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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.

Deal or no deal: electronic signatures and contract law

Of the many changes brought by the digital age to the commercial landscape, one that is overlooked is the act of executing a contract. The days of wet-ink signing ceremonies in boardrooms are on the way out, while clicking a computer mouse a few times is fast becoming the norm. This can lead to situations that will make any company director uneasy.

Williams Group Australia v Crocker

A software system HelloFax enables users to upload their digital signatures to a document if the correct password and username are entered. Director A of a building company sets up usernames and passwords for Directors B and C. The passwords are not changed. Down the track, Director A uses these passwords to execute an application for credit not only in their name but also in the names of Directors B and C. Director A also executes personal guarantees bearing the digital signatures of all the directors. A lending company approves this credit application, and over time a $889,534.35 debt is accrued.

Eventually, the lending company claims the debt from the building company, and from the directors personally. Director C learns that they are being personally sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Of course this was a real case: Williams Group Australia v Crocker [2016] NSWCA 265. One of the parties was going to be left up the proverbial creek without a paddle. If the contract was void then Williams Group Australia’s debts were lost. If the contract was valid, then the innocent director Mr Crocker was going to foot the substantial bill for a contract he didn’t sign.

Digital signatures made basic questions difficult. As Crocker said in evidence: “Well it’s difficult when you’re presented with … your signature that’s electronic to know whether you did or didn’t [sign it]”.

Ultimately Crocker won, as he had not represented that his co-director had authority to sign on his own behalf. Had it been he who set up the signature software, however, it might have been different. And the substantial legal bills undoubtedly soured the victory. A warning shot was fired for all users of digital signatures.

Digital signatures and electronic signatures: some basics

Some quick definitions:

  • Electronic signatures are essentially like traditional handwritten signatures but in electronic form: typing a name into an email, or pasting an image of a signature.
  • Digital signatures use a code attached to an electronic document that identifies and authenticates the signatory. Adobe Sign for PDF files is one example. One party has a ‘private key’, which enables them (and only them) to sign a document. The other another party has a ‘public key’ enabling them to see the signature, but which does not let them edit the signature.

In both types of signature, if a witness is required, they must be present to witness the authentication.

What risks do electronic executions open a company up to?

Of course, there are enormous benefits brought by the rise of digital and electronic signatures. The software keeps a record of who signs and when. They are efficient: signatories don’t need to leave their office, and can almost instantaneously do business with parties on the other side of the globe. However, this rise also brings added complexities.

Two of these must be considered by businesspeople:

  1. Unauthorised use of the signature, or forgery, is now quite easy. Directors must beware of colleagues or fraudulent third parties taking their signature or the digital key. Even though forgery is illegal and renders a contract void, it creates huge problems, especially if the fraudulent party has disappeared with the money. Also, it won’t be forgery where a superior has given a subordinate authority to use the digital signature software; working out whether this has happened is not always easy.
  2. On the other side of the coin, a person may intend to sign a contract, but if the electronic execution is not done according to law, a contract may be deemed unenforceable and the other party can escape its obligations.

The law tries to find a line between a desire for commercial convenience and the desire to prevent forgery. It pays, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, for signatories to be aware of the law around electronic execution.

A contract is void if the signature is forged, so that it is as if the contract never existed. However, this is no consolation if the forger has disappeared.

So how do I digitally execute my contract properly?

Very generally, the law’s position is not totally different for digital execution as for physical wet-ink execution. Contract law remains the same at its core: there must be an intention shown to make an offer and to accept that offer.

Having said this, there is no short answer to this question. Certain types of contracts, such as for sale of land or for giving someone else your right to sue, have particular requirements and electronic execution might not suffice. Statutes will have different definitions of signature.

Australian governments foresaw the issue of electronic execution at the turn of the century. They enacted the Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth) and the Electronic Transactions Act 2000 (NSW).

These Acts make it clear a transaction, including a contract, is not invalid just because a signature was made electronically. Additionally, if an Act requires someone to give information in writing, this is satisfied by electronic communication so long as this communication is readily accessible and the other person consents to electronic communication.

To meet the requirements of signature by electronic means:

(1) A method must be used to identify the signing party and to indicate the person’s intention;

(2) This method must be as reliable as appropriate for the purpose for which the electronic communication was generated; and

(3) The other party must consent to the use of electronic means to sign a document.

Where the signatory is someone acting on behalf of someone else, e.g. an employee for a corporation:

(4) The signing person must have authority to bind the principal.

The cases confirm this story. Generally, a person must put their name or mark to a document, and the important part is that they must do this “for the purpose of adopting or authenticating the document”. In some contexts, a typed first name at the end of an email suffices to create legal relations between the receiver and the sender.

Businesspeople should be very cautious in relation to witnesses to signatures, as attestation is not apparently protected under these Acts. It is assumed electronic attestation is permitted under law, but this has not been demonstrated yet.

The fourth element: binding a principal

As (4) indicates above, the situation is further complicated for companies or other principals and their agents. The person signing a document must have some form of authority to do sign on the principal’s behalf.

This authority must come from the company. Always the safest form of authority is express actual authority: the company should inform the other party in writing that the agent has the authority to use the electronic signature.

A company may also give the person ostensible authority, such as by providing them a certain title, status and facilities. Common practice is for businesses to put in place an organisational structure that gives the appearance to outsiders that an officer has the authority to bind the principal. For example:

  • Giving an officer the title ‘Manager’ and providing letterheads and business cards gives ostensible authority to the officer.
  • Significant prior dealings in which a person acted on behalf of the company, to its apparent acceptance

Conclusion

In Williams Group Australia v Crocker, if the director Crocker had made some representation that his co-director had authority to sign on his behalf, then he could well have been bound. This ostensible authority might have arisen if Crocker had set up the electronic signature system himself. He was saved by the fact that his co-director had set up the system.

Crocker was also saved by the fact that email notifications that came with use of his digital signature were not detailed enough to inform him of the full circumstances of his signature being used by his co-director. Had they fully informed him of the circumstances and had he done nothing, he may have ‘ratified’ the signature and beared the costs.

The court did not resolve the question of whether a ‘genuine’ electronic signature made without authority is forgery, but hinted that it might be.

The story is not happy for any of the parties. Crocker was still put through the ordeal of expensive legal proceedings. Williams Group Australia faced huge losses.

The case shows that in the digital age, training and rigorous checks and balances are more important than ever in ensuring that employees understand how their signatures are used and who has authority to use them.

And there is no substitute for open communication between the two parties about who has authority and how they will exercise it.

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