The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Contract Documents program recently released a limited number of state-specific Sworn Construction Statements and Lien Waiver and Release forms for use on construction projects. At the same time, the AIA also released generic versions of the waiver and release forms for use in states without specific statutory requirements.

At present, twelve states in the United States (Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming) regulate lien waiver and release forms on construction projects. These regulations vary in their requirements. While some state statutes only regulate the language to be used on the forms (i.e., Arizona), other state statutes seek to regulate the lien waiver and release forms down to the font size used (i.e., Georgia). Given the specificity of such regulations, lien waiver and release forms that do not conform with state regulations are routinely found invalid by courts, if challenged.

Because courts routinely demand strict adherence to the statutory requirements for lien waiver and release forms in states in which such forms are regulated, the AIA has carefully curated Sworn Construction Statements and Lien Waiver and Release forms for the 12 regulated states to conform with state statutes and has locked the ability to edit these forms, other than to permit the input of project specific details. The AIA has maintained the ability to edit the generic Sworn Construction Statements and Lien Waiver and Release forms, however, to fit the needs of a project in a state in which the forms are not strictly regulated.

Despite the care taken to craft and protect the Sworn Construction Statements and Lien Waiver and Release forms, the AIA nevertheless recommends that parties consult with their attorneys prior to using an AIA lien waiver and release form to ensure the form selected is valid and consistent with the parties’ needs for a particular project.  

Below is an excerpt of an article published in Construction Executive on August 9, 2022 authored by Megan R. Naughton, co-chair of Robinson+Cole’s Immigration Group

Although the visa options are limited, there are some that can be explored by construction companies in the United States, including the following.

H-1B

The H-1B visa category may be available for construction positions that require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specific field such as civil engineering, construction management or accounting. The timing can be challenging if an employer is looking to hire a recent graduate or someone outside of the United States for a role because of the H-1B lottery but can work well if the candidate is already in H-1B status and working for another company. These visas are site-specific, so they may need amending if a worker is moved from one site to another. Read the full article.

The purpose of a liquidated damages provision in a construction contract is to establish in advance a fair amount of compensation to the injured party for a breach of contract to avoid spending time and money fighting over uncertain actual damages after they occur.  Generally, to be enforceable, a liquidated damages provision must satisfy three criteria: (1) the damages resulting from a breach of contract must be uncertain when the parties enter the contract; (2) the parties must clearly express their intent to liquidate damages in advance; and (3) the amount stipulated for liquidated damages must be reasonable and commensurate with the actual damages it is meant to represent.  Failure to satisfy any of these criteria could render the provision unenforceable.

The recent Connecticut Appellate Court decision in New Milford v. Standard Demolition Services, Inc., 212 Conn. App. 30 (2022), indicates that courts might be reluctant to read a liquidated damages clause broadly, and raises concerns regarding the proper drafting of such a provision.  The Appellate Court held that when a liquidated damages provision in a construction contract is expressly limited to damages resulting from delay, it will not operate to prevent the recovery of actual and consequential damages caused by the non-breaching party for a reason other than delay.

The contract at issue in New Milford included a typical liquidated damages provision: “Failure of the Contractor to meet this established timeframe will result in in liquidated damages being assessed in the amount of $2,000/day for each and every calendar day beyond the contract time limit.”  The Court noted that the liquidated damages provision was clearly linked to a Contractor’s untimely performance and that the provision did not expressly state that liquidated damages are the exclusive remedy.  Moreover, other provisions in the contract expressly permitted the Town to recover “damages and losses,” arising from other types of breach by the Contractor, so the Court determined the liquidated damages provision did not preclude the Town from recovering additional actual and consequential damages caused by other breaches of the contract unrelated to delays.  To find otherwise would be to render the other remedial provisions superfluous, which courts avoid when interpreting contracts. 

A Court generally will not construe a contract to limit remedial rights unless there is a clear intention that the enumerated remedies are exclusive.  If a contracting party intends to make liquidated damages the exclusive remedy for all actual and consequential damages for a breach of contract, that intent should be expressly stated and there should be no references to other damages elsewhere in the contract.

