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Valmont Estopped In Its Tracks by Armani

The issue of estoppel in the context of a rejected variation claim was recently considered by the NSW Court of Appeal in Valmont Interiors Pty Ltd v Giorgio Armani Australia Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWCA 93.

In this case, Valmont Interiors Pty Ltd (Valmont) was led to assume that it would be paid for additional joinery works that were directed by Giorgio Armani Australia Pty Ltd (Armani) as a purported variation.  However, as the procedure for claiming and approving variations under the contract was not adhered to, Armani sought to rely on the time bar in the variation provision to reject the claim.

Facts

In early 2016, Valmont entered into a contract with Armani to provide fit-out works for the new Emporio Armani store at Sydney Airport. The scope of works originally excluded certain joinery items, which were to be sourced by Armani from a third party supplier. However, shortly after the works commenced, the third party supplier was not able to meet the tight schedule for delivery and Armani directed Valmont to supply the joinery items.

Valmont supplied the joinery items but Armani refused to pay for them on the basis that Valmont did not follow the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract for claiming a variation and waived its claim.  Relevantly, this clause provided that if Valmont considered that a direction of Armani constituted a variation it was required to give notice of the purported variation with five business days.  This clause also provided that failure to provide notice within the specified time period resulted in Valmont releasing and waiving any entitlement to a claim.

Valmont’s position was that Armani should be estopped from relying on the time bar in clause 15 to reject the claim because Armani did also not follow the procedure in clause 15 for instructing the supply of the additional joinery items (as well as for previous other variations).  As a result of this, Valmont argued that Armani led it to assume that strict compliance with the procedure in clause 15 was not required in order to claim payment for the additional joinery work.

The First Decision

The primary judge held that, although Valmont did not strictly comply with the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract for claiming a variation, Armani was estopped from relying on the time bar in that clause and that the costs of certain variation were recoverable by Valmont.

However, the primary judge also found that at a certain point in time (being 11 April 2016), email correspondence between the parties corrected Valmont’s assumption that it could claim payment for variations without complying with the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract and that Armani would rely on strict compliance with that procedure for future variations.  Accordingly, it was held that the estoppel ceased on that date and the costs of purposed variations after that date (including the additional joinery works) were not recoverable.

The Appeal

On appeal the Court disagreed with the primary judge and found that the estoppel continued to operate after the 11 April 2016 email because:

  1. the email did not displace Valmont’s assumption that was induced by Armani that it would be paid for supplying the additional joinery works. This was partly because Armani’s email was not sufficiently clear to correct Valmont’s assumption (ie. that strict compliance with clause 15 of the contract was not required in order to be paid for additional joinery works);
  2. the email conveyed that the supply of the joinery was not a variation but additional works outside of the contract;
  3. Valmont was entitled to expect to be paid for the additional joinery works that were directed by Armani. The fact that it continued to incur liabilities after receiving the email from Armani demonstrated that the email did not correct Valmont’s understanding of the situation.  Further, Valmont relied on that understanding to its detriment, and as it was no longer possible for Valmont to comply with clause 15 of the contract it could not overcome the detriment already suffered; and
  4. in the circumstances, it was unconscionable for Armani to refuse to pay Valmont for the additional joinery works.

Take home tips

We understand that in administering contracts parties do not always strictly comply with the procedures and timing set out in the contract for claims, especially if the parties consider they have a good relationship or believe that strict compliance is too formal.  This case highlights the potential serious consequences of taking that approach.

Parties to a contract should be aware of the risks of acting inconsistently with their rights under the contract (ie. in Armani’s case, not requiring compliance with the terms of the contract for claiming variations and also not formally directing variations), as this could lead to those rights being lost and there not being a basis to reject claims.

If a principal or head contractor (or other party in a similar position) is concerned that a particular state of affairs exists between them and the downstream party that is inconsistent with the contract, it is crucial that the principal or head contractor:

  1. corrects that understanding by stating in clear and precise terms that the current understanding must be departed from and that strict compliance with the contract is required;
  2. provides sufficient notice of this so that the downstream party has time to comply with the procedure in the contract for claims and can attempt to overcome any detriment; and
  3. then strictly requires and enforces the procedure in the contract for claims so as to avoid any doubt that another state of affairs exists between the parties.

 

You win sum, you lose sum (but it’s still a sum)

Some construction contracts provide that expert determinations (or other alternative dispute processes) will be considered “final and binding” unless the claim or determination is excluded or carved-out.

In the matter of CPB Contractors Pty Ltd v Transport for NSW [2021] NSWSC 537, the New South Wales Supreme Court considered an expert determination clause which precluded litigation in respect of the determination, unless it:

  1. Did not involve a sum of money; or
  2. Required one party to pay the other an amount in excess of $500,000.[i]

The decision in this case was that one party was not entitled to any further payment for the Works.  Did the determination “involve” paying a sum of money?

