Participants in the commercial building industry generally rely on security of payment legislation to resolve payment disputes. As a preliminary means of recovering money under a construction contract, those in the industry are usually keen to hear of developments regarding a court’s interpretation of the legislative provisions.
Shape Australia Pty Ltd v The Nuance Group (Australia) Pty Ltd  VSC 808 (‘Shape’ and ‘Nuance Group’) recently considered two issues under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 2002 (Vic) (the ‘Act’), namely:
- whether a reference date can be ‘refreshed’ for a payment claim when there has been no further work carried out since the previous reference date; and
- whether an amount in a payment claim which attempts to recoup liquidated damages (previously offset in a payment schedule) constitutes an ‘excluded amount’ under the Act.
In July 2016, Shape and Nuance Group entered a contract for the demolition and associated works at Melbourne International Airport.
On 2 March 2018, Shape issued payment claim #13 for $3,533,233.84. Nuance Group responded with a payment schedule stating the amount payable as nil. Shape applied for adjudication for a reduced sum of $2,243,105.55.
On 13 April 2018, a First Adjudication Determination for the sum of $1,400,007.12 issued, which after review instigated by Nuance Group, was reduced to $1,216,715.72.
Nuance Group challenged the validity of the original and reviewed determinations and, on 2 June 2018, in Nuance Group (Australia) Pty Limited v Shape Australia Pty Limited  VSC 362 the Court quashed the determination on the basis that the adjudicator had “failed to perform his basic and essential function” under the Act.
- On 10 July 2018, Shape issued payment claim #14 for $1,285,579.62 which included “uncontested individual line items claimed in payment claim #13”. Nuance Group responded with a payment schedule stating the amount payable as nil.
- Shape applied for adjudication, and on 23 August 2018, a Second Adjudication Determination issued which essentially declared the claim invalid for want of a valid reference date and that (in any event) the amount payable was nil on the basis that the claim was for an excluded amount.
- Shape applied for orders remitting the first or second adjudication determination for review.
Was the payment claim invalid for want of a reference date?
Section 9(1) of the Act provides that there must be a valid reference date to avail rights for a person to a progress payment. A payment claim must be supported by a valid reference date, which is a precondition to an adjudicator making a determination under the Act.
Clause 42.1 of the construction contract entitled Shape to make payment claims on the 28th day of each month, and that such claims should include “the value of work carried out by the contractor in the performance of the contract to that time …”. On that basis, the Court considered that the requirement for work to be carried out “to that time” established a threshold for making a claim.
Payment claim 14, which had a reference date of 28 June 2018, was identical to payment claim 13, which carried a reference date of 28 February 2018. No further work had been carried out since issuing payment claim 13 and accordingly, 28 February was the last available reference date under the contract.
It followed that payment claim 14 was invalid for “want of a reference date”. The claim was either made in respect of the (same) 28 February reference date and therefore in breach of the Act, or a claim served out of time, namely, outside of the three-month period prescribed by the Act.
Shape’s application was dismissed, the Court agreeing with the adjudicator’s determination and finding nothing further to conclude otherwise.
Are liquidated damages an excluded amount?
The Act sets out certain classes of amounts that are “excluded” and must not be taken into account when calculating an amount of a progress payment. Essentially, excluded amounts include certain variations of the construction contract, amounts claimed for compensation due to the “happening of an event” (latent conditions, time-related costs and changes in regulations), amounts claimed for damages in relation, or incidental to, a breach under the construction contract or other claims arising at law.
The concept of an excluded amount in the Victorian Act underpins a key objective, namely, to facilitate cashflow within the industry by dealing with payment disputes promptly, whilst maintaining the parties’ legal rights to argue more complex issues later.
The Second Adjudication Determination declared the amount payable in the claim as nil on the basis that “…the entirety of the purported claim was for an excluded amount, being an attempt to recoup the first defendant’s asserted entitlement to liquidated damages”.
The Court confirmed this decision, reiterating the adjudicator’s findings that:
- when the individual items listed in payment claim 14 were “adjusted and reconciled” the total equated “to the amount of Nuance Group’s asserted entitlement to liquidated damages”; and
- the amount claimed could be “explained on no other basis, given no new work had been performed and the other claims in payment claim 14 [had] been satisfied”.
Seabay Properties Pty Ltd v Galvin Construction Pty Ltd  VSC 183 determined that a set-off claimed in a payment schedule (by way of a deduction in response to a payment claim) constitutes liquidated damages and is therefore, an excluded amount for the purposes of the Act.
The present case however confirmed that an attempt to recoup liquidated damages through a payment claim will also constitute an excluded amount.
Industry participants should take note that:
- Liquidated damages claimed as an offset in a payment schedule as well as amounts claimed in a payment claim to recoup liquidated damages are excluded amounts for the purposes of the Victorian security of payment legislation.
- Claimants wishing to dispute liquidated damages should do so at the time they are levied. Where offsets have previously been raised in a payment schedule and the corresponding payment claim settled, a challenge to these levies in a subsequent payment claim will likely be considered an excluded amount.
- If the right to make a payment claim under a construction contract is subject to the carrying out of work ‘up to the time’ for making the claim, there will be no available reference date unless work has been carried out since the last reference date.
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