Terminating a contract is a serious and sometimes risky decision. Whenever a client seeks advice regarding termination, a lawyer should stress the importance of strict compliance with the contractually specified termination provisions. One misstep by a terminating party who otherwise did nothing wrong could be a material breach of contract exposing the terminator to potentially large damages, even if the party being terminated first failed to perform under the contract. Is termination less risky with contracts that do not include any termination provisions? A Connecticut Supreme Court decision recently addressed this question and its ruling could have significant impacts.

The court ruled in Centerplan Construction Co. v. City of Hartford, 343 Conn. 368 (2022), that when a contract is silent as to termination notice and cure rights, a right to cure within a reasonable time is implied as a matter of law, unless that right is expressly waived. Notice and cure rights are thus implied in every contract and noncompliance with this unwritten requirement exposes a terminator to damages as if it had not followed the actual written provisions. This presumably applies not only to every proposal, purchase order, and short form contract, but also to oral agreements. Even if a party is in default and the project is delayed, Centerplan holds that it is entitled to notice and an opportunity to cure within a reasonable time before it may be terminated. The court provided no guidance on how long is “reasonable” to cure, so allowing an unreasonably short cure time before termination could conceivably expose the terminator to liability as well.

All may not be lost if a terminator doesn’t provide notice and the right to cure within a reasonable time, though it may involve a lawsuit. A terminator may have defenses against a claim for wrongful termination if, for example, a breach is truly incurable or the opportunity to cure is futile. The terminator would bear the burden of proving such defenses in court. The better approach would be to avoid this issue altogether by including language in every contract either incorporating notice and cure obligations (so they can be followed in the event of termination) or expressly waiving them.

Below is an excerpt of an article co-authored by Megan Baroni and Jon Schaefer and published in Construction Executive on June 28, 2022. Megan and Jon are partners in Robinson+Cole’s Environmental, Energy + Telecommunications Group.

Most contractors don’t know they can be cited for an OSHA violation even if their own employee is not exposed to a hazard. The construction industry is no stranger to jobsites with employees from multiple employers working on a common project. While such arrangements are necessary to competently and timely complete a project, the presence of multiple employers—and their employees—on the same jobsite can result in an increased risk of safety hazards and may expose employers to OSHA citations, even where their own employees are not exposed to a hazard. Read the full article.

On June 7, 2022, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an opinion of first impression regarding the Massachusetts Prompt Payment Act, G.L. c. 149 § 29E (the “Act”).  In Tocci Building Corp. v. IRIV Partners, LLC, Appeals Ct. Nos. 21-P-393, 21-P-733, the Appeals Court affirmed the decision of the Superior Court which held that when an owner objects to a contractor’s payment application, the owner must strictly follow the Act’s protocols in order to preserve its right to withhold payment.  The Act likewise applies to the contractor/subcontractor relationship.

The case concerned whether an owner had wrongfully withheld payment on seven of the contractor’s invoices because it failed to comply with the Act’s protocols, namely, that the rejection be timely, explain the factual and legal reasons for withholding payment, and expressly certify that the decision to withhold payment is made in good faith. The Appeals Court found that the Owner failed to timely respond to the seven applications at issue or, for those it did respond to timely, failed to include a certification of good faith. Accordingly, each pay requisition was “deemed approved by operation of law . . . and the defendants were not entitled to withhold payment as they did.”

A focal issue on appeal concerned whether the owner’s failure to reject the payment applications in accordance with the Act represented a waiver of both its right to withhold payment as well as its right to argue that the contractor’s work was defective.  The Appeals Court held that the owner’s noncompliance with the Act resulted only in a waiver of its right to withhold payment, not its right to later argue that the contractor breached an important contract obligation.  More specifically, the Court reasoned that while each of the contractor’s payment applications were, by operation of law, due and payable, the Owner’s right to assert claims for breach of contract are unaffected as “they may recoup any money they may be owed.” Joseph A. Barra, Esq., a construction attorney in Robinson+Cole’s Boston office submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Associated Subcontractors of Massachusetts.

