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Public owners often utilize notice of claims and contractual notices to bar otherwise valid claims for relief. The New York City Housing Authority (“NYCHA”)is no different, and requires any potential claimant to be especially vigilant in preserving rights to monetary damages. The First Department recently upheld NYCHA’s assertion of these defenses and sustained the dismissal of a complaint by a surety acting in place of a contractor. Colonial Surety Co., v. New York City Housing Authority, 182 A.D.3d 517, 120 N.Y.S.3d 772 (1st Dep’t 2020).

The NYCHA contract under review stipulated that notices of claim be filed within twenty (20) days of accrual.. The Court here found, consistent with prior caselaw, that the claim had accrued when the NYCHA had informed claimant in writing that it intended to substantially decrease its scope of work. Unfortunately, claimant here did not file its notice of claim until two and one half years later, and after the underlying project had been substantially complete.

Plaintiff’s claims were also barred because the NYCHA had found that Plaintiff had defaulted in its contractual obligations. Pursuant to the NYCHA contract, in those circumstances Plaintiff could not properly maintain a plenary action for monetary damages. Instead it was required to commence an Article 78 proceeding, which imposes a far higher burden of proof on a claimant.

Digesare Mechanical, Inc. v. U.W. Marx, Inc. stands for the principle that while parties are free to contract to to shorten the six-year statute of limitations period for breach of contract they cannot use such a limitation to effectively preclude such a claim in its entirety.  176 A.D.3d 1449, 112 N.Y.S.3d 306 (3d 2019).

The case effectively concerned a dispute between a subcontractor and a contractor in which the subcontractor alleged that the contractor had not fully paid it for work completed on a project. The relevant subcontract contained a limitations period provision stating that the subcontractor was required to bring any claim within six months of its last day of work.

Additionally, the subcontract contained a provision providing that the subcontractor would be paid by the contractor when the contractor was paid by the owner. The court determined that this provision was a permissible pay-when-paid provision rather than an unenforceable pay-if-paid clause.  However, it was the combination of the pay-when-paid provision in conjunction with the shortened contractual limitations period that rendered the limitations clause unenforceable.

The New York Lien Law provides broad categories for the type of work, labor, or services for which a contractor can file a mechanic’s lien if it is not paid. Owner’s typically argue that a contractor, construction manager, or design professional which perform preconstruction services cannot file a mechanic’s lien if it is unpaid. Not surprisingly, contractors, construction managers, and design professionals take the opposing position. Courts have continued to grapple with this issue.  The Second Department recently adopted a nuanced opinion, finding that certain preconstruction services were lienable, but others were not.  This blog also updates a previous posting of ours (September 27, 2018), where we discussed the lower court opinion which is now the subject of this appeal.

In Old Post Road Associates, LLC v. LRC Construction, LLC, 177 A.D.3d 658 (2d Dept. 2019), a construction manager, LRC Construction, LLC (“LRC”), filed a mechanic’s lien based upon the preconstruction services it had performed. The owner (“Old Post Road”) moved to dismiss the lien pursuant to Lien Law Section 19(6) because it alleged the services in question did not permit a lien, and thus the lien contained a “facial defect.” Lien Law Sections 2(4) and 3 state, in substance, that a lien may only be filed if the work, labor or services were for “demolition, erection, alteration or repair of any structure” which constitutes a “permanent improvement” upon the property in question. Drawings, plans, or specifications prepared by an architect, engineer, or designer can also qualify in certain instances.

Old Post Road argued in support of its application that LRC’s lien included a claim for services such as consulting for construction phasing and the preparation of budgets. Various cases support the conclusion that those services are not lienable. (see, e.g., Goldberger-Raabin, Inc. v 74 Second Ave. Corp., 252 N.Y. 336, 341-342 (1929).

As we previously noted (Blog of June 1, 2018), the Prompt Payment Act (“PPA”) has had less of an impact on payment disputes for construction projects in New York than many originally anticipated. Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York recently issued an opinion that may breathe some life to the statutory scheme in certain circumstances.

In Maple Drake Austell Owner LLC v. D.F Pray Inc., 19 CV 5930, S.D.N.Y 7/15/19, the contractor (“Pray”) sought expedited arbitration with the owner of the project (“Maple”) regarding a payment dispute. Because Maple refused to pay the full amount of a payment requisition, Pray issued a Notice of Complaint to Maple pursuant to the PPA and served a demand for expedited arbitration. Maple then filed an application in court seeking a stay of the arbitration. The court granted an interim stay pending further briefing on Maple’s preliminary injunction application.