Facts

Transport for NSW (“Transport”) engaged CPB Contractors (“CPB”) to carry out road widening works. Transport issued CPB instructions to remove excess spoil from one location to another (“Works”).

The determination concerned CPB’s entitlement to payment for the Works. Transport contended (and paid CPB) on a “Dayworks” basis which equated to $1.4 million. CPB contended that it was entitled to be paid for the Works in accordance with a schedule of rates (“Rates”) which equated to $11.4 million.

The Honourable Robert McDougall QC (“Expert”) determined that CPB was not entitled to any further payment for the Works (“Determination”).

CPB sought to litigate its claims, seeking payment in accordance with the Rates. Transport sought a stay. Transport pointed to clause 71 of the relevant GC21 Contract, arguing that the Determination was final and binding.

CPB contended that it was free to litigate the claims for the Works for two reasons.

The first was that the Expert made no determination for the purposes of the Contract.  CPB submitted there is a “deficiency or error” in the Determination, meaning it was not “a determination in accordance with the contract”.  These errors were said to include a “plainly incorrect” answer to a question referred to determination[ii], a failure to give reasons as required by the contract[iii] and a failure to answer a question at all[iv].  The first ground was specific to the facts of the case.

The second reason was that the Determination (to the extent it was a valid determination under the contract) did not “involve paying a sum of money”.

On this issue, CPB submitted that the question is what the Determination itself is and not the “matters for determination” involve.  It was argued that a determination that no money is payable is in effect a dismissal or rejection of that claim.  CPB submitted that such a decision does not and cannot involve “paying” a sum of money.

Decision

Transport’s application for a stay was granted.  CPB was precluded from litigating on the claims.

On the first ground, Stevenson J found that the Determination did not contain a deficiency or error.  The Expert’s Determination complied with the contractual requirements.

On the second ground, Stevenson J concluded that a determination dismissing a claim for money does “involve” “paying a sum of money” in the sense that it deals with the claim that, if successful, would have resulted in the paying of a sum of money; and rejects that claim.[v] The focus is not on the amount to be paid pursuant to the determination, but on the nature of the determination – i.e. whether it “involves”, in the sense of “concern” paying a sum of money.[vi] This is distinguished from a distinct category of determinations that are not in respect of money claims, such as a dispute about the construction of the contractual terms.[vii]

Therefore, in finding that the Determination did “involve the paying of sum of money”, the exception to the preclusion of litigation did not apply.

Take home tips

Dispute resolution clauses are often overlooked by parties in a contract negotiation. This case highlights that parties should carefully consider the types of disputes or claims that may be captured by a binding alternative dispute resolution process.  Parties should draft clear carve-outs from an otherwise final and binding dispute resolution clause if they wish to have recourse to the courts.

For carve-outs involving sums, consider whether the monetary thresholds are arbitrary or considered by reference to the whole of the contract sum.  Also consider whether it is the value of the claim that is of importance, or the value of the determination.

If parties wish to preserve the right to apply to the courts concerning the interpretation of a contractual term, for example, it would be prudent for the dispute resolution clause to reserve the right for an application for declaratory relief or contain a carve-out in relation to claims or disputes not involving or concerning payment of a sum.

[i] At [26] – [27].

[ii] At [47].

[iii] At [58].

[iv] At [66].

[v] At [91].

[vi] At [92].

[vii] At [94].

NSW court provides guidance for hand delivering payment claims and payment schedules on site

In MGW Engineering Pty Ltd t/a Forefront Services v CMOC Mining Pty Ltd[1], the vexed issue of valid service for documents under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (Act) has been revisited.

The case cautions against assuming a document (e.g. a payment claim or payment schedule) will be considered “served” under s 31 of the Act by handing it to any employee of the claimant or respondent under the Act (as the case may be) on the project site.

Facts

The claimant and respondent in the case were parties to four construction contracts for the claimant to provide various services at a NSW mine site.

A representative of the claimant handed four payment claims to an employee of the respondent at 5:15pm on 3 February 2021, claiming a total of over $6M in progress payments.  The transaction took place at an “Access Control Room” where the employee of the respondent (who was not the respondent’s representative under the contracts) was on duty.

It was common ground that the respondent’s representative under the contracts was not on site on 3 February 2021 and was not provided the physical payment claims until 4 February 2021.  The payment claims were also served electronically via Aconex on 4 February 2021.

The respondent served its payment schedules on 11 February 2021 (being 11 days after 3 February 2021), with a total scheduled amount of only $180,912.05.

The claimant purported to suspend works under s 15(2)(b) of the Act.  The claimant applied to court for judgment on the full claimed amount of circa $6M arguing the payment schedules were ineffective, being served one day late.  The claimant relied on ss 31(1)(a), (b) and (e) of the Act.

