Though factually detailed, the decision serves as a review of numerous key concepts in construction law including the requirement of strict performance to recover on a contract breach, requirement of substantial performance to recover under quantum meruit, cardinal change, necessity of expert testimony, contractual notice provisions, and tolling applicable to the Miller Act statute of limitations.
- The Court held that Plaintiff could not, as a matter of law, show "complete and strict performance of all its terms" because Plaintiff walked off the project with 1/3 of the subcontract to complete, and therefore could not recover on the contract itself.
- Moreover, in addition to walking off the job, Plaintiff acknowledged, inter alia, that it performed defective work and did not pay federally-required wages. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the Plaintiff, as a matter of law, "did not substantially perform its contract obligations" which extinguished its claim for "quantum meruit" as well.
- To avoid this harsh result on its contract-based claims, Plaintiff argued that a "cardinal change" had occurred excusing its performance. The Court hesitated to confirm that Massachusetts has adopted this doctrine, but in any event, held that the elements of a cardinal change were not present. The Court observed that there must be "alteration in the work [effected by the government] so drastic that it effectively requires the contractor to perform duties materially different from those originally bargained for." Here, because Plaintiff only pointed to the government adding supervisory personnel to its payroll and a large number of change orders, the Court was not persuaded that Plaintiff's scope was "drastically altered." Indeed that court emphasized that, In re Boston Shipyard Corp., 886 F.2d 451, 456 (1st Cir. 1989) the court had held that even 86 change orders was not sufficient to show a cardinal change to construction contract.
- With respect to Plaintiff's extended time claim, the Court, in dicta, questioned whether an expert is required to prove such a delay claim, but also noted that Plaintiff's failure to do so may be at its peril as it had not presented a "coherent analysis" to allow a factfinder to could find in its favor.
- Adding to Plaintiff's challenges, it failed to present evidence that it had given notice of its claims within 7 days as required by the contract. The Court, without delving into whether the defendant was prejudiced by the delay, succinctly held that failure to comply with the contractual provision "will generally preclude all relief."
- With respect to the Miller Act action that Plaintiff filed on the bond provided by Defendant Surety, the Court was not persuaded that presence of Plaintiff's trailers on the construction site would extend limitations period. The Miller Act requires that any action on the bond must be brought within one year of the "last of the labor was performed or material was supplied" by the contractor or supplier bringing the action.
If the First Circuit has an opportunity to weigh in, the law in these areas, as recounted above, may be further honed by its decision. If so, we will update this blog.
The author, Katharine Kohm, is a committee member for The Dispute Resolver. Katharine practices construction law and commercial litigation in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She is an associate at Pierce Atwood, LLP in Providence, Rhode Island. She may be contacted at 401-490-3407 or kkohm@PierceAtwood.com.