The Baker Court first recounted the direct avenues for collecting on a construction project when payment is not made in the regular course: "[A] mechanic's lien may be available, and in connection with public works projects, a payment bond is statutorily required given the unavailability of a mechanic's lien in such projects." That said, "[d]epending upon the equity in the property . . . a mechanic's lien may be insufficient (especially if a project has been financed with a mortgage placed on the property as a first lien)." Even with these direct avenues along with filing suit, insolvency of the parties in the project chain can thwart any collection efforts of the lower tier contractors. In addition, contractual language, for example a pay-if-paid provision, too can arrest an unpaid party's effort to be paid. The Baker Court considered the requirements for applying such provisions. In Baker, the general contractor-subcontractor contract stated, in pertinent part, that:
Progress payments to the Subcontractor for satisfactory performance of the Subcontractor's Work shall be made only to the extent of and no later than ten (10) working days after the receipt by the Contractor of payment from the Owner for the Subcontractor's Work. The Subcontractor agrees that the Contractor shall be under no obligation to pay the Subcontractor for any Work until the Contractor has been paid by the Owner . . . The Subcontractor expressly acknowledges and agrees that payments to it are contingent upon the Contractor receiving payments from the Owner.By its plain language, this pay-if-paid provision appeared to foist all risk of the owner's potential insolvency onto the subcontractor. For its part, the subcontractor argued that "the provision is a timing issue (or should be interpreted and applied as such) rather than a risk-shifting provision." In other words, notwithstanding that the general contractor was not paid by the owner in a reasonable period of time after the work was performed by the subcontractor, the subcontractor was still entitled to be paid. The court disagreed.
After disposing of a burden of proof argument raised by the subcontractor, the Baker Court resolved the contract interpretation question. It examined the caselaw and observed that where the provision does not explicitly "creat[e] a condition precedent to payment" the courts will construe the provision as "setting the time of payment" rather than establishing a defense to payment. However here, the contingency was explicit and moreover the contract provision also put the risk of insolvency explicitly onto the subcontractor: "The Subcontractor expressly accepts the risk that it will not be paid for the Work performed by it if the Contractor, for whatever reason, is not paid by the owner for such Work. The Subcontractor states that it relies primarily for payment for Work performed on the credit and ability to pay off the Owner and not of the Contractor[.]"
In light of the foregoing the Baker Court held that there was no ambiguity in the terms and therefore the contract's pay-if-paid provision would be enforced as written. The court summed up the reality of working in the construction industry (and frankly any industry): "It is clear that the defendant [contractor] took advantage of its superior bargaining position in this contract; the plaintiff [subcontractor], however, seemingly made a conscious decision to [get the job by] sign[ing] a contract containing this risk-assumption provision which, in these unfortunate circumstances, has come into play."
As an aside, observe that Connecticut's statutory prompt payment provisions do not preclude contractual pay-if-paid clauses. See Conn. Stat. 42-158i et seq.
The author, Katharine Kohm, Esq. is a committee member for The Dispute Resolver. She is an associate at Pierce Atwood, LLP in Providence, Rhode Island.