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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.

 

What’s in a name?: The Supreme Court Reviews ambiguity in SoPA Payment Claims

Those who are familiar with the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (‘the Act’) will likely be aware that the provisions it contains are quite strict, and can leave parties out in the cold when they fail to comply with what are seemingly administrative oversights.

However, the overarching purpose of the Act is ultimately to keep money flowing through the construction system, aimed at ensuring those who perform building and construction works, or supply goods and services to construction projects are able to be paid.

The Supreme Court of New South Wales, in the recent decision of decision Modog Pty Ltd v ZS Constructions (Queenscliff) Pty Ltd [2019] NSWSC 1743 reminded parties of this fact when asked to turn its mind to issues of ambiguity in payment claims and whether a party could be allowed to have an adjudication determination quashed on the basis of technicalities.

The Facts

The facts of the case were reasonably clear and did not form a substantial component of the dispute between the parties. In September 2016, Modog Pty Ltd (‘Modog’) entered into a design and construct head contract with Wyndora 36 Pty Ltd (‘Wyndora’) for the development of senior living apartments at a property located along Wyndora Avenue in Freshwater. Modog then entered a sub-contract with ZS Constructions (Queenscliff) Pty Limited (ZS Queenscliff) for the demolition of the existing structure and the construction of the new seniors living complex, including apartments, basement parking and associated site works (‘the Sub-Contract’).

In March 2018, the Sub-contract was varied to engage ZS Queenscliff to provide Construction Management and procurement services, for which ZS Queenscliff would receive a project manager’s allowance, a contract administrator’s allowance and payments for subcontractors and suppliers to be made at the end of each month.

ZS Queenscliff was part of a wider group of entities, which also included ZS Constructions (Australia) Pty Ltd (‘ZS Australia’) and Zaarour Investments Pty Ltd had been engaged as the project manager for the project. Mr Christopher Zaarour was employed by ZS Queenscliff, was the director of ZS Constructions Pty Ltd and was the primary contact with Modog for the duration of the project.

The further sub-contracts on the project were administered by ZS Queenscliff, however invoices from sub-contractors had historically been issued to a mixture of Modog, Wyndora and ZS Australia, as opposed to ZS Queenscliff. During the course of the project, ZS Queenscliff and Modog adopted a progress payments process in which Mr Zaarour would, on behalf of ZS Queenscliff, prepare and email a payment summary sheet listing all amounts due for procurement and management services, as well as materials acquired, and work completed by trade contractors.

On 29 August 2019, Modog issued a Show Cause Notice to ZS Queenscliff and terminated the Sub-contract on 13 September 2019.

The Payment Claim and Adjudication

On 11 September 2019, ZS Queenscliff served a payment claim on Modog which was comprised of seven emails, from Mr Zaarour using an email signature from Zaarour Sleiman and containing a reference to ZS Australia in fine print at the bottom of the email.

The emails attached supporting invoices from suppliers, and followed the process adopted in earlier progress payments, where sub-contractors and suppliers had addressed their invoices to a mixture of the entities involved with the project, and not to ZS Queenscliff, who were issuing the payment claim.

The payment claim served on Modog was, as highlighted by the Court, unclear in the following respects:

  • It did not specifically assert that it was a progress payment claim under the Act;
  • It did not specify the reference date or refer to the clause within the contract upon which the progress payment was based;
  • It failed to ask Modog to pay ZS Queenscliff;
  • It did not include a total for the sum claimed, only determinable by a thorough review of the claims

Modog, in turn responded to the payment claim with payment schedules which certified the amount payable in respect of the Claim was nil.

The matter proceeded to an adjudication, where, on 23 October 2019, the adjudicator found in favour of ZS Queenscliff in the sum of $89,111.89 (GST incl.).

Modog challenged the decision of the adjudicator before the Supreme Court of Sydney, seeking orders that the Adjudication Determination of be deemed void, that the determination be quashed, and ancillary relief.

The Disputed Issues

At the hearing, Modog challenged the decision of the adjudicator on 3 primary grounds:

  • Whether the 11 September 2019 emails constituted a payment claim within the meaning of s13(1) of the Act;
  • If the emails did constitute a payment claim, whether the claim was sent by ZS Queenscliff as a person who was entitled to seek a determination for the purposes of s17 of the Act; and
  • Whether the Adjudicator has committed a jurisdictional error by allowing multiple payment claims in respect of a single reference date?

