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A Downer of a decision: The importance of articulating adjudication submissions

In Diona Pty Ltd v Downer EDI Works Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 480 (Diona), the Supreme Court considered an application to set aside an Adjudicator’s Determination for failure to consider the terms of the contract as required by s 22(2)(b) of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (the SOP Act).

Key takeaway:

  • It is important to ensure that adjudication submissions clearly articulate all relevant arguments and contractual provisions. Unclear, poorly framed or ambiguous submissions can be costly.
  • An adjudicator’s decision will not be declared void simply because it contains what one party considers to be an error or failure by the adjudicator to expressly address all arguments made in parties’ submissions.
  • Lawyers can be useful to assist in preparing an adjudication application and response. Having prepared and responded to numerous security of payment claims, the lawyers at Bradbury Legal are experts at ensuring your arguments are clearly articulated.

 

Background

Diona Pty Ltd (Diona) entered into a subcontract with Downer EDI Works Pty Ltd (Downer), for Downer to provide works in relation to safety upgrades on the Great Western Highway, Blackheath. Downer proceeded to adjudication on a payment claim under the SOP Act. On 16 April 2020, the relevant Adjudicator determined that Downer was entitled to a progress payment of $430,990.13 (Determination).

Diona made an application to the Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that the Determination was void and an injunction preventing Downer from requesting an adjudication certificate or filing the adjudication certificate as a judgment debt. Diona contended that the Adjudicator had incorrectly awarded a set off claim by Downer, in response to Diona’s liquidated damages claim, in the amount of $30,000 on account of two extension of time claims (EOT Claims).

Diona argued that the Adjudicator had not fulfilled the requirements of s 22(2)(b) of the SOP Act because the Adjudicator had failed to give any reference to, or consideration of, Diona’s contention in its adjudication response submissions that Downer was not entitled to these extensions of time, due to the operation of a time bar in the contract.

 

Did the Adjudicator consider the time bars?

The central question was whether the Adjudicator considered the provisions of the contract. Under section 22(2)(b) SOP Act, an adjudicator must consider the provisions of the construction contract.

To determine if the Adjudicator did consider the contractual provisions, especially those containing the time bar, the Court looked at the submissions made by both parties and the Adjudicator’s determination.

The Court noted that Downer had ‘devoted a number of pages to its contentions concerning extension of time and, in particular, its asserted entitlement to EOT 18 and EOT 21’. This was contrasted with Diona’s submissions, the Court found did not properly engage with Downer’s EOT Claims. Diona’s submissions stated:

Determinations of claims for…extension of time…by Diona are final and cannot be disturbed except by raising a Claim under the Contract, see relevant clauses of the Subcontract.’

The Court highlighted a part of the Adjudicator’s reasons which stated:

The Act at section 22(2)(b) requires the adjudicator to consider the provisions of the construction contract when making the determination

Having regard to the Adjudicator’s express reference to s 22(2)(b) of the SOP Act, the Court stated that there were several reasons why the Adjudicator did not refer to the dispute clause in the Determination. Firstly, the Adjudicator may have felt that Diona did not properly articulate and develop the time bar argument. Alternatively, the Adjudicator may have misunderstood the submissions. The Court concluded that:

The Adjudicator may have come to the wrong decision about Dower’s entitlement to EOT 18 and EOT 21. But that, without more, is not a basis to set aside the set aside the determination.

The argument that Diona sought to raise, while potentially valid, was not properly articulated. Therefore, it could not be inferred that the Adjudicator had failed to consider the provisions of the subcontract as required by s 22(2)(b) of the SOP Act.

 

So what?

The significance of this case is that it shows that what appear to be errors or failures to consider an argument by an adjudicator will not always result in a basis to set aside the adjudicator’s determination. The adjudicator’s decision can be rough and ready, provided the adjudicator makes their decision in accordance with the SOP Act. Payments made under SOP Act are on account only and may be determined on a final basis at a later stage.