In support of its application, Maple argued that the PPA mandatory arbitration provisions only applied to the undisputed invoices. Furthermore, because the contract between Maple and Pray only called for arbitration “upon mutual agreement of the parties,” Maple argued that the contract overrode the PPA. Certain New York state court decisions were consistent with Maple’s contention. Turner Construction Co. v. JoA Concrete Corp., 44 Misc. 3d 217, 984 N.Y.S.2d 579 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 2014); Southgate Owners Corp v KNS Building Restoration Inc., 2013 WL5869618 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co 2013). However, the Third Department had issued a more recent and contrary opinion in Matter of Capital Siding & Construction, LLC, 138 A.D.3d 1265, 31 N.Y.S.3d 230 (3d Dept. 2016). The Capital Siding Court held that the PPA applied to disputed invoices and that a contract could not override the PPA. Because the Capital Siding opinion was the only New York State appellate authority on the subject, Judge Rakoff held that he was obligated to follow its interpretation. Even if it were not binding, however, he stated that requiring arbitration of disputed invoices was consistent with the meaning and intent of the PPA. Accordingly, the arbitration was directed to go forward.

Due, in part, to increased construction activity, a renewed focus on project safety, and owners becoming more aware of their rights and remedies, Real Property Action and Proceedings Law (“RPAPL”) Section 881 continues to generate litigation and court decisions construing various provisions of the statute. Two recent decisions are of special note.

In Cucs Housing Develop. Fund Corp. IV. V. Aymes, 2019 WL 934935, 2019 N.Y. Slip Op. 30450 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. Feb. 26, 2019), Judge Melissa A. Crane granted a developer the right to underpin its neighbor’s building, even though such access constitutes a permanent encroachment. While many practitioners and developers believe RPAPL Section 881 does not authorize a trespass of this nature, Justice Crane found to the contrary.

The specific facts of the case undoubtedly had something to do with the result. The petitioner-developer was in the early stages of building an affordable housing project to address the homelessness problem in New York City. The plans in question were approved after a two-year review process by the New York City Department of Buildings. The respondent-neighbor owned a vacant and unused building, without active utilities or security. When questioned at a hearing as to why he opposed the underpinning application, the neighbor, appearing pro se, responded, “I don’t have to have a reason… I just don’t want underpinning.” Furthermore, the Court found there was no feasible alternative to the underpinning, and that in cases such as Madison 96 Associated LLC v. 17 East 96th Owners Corp, 121 A.D.3d 605, 608, 995 N.Y.S.2d 553 (1st Dep’t 2014) and Matter of Tory Burch LLC v. Moskowitz, 146 A.D.3d 528, 43 N.Y.S.3d 901 (1st Dept’t 2017) the First Department seemed to recognize that underpinning could be authorized if it was “virtually unavoidable” or if the “reasonableness and necessity of the trespass” was clearly demonstrated. Accordingly, the Cucs Court authorized the underpinning.

Contractor’s mechanic’s liens are based upon work actually performed (and unpaid). Often, contractors rely upon the payment requisitions they submitted to the owner to establish the claimed value of the work. Requisitions that were never submitted to or considered by an owner can also be used by a contractor on occasion to support its lien claim. That circumstance was addressed by the First Department in Ferro Fabricators, Inc. v. 1807-1811 Park Avenue Development Corp. 165 A.D.3d 572, 86 N.Y.S.3d 54 (1 st Dept. 2018).

The defendant in Ferro moved for summary judgment on, among other things, its counterclaim that Plaintiff’s mechanic’s lien was willfully exaggerated and thus subject to dismissal pursuant to Lien Law §39 and 39-a. Defendant pointed to the seventh payment requisition Plaintiffs had submitted, which alleged the work was only 78% complete. In opposition to the motion, however, Plaintiff provided the court with a subsequent (eighth) requisition, which had never been submitted to Defendant, but which alleged that 97% of the work was complete. Under those circumstances, the First Department held that the trial level court had properly denied Defendant’s summary judgment motion because there were disputed issues of material facts regarding the amount of work performed.

By its holding, the Court re-confirmed the long standing rule that a lienor is not strictly bound and limited by the requisitions it submitted during the course of the performance of its work. Any work which was performed after the last requisition was submitted may also form the basis of a lien. Indeed, the First Department specifically rejected Defendant’s argument that the work referenced in the eighth requisition should not be included in the lien claim merely because it was never submitted. In other words, while the timely submission of a requisition can often aid

Construction companies, especially those engaged in large public works or private development projects, sometimes form joint ventures to pool their resources and perform work on jobs that  might be beyond their individual financial capabilities or technical expertise. Typically, the joint venture is formed for an individual project. As a result, the formation of the joint venture is often  not addressed with the same degree of formality and care as when a corporate entity is formed on a more permanent basis. Recently, in Slabakis v. Schik, 164 A.D.3d 454, 84 N.Y.S.3d 45 (1 st Dep’t 2018), the First Department addressed the requirements of forming a joint venture in the context of a dispute as to whether a proper joint venture had been formed.

The plaintiff in Slabakis alleged there was an oral joint venture agreement, and sued the defendant, its purported joint venture partner, for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and related  wrongs. Defendant moved to dismiss, alleging that the complaint did not adequately allege the existence of a joint venture agreement. The trial level court denied the motion, holding that there was an issue of fact as to the viability of the complaint.