Below is an excerpt of an article published in Construction Executive on May 13, 2022 co-authored by Robinson+Cole Labor and Employment Group lawyers Abby M. Warren and  Kayla N. West .

After nearly two years of managing the workplace through the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic, employers are being impacted by another significant challenge: the “Great Resignation,” which is the recent trend of workers voluntarily resigning from their jobs en masse beginning in 2021 and continuing today. Employers across a number of industries, including construction, are facing the pressure of recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and integrating job candidates in record speed to fill vacancies and meet the operational needs of the business.

Employers have been forced to rethink their recruiting and hiring processes, including pre-employment screening processes that may impact the timing of offers of employment. At the same time, the laws across the country related to these processes have been changing dramatically over the last few years. In light of operational challenges and the shifting legal landscape, how should employers be evaluating their recruiting and hiring processes and what should they consider when doing so? Read the full article.

A recent decision serves as an important reminder to all in the construction industry about the dangers of using outdated contract forms. In Hillhouse v. Chris Cook Construction, LLC, 325 So. 3d 646 (Miss. 2021), the Supreme Court of Mississippi found an arbitration provision unenforceable where it designated that all claims “shall be submitted to arbitration before the Southern Arbitration and Mediation Association.” Unfortunately, not only was the Southern Arbitration and Mediation Association unavailable as a forum at the time of the underlying dispute and at the time the contract was drafted, but the organization had not in fact existed for approximately seventeen years prior. The Court ruled that the arbitration forum was a contract requirement and that the Court could not rewrite the contract to select a forum “unanticipated by either party.” Id. at 653. As such, the arbitration provision was unenforceable and the parties would have to spend the time and resources to resolve any claims before the appropriate court.

While this specific case is a homeowner case from Mississippi, it is worth noting that Mississippi has a statutory scheme similar to the Federal Arbitration Act (Miss. Code. Ann. § 11-15-101, et seq.). As such, the rationale of Hillhouse likely extends to other jurisdictions and the construction industry would be wise to heed two warnings from this case that apply generally, including to commercial construction in the northeast.

First: the contractor in Hillhouse used a form contract that was over twenty years old, serving as a good reminder to carefully review form contracts and make sure they are up to date. In addition to factual changes to contract terms, such as the status of other entities named in the contract, there are also changes in the law that may require revisions to form contracts. For example, states will periodically amend laws relating to prompt payment, indemnity, and retainage.

Second: owners, developers, contractors, and design professionals should pay particular attention to ADR provisions. Although most ADR provisions specify the American Arbitration Association (AAA) or JAMS as the forum for arbitration, it is worth making sure that arbitration provisions are up to date and do not specify a non-existent forum. Further, courts distinguish between arbitration clauses that simply require the parties “to arbitrate according to the rules of” a specified forum and those that instead require claims to be “administered by” a specific forum. The enforceability of the latter is dependent on the availability of the named forum, while the former might survive the unavailability of the named forum. As such, the precise language of ADR provisions in form contracts should be re-examined to confirm they are enforceable and serve their intended purpose.

This post was authored by Megan R. Naughton, who is the  co-chair of the Robinson+Cole’s Immigration Group

Foreign nationals account for 61% of the full-time graduate students in civil engineering programs in the United States, according to the National Foundation for American Policy NFAP Policy Brief, August 2021, International Students in Science and Engineering. As a result, more and more clients in the construction industry are seeking to fill professional roles in their companies with talent that is foreign-born and requires employer sponsorship to work in the United States. Both small and large entities in the industry are looking into what is required of them to sponsor a foreign candidate for H-1B status. Once a current or future employee is identified who requires sponsorship, an employer is obligated to do the following:

Offer a “specialty occupation” role

Only roles which require at least a bachelor’s degree in a specific field (and related fields) are eligible for H-1B status. For instance, Civil Engineer and Concrete Engineer roles requiring bachelor’s degrees in Civil Engineering or a related field would be appropriate H-1B roles. A role that does not require a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent, or a role requiring too broad a range of fields or body of knowledge would not be suitable. For example, a Superintendent role which does not necessarily require a bachelor’s degree would not be an appropriate H-1B case. The position and its qualification for H-1B status should be reviewed in advance of filing an H-1B petition.