 

ADR Processes Part II

This article is Part II of our article on ADR process. In this article, we will be covering the common pitfalls of ADR clauses. In Part I, we discussed the different types of ADR processes that are common in construction law matters. You can find Part I of our article HERE. While there are benefits to ADR processes, the drafting of dispute resolution clauses can sometimes result in the clause being void and unenforceable. Alternatively, there are times where the drafting of the dispute resolution clause means parties are left with a result under the contract which is unfair or unjust in the relevant circumstances. Often dispute resolution clauses are thrown into a contract without the parties giving much thought or consideration as to its enforceability or suitability to the circumstances. The following matters are pitfalls you should consider when you are drafting a dispute resolution clause.

 

Factors that may make the clause void and unenforceable:

 

Precondition to Court or other legal action

 

One of the biggest problems with ADR clauses arises when they set compliance with the ADR process as a pre-condition to seeking any court relief. This is problematic because it attempts to prevent the parties from approaching the Court when it has jurisdiction. If not properly drafted, these types of clauses can make the dispute resolution term unenforceable.

 

Words or phrases to look out for:

 

The parties must not seek any court orders until the parties have attended mediation.

 

Words or phrases that can prevent the clause being unenforceable:

 

Nothing in this clause X prevents the parties from seeking urgent or injunctive relief from the Court.

 

The key difference between these clauses is that the first tries to remove the jurisdiction of the Court by preventing the parties from seeking any relief from the Court until after the ADR processes have been complied with. This can result in some of the parties’ legal rights being wrongly enforced under the contract. For example, in cases where one party seeks to have recourse to security and the other party disputes this, the ADR process mechanisms may be too slow in resolving this dispute. Therefore, it is appropriate for the Court to be able to order urgent or injunctive relief to prevent recourse to the security. The parties can still have the underlying dispute proceed to the elected ADR process, but the security providing party may be able to (in the interim) prevent recourse where it is contested that the other party is not entitled to the benefit of that security.

 

Agreement to agree

 

A dispute resolution clause will be unenforceable if it is void for uncertainty. This often happens when there is an agreement to agree in a clause. For example, if a contract provides that the parties must agree on a matter and the parties are unable to reach an agreement, where do the parties stand in respect of their contractual duties? In the context of a dispute resolution clause, this can occur when the parties are required to agree on the form of the dispute process, or the appropriate body to determine the dispute or the rules that are to be applied to determine the dispute.

 

Words or phrases to look out for:

 

The parties must agree on an expert’ or ‘the parties must agree on the form of dispute process

 

Words or phrases that can prevent the clause being unenforceable:

 

The parties must agree on an expert. If the parties cannot agree, the expert shall be appointed or administered by the [for example] Australian Disputes Centre.’

 

The important difference between the two clauses is the second has a mechanism for resolving the uncertainty. If the parties cannot agree on which expert should be appointed, the clause provides for a third party to appoint or determine who the expert will be. Obviously, when nominating a third party to make the decision, it is important to confirm that the third party can and will appoint a dispute resolution professional.

 

Time frames should also be included as part of these clauses to avoid uncertainty. For example, a clause may state that parties are given 14 days to meet together to discuss the dispute before it proceeds to mediation. Without the 14 day timeframe, there is no clear indicator of when the parties are to engage in their dispute resolution process. A deeming mechanism should also be included to account for when the parties simply do not comply with the dispute resolution process. For instance, if the parties do not meet within 14 days, then the dispute should be automatically referred to mediation, or expert determination (as per the next tier of the agreed dispute resolution process) or simply allowed to proceed to litigation.

 

Broad and unclear drafting

 

The last pitfall of dispute resolution clauses discussed in this article is broad and/or unclear drafting. As a general problem with contracts, broad and/or unclear drafting can result in less certainty in the obligations between the parties. In the context of a dispute resolution clause, unclear drafting may occur in any of the following circumstances:

 

  • where there is not a clear process for a dispute to be resolved;
  • where the scope of the ADR powers and what can they determine is not defined;
  • where the rules that guide the ADR process are not clearly referenced; and
  • when can parties appeal the decision.