Decision

Stevenson J found that service did not occur on 3 February 2021.  Accordingly, His Honour rejected the claimant’s application for summary judgment and declared the claimant’s suspension of works invalid.

His Honour held that s 31(1)(a) of the Act, permitting delivery of a document ‘to the person personally’, does not mean that a document will be taken to be served by handing it to any employee of the claimant/respondent[1].  In relation to service on a corporation, some step must be taken to bring the document to the attention of a relevantly responsible person within the company[2].

Section 31(1)(b) of the Act, permitting service by ‘lodging’ ‘during normal office hours’ to the claimant/respondent’s ‘ordinary place of business’:

  • like s 31(1)(a), requires more than giving the document to any employee of the claimant/respondent[3]; and
  • requires consideration of the normal office hours of clerical staff at the particular business of the claimant/respondent concerned, not merely when the project site is operational[4]. In this case, though the mine was manned 24/7, the respondent’s normal operating hours at the mine commenced between 7 and 7:30am and concluded around 4 to 4:30pm.  Service at 5:15pm in this case was not within “normal office hours”[5].

Therefore, although the mine site was an “ordinary place of business” under the Act[6], the other criteria for service were not fulfilled on 3 February 2021.

Service had also not occurred ‘in the manner…provided under the construction contract[s]’ pursuant to s 31(1)(e) of the Act because the contracts in this case provided that documents served after 4:00pm on a day (e.g. at 5:15pm on 3 February 2021) would be taken to be served on the next business day (e.g. on 4 February 2021).

Stevenson J held that the relevant contractual provision was not void by reason of s 34 of the Act because the effect of the provision was “facultative”[7].  If service had been effected on 3 February 2021 via ‘one or other of ss 31(1)(a), (b), (c) or (d), such service would have been effective[8] notwithstanding the clause.  The clause gave effect to s 31(1)(e) and did not modify the operation of s31(1) generally.

Take home tips

If you intend to serve a payment claim or payment schedule by hand delivery on site, you should consider the following:

  • If relying on s 31(1)(a) or (b) of the Act, is the person who you are handing the document to a relevantly responsible person within the corporation? The person the named representative in the contract or a director of the company needs to receive it.

 

  • If relying on s 31(1)(b) of the Act, what are the normal office hours on site? If clerical staff usual work from 7:00am to 4:00pm (for example), service at 4:45pm may not be effective.

 

  • If relying on s 31(1)(e) of the Act, is there a provision in the contract which deems notices given after a particular time on a day served only on the following business day? If so, you must ensure the notice is given prior to the cut off.

We can assist with your queries on validity of your usual service practices and methods to ensure compliance with the Act.

[1] At [23].

[2] At [24].

[3] At [43].

[4] At [51] to [53].

[5] At [68].

[6] At [74].

[7] At [80].

[8] At [81].

10 things that residential builders need to get right

1. Contracts – make sure they comply with the requirements under the Home Building Act (HBA)

The contracts should:

• comply with the contract requirements under the HBA if the builder is carrying out work with a value of $5,000 (including GST) and above, for example the contracts should be in writing, provide a sufficient description of the work etc. Its best to use the standard forms as they contain all of the required information;

• not just be a quote or a purchase order as they do not comply with the HBA requirements and the builder will be in breach of the HBA and unable to rely on the quote or purchase order to get paid when contracting directly with a homeowner. Of course, there are exceptions to these requirements in the case of any emergency work concerning a hazard or a safety issue;

• ensure that builders don’t exceed the maximum deposits and maximum progress payments;

• ensure that the works are clearly defined in terms of scope and price and that any ambiguity is resolved before the contract is signed; and

• make it clear that the contract price can change for variations, PC and provisional sums etc.

2. Licencing – don’t carry out any residential building work that the builder is not licenced to do

Builders must ensure:

• that all of its sub-contractors that carry out specialist work (and any sub-contractors that are required to be licenced) such as its water proofers, plumbers and electricians are appropriately licenced;

• that the entity which has entered into the contract with the homeowner is licenced to carry out the work. It is not good enough for a builder to engage a licenced sub-contractor to carry out the work, the entity entering into the contract has to be licenced to carry out the work; and

• that there are no restrictions on the licence if the builder is contracting directly with homeowners. We have seen too many times to count, instances where the entity in the contract does not hold an open licence to carry out the work and has a condition on the licence which says that the entity is not licenced to carry out works for which HBCF insurance is required, that is, work with a value of over $20,000.

3. Insurance – no insurance = big problems

Remember that:

• the entity which is entering into the contract must have its insurance in place including insurance under the Home Building Compensation Fund (HBCF) if the value of the work is $20,000 or over;

• it is a breach of the HBA to take any money from a homeowner (including a deposit) when a certificate of HBCF has not been provided to the homeowner; and

• if HBCF insurance is not in place, the builder is not entitled to make any claims for payment even on a quantum meruit basis, unless the Court or Tribunal considers it “just and equitable” for the builder to recover money in the absence of insurance. Also, if there are defects in the work carried out, it would be much harder to satisfy a Court or Tribunal that the builder should be paid and also, harder to obtain retrospective insurance.