On appeal, the First Department reversed and dismissed the complaint, holding that the pleading was defective in two material respects. First, the Slabakis complaint failed to contain a mutual  promise that profits and losses would be shared to some degree. Instead, it indicated that all of the losses would be solely borne by the defendant. This was “fatal” to plaintiff’s claim that a joint  venture was created.

Enforcing mechanic’s lien rights raises several issues which are distinct from the ability to simply file a mechanic’s lien. For example, a subcontractor must generally show that a “lien fund” existed between the owner and contractor at the time it filed its lien in order to successfully foreclose. Peri Formwork Systems, Inc. v. Lumbermens Mutual Casualty Co., 65 A.D.3d 533, 884 N.Y.S.2d 129 (2d Dep’t 2009); See also Van Clief v. Van Vechten 130 N.Y. 571 (1892). Some courts have recognized an exception when the general contractor issues back charges to a subcontractor after termination. See Spectrite Design LLC v. Elli N.Y. Design Corp., (16 Civ. 6154, N.Y.L.J. 120279380599) (S.D.N.Y., Decided July 26, 2017). Other courts have recognized that if payments are made by the owner in bad faith, and before they were otherwise due, a lienor’s ability to foreclose its mechanic’s lien should not be prejudiced. See Glens Falls Portland Tenant Co. v. Schenectady County Coal Co., 163 A.D. 757, 759-763, 149 N.Y.S. 189 (3d Dep’t 1914); Lawrence v. Dawson, 34 A.D. 211, 212-215, 54 N.Y.S. 647 (2d Dep’t 1898). The bad faith exception to the lien fund rule was recently addressed by the First Department in 3-G Services Limited v. SAPV/Atlas 845 WEA Associates NF, L.L.C., 162 A.D.3d 487, 79 N.Y.S.3d 24 (1st Dep’t 2018).

In 3-G, the owner moved to dismiss plaintiff subcontractor’s lien foreclosure claim by submitting proof that the owner had paid the contractor in full at the time the plaintiff’s lien was filed. Owner had terminated the contractor for convenience prior to the filing of the subcontrator’s lien, and issued final payment to the contractor at that time.

Plaintiff raised several grounds in attempt to show owner’s bad faith. It alleged that owner knew that the general contractor owed monies to the subcontractor when it terminated the general contractor for convenience, that the owner made an advance payment to the general contractor to avoid the Lien Law, and that owner opted to terminate general contractor for convenience when it could have terminated it for cause.

Not all work performed at or related to a construction project can form the basis of a mechanic’s lien. Rather, one can only lien for work performed or materials furnished on a privately owned project for the “improvement of real property” as set forth in Lien Law § 3. Generally speaking, only work which contributes to a “permanent improvement” of the property in question is lienable  (Lien Law § 2(4)). Sometimes, however, work is performed even before any activities actually commence on a construction site, and the issue arises whether that work is lienable in any  circumstances. That matter was recently addressed by Justice Terry J. Ruderman of the Westchester Supreme Court in Matter of Old Post Road Associates, LLC, 60 Misc. 3d 391, 77 N.Y.S.3d 283  (Sup. Ct. Westchester Co. 2018).

In Old Post Road, LRC Construction LLC (“LRC”) performed pre-construction management services for a planned project in Rye, New York. Among other things, LRC updated the budget for the  project and attended meetings to discuss phasing in connection with a site plan approval application. LRC was eventually terminated and filed a mechanic’s lien for $250,000. Thereafter, Old Post Road Associates LLC (“Owner”) commenced a special proceeding to summarily discharge the mechanic’s lien pursuant to Lien Law § 19 because the work in question was allegedly not lienable.

Pursuant to Lien Law § 19, a lien may only be dismissed if “it appears from the face” of the lien that it is invalid. Owner here alleged it met this standard in its special proceeding because LRC’s lien merely alleged it performed “pre-construction management services.”

Parties to contracts and courts continue to grapple with the distinctions between and among contribution, contractual indemnification and common law indemnification in a commercial/construction setting. A good example is the recent case of Matzinger v. MAC II (S.D.N.Y. 17 Civ. 4813, July 17, 2018).

Plaintiffs, the Matzingers, were the owners of a residential apartment in New York City. They retained Defendant MAC II, an interior design firm, to manage and oversee the renovation of their apartment. MAC II did not perform any actual construction work. Instead, through a series of purchase orders, it hired Fanuka to act as the general contractor. MAC II also hired TecDsign to install various audio-visual equipment. After the Matzingers moved into their apartment, they discovered various construction defects and incomplete work.

Accordingly, in 2017, the Matzingers sued MAC II, Fanuka and TecDsign for breaches of contract and related claims. Fanuka and TecDsign successfully moved to have the contract claims dismissed because they had no privity with Matzinger. After other claims were dismissed, The Matzingers’ only remaining claim was breach of contract against MAC II.

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