 

The consequence of broad and/or unclear drafting is that when a dispute arises, further disputes may occur when it comes time to interpret the clause. If a Court considers that the clause is uncertain and is unable to be properly interpreted, it may be held that the clause is void for uncertainty.

 

To assist with some of the considerations that arise with broad or unclear drafting, the next section of this article gives commentary on some of the considerations of ADR clauses so as to ensure your clause is suited to the parties and properly drafted.

 

Important Considerations in ADR clauses

 

Scope of ADR power

 

A dispute resolution clause can be customised by the parties. One way that parties can customise their dispute resolution clause is by determining what types of dispute will be resolved in which ways. For example, the parties may agree that technical matters to do with the scope of works or variations are unsuited to a determination by a legal professional. In such technical matters, the Courts will often have to consider expert reports from both parties, including any updates and responses from the experts. Even after considering the expert reports, the Court may nevertheless be unequipped or unsuitable to determine exactly what the correct outcome is or should be. Methods such as expert appraisal or expert determination can be effective ways of the parties reducing their costs and ensuring an appropriate resolution of the dispute. If this method is agreed by the parties, it is important to clearly set out exactly which disputes are to be resolved in which way. For example, the dispute resolution clause may state that any dispute involving a disputed variation or defective work that hinges on a technical interpretation must be resolved through expert determination. Accordingly, such a clause would also express that any dispute that hinges on legal interpretation be directed to a court of competent jurisdiction.

 

Statutory Provisions

 

When drafting a dispute resolution clause, it is important to consider whether there are any statutory provisions that may impact on the operation of the clause. For example, the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW) prevents the use of arbitration in some contracts for residential building work. In Victoria, the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 2002 (VIC) has an intricate regime for claimable variations in high value contracts (being contracts with a consideration over $5,000,000). These statutory provisions can have significant impacts on the clauses chosen by the parties. Further, while the Home Building Act prohibits the use of arbitration, the Victorian Security of Payment Act has consequences for the parties depending on the type of resolution used. It is important then to consider the statutory provisions and what their effects may be.

 

Binding or non-binding

 

A major consideration that parties should think about is whether to have the dispute resolution process as a binding or non-binding method. The Courts have generally held that where parties agree to a binding dispute resolution process, they will be unable to appeal the determination. While there may be circumstances where the parties can appeal to have the determination overturned, as a general rule, parties should expect to be bound by the decision. Therefore, parties should consider when they want to be bound by the decision of the dispute resolution professional.

 

Rights of appeal

 

While the process may be binding, the parties may agree to allow for appeal rights in the dispute resolution clause. For example, the parties may agree that a decision can be appealed where a party claims there has been a manifest error of law or where the amount in dispute exceeds a specified threshold. These mechanisms are interesting ways that parties can customise their dispute process and ensure that they are satisfied with the way any potential disputes will play out. It is important to consider any cost implications with appeal rights. While parties may not wish to be bound by a decision in certain circumstances, appeal rights may inevitably lead to higher costs in resolving a dispute.

 

 

Subcontractor Supporting Statements in the SoPA

It is commonly understood by participants within the building and construction industry that payment claims made by a head contractor under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SoPA), are to be served with a supporting statement in respect of subcontractors.

The purpose of imposing this obligation on head contractors is clear and simple: to ensure payment of subcontractors is a priority. Ideally, the inherent insolvency risks will be passed ‘up the chain’ to head contractors and ultimately, to the developers who are often better placed to weather the consequences.

But, what happens when the Head Contractor does not comply with their supporting statement requirements under the SoPA? Does the developer still need to pay it?

This question has been the subject of some judicial deliberation, and has been answered with some finality in the recent case of TFM Epping Land Pty Ltd v Decon Australia Pty Ltd [2020] NSWCA 93.