4. Increases in the contract price/variations/PC and provisional sums

• ensure that the builder complies with the variation procedure in the contract.

All variations should be approved in writing by the homeowner including not only the approval to carry out the variation itself but also approval of the cost of the variation. No variations should commence until written approval has been obtained from the homeowner. By taking this simple step will avoid a lot of headaches down the track in terms of getting paid; and

• All PC and provisional sums should be based on firm estimates or quotations to limit any surprise and of course disputes.

5. Quality of sub-contractors – find the good ones

• find good quality sub-contractors and pay them well.

Most defect claims will come down to the quality of the work carried out by the builder’s sub-contractors and so it’s a worthwhile investment to have quality trades carrying out the works.

• good quality water proofers are in hot demand carrying out rectification work and it’s easy to see why given that most defect claims include water ingress issues caused by failed waterproofing in wet areas, balconies and planter boxes [we could have a whole section dedicated to why planter boxes may look good but are a nightmare for builders in terms of defect claims but that’s for another day].

6. Practical Completion – what does it mean?

• clearly define what practical completion is as this can be a point of contention between builders and homeowners as homeowners may be under a misapprehension of what practical completion actually means; and

• as a practical suggestion, ensure that the works are practically complete and all minor defects are rectified before the homeowner inspects as this will help to avoid the common dispute about when PC has been reached and the homeowner withholding the final progress claim because they are unhappy with the works. Remember the homeowner is buying “the dream” and expects that the house will be ready to occupy. It is better in the long run, in terms of cost and time, to try and meet that expectation if possible.

7. OC – clearly specify the builder’s obligations in relation to obtaining the OC?

• clearly specify in the contract what the builder’s obligations are in relation to providing the certificates and documents required in order to obtain the OC (which is usually the homeowner’s responsibility to obtain from Council or a private certifier) and also stipulate whether the builder has an ongoing obligation to assist the homeowner in obtaining the OC.

8. Claims by the builder – have the paperwork in order

• if the builder is making claims for the payment of money due under the contract, ensure that the contractual provisions are complied with concerning the builder’s entitlement to those moneys and that all supporting documentation is provided; and

• ensure that progress claims are not issued prematurely when the work the subject of the claim has not been completed (as this could be deemed to be a breach of the contract and a breach of the HBA).

9. Claims by homeowner – defects/incomplete work/negligence

• use the defences available under the HBA if the builder has been instructed to carry out works by the homeowner or a professional such as an architect or engineer, contrary to the builder’s advice. The builder must put any objection to carrying out any such works in writing to the homeowner;

• use every opportunity to rectify defects to limit the issues in dispute. There is no strategic advantage in delaying rectification in exchange for the payment of money as this will only end up in litigation as builders are liable to fix defects regardless of whether payment has been made; and

• any items not agreed can be resolved with the assistance of NSW Fair Trading, mediation or proceeding to a Court of Tribunal to determine as a last resort.

10. Keep up to date with the changes in legislation

By way of example, some of the recent changes (some of which apply to class 2 buildings only) include:

• From 10 June 2020, owners with defects will benefit from the statutory duty of care that applies to new buildings, and existing buildings where an economic loss first became apparent in the previous 10 years;

• From 1 September 2020, the NSW Building Commissioner will be able to stop an occupation certificate from being issued, order developers to rectify defective buildings, and issue stop work orders;

• From 1 March 2021, residential builders can rely upon the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act (SOPA) and issue payment claims against homeowners. See our attached article here; and
• From 1 July 2021, there will be compulsory registration for practitioners involved in design and building work, including professional engineers

If you would like to discuss any of the above, please contact us.

CONTRACTOR STRIKES SECURITY OF PAYMENT GOLD BY SKIRTING THE MINING EXCEPTION

Mining owners and operators in most Australian States[1] will be aware of the “mining exception” in security of payment legislation.  The mining exception excludes ‘the extraction (whether by underground or surface working) of minerals, including tunnelling or boring, or constructing underground works for that purpose[2] (Mining Exception) from the definition of the term “construction work” and, consequently, the ambit of statutory interim progress payment mechanisms.

