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Five for Fighting:  Subcontract Provisions Every Subcontractor Must Know to Get Paid

By Corey N. Giroux

            While there are any number of subcontract provisions that subcontractors must be aware of in order to negotiate subcontracts favorably, the following five provisions are critical to insuring that your business gets paid for the work it performs.

Lien Provisions

             Did you know that it’s perfectly legal to relinquish your statutory right to a mechanic’s lien in New Hampshire?  If you did, give yourself a small pat on the back.  All too often, however, subcontractors – especially those new to working in New Hampshire – fail to appreciate that they can waive their right to assert or maintain a mechanic’s lien through their subcontract.  Worse still, it is often the case that subcontractors learn this valuable piece of information at the very worst time:  when they need to secure a mechanic’s lien for delinquent payment on a project.

            In order to avoid this painful result, have your subcontracts reviewed carefully in-house or by your attorney, with a specific focus on any provision or language that relates to waiving or relinquishing the right to assert, maintain or perfect a lien or an attachment against the owner or its property.  If you see it, don’t accept it.  The mechanic’s lien is a very useful tool to make sure you get paid in New Hampshire, and you shouldn’t give it away before you start your project.   

Retainage Provisions 

            Most every project contains a retainage provision, so how different could they be?  If you treat retainage provisions interchangeably, you may go a long time before you get paid that all important final five to fifteen percent of your contract balance.

            Retainage provisions are like Skittles:  many flavors and some are better than others.  For example, if you’re a subcontractor that performs work early on in a project, it will be beneficial to negotiate retainage reductions based on acceptance of your scope of work by the project owner.  If you accept a common retainage provision that simply calls for the owner to withhold ten percent until the completion of the project, and you’re responsible for clearing the site and preparing for building or paving, it may be years before your final retainage payment becomes due, let alone gets paid.  Surely, that final ten percent looks better in your pocket than the owner’s.  As a result, it’s imperative that you closely monitor the retainage provision in each subcontract you execute.

         Retainage isn’t intended to be an annuity that you receive years after you perform your work, but instead should provide the owner some security that you’ll finish your scope of work after you’ve been paid the majority of your contract balance.  If you focus on negotiating a retainage provision that fairly accounts for your scope of work and its timing in connection with the overall project, you shouldn’t need to wait extended periods of time to receive the final payment you’re owed. 

Change Order Provisions

             There are virtually as many change order provisions as there are subcontracts.  It seems that every general contractor or construction manager that doesn’t utilize an AIA subcontract document creates its own change order provision.  With so many iterations of a provision meant to capture the same thing, more or less, what should your company be looking for? 

            In short, to maximize your chances of getting paid for extra or change work, subcontractors should strive to negotiate change order provisions that come as close as possible to mirroring the reality of performing work on a project.  More often than not, that reality is a fast-paced project with a limited schedule where changed or extra work cannot wait weeks for signed change orders from executive level corporate representatives.  As a result, subcontractors are best served by negotiating change order provisions whose terms are not unduly burdensome, restrictive or otherwise difficult to satisfy. 

            For instance, the author recently reviewed several subcontracts which directed that only the company president or another board level executive were authorized to approve a change in scope.  This is hardly practical for a subcontractor.  Ordinarily, a general contractor’s executives are not in the field regularly, and do not have the kind of “hands on” knowledge of a project that a project manager or superintendent possesses.  Worse still, executives are not readily available to subcontractors, as a general matter.  As a result, it’s not difficult to anticipate the difficulties that a subcontractor is likely to face when trying to balance the need to perform change order work, to maintain the project schedule and to secure the appropriate written authorization to perform the work.  These competing interests often lead to subcontractors performing work before they are authorized to do so according to the terms of their subcontracts, based on spoken assurances from onsite representatives of the general contractor.  This, in turn, exposes the subcontractor to the risk that the general contractor or the owner will reject the change order and that a fight will be necessary to get paid.

