Understand the Dispute Resolution Provision you are Agreeing to

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates

When negotiating a contract, do not overlook the dispute resolution provision.  It is one of the more important provisions in your construction contract.   This provision will come into play and have ramifications if there is a dispute, which is certainly not uncommon on a construction project.

In dispute resolution provisions in subcontracts on federal projects, it is not unusual for that provision to include language that requires the subcontractor to STAY any dispute that concerns actions or inactions of the owner pending the resolution of any dispute between the owner and prime contractor relating to that action or inaction.   A provision to this effect should be included for the benefit of the prime contractor.  For instance, the provision may say the subcontractor agrees to stay any such claim against the prime contractor or prime contractor’s surety pending the outcome of any pass-through claim (or otherwise) submitted under the Contract Disputes Act.

For example, in U.S.A. f/u/b/o Ballard Marine Construction, LLC v. Nova Group, Inc., 2021 WL 3174799 (W.D. Wash. 2021), a prime contractor hired a subcontractor to perform a scope of work at a naval shipyard.  A differing site condition was encountered and the subcontractor was directed to continue performance and track its costs.  The subcontractor completed its work and submitted its approximate $13 Million claim from the prime contractor and its Miller Act payment bond surety.  The prime contractor and surety refused to pay until the resolution of the pass-through differing site conditions claim to the federal government.  The prime contractor had submitted a claim under the Contract Disputes Act to the federal government.  The subcontractor was not interested in waiting until the resolution of the Contract Disputes Act claim and filed suit against the prime contractor and Miller Act payment bond surety.  The prime contractor and surety moved to stay pending the outcome of the Contract Dispute Acts claim.  The trial court agreed with the prime contractor explaining, “It is not fruitful to require [the prime contractor] to fend off [the subcontractor’s] claim against it, and the [Miller Act] sureties [the prime contractor] agreed to indemnify, while simultaneously advancing [the subcontractor’s] claim for additional payment from the government through the ongoing CDA process.  [The subcontractor] agreed to such a dispute resolution procedure, and it does not claim that the increased costs were [the prime contractor’s] fault.”  Nova Group, supra, at *8.

A subcontractor with such a provision is still required to timely perfect and preserve its rights by timely filing a lawsuit against the Miller Act payment bond surety.  However, the subcontractor is now beholden to the Contract Dispute Act procedure which requires an initial decision by the contracting officer and, then, certain appeal rights.   This is not what the subcontractor wanted because it elongates any potential resolution.  However, this is what the subcontractor agreed to in the dispute resolution provision and benefits the prime contractor so that it does not have to fight the fight on two fronts, particularly when it is supporting the pass-through claim under the Contract Disputes Act claim process.

Remember, the dispute resolution provision in your contract is important and should not be overlooked; the provision has ramifications as shown in the above case!

Dispute Resolution Provision in Subcontract that says Owner, Architect or Engineer’s Decision is Final

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates

In subcontracts, it is not uncommon to see a provision that says something to the effect:

Should any dispute arise between the parties respecting the true construction or interpretation of the Plans, Specifications and/or the Contract Requirements, the decision of the Owner or the Owner’s designated representative as set forth in the General Contract shall be final.

This is a provision in a subcontract dealing with dispute resolution, typically when there is a dispute as to whether the subcontractor is performing extra-contractual or base contract work regarding an “interpretation of the Plans, Specifications, and/or the Contract Requirements.” It is not uncommon for there to be a dispute as to whether certain work is within the subcontractor’s scope of work or outside the subcontractor’s scope of work and subject to a change order.

This language, however, is not a get out of jail free card for a contractor just because the owner or the architect render a decision adverse to the subcontractor.