However, in a decision handed down on 11 November 2020, the NSW Supreme Court[3] followed the approach of the Queensland courts[4] by construing the Mining Exception narrowly in favour of contractors and subcontractors.  In short, the Mining Exception does not  extend generally to some broad category of mining industry operations.[5]

Facts

Downer EDI Mining Pty Ltd (Downer) was engaged by Cadia Holdings Pty Ltd (Cadia) the operator of the Cadia East underground panel cave mine south-west of Orange, under a “Works Contract” dated 16 November 2018 (Contract), to perform “development phase” works, being (for the most part) underground works to provide access to the proposed undercut and extraction levels for future extraction of minerals in the “production phase”[6]

Downer proceeded to adjudication on a payment claim served on Cadia.  An adjudicator appointed under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SOPA) determined that Cadia pay Downer $1,017,741.72.[7]

Cadia challenged the determination on two grounds:

  1. the Mining Exception applied so the Contract was not a “construction contract” within the meaning of the SOPA; and
  2. there was no available reference date to support Downer’s payment claim.

Decision

Cadia’s challenge to the adjudication determination was unsuccessful on both grounds.

Stevenson J framed the effect of the Mining Exception as excluding ‘from the definition of “construction work”, the following works:

  • extraction (whether by underground or surface working) of minerals;
  • tunnelling or boring for the purpose of extraction (whether by underground or surface working of minerals; and
  • constructing underground works for the purpose of extraction (whether by underground or surface working) of minerals.[8]

His Honour held that the heart of the question of the application of the Mining Exception to a contract is what a contractor undertakes to do under the contract in question, not what work that contractor actually does[9] (which comes to be answered later).

The works under the Contract did include “tunnelling or boring” as well as “constructing underground works”.  However:

  1. these activities were not for the “purpose of” extraction of minerals; and
  2. the Contract required Downer to undertake work beyond these activities which fell within the meaning of “construction work” or the supply of “related goods and services”.

On considering generally whether activities performed by a contractor are for the “purpose of” extraction of minerals, His Honour:

  1. agreed with Fryberg J in Thiess that the relevant purpose should be decided ‘by reference to what a reasonable person in the position of the parties would conclude as to the object of what purpose of the contract[10];
  2. held that the Mining Exception is to be construed narrowly to benefit the subcontractor[11];
  3. held that a close “proximity” between the act of extraction and the tunnelling and boring or construction of underground works was required (and this was not so in this case, where the extraction phase would not begin until 2022 after subsequent works)[12];
  4. considered that “extraction” does not include work “associated with” or “preparatory to” extraction[13]; and
  5. noted that the SOPA expresses where there is an intention to bring in ancillary activities, which is not the case with the Mining Exception[14].

Further, in this case, His Honour considered that some works under the Contract required of Downer were “construction work” or supply of “related goods and services”, meaning the SOPA applied.  Relevantly, His Honour stated (accepting Downer’s counsel’s submission):

…if there is a contract which contains undertakings to carry out construction work and undertakings to carry out work that it not construction work, the contract remains a construction contract. If a payment claim includes a claim for work that is not construction work, the payment claim is valid, but the adjudicator should not award an amount for work that is not construction work. Thus, the Mining Exception has an important role to play in limiting the amount that the adjudicator should award.[15]

On the reference date point, His Honour determined that there was an available reference date under the Contract for the service of the payment claim.  Most of the points raised were of limited significance for general application.  One point of general interest was that a clause of the Contract required Downer to invoice ‘in respect of the Services performed’ of the proceeding month.[16]  Downer’s works were performed not in the preceding month, but at an earlier time.

His Honour relied on s.13(4) of the SOPA which allows a contractor to serve a payment claim within the period determined under the construction contract or 12 months after construction work to which the claim relates was last carried out.  The payment clause in the Contract attempted to restrict the operation of s.13(4) and was a void provision, by operation of s.34 of the SOPA.

Take Home Tips

Contractors who consider that they are not entitled to have recourse to security of payment legislation simply because they work on a mine site should re-examine closely the terms of their contract.  Can it really be said that the contract works are for the “purpose of” extraction?  Or is there some distance between the works to be performed and the eventual act of extraction?

Perhaps there are portions or stages of works under the contract to which the Mining Exception would apply, but this would not necessarily mean that the entire contract is not a “construction contract” within the meaning of the security of payment legislation.

 

 

[1] Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.  However, Western Australia is likely to shortly follow suit once the Building and Construction Industry (Security of Payment) Bill 2020 (WA) passes through Parliament.

[2] Section 5(2) of the Building and Construction Industry (Security of Payment) Act 1999 (NSW).

[3] Cadia Holdings Pty Ltd v Downer EDI Mining Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 1588 per Stevenson J.

[4] HM Hire Pty Limited v National Plant and Equipment Pty Ltd [2012] QSC 4 and Thiess Pty Ltd v Warren Brothers Earthmoving Pty Ltd [2012] QCA 276 (Thiess)

[5] At [133].

[6] At [92] and [93].

[7] At [3].

[8] At [34].

[9] At [70].

[10] At [96], quoting Fryberg J in Thiess at [76].

[11] At [102]

[12] At [103] and [91].

[13] At [104].

[14] At [105].

[15] At [134].

[16] At [171].