The Parties

TFM Epping and Katoomba Residence Investments Pty Ltd (TFM), as the developer, engaged Decon Australia Pty Ltd (Decon) as the builder and head contractor to carry out building and construction works on a residential development located at Epping in Sydney’s North West.

The Facts

On 3 June 2019, Decon served on TFM a Progress Claim under the SoPA, seeking approximately $6.4 million (the Claim). The Claim included works carried out throughout project history, for which Decon had not previously been paid.

The supporting statement accompanying the Claim had referenced only one subcontractor that had completed works about 1 year prior to issuing the Claim and specified that the supporting statement applied for works undertaken between 27 June 2018 and 3 July 2018.

TFM did not, within the 10 days prescribed by SoPA, serve a Payment Schedule on Decon, and as a consequence, became liable to pay the full sum sought in the Claim. Payment was not made.

On 3 July 2019 Decon filed a Summons and Notice of Motion in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, both of which sought summary judgment in their favour, for the full amount of the Claim. Shortly after, TFM filed a response, challenging the validity and service of the Claim.

The Decision at First Instance and Issues on Appeal

It was the decision of the Court at first instance that the response filed by TFM did not raise triable issues and to find in favour of Decon. On appeal, TFB sought to challenge this decision.

TFM sought to challenge the decision at first instance on the following 3 grounds:

  1. The Claim was not valid as it had not been accompanied by a supporting statement as required under s13(7) of the SoPA;
  2. The Claim sought payment in respect of variations, which were not performed under the contract and ought to have been claims in quantum meruit; and
  3. The Claim was invalid as it was not made in respect of an available reference date.

The key argument on appeal was that the supporting statement served by Decon was defective for the following reasons:

  • It had not included a ‘list’ of the subcontractors, it had simply given details of one subcontractor; and
  • The dates for which the supporting statement applied did not align with the dates of the works which were the subject of the Claim.

On this Basis, TFM asserted there was an absence of a compliant supporting statement, which rendered the service of the Claim invalid. In the alternative, TFM asserted the Claim itself was invalid.

The Decision on Appeal

The Court found in favour of Decon on all 3 grounds and dismissed TFM’s appeal for the following reasons.

Supporting Statements

The critical document giving rise to the legal right to recover (and obligation to pay) a progress payment, is the payment claim. Despite the wording of s13(7) of the SoPA, the Court determined that it does not attach a condition to the nature or content of the payment claim itself.

In arriving at this Decision, the Court noted that s13(7) of the SoPA included within itself a penalty for parties that did not comply, in terms of a fine. The Court gave significant weight to the purpose of the SoPA, and noted that in circumstances where Parliament has not stated an intended consequence, the Court would be reluctant to imply one.

Variations

The Court found that it could be possible that the variations had not properly arisen under the contract, for example, if some procedural step had not been taken. However, if TFM were of this view, the Court determined it ought to have been raised in a payment schedule. The Court found that including the variation items in the Claim, even if they were disputed, did not render the Claim invalid.

In the present case, Decon had not formulated the variations as a claim for quantum meruit, but rather had stated them to be a claim for work undertaken under the Contract.

Takeaway

This case highlights the fact that the document giving rise to the right to recover (and obligation to pay) a progress payment is the progress claim itself.

A failure to provide a supporting statement in accordance with the SoPA will not invalidate a progress claim. However, head contractors should take a strong note of the reference to the penalty provisions within the SoPA, and should ensure strict compliance with their obligations when serving payment claims for progress payments.

The case also serves as a reminder to respondents that the Court system cannot be used as a ‘second chance’ forum to respond to payment claims. The Court has shown it will not hear matters which should have been raised by way of a payment schedule, and determined in the adjudication system.

As always, preventing problems with your payment claims and payment schedules is much easier (and cheaper) than fixing them. If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on 02 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.