The Arguments, Decision and Reasoning

Issue 1: Was there a Payment Claim:

The argument advanced by Modog was effectively, ZS Queenscliff had not submitted a valid payment claim as they did not specifically demand payment from Modog (i.e.: did not say, Modog must pay ZS Queenscliff the sum of $X.). Modog relied on the fact that the invoices provided in support of the payment claim, were addressed to various entities, not ZS Queenscliff, and that ZS Queenscliff could not establish they were actually entitled to the money claimed for.

Modog argued that ZS Queenscliff had indicated invoices would be sent at a later time, which Modog was to pay as directed and that, pursuant to the Court’s decision in Quickway Constructions Pty Ltd v Electrical Energy Pty Ltd, ZS Queenscliff had not served a payment claim pursuant to clause 13(1) of the Act.

The counter argument raised by ZS Queenscliff relied upon the case of Icon Co NSW Pty Ltd v Australia Avenue Developments Pty Ltd [2018] to support their position that Modog had simply misunderstood the payment claim, and that this could not be a basis for quashing the adjudicator’s decision. ZS Queenscliff argued the fact that the invoices were addressed to other parties did not invalidate the payment claim as they were simply disbursements to be paid to suppliers.

Ultimately, the Court favoured the position raised by ZS Queenscliff, noting there is nothing within the Act that requires a payment claim to state the total of the sum claimed. The Court stated and that even if the invoices in support of the payment did require Modog to direct payment elsewhere, as long as ZS Queenscliff had an entitlement to the sum under the contract, this did not invalidate the payment claim itself.

Issue 2: Was the Payment Claim Sent by ZS Queenscliff?

Modog then raised the issue that, as the 11 September 2019 email enclosing the payment claim was sent by Mr. Zaarour, using an email signature that did not belong to ZS Queenscliff, and the only legal entity named in the email was ZS Australia, the payment claim had not been served by the appropriate entity for the purposes of s17 of the Act.

The counter argument raised by ZS Queenscliff was that these errors were irrelevant in light of the fact that the previous correspondence between the parties had been exchanged in much the same way, including when detailing the terms of the caries contract agreements, and the point was not taken at the contract negotiation stage.

The Court ultimately agreed again with ZS Queenscliff, making the point that not was not actually disputed that ZS Queenscliff was entitled to make the payment claim and made the determination that the email payment claim had simply been sent by Mr Zaarrour in his capacity as the project manager, on behalf of ZS Queenscliff.

Issue 3: Was there an issue with multiple emails being used to comprise the payment claim?

Finally, Modog sought to raise the point that multiple invoices had been served on them in the emails from ZS Queenscliff and that it was not open for ZS Queenscliff to seek to have all invoices adjudicated.

Relying on the decision of the court in Rail Corporations of NSW v Nebax Constructions [2012] NSWSC6, this point ultimately failed as well, on the basis that, when viewed in the context of the previous conduct between the parties, and the nature of the invoices supplied, Modog had been more accurately provided with one payment claim, and a number of invoices in support of the claim.

What does this decision mean?

This decision serves as a timely reminder to parties that the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (‘the Act’) is intended to allow money to flow through to sub-contractors. Parties should be mindful of this purpose when considering whether to attempt to argue a payment claim on the basis of a minor technicality or ambiguity.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice in relation to NSW’s security of payment legislation (or any other state’s or territory’s equivalent), please contact us on (02) 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.

Fire in the sky: Lacrosse building consultants found liable for cladding

A Frenchman lights a midnight cigarette on his balcony in Melbourne. In less than three hours, most of the 23-storey high rise building catches fire. The Docklands area narrowly avoids burning to the ground.

Thanks to the incredible work of the fire brigade, the occupants and the sprinkler system, not a single one of the tower’s 400 occupants or anyone in the Docklands was hurt by the towering inferno.

Like Deep Purple’s rock classic, this is a true story, the butterfly effect of nightmares for three consultants to a building project. They were found, in what was crucially a breach of their consultancy agreements, to have contributed in various ways to the installation of combustible cladding on the building. This was against the regulations that applied to the high-rise.

They have been ordered by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal per His Honour Judge Woodward to foot a $5.75 million bill. More damages may follow. A further $6.8 million in claims is still being heard by the judge, mostly for removal and replacement of the unburnt cladding.