Spring is here and so is the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Regulation 2020

On 1 September 2020, the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Regulation 2020 commenced (2020 Regulation) repealing the 2008 Regulation.

The 2020 Regulation will provide the legislative support and administrative detail for the operation of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (Act) as provided by the amendments which commenced on 21 October 2019. These amendments came about to address poor payment practices and the high incidence of insolvencies in the building and construction industry and also, to facilitate prompt payment, preserve cash flow and resolve disputes quickly and efficiently.

The 2020 Regulation is not retrospective and will not apply to contracts entered into prior to its commencement date.

Key reforms of the 2020 Regulation include:

  • removing the annual reporting requirements for trust accounts to NSW Fair Trading,
  • introducing a requirement for head contractors to keep a ledger for retention money held in relation to each subcontractor and provide the subcontractor with a copy of a ledger at least once every 3 months or longer period of 6 months if agreed in writing, and also to provide trust account records to subcontractors if their money is held in trust,
  • supporting statements are only required for subcontractors or suppliers directly engaged by the head contractor,
  • removing owner occupier construction contracts as a prescribed class of construction contract to which the Act does not apply, and
  • introducing qualifications and eligibility requirements for adjudicators to improve the quality of adjudication determinations under the Act.  The eligibility requirements include either a degree or diploma in a relevant specified field with at least 5 years’ experience, or at least 10 years’ experience in a relevant specified field.  The continuing professional development requirements for adjudicators will commence on 1 September 2021.

Of particular note, the project value threshold (value of the head contractor’s contract with the principal) for retention money trust account requirements will not be reduced from $20 million to $10 million as previously foreshadowed. The existing threshold will remain. Perhaps, given the current climate, it was considered too much of an administrative burden on head contractors who are already dealing with the pressures of delivering projects during Covid. A copy of the 2020 Regulation is  here.

If you would like to discuss or would like any more information, please contact us at info@bradburylegal.com.au or (02) 9248 3450.

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When are settlement agreements concerning payment claims void under SOPA?

If a respondent fails to issue a payment schedule in time, but the parties then reach a settlement agreement in relation to the payment claim and construction contract, can the claimant still pursue summary judgment for the full claimed amount due to s.34 of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SOPA)?

Facts

In Reward Interiors Pty Ltd v Master Fabrication (NSW AU) Pty Ltd [2020] NSWSC 1251, the claimant served a payment claim and the respondent did not respond within 10 business days as required by the SOPA.  The parties attended a meeting three weeks after the payment claim was issued and agreed to a reduced amount to be paid on the payment claim.[1]  The respondent paid the settlement amount the following day.[2]

The respondent then commenced proceedings against the claimant for damages arising from work performed by the claimant.

The claimant cross-claimed and sought summary judgment on the full payment claim amount. The claimant argued that s.34, which prohibits parties from contracting out of the SOPA, rendered the settlement agreement void.[3]

Decision

The claimant offered no authority for the argument that s.34 of the SOPA renders void settlement agreements which compromise a dispute concerning an amount claimed in a payment claim or the construction contract between the parties generally.[4]  The claimant had agreed not to move for summary judgment on the full claimed amount by accepting the reduced settlement amount.[5]

Stevenson J held that it was at least arguable that the settlement agreement was not rendered void because it acknowledged the operation of the SOPA, yet recorded the parties’ intention that in the particular circumstances their rights would instead be governed by their agreement.[6]  This did not constitute an ‘attempt to deter a person from taking action under’ the SOPA.[7]

Tips for binding settlement agreements on payment claims

The answer to the question posed in the introduction is no.  Assuming the settlement agreement seeks to properly compromise existing entitlements, it will not be voided by s.34 of the SOPA.

The terms should be clearly expressed and specific.  It should state that the claimant has agreed to accept the settlement amount in “full and final satisfaction” of the payment claim and claims made in the payment claim. The terms should provide that once the respondent pays the settlement amount, the claimant “releases” the respondent from any claims or proceedings in respect of the payment claim and claims made in the payment claim.

Where settlement agreement may be rendered void under s 34 is where it seeks to exclude or restrict rights or entitlements arising in the future.  For example, where the parties simply agree (without more) that the claimant will have no entitlement to submit further payment claims.

Of course, the respondent should always serve a proper payment schedule (scheduling nil or a reduced amount and giving reasons) in response to a payment claim, even if confident in securing a settlement, in order to avoid the type of argument raised in Reward Interiors.

[1] At [11].

[2] At [14].

[3] At [15].

[4] At [19].

[5] At [23].

[6] At [24] and [26].

[7] At [25], re s.34(2)(b).

The West Gate Tunnel leads to arbitration

The D&C JV contractors on the West Gate Tunnel (Project), CPB Contractors and John Holland (Subcontractors), have won the first round in their dispute against Transurban (Project Co) over the presence of contaminated “PFAS” soil in the tunnel area and subsequent purported termination of their contract due to force majeure.