For instance, in F.H. Paschen, S.N. Nielsen & Associates, LLC v. B&B Site Development, Inc., 2021 WL 359487 (Fla. 4thDCA 2021), the subcontract contained the same provision discussed above.  During construction, a dispute arose as to whether a 561 square yard asphalt area was required to be demolished by the subcontractor and replaced with concrete.  The subcontractor claimed this area was not within its base scope of work that only required it to demolish concrete areas and replace such areas with new concrete. The subcontractor was directed to perform this disputed work and submitted its costs to the contractor.  The contractor submitted the subcontractor’s costs to the architect and the architect decided that the 561 square yard asphalt area was included in the contractor’s scope of work.  The contractor used the architect’s decision to argue the subcontractor was not entitled to the additional costs because the asphalt area was included in the subcontractor’s scope of work.

Unfortunately for the contractor, the court disagreed based on the express terms of the subcontract.    The subcontract did not use the term asphalt or require the subcontractor to demolish asphalt areas.  It did require the subcontractor to demolish concrete or pavement areas.  The court found that:

[T]he only reasonable interpretation of the subcontract is that the scope of work did not include the removal and replacement of asphalt [area] of the parking lot. ‘Asphalt’ and ‘concrete’ are not synonymous terms.  Nothing in the subcontract stated that the Sub was required to remove any asphalt from the parking lot.  The subcontract did not say that the Sub was required to remove pavement from the ‘entire’ parking lot.  Nor did the subcontract describe the specific square footage of pavement that the Sub was to remove.

B&B Site Development, supra, at *3.

Well, what about the validity of the decision of the architect that found the demolition and replacement of this asphalt area to be within the contractor’s scope of work?

While there are certainly times such a provision is governing, “construction contracts cannot leave the arbitrary or fraudulent decision of an architect or engineer or the like to operate as a conclusive settlement of matters in controversy.” B&B Site Development, supra, at *4 (quotation and citation omitted).  Stated differently, “[t]he law does not allow a third party’s arbitrary decision concerning the scope of a contract’s specifications ‘to operate as a conclusive settlement of matters in controversy.’” Id. (citation omitted).

Here, the court found that the subcontract was clear as to the subcontractor’s scope and allowing the architect’s decision to be conclusive would “unfairly allow the revision of the explicit scope of a subcontract after work has commenced, to the detriment of the subcontractor.”  B&B Site Development, supra, at *4.

It was clear that the 561 square yard asphalt area was included in the contractor’s scope of work.  However, it was also clear that this scope of work was not clearly included in the subcontractor’s scope of work.  As a result, it would be arbitrary for the architect to find this scope of work was included in the subcontract (when the architect never reviewed the subcontract) just because the contractor was always responsible for this work.   Clearly defined scopes of work are important.  This case illustrates why because had the subcontract included language that suggested the asphalt area was within the subcontractor’s scope of work, the ruling would have been different because the architect’s decision as to what was included in the contractor’s scope of work would have presumably been passed to the subcontractor.

Thinking Beyond the Dispute Resolution Provision in Construction Disputes

Benjamin Pollock | King & Spalding | June 5, 2017

When parties cannot resolve a claim during a major construction project, the contracts dispute resolution provisions do not always need to read as step-by-step instructions. To the contrary, the situation may warrant a different approach that can be negotiated after the dispute arises. While agreement certainly is required to deviate from the contractual obligations which themselves reflect the parties prior and current agreement other options can be considered and proposed whenever they would be beneficial to the Project or parties needs. This article discusses alternative methods by which a resolution to a construction dispute concerning costs or delays can be found in ways not necessarily proscribed by the contracts dispute resolution provisions.

Contracts Do Not Predict Every Situation

As an initial point, by no means is this article suggesting that the contract should be ignored or disregarded. Indeed, the contract provisions should be the embodiment of the good faith negotiations of the parties, often hard-won through sophisticated bargaining. But this does not mean that one size fits all, and the individual situation and claims should be considered when an actual dispute must be managed.

