Christopher G. Hill | Construction Law Musings | November 18, 2019
Recently, I was talking with my friend Matt Hundley about a recent case he had in the Charlottesville, VA Circuit Court. It was a relatively straightforward (or so he and I would have thought) breach of contract matter involving a fixed price contract between his (and an associate of his Laura Hooe) client James River Stucco and the Montecello Overlook Owners’ Association. I believe that you will see the reason for the title of the post once you hear the facts and read the opinion.
In James River Stucco, Inc. v. Monticello Overlook Owners’ Ass’n, the Court considered Janes River Stucco’s Motion for Summary Judgment countering two arguments made by the Association. The first Association argument was that the word “employ” in the contract meant that James River Stucco was required to use its own forces (as opposed to subcontractors) to perform the work. The second argument was that James River overcharged for the work. This second argument was made without any allegation of fraud or that the work was not 100% performed.
Needless to say, the Court rejected both arguments. The Court rejected the first argument stating:
In its plain meaning, “employ” means to hire, use, utilize, or make arrangements for. A plain reading of the contractual provisions cited–“shall employ” and references to “employees”–and relied on by Defendant does not require that the persons performing the labor, arranged by Plaintiff, be actual employees of the company or on the company’s payroll. It did not matter how the plaintiff accomplished the work so long as it was done correctly. The purpose of those provisions was to allocate to Plaintiff responsibility for supplying a sufficient workforce to get the work done, not to impose HR duties or require the company to use only “in house” workers. So I find that use of contracted work does not constitute a breach of the contract or these contractual provisions.
The Court reminds us, and the defendant, that employ in these types of construction contracts does not require use of ones own forces, but simply to use enough resources to get the job done as required by the contract. The Court also went on to say that because of the fixed price nature of the contract, the Association would have paid the same amount regardless of the method of completion used by James River Stucco so the Defendant could not show any damages from the alleged breach of contract through the use of subcontracted work.
The Court rejected the second out of hand stating that the Defendant had not plead any facts that could lead the Court to conclude that the work was not performed as billed. The Court pointed out that any alleged poor performance or other issues were more properly defenses to James River’s case in chief and not properly part of a Counterclaim.
In sum, this case is an example of how some of the things that we construction attorneys would think are so obvious are not always as clear as we may think. We all could use a reminder on occasion.