In Transurban WGT Co v CPB Contractors Pty Ltd [2020] VSC 476, Victorian Supreme Court (VSC) refused applications designed to prevent the disputes from proceeding through arbitration.

Facts

The Subcontractors purported to terminate their contract with Project Co on 28 January 2020 due to the discovery and persistence of “PFAS” contamination, which it claimed was a “Force Majeure Termination Event” under the contract.[1] Since this time, the Subcontractors and Project Co have been engaged in disputes on the validity of the termination and various related matters.

By notice dated 2 March 2020, the Subcontractors sought to initiate a “downstream” arbitration with Project Co in relation to various claims.[2] Some 3 months later, Project Co initiated its own “upstream” arbitration in relation to various claims which it had passed upstream via its head contract with the State of Victoria.[3]

Project Co claimed the disputes were “Linked Disputes” under the contract with the Subcontractors. Project Co argued that clause 44A.3(a)(ii) operated to suspend the downstream arbitration while the upstream arbitration progressed (suspension clause).[4]

The Subcontractors sought to refer their various disputes with Project Co to arbitration. Project Co made an application for:

  1. a declaration that the suspension clause was enforceable; and

 

  1. an interlocutory injunction to restrain the Subcontractors from taking steps to progress the downstream arbitration until such time as the upstream arbitration was determined.[5]

The Subcontractor argued that the arbitral tribunal should decide whether to grant such relief to Project Co, not the court. The Subcontractor pointed to ss 5, 8, 9 and 17J of the CAAs which provide only limited powers for court intervention.[6]

The Subcontractor made a referral application to the VSC relying on s 5 and / or 8 of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic) (CAA), requesting the court refer Project Co’s query in relation to the operation of the suspension clause to the arbitral tribunal.[7]

Decision

Lyons J:

  1. found that the court had no power to make a declaration of the kind sought by Project Co;

 

  1. refused Project Co’s application for interlocutory injunctions; and

 

  1. granted the Subcontractor’s application to refer to the arbitral tribunal the question of whether the suspension clause was inoperative.[8]

Lyons J considered in detail the relevant law on the nature of arbitration and the limited ambit given to the court under the CAA. Some of His Honour’s key conclusions included that:

  1. the question whether the suspension clause is valid and enforceable was a matter ‘arising in connection with’ the contract between the parties and, therefore, it was a type of dispute the parties had agreed under their contract would be arbitrable;[9]

 

  1. the arbitral tribunal had the power to make orders relating to the validity, enforceability and/or applicability of the suspension clause of the kind sought by Project Co in court;[10]

 

  1. under the CAA the court’s power to grant interlocutory relief to matters which the CAAs apply derives from s 17J[11]. Accordingly, the court’s power to intervene is limited; and

 

  1. Project Co had failed to establish that the circumstances of the case were exceptional or objectively urgent such that court intervention was required.[12]

As a result, the Subcontractor’s claims in relation to the contract will be heard and determined by an arbitrator. The arbitrator will need to determine whether the suspension clause is enforceable and, if so, operates in the circumstances to pause the downstream arbitration.

Take Home Tip

Parties who agree to arbitration as their preferred dispute resolution forum should note that the courts are increasingly minded to allow arbitral tribunals to rule on their own jurisdiction or “competence” under the CAA. A party should closely consider whether their set of circumstances are truly urgent or exceptional to warrant intervention by the court. If not, it would be better to apply its resources in ventilating preliminary issues in the arbitration first, then challenging the arbitrator’s determination on those issues if necessary and as permitted by the CAA.

Importantly, Lyons J considered that he was bound by Hancock v Rhodes[13], being ‘a decision of an intermediate appellate court in circumstances applying sections of a uniform commercial arbitration act in force in each state in Australia.[14] This reinforces the relevance of the current decision of the VSC to parties in all States and Territories in Australia.

[1] At [10(1)].

[2] At [12].

[3] At [12].

[4] At [14].

[5] At [23].

[6] At [115] and [128].

[7] At [20].

[8] At [208].

[9] At [170].

[10] At [174].

[11] At [147] and [191].

[12] At [192] to [203].

[13] Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd v DFD Rhodes Pty Ltd [2020] WASCA 77.

[14] At [147].

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.

 

Case article – Brolton Group Pty Ltd v Hanson Construction Materials Pty Ltd

In Brolton Group Pty Ltd v Hanson Construction Materials Pty Ltd [2020] NSWCA 63 (Brolton), the NSW Court of Appeal considered the jurisdictional and procedural fairness grounds of an adjudicator’s determination.