This can be particularly true when circumstances change between the parties, or when the companies develop a business relationship outside of the one specific project. To be sure, the contracts dispute resolution provisions establish the original framework by which the parties are to resolve disputes arising from construction of that individual project. But the realities can change when those companies subsequently enter into additional contracts regarding multiple projects, or agree to an Operation and Maintenance Agreement that binds them to each other at the same site for multiple years following completion. Suddenly, the prospect of filing for arbitration over the one construction dispute can become a challenging or unacceptable option. Indeed, preserving the relationship and maintaining peace may prove more valuable than escalating a dispute to a jury or an independent panel. And with arbitration or litigation seen as a last-ditch option, the parties may do well to think beyond the contracts instructions in order to get the dispute resolved.

Conditions Precedent Can Be Mutually Waived or Changed

In many ways, a contracts dispute resolution provision can be seen as the designation of the ultimate deciderarbitrator, judge, or juryand a series of conditions precedent that must be followed before reaching the final stage. These conditions serve various purposes, like promoting party communication in an attempt to avoid costly litigation, or ensuring notifications are being effected internally at appropriate levels of management. These interim steps can include formal notice, a mediation or other non-binding proceeding, various waiting periods, and/or a meeting between management personnel. When a particular dispute reaches impasse, however, these actions may not always serve their intended purpose. In such scenarios, the contract provisions do not always need to be strictly adhered to, but instead should be evaluated for their perceived effectiveness under the circumstances. When it serves both parties or the Project to take different action, consider seeking a mutual agreement to waive or adjust certain of these conditions.

Take waiting periods. It is not uncommon for a contract to mandate that arbitration cannot be filed until a certain number of days after a formal notice letter is served (or other triggering event). But what if the dispute is impacting critical path activities, and a quick resolution would allow the parties to mitigate the impact or at least would provide the parties more certainty regarding the risks of a situation already affecting cost and schedule? As an initial matter, the owner may do well to instruct the contractor to continue working, or enter into a temporary agreement that maintains Project progress while the claim is addressed. But in this scenario, both parties may wish to consider waiving the required waiting period and submitting the dispute on an expedited schedule. Similarly, both sides may benefit from adding strict time limits on the selection process of nominating one arbitrator eachwho then nominate a chairpersonor even forgoing this timely process in favor of selecting a single fact-finder.

Another example is mandatory meetings between managers. Sometimes it may be patently obvious that certain disputes will not be resolved at such meetings. Perhaps the representatives designated by the contract have personality conflicts, the parties positions are extreme and irreconcilable, or the contemplated meeting would present other challenges that may actually exacerbate the situation. If the parties are entrenched in their positions, more might be at stake than a waste of time and resources: ill will can result if one party believes the other is not participating in good faith. In certain circumstances, a discussion by the designated persons about the dispute can do more harm than good.

Agreeing not to hold such a meeting is an option, although generally speaking, parties engaging in discussion before launching litigation is a good thing. If the contract requirements do not create an environment for success, they can be tweaked. Notwithstanding contractual restrictions on attendees, the parties can agree to select personnel best suited to attend, usually so long as there is someone present with decision-making authority. The presence of a mediator, expert, or third party neutral to facilitate discussions and offer opinions can be considered, regardless of whether the contract requires such a presence. And rather than meeting to discuss the merits of the disputewhich likely is encapsulated already in opinionated change documentation and argumentative claims letterscommercial settlements can be discussed instead. Indeed, such proposalsbonus milestones, additional resources, overtime, changes to the payment schedule, etc.may resolve the dispute without having to discuss, much less decide, the contentious issues, and can also benefit project progress itself. In these ways, parties can still hold the required meeting but tailor it to best position themselves for success.

Conclusion

A dispute resolution provision identifies the final arbiter of a dispute and contains other requirements meant to facilitate discussion and negotiation so that litigation can be avoided. Sometimes, however, the specific provisions will not best serve those purposes. In these situations, prudent parties will study the contracts requirements but also consider options that might more effectively resolve the particular dispute at issue, get the project back on track, and improverather than harmthe business relationship. Rather than view the various required stages as items on a checklist, parties can agree to waive or alter certain provisions and thereby adopt a procedure that may better facilitate resolution the specific dispute.