It was a landmark decision, one of the first in Australia on liability in relation to combustible cladding. It will not be the last. High rise building owners and building consultants must carefully examine their properties (and their contracts), or they could be next.

To see the full 227-page judgment, follow this link.

For the key details and what builders, consultants and residents need to know moving forward, keep reading.

The events

At about midnight on 24 November 2014, one of the Lacrosse residents returned from work and had a cigarette on a level 8 balcony. Leaving the almost-extinguished cigarette butt in a plastic tray, he went to bed.

Unfortunately, the tray contained aluminium foil, a plant and a packet of seeds. After two hours, everything combustible on the balcony caught alight, including the timber table, some clothes and an air conditioning unit. High-rise balcony areas are high-risk fire hazards.

The building was clad in aluminium composite panels (otherwise known as ACPs) which had a core containing the highly combustible material, polyethylene. Polyethylene has a combustibility similar to petrol and diesel. In the space of twelve minutes the fire spread from floor eight to floor twenty-one.

The use of an ACP with a 100 percent polyethylene core as part of the external wall of the building was found to be “primarily responsible” for spreading the fire.

The applicants

The 211 owners of the various floors and individual apartments brought the case. This included three owners corporations.

The respondents

The case was brought against eight respondents:

  • L U Simon Pty Ltd was the builder;
  • Stasi Galanos and his employer Gardner Group Pty Ltd, who was the building surveyor;
  • Elenberg Fraser Pty Ltd was the architect;
  • Tanah Merah Pty Ltd trading as Thomas Nicholas was the fire engineer;
  • the resident who lit the cigarette;
  • the primary occupier of the smoker’s apartment unit; and
  • the superintendent of the build, Property Development Solutions.

This was the cast of characters in Owners Corporation No.1 of PS613436T v LU Simon Builders Pty Ltd [2019] VCAT 286.

Liability of the builder

The builder’s warranties (promises) stated in the Victorian Domestic Building Contracts Act 1995 were the basis for its overall liability. It was alleged that the builder:

  • Had failed to provide materials good and suitable for the purpose for which they were used;
  • Had not carried out work in compliance with the Building Act 1993 (Victoria) and the Building Code of Australia (BCA), and
  • Had not used materials reasonably fit for a particular purpose which was stated in the contract, in circumstances where the building owner clearly relied on the builder’s skill and judgment.

Such warranties are a part of every domestic building contract, and very similar warranties are implied into many home building contracts in NSW law.

In this Victorian case, combustible panels were found to be not good or suitable for the purpose of being used as external walls of a high-rise residential building. The cladding did not avoid the spread of fire in the building so as to prevent injury and property damage. The builder had made an error in selecting these materials.

However this was not the end of the story, as “not every error is negligent” at law.

To be found negligent, the builder had to have failed to take reasonable care in selecting the ACPs. Judge Woodward found that the builder had not failed, for three reasons:

  1. The builder had not known that ACPs were highly combustible and was not expected (at least in 2011) to know this;
  2. The installation of ACPs was a part of the building contract itself, forming the annexed performance requirements; and
  3. The builder had signed consultancy agreements with “highly skilled professionals” (consultants) to supervise and ensure that the complex project was compliant with the BCA. By engaging them, the builder had relied on their expertise.

Liability of the consultants

Point (3) just above meant that there was a possibility that the consultants (the fire engineer, the building surveyor, and the architect) were responsible for the damage. It was alleged that these were the parties who had failed to exercise due care and skill in relation to the installation of the ACPs.

Judge Woodward agreed. Courtesy of the consultancy agreements, the builder was able to pass almost all of the risk in relation to the BCA compliance of the cladding down to the consultants. The consultants were ultimately at fault, and apportioned the $5.7 million in damages as follows:

  • The fire engineer was found liable for 39 percent of the damages;
  • The building surveyor was found 33 percent liable; and
  • The architect was found 25 percent liable.

The French smoker was found 3 percent liable, but given he did not appear in the proceedings and his responsibility was found to be “minimal’ by the judge, the builder copped this amount instead.

Each judgment was made considering the particular consultancy agreement between the consultant and the builder.

The fire engineer: 39 percent liable

As the “primary consultant responsible for fire safety compliance”, the fire engineer was always going to be in trouble.

It had failed to conduct a full fire engineering assessment that would inquire into and assess the range of construction materials. The purpose of this assessment was to identify potential fire hazards of the building.