Background

Brolton was contracted by Hanson to build a quarry processing plant at Bass Point. The parties agreed on a guaranteed maximum price of $85 million (excluding GST) in which Brolton was entitled to claim monthly progress payments on the last Tuesday of each month. Hanson claimed liquidated damages and the contract was eventually terminated on 3 October 2018. In August 2019, Brolton served a payment claim on Hanson. The payment claim claimed work up to September 2018 as well as interest on unpaid amounts to August 2019. The adjudicator determined in favour of Brolton, issuing an adjudication amount of $2,877,052.75. Hanson challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, with the Supreme Court finding in favour of Hanson. This resulted in the appeal by Brolton to the NSW Court of Appeal.

The Court’s decision

Brolton raised two main grounds of appeal. The first and most pertinent issue, concerning jurisdiction, centred predominantly on the availability of a reference date on which Brolton could make its payment claim.
Importance of jurisdiction and the trouble of jurisdictional error
Under the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SOP Act) section 22, an adjudicator is given the statutory authority to determine the amount of a progress payment, the date on which such amount became payable and the rate of interest payable on any such amount. The importance of section 22 is that it sets out the jurisdiction of an adjudicator. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. While the adjudicator is given the power to make these determinations, section 22 sets out the limited factors that the adjudicator can consider. These are the responsibility components of the adjudicator’s determination. Two of the relevant factors to consider in Brolton was the provisions of the SOP Act and the payment claim.
While adjudicators are given the power to make determinations, they can only do so in certain circumstances or if there are specified preconditions. In the legal world, this is called a ‘jurisdictional fact’. As Gleeson JA described in Brolton (at paragraph 28), the term jurisdictional fact is used to describe ‘any precondition which a statute requires to exist in order for the decision-maker to embark on the decision-making process’. Jurisdictional facts fall into two types:

1. The existence of an identified state of affairs; or
2. A state of satisfaction of the decision-maker as to an identified state of affairs.

A jurisdictional fact gives a decision-maker the power to make the decision. If it exists, then an adjudicator can make a determination. In this way, the reference date activates the adjudicators powers to make a determination under the SOP Act.
Under the SOP Act, a claimant is only able to make a payment claim when there is a reference date under the construction contract. Therefore, the existence of a reference date is a jurisdictional fact that falls into the first category. This is because the existence or non-existence of a reference date is objective and does not depend on whether the adjudicator is satisfied that a reference date exists. Where an adjudicator exercises its power, but the jurisdictional fact does not actually exist, the adjudicator has made a jurisdictional error..
Getting back to the case, in submitting its payment claim, Brolton claimed in its adjudication submissions that the reference dates for August 2018 and September 2018 were available for the payment claim. Hanson also contended that the September 2018 reference date was available for the progress payment. However, the adjudicator ‘went rogue’ and determined that the reference date was in fact 23 October 2018. There were a few issues with this. Firstly, the 23 October 2018 was not the last Tuesday of the month (which in fact was 30 October 2018). Secondly, the contract had been terminated on 3 October 2018, meaning no further reference dates arose. As the clause entitling Brolton to a progress payment did not continue beyond the termination of the contract, the adjudicator had made a jurisdictional error. The reference date the adjudicator relied on did not exist, and therefore the determination was void and the $2.8 million decision was overturned (as if it had never been made).

Although Hanson succeeded on the first issue, the Court was still minded to consider the second issue on appeal. The second issue concerned the procedural fairness of the adjudicator’s decision. Like jurisdiction, procedural fairness is a legal term that has important consequences for adjudication determinations. Procedural fairness is an aspect of natural justice, a foundational legal principal that sets the standards of how people are to exercise their authority. The concept of procedural fairness means the process in which a decision is made should be just. Procedural fairness requires that parties have the right or opportunity to have their case heard by the decision-maker. If there is a substantial denial of natural justice, the decision-maker’s determination will be void. In this case, the issue of procedural fairness arose because the adjudicator determined that the relevant reference date was a date not submitted by either party. Brolton argued that while procedural fairness was denied to the parties, it was immaterial and should not void the adjudicator’s decision. The Court found that the findings by the adjudicator were a material breach of procedural fairness and therefore there was a breach of natural justice.

Take-away points

While this article has discussed a few technical legal concepts, the main take away points from Brolton are that:
• A progress payment must be linked to a specific reference date. If an adjudicator incorrectly attributes a payment claim to a reference date which does not exist, the determination will be void.
• It is not enough that another reference date is available for the payment claim to be linked to. If the adjudicator goes rogue and determines a reference date not submitted by the parties, the decision will be void.
• Claimants should identify and make it abundantly clear the relevant reference date to which a payment claim relates and make submissions in the adjudication application as to what the relevant reference date is.
• Reference dates are essential for an adjudicator to make a determination. A failure by the adjudicator to appropriately determine a reference date can have dire consequences to claimants.
• Note: The recent amendments to the NSW SOP Act have eliminated the post-termination payment claim issue. Section 13(1C) now states that for construction contracts that have been terminated, a payment claim may be served on and from the date of termination. This change will only apply to contracts entered into after 21 October 2019.