Missouri law, a contractor is not liable for third party personal injuries after the owner accepts the work. The acceptance doctrine is founded on the assumption that the owner has made a reasonably careful inspection of the work of the contractor and the owner knows of the defects, if any. The owner then “accepts the defects and negligence that caused them as his own.”
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The Missouri Court of Appeals decision in Penzel Constr. Co. v. Jackson R-2 School District, No. ED103878 (Mo. Ct. App. Feb. 14, 2017), is an important development for public construction contracting in Missouri. The decision adopts the Spearin Doctrine and approves the use of the Modified Total Cost method for proving damages. While these concepts have been used widely in federal construction contracting, the Penzel decision is the first published decision recognizing them in Missouri.

The Penzel case involved additions to a public high school. The School District hired an architect. The architect retained an electrical engineering sub-consultant. When the project went to bid, the School District furnished bidders with the architect’s plans and specifications. Penzel Construction Company submitted a bid as the general contractor.

Penzel’s electrical subcontractor was Total Electric. Total’s bid was $1,040,444. Neither Penzel nor Total “noticed” any errors, omissions, or other problems with the plans and specifications during the bidding process.

Total encountered delays totaling 16 months, which Total attributed to “defects and inadequacies” in the electrical design. Under a liquidating agreement between Penzel and Total, Penzel sued the District. Penzel alleged that the District impliedly warranted the design. Penzel claimed the design was not adequate for completing the project.

In addition to proving liability, Penzel needed to prove the damages associated with its loss of productivity claim. To do so, Penzel sought to use the Modified Total Cost Method. The claimed damages were comprised of additional project management and supervision costs, wage escalation, unpaid change order work, and consultant’s fees.
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https://www.transportation.gov/fastlane/enbridge-updateIn a Presidential Memorandum issued January 24, 2017, President Trump directed the Secretary of Commerce to develop a plan within 180 days to require that pipelines in the United States use materials and equipment produced in the United States “to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law.” The plan will extend to newly constructed pipelines as well as to those that are “retrofitted, repaired and expanded . . . inside the borders of the United States.”

With respect to iron or steel products, the Memorandum makes it clear that all stages of the manufacturing process must occur in the United States. The Memorandum states:

“Produced in the United States” shall mean:

(i)        With regard to iron or steel products, that all manufacturing processes for such iron or steel products, from the initial melting stage through the application of coatings, occurred in the United States.

(ii)       Steel or iron material or products manufactured abroad from semi-finished steel or iron from the United States are not “produced in the United States” for purposes of this memorandum.

(iii)      Steel or iron material or products manufactured in the United States from semi-finished steel or iron of foreign origin are not “produced in the United States” for purposes of this memorandum.

The notions that iron and steel products must be manufactured in the United States and that all of the manufacturing processes must occur in the United States are not new. Substantially similar requirements are used in the “Buy America” provision of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982. See 49 U.S.C. § 5323(j)The Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration have used this approach for state and local highway and transit projects funded wholly or partially with federal funds. See, e.g., 49 C.F.R. § 661.5.
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We have previously written about the Department of Labor’s effort to expand the scope of its regulatory and enforcement jurisdiction over government contractors against the wishes of Congress and even fellow federal agencies. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down an attempt by the DOL to significantly expand the Davis-Bacon Act to apply to the construction of a Public-Private Partnership project. The Davis-Bacon Act requires that contractors on federal and DC government construction projects pay prevailing wages and fringe benefits to the workers on such projects. DOL sought to apply the Act to CityCenterDC, which is a mixed-use development on the site of the DC Convention Center. This project includes 60 retail stores, various private offices, approximately 700 residential units, and a 370-room luxury hotel. 
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The Supreme Court’s decision in Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, No. 12-1497 (U.S. May 26, 2015) [pdf], holds that the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act applies only to criminal offenses. It also holds that the first-to-file bar in the False Claims Act applies only when an earlier-filed action remains “pending.” BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq.  Staff Sgt. Gary Messer, 332nd Expeditionary Aerospace Medical Squadron bioenvironmental engineer, transfers a sample of tap water to a tube before performing tests to confirm that the water is free from bacteria. March 13, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Julianne Showalter.)The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Alito, takes a plain-meaning approach to both of the questions presented.

The Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act

Citing dictionary definitions of the word “offense” and the appearance of the WSLA in Title 18 of the U.S. Code, the Court inferred that Congress intended to toll the applicable statutes of limitations only in criminal cases. As to the removal of the phrase “now indictable” from the text of the WSLA in 1944, the Court found that such a subtle change does not prove that Congress intended to expand the tolling effect of the WSLA beyond criminal cases. “[T]he removal of the ‘now indictable’ provision was more plausibly driven by Congress’ intent to apply the WSLA prospectively, not by any desire to expand the WSLA’s reach to civil suits.”

Carter reverses the Fourth Circuit’s holding in United States ex rel. Carter v. Halliburton Co., 710 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2013) as to the scope of the WSLA.
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