The fire engineer made the almost-deadly error of assuming that it was not required to conduct an assessment under the consultancy agreement that it had signed. This was incorrect. It was in fact required to conduct some proactive investigation and assessment of the building materials, which it did not do.

It had also failed to warn the builder (and also the other consultants) that the ACPs used for the high-rise residential building did not comply with the Building Code of Australia. Finally, it had also failed to advise about a solution to the non-compliance.

The fire engineer was found the most liable out of everyone, for the simple reason that it was the only professional on the project who actually knew that ACPs were not compliant and were fire risks. A simple email or comment at a meeting may have got it out of trouble. Its inaction was costly.

The building surveyor: 33 percent liable

The builder surveyor was in the firing line primarily because it had decided to issue a Stage 7 Building Permit. Through this, ACPs were approved for use on the façade of the building despite not being in compliance with the BCA. This was allegedly a breach of its consultancy agreement.

However, it was also alleged that the building surveyor’ failed to query the incomplete description of the cladding systems in the fire engineering report, and also that it failed to properly inspect the work during construction for compliance with the BCA.

Judge Woodward found that, notwithstanding some expert evidence to the contrary, the building surveyor’s had failed to give adequate consideration to whether the ACP was compliant with the BCA before issuing the permit.

The building surveyors might have had a defence if the builder did not give them insufficient information about the materials used in construction. Unfortunately for the Lacrosse tower building surveyors, this was not the case.

The architect: 25 percent liable

The other consultant in hot water was the architect.

The allegation was that the architect had made an agreement to prepare architectural drawings of the external cladding that satisfied legislative requirements, and it had breached this agreement. The allegation was also that it had failed to check whether the sample of the ACP provided to it complied with the BCA and was fit for purpose.

Both allegations were proven. The design specified ACPs for the external walls of the tower, including one with 100% polyethylene core, which was a breach of the BCA. Secondly, as head design consultant, it was also responsible for ensuring that the ACP sample it provided was compliant with its design intent and the BCA. In approving of a sample of the ACP, it had failed to exercise due care and skill.

Overall

In summary, the consultancy agreements between the builder and the consultants existed for the commercial purpose of ensuring ongoing involvement from consultants in the project, and therefore ongoing responsibility for the work.

Judge Woodward found that the involvement of the consultants, on terms that they would advise on non-compliance of building materials, meant that they and not the builder were liable for the fire damage.

The lesson for consultants: know exactly your obligations under a contract, whether they are immediate or over a longer period of time, and warn of non-compliances with the law consistent with your knowledge.

Whose line is it anyway?

The line between what is the builder’s responsibility and what is a consultant’s responsibility is a difficult one for the law to trace. There are no hard and fast rules, especially as much will depend on the particular builder-consultant contract.

There will be cases where a commercial builder, given its expertise and experience, will be expected to identify and correct errors by another building professional.

However, in this case Judge Woodward ruled that “where (as here) the skill involved is beyond that which can be expected of a reasonably competent builder and there is no actual relevant knowledge”, the liability of a skilled consultant will be possible.

Knowledge of consultants

The lack of knowledge about the combustibility of ACPs, and the failure of the few who had this knowledge to pass it around, proved very costly and almost deadly.

In another important lesson for consultants, the building surveyor tried to argue that because its peers held similar (incorrect) assumptions about ACPs and their compliance with the BCA, it should not be liable. However, Judge Woodward was unimpressed, as these incorrect assumptions formed “organically and apparently without any practitioner seeking any kind of assessment or endorsement from a professional body or regulatory authority”.

Uncritically adopting a practice perceived to be widespread will not save a consultant. He or she must logically consider each issue they come across, and seek professional advice such as that of a fire engineer.

Conclusion

The judge emphasised that this decision was based on the specific facts of the case. If the building contract and the building had been different, or if ACPs had been used on buildings without obvious ignition sources like barbeques and air conditioning units, then the outcome of the case may have been different.

Nevertheless, building owners and consultants, especially those who have been involved in installing combustible cladding, should be on high alert.

They will need to review their building and consulting contracts immediately, not to mention their professional indemnity insurance. This applies not just for current projects, but for previous ones too. The Lacrosse fire happened in 2014 and the companies are paying dearly for it today.

Building owners will also need to go about registering their buildings on the NSW Cladding Registration portal (see link for more).

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on +612 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au.