            Because the competing interests in performing the work, meeting the schedule and securing appropriate authorization for changes in scope exist on so many projects, subcontractors are best served by negotiating change order provisions that mirror, as closely as possible, the anticipated conditions in field.  Doing so will go a long way toward insuring that you’ll be paid for your extras.  To the extent that you have any doubt regarding what steps are necessary to make sure you’re complying with the change order provision in your subcontract, you’re well advised to speak with your construction attorney.

Pay if Paid Provisions

             Construction lawyers frequently discuss the concept of “risk allocation” with their clients.  So what is risk allocation?  At is core, risk allocation is concept used to describe how the parties to a contract divide or allot the various risks attendant to a particular contract. 

            A “pay if paid” provision is a tool used by general contractors and constructions managers to reallocate the risk of nonpayment, that for many years, was borne by the general contractor or construction manager.  A “pay if paid” provision operates exactly as it sounds.  That is, it’s a provision that conditions payment to a subcontractor for work it performs on the upstream contractor first receiving payment from the owner, or from the party upstream from it.  In other words, if the general contractor doesn’t get paid from the owner, the general contractor has no obligation to make payment to its subcontractor, regardless of whether the subcontractor fully and dutifully performed its work.

            Does it make sense for a subcontractor to accept a “pay if paid” provision in its subcontract?  The answer is unequivocally no.  The vast majority of subcontractors have no ability to determine the financial solvency of the owner or the dependability of its construction financing.  Furthermore, a subcontractor has no direct contract with the owner, as the general contractor does, which thereby limits the subcontractor’s potential legal remedies if the owner elects not to pay for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the subcontractor.  Because of these issues and others, subcontractors should be reticent to execute any contract that contains “pay if paid” language.  Because “pay if paid” language can be difficult to discern from other kinds of risk allocation devices, such as “pay when paid” and similar provisions, if you have any doubt about what your contract specifies seek the advice of your construction attorney.

Attorney’s Fees Provisions

             Last, but certainly not least, subcontractors must understand what the attorney’s fees provisions mean in their subcontracts.  Like all of the foregoing types of provisions, there isn’t a one size fits all remedy.  What stands out about the importance of an attorney’s fee provision is that in some very important instances, the only way to enforce or determine your rights with respect to each of the kinds of provisions discussed above, is to employ the services of an attorney.  And that costs money.  So, if you don’t have an adequate provision of this kind, you’ll be forced to decide whether or not to pursue claims for payment (or other claims) based not upon whether you’re entitled to be paid, but rather by how much you’ll have to spend to get paid.

            This isn’t lost on some less scrupulous general contractors.  In some instances, if a general contractor knows you’ll have to spend enough money to chase payments you’re owed that it becomes throwing good money after bad, they’ll simply pocket the money you should be paid and force you to bring suit against them.  This is no way to keep your projects profitable.

            In order to make sure that you don’t fall victim to this scenario, insure that your contract has an attorney’s fees provision that calls for your fees to be paid in the event that you need the services of an attorney to enforce your rights under your subcontract.

            So what do you do when the general contractor won’t agree to an attorney’s fee provision that runs in your favor?  In that instance, you negotiate what is known as a “prevailing party” provision.  A “prevailing party” provision calls for either party to a contract to receive their attorney’s fees and other costs from the other side in the event that a particular party prevails in an arbitration or lawsuit.  As is the case with each of the foregoing kinds of provisions, the devil is in the details of the provision.  Nevertheless, if you’re diligent about reviewing (or having someone else review) the language of any proposed attorney’s fee provision, you’ll be much less likely to learn that your subcontract only gives the general contractor the right to recover its attorney’s fees. 

            If you master the foregoing five kinds of provisions, or engage your construction attorney to help you do so, you will negotiate better subcontracts before you get started and you’ll almost certainly forestall a variety of construction disputes before they have the opportunity to ripen.  Should you have questions regarding any of the information presented here, you’d be well advised to contact your New Hampshire or Massachusetts construction attorney.

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