Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Contractor’s Remedies Under the Miller Act May Not Be Conditioned on State-Licensing Requirements.

In a matter of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that even though a contractor violated a state law requiring it to have a contractor’s license, the contractor was still eligible to make a claim under the Miller Act on a federal construction project. This decision brings the Ninth Circuit into a general agreement with other federal appellate courts that state law cannot abridge or condition a contractor’s rights and remedies under the Miller Act.

Plaintiff Technica was a subcontractor on a federal project in California. Technica provided almost $900,000 worth of labor and materials, but received less than $300,000 in payments. As a result, Technica filed suit under the Miller Act against the general contractor and its payment-bond surety.

Section 7031(a) of California’s Business and Professions Code precludes a contractor from maintaining an action to collect compensation for its services unless the contractor was licensed during the performance of the contract. Technica did not hold a California contractor’s license. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the general contractor and the surety, holding that the state-licensing statute barred Technica from pursuing claims for nonpayment under the Miller Act.

In considering the appeal, the Ninth Circuit examined the Miller Act’s strong policy in favor of protecting subcontractors on public projects. Sovereign immunity prevents liens from being placed on public land, so Miller Act bonds are used to provide contractors an alternative means of securing payment on federal construction projects. Moreover, the Miller Act is considered highly remedial in nature and is liberally construed to protect entities that labor and/or provide material to public projects. The remedy provided by the Miller Act was federal in nature and the law that would prevent the unlicensed contractor from recovering was a state law. In addition, the court felt that enforcement of state-licensing requirements against Miller Act claims would “wreak havoc” on the uniform application of federal law, particularly in federal projects spanning multiple states.

The Ninth Circuit focused on the distinction between federal and state law as well as federal preemption in reversing the decision of the district court. It found that the state law could not abridge an entity’s right to pursue a Miller Act claim. The court conceded that while state contract law was sometimes used in evaluating a Miller Act claim, state contract law was not used to affect the rights established by the Miller Act.

This decision was one of first impression. It likely has broad applicability beyond the Ninth Circuit, as many states have contractor-licensing requirements.

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