As a general rule, parties to private contracts are afforded wide latitude to dictate and negotiate the terms as they see fit. While this notion of “freedom of contract” is an entrenched tradition within American law it is not without its limitations. The Prompt Pay Act, enacted in 2010, is one such limitation that every Massachusetts sub-contractor and contractor should have an acute awareness of.
In effect the Prompt Pay Act requires that standard state provisions be incorporated into otherwise private construction contracts with an original valuation of over three million dollars. The Prompt Pay Act specifically affects the interpretation of payment clauses in such contracts.
As a reminder, “pay-if-paid” clauses create a condition precedent to subcontractor payment. That is, a subcontractor has no right to payment for completed work until the general contractor has received payment from the owner. “Pay-when-paid” clauses create no such condition precedent to subcontractor payment. Rather, the general contractor has a ‘reasonable time’ to obtain payment from the project owner, but in the event the owner does not pay the general contractor within the ‘reasonable time’ the subcontractor still has the right to seek payment from the general contractor. Ambiguous contract language often complicates the subtle, yet substantial, differences between the two types of clauses leading to high stakes contract interpretation disputes.
In 2004, Massachusetts did away with distinction between “pay-if-paid” and “pay-when-paid” clauses on state-level public construction projects. Framingham Heavy Equip. Co., Inc. v. John T. Callahan & Sons, Inc., 807 N.E.2d 851, 855 (Mass. App. 2004). Thus with regard to Massachusetts state-level public construction projects “pay-if-paid” causes have been effectively eliminated in favor of “paid-when-paid” clauses.”
Federal-level public construction projects, on the other hand, have not completely eliminated the distinction between “pay-if-paid” and “pay-when-paid” contract clauses. On federal-level public construction projects “pay-if-paid” language included in a subcontract could complicate subcontractor recovery in relation to the principal contractor. The limited amount of Federal case law on the issue, however, leads to the inference that Federal Courts disfavor allowing “pay-if-paid” clauses to operate in the federal-level public construction context.
The Prompt Pay Act directs that, on private construction projects valued at over three million dollars, payment clauses be interpreted as “pay-when-paid,” thus effectively eliminating “pay-if-paid” in most instances. Specifically, and with very narrow exception, “[a] provision in a contract for construction which makes payment to a person performing the construction conditioned upon receipt of payment from a third person that is not a party to the contract shall be void and unenforceable.” MGL c. 149 sec. 29E (e).
This statutory language is a clear attempt, in the name of the broad public interest, to provide protections to subcontractors by endeavoring to ensure swift payment for work provided in order to keep construction projects moving and companies afloat by regulating cash flow.
Smith Ironworks, Inc. v. Torrey Co., Inc., Not Reported in N.E.3d (2014), is the only Massachusetts case to discuss the Prompt Pay Act at any length. Even so, it is an arbitration decision as discussed in Smith, and not the Court itself, that provides the limited interpretation of the Act. In Smith, the subcontractor applied for payment from the contractor for work provided on a private project. Disputes as to the actual amount owed existed, however, rather than actively reject the request for payment, the contractor did not respond at all. Pursuant to the terms of the Prompt Pay Act the request for payment was deemed approved after the statutorily prescribed time passed without formal rejection. The parties submitted to voluntary arbitration and an arbitrator found that the contractor was liable to the subcontractor for the amounts submitted, plus interest, as the contractor failed to properly respond to the request for payment as prescribed by the Prompt Pay Act. The contractor was deemed liable even though it had not been paid in full by the owner.
To reiterate, while Smith details an outcome favorable to a subcontractor by application of the Prompt Pay Act, that outcome is not of true precedential value. Questions remain as to the effectiveness of the Prompt Pay Act. Specifically, questions regarding the true parameters and enforceability of payment timelines and the exact remedy for non-compliance. Thus, subcontractors should keep an eye towards the development of the law in this area and strive to understand how the Prompt Pay Act may apply to various projects. If you have any questions about payment issues on public construction projects you should contact a Massachusetts construction lawyer.