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CLIENT ALERT: Construction Law Update: Communication is Key! And Other Lessons Learned From A Recent Public Project Court Decision

In a recent decision, the Ohio Court of Claims entered a $2.2 million judgment in favor of the general trades contractor, and against a public university, in connection with an on-campus renovation project. Mid American Construction, LLC v. Univ. of Akron, Ct. of Cl. No. 2016-00685JD, 2018-Ohio-4513.

Delivered as a “multi-prime” project, the university entered into separate contracts with a construction manager and an architect, in addition to separate contracts with the general trades, plumbing, HVAC, and electrical contractors. The project was delayed and the general trades contractor and university asserted breach of contract claims against one another, each arguing that the other party’s delays and failure to perform caused the other to suffer damages.

Following trial, Judge Crawford entered a decision finding that the university’s ongoing failure to pay for work, as well as problems with coordination and schedule, not only justified the contractor’s decision to walk-off the job, but also prevented the contractor from completing its work. Thus, the university was found liable to the general trades contractor in the amount of $2.2 million, while the university’s counterclaim was denied.

The Court’s detailed thirty-three (33) page decision offers many rules and reminders for public owners, contractors, construction managers, construction claims consultants, and damages experts alike:

1.  Communication is Key. In observing the risk inherent in all construction projects, Judge Crawford aptly noted: “[p]ublic construction contracts are vast documents containing thousands of construction and procedural details, all of which amount to legal promises, and some of which would be difficult to perform. Business at the construction site is performed by skilled and unskilled workers who seek to coordinate a schedule that is often developed at a laboratory away from the work site and without communication with those individuals putting one brick on top of another.”

The point is clear. Communication delivers results. The more communicative, transparent and effective the construction team functions, the better the results. In his opinion, Judge Crawford identified thirty (30) separate reasons for delays on construction projects, the majority of which arise in the pre-construction phase and can easily be avoided with more effective communication.

What are you doing to improve communication, both internally and with other project participants? 

2.  Control What You Can Control. This decision also serves as a reminder to project owners of the importance of selecting an appropriate project delivery method, taking steps to ensure that the design is adequately developed, considering input from all stakeholders, issuing payment in a timely manner, issuing timely approvals, delivering the site to the contractor in a timely manner, hiring qualified design and construction teams, and following the contract’s written notice requirements.

Likewise, it is incumbent on contractors to identify and provide notice of unrealistic schedules, errors in contract documents, apparent design errors, constructability concerns, and questions concerning scope. Contractors are also reminded that so long as they make an honest effort to perform their contracts, and do not willfully refuse to perform, they are entitled to some portion of the contract price so long as they achieve substantial completion.

3.  The Value (or Cost) of a Good (or Bad) Construction Manager. This decision is a cautionary tale for owners and construction managers alike as the university’s liability arose, in part, from the failings of its construction manager. If the owner chooses to implement the Construction Manager At-Risk project delivery method, it must carefully select a qualified construction manager. Equally important, construction managers must deliver value to the project and their owner clients by following contract requirements such as conducting partnering sessions with contractors, providing monthly progress reports, providing look-ahead schedules, maintaining accurate and current schedule updates, timely responding to RFI’s and executing CCDs, and appropriately coordinating among contractors.

4.  Credibility Matters. If a claim arises that escalates to litigation or arbitration, judges and arbitrators tend to believe and find credibility with witnesses who are not evasive when asked tough questions, maintain a patient and frank demeanor, and provide consistent answers supported by the project documents.

5.  Battle of the Experts. Along the same lines, if a claim arises that requires expert testimony, judges and arbitrators have a tendency to agree with experts who are well-qualified, thorough, maintain an objective demeanor and deliver objective explanations, and offer testimony that is not conclusory, but is based on support and factual detail.

6.  Liquidated Damages or Compensatory Damages, But Not Both. Liquidated damages are not available under Ohio law where the party seeking to impose them is found to have contributed to an unreasonable delay. However, even in instances where a court may find a liquidated damages clause enforceable, and the party seeking damages is not in breach, it is well-settled law in Ohio that a non-breaching party may not recover both compensatory and liquidated damages.

For additional information, please feel free to contact Attorney Justin Alaburda at Brennan Manna & Diamond. He can be reached at www.jmalburda@bmdllc.com, or (330) 253-9134. 

SBA Releases New Frequently Asked Question (No. 49) - Maturity Dates for PPP Loans

On June 25, 2020 the SBA released a new Frequently Asked Question (No. 49) concerning the maturity dates for PPP Loans as modified by the recently passed Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act. All PPP Loans received on or after June 5, 2020, will have a five-year maturity. Any PPP Loan received before June 5, 2020, has a two-year maturity, unless the borrower and lender mutually agree to extend the term of the loan to five years. Businesses should address the maturity issue with their SBA lender and discuss any available change to the loan maturity date.

Top 10 Signs that May Indicate Financial Distress

The business world has been turned upside down with COVID-19 and the financial disruption it has created. Once healthy businesses are taking protective measures to remain viable. The impact of this health and financial crisis has affected nearly all industries in some manner. Being aware of areas or issues where your company is vulnerable is critically important. We have identified ten signs to look for when evaluating whether your company has some degree of financial distress.

HHS Delays Quarterly Reporting for Provider Relief Funds

There is good news for providers that received either (1) General Distributions from the HHS Provider Relief Funds [link to my article], or (2) Targeted Distributions from the HHS Provider Relief Funds [link to Ashley’s article]. HHS reversed its stance requiring quarterly reports for providers that received Provider Relief Funds and PPP loan monies. The initial quarterly reports would have been due by July 10, 2020. However, on June 13, 2020, HHS delayed the quarterly reporting requirement.

July 20 is Important Deadline for HHS Fund Distributions to Medicaid and CHIP Providers

On June 10, 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) released details on the distribution of more CARES Act Provider Relief Fund payments. After allocating $50 billion to Medicare providers through its General Distribution fund, HHS has now announced that it will distribute $15 billion to eligible Medicaid and CHIP providers who apply by the deadline through a Targeted Distribution. Applicants must apply through the Enhanced Provider Relief Fund Payment Portal. The application form itself can be found on the HHS website and is due by July 20, 2020.

DOJ Updates Corporate Compliance Plan Guidance

With the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, all healthcare providers were required to adopt and implement a corporate compliance plan. Historically, having an effective corporate compliance plan in place has been key to defending healthcare providers in fraud and abuse actions by Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial payers. Over the past couple of years, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Criminal Division has increased the number of prosecutions against U.S. corporations, including healthcare providers. Earlier this month, the DOJ’s Criminal Division updated its “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” guidance to educate prosecutors on how a corporate compliance program will be evaluated going forward.