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Show Me the Money: When Payment is Due on Massachusetts Public Construction Projects

By on April 5, 2017

Traditionally, general contractors on Massachusetts state-level public construction projects employed one of two types of risk allocation provisions in payment clauses in their subcontracts with subcontractors:  a “pay-if-paid” or a “paid-when-paid” clause.  This changed, however, due to a 2004 Massachusetts court decision that largely did away with condition precedent payment clauses commonly referred to as “pay-if-paid” clauses.  While the differences between the two clauses may not jump off the page, the use of one rather than the other had a significant impact on a subcontractor’s right to collect payment from the general contractor.

“Pay-if-paid” clauses create a condition precedent to payment.  That is, a subcontractor has no right to be paid for completed work until or unless the general contractor received payment from the owner.  “Pay-when-paid” clauses create no such condition precedent to subcontractor payment.  Rather, a “pay-when-paid” clause is a timing provision; that is, 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 a ‘reasonable time’ the subcontractor retains the right to collect payment from the general contractor for its work.  Ambiguous contract language often complicated the subtle, yet substantial, difference between the two types of clauses, leading to high stakes contract interpretation disputes.

In 2004, Massachusetts did away with the distinction between “pay-if-paid” and “pay-when-paid” clauses on state-level public construction projects.  In,  Framingham Heavy Equip. Co., Inc. v. John T. Callahan & Sons, Inc., 807 N.E.2d 851, 855 (Mass. App. 2004), the court reasoned, that absent express contract language, if “payment to the subcontractor is to be directly contingent upon the receipt by the general contractor of payment from the owner,” then the default interpretation of subcontract payment provisions, “should be viewed ‘only as postponing payment by the general contractor for a reasonable time after requisition … so as to afford the general contractor an opportunity to obtain funds from the owner.’”  This decision virtually eliminated “pay-if-paid” in favor of “paid-when-paid” clauses on Massachusetts state-level construction projects.         

While the holding in Framingham is generally good news for payment-seeking subcontractors, the issue remains, however, as to what a “reasonable time,” is to afford general contractors before general contractors must make payment to subcontractors should the owner not pay.  In Framingham, the court determined that where the payment issues originated in December 1998 and continued through March 1999, that by the end of April 1999, “the general contractor had exceeded any reasonable period of time,” and thus the subcontractor’s claim for payment for completed work could not be defeated even though the owner had yet to pay the general contractor for the subcontractor’s work.

There has been no subsequent case in Massachusetts that further defines the “reasonable time” standard to determine when general contractors must pay subcontractors when the general contractor objects to making payment as a result of a “pay-when-paid” clause.  Thus, subcontractors should be keenly aware of any developments in the law regarding what constitutes “reasonable time” for payment in connection with these provisions.  If you have questions regarding payment issues on state-level public construction projects you should contact a Massachusetts construction lawyer.   

Andrea Jacobs
Ms. Jacobs’ practice focuses on civil litigation and transactional law in a variety of business areas.
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