Offer the “prevailing wage”

The U.S. Department of Labor requires payment of the higher of the actual or the prevailing wage for each H-1B employee. The DOL wage is determined by the type of role, the seniority of the role, and the worksite location. In addition, the H-1B employee cannot be offered less than similarly-situated U.S. workers. A discussion regarding the required wage should occur prior to the H-1B lottery registration process.

Get selected in the H-1B lottery

For F-1 foreign students, employers must register them for the H-1B cap lottery in March of each year for a chance to win an H-1B cap number and eventually convert their status to H-1B. Registered individuals have a less than 50% chance of being selected every lottery season, so it is not a guarantee that a person will be selected the first time, or even the second time, they participate in the lottery. A discussion regarding timing should occur as a part of sponsorship. Those already in H-1B status would not typically need to go through the lottery to be sponsored and timing is not usually as much of an issue.

Post Notice, which includes salary information

Once the employer is ready to move forward with the H-1B petition, the employer must post a notice at the worksite or on-line which discloses the salary or a range that includes the salary, as well as other identifying information about the role.

File the H-1B petition

The H-1B petition involves many USCIS forms, cover and support letters, and a certified application from the DOL. The USCIS filing fees can range from $1,710 to $5,330 depending on the size of the employer, whether there are dependent family members to include, and whether USCIS premium processing is requested. Most of these fees must be paid by the employer. Once filed, the USCIS could ask for evidence corroborating the position’s requirements. Once approved, the USCIS could conduct site visits to ensure that the person is employed at the worksite indicated on the petition and is being paid the prevailing wage.

Notify USCIS when the person terminates

If employment is terminated, the employer must notify USCIS of the event (by letter) within a reasonable time.

On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed into law the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)which reauthorizes surface transportation funds and allocates $550 billion for new federal spending over the next five years. The $550 billion in new spending encompasses:

  • $73 billion for upgrades to the country’s electricity grid, including the ability to carry renewable energy; 
  • $66 billion for new rail lines and upgrades to existing ones, including a significant investment in Amtrak to address major maintenance backlogs; 
  • $65 billion to improve the nation’s broadband infrastructure and provide high-speed internet access to hard-to-reach populations, including Native American communities;
  • $47 billion for climate resiliency, which involves new funding aimed at combating wildfires and preparing coastal regions for more frequent hurricanes and flooding;
  • $21 billion for environmental projects, which includes investments in cleaning up abandoned mines, contaminated waterways, and other polluted sites overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency;
  • $15 billion to modernize water systems to address contaminated drinking water that has affected multiple large population centers;
  • $7.5 billion for electric vehicles, including the availability of charging stations across the country, which is part of President Biden’s pledge to build 500,000 stations nationwide; and 
  • $2 billion for a grant program aimed at expanding transportation projects in rural areas.

Use of the public funds to clear backlogs at the country’s ports, which are contributing to shipping delays and price increases in imported consumer goods, have already been announced. The remaining initial set of spending authorized by the IIJA will be issued towards two concerns prioritized by the current administration: improvement to access of broadband internet and replacement of hazardous lead drinking pipes.

The passage of the IIJA provides exciting opportunities for construction industry professionals, not just in the traditional sectors of road, bridge, and rail repair and construction, but also emerging sectors such as climate resiliency and electric vehicle infrastructure. The full distribution of IIJA funds and its impact on the construction industry will only gradually be felt by the industry over the next five years, as the administration plans to focus on determining and funding “shovel-worthy” projects in addition to funding “shovel-ready” projects. Continue to tune in to the Construction Law Zone for updates on this important new law.