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Is a progress certificate issued by the Superintendent (or Architect) a payment schedule for the purposes of security of payment?

It is trite that the “East Coast model” security of payment legislation provides that a respondent in receipt of a payment claim may provide a payment schedule in response[1].  If a respondent fails to provide a payment schedule within the relevant statutory timeframe, generally, the respondent becomes liable to pay the claimed amount[2].

What happens in a case where the contract is administered by a third party – e.g. a project manager, superintendent, architect or quantity surveyor – who provides a progress certificate to one or both parties?  E.g. the superintendent’s certificate under clause 37.2 of an AS4902-2000 or the architect’s certificate under clause N5.1 of the ABIC MW 2018?

Is this certification a payment schedule for the purposes of security of payment?

In our view, the answer will generally be yes.  Below is a summary of some case law in support of our view.

RHG Construction Fitout and Maintenance Pty Ltd v Kangaroo Point Developments MP Property Pty Ltd & Ors [2021] QCA 117 (RHG Constructions)

In RHG Construction, the Queensland Court of Appeal considered an amended AS4902-2000 contract and whether or not the provision of a payment certificate by the superintendent was a payment schedule under the Building Industry Fairness (Security of Payment) Act 2017 (BIFA).

Clause 37.2 of that contract was in generally standard form terms, requiring the superintendent to receive payment claims and issue to the principal and contractor:

“a certificate evidencing the Superintendent’s assessment of retention moneys and moneys due from the Contractor to the Principal pursuant to the Contract.”

Clause 37.2 of the contract contained the following paragraphs included by way of amendment to the AS4902-2000 standard drafting (Deeming Clause):

“In so far as necessary to ensure compliance with the Security of Payment Act, the Superintendent is deemed to issue any payment schedule under clause 37.2 or final payment schedule under clause 37.4 as the agent of the Principal and each such schedule shall constitute a payment schedule for the purposes of the Security of Payment Act.

For the purposes of and where permitted by the Security of Payment Act, each of the dates for delivery of a payment claim in subclause 37.1 constitutes a reference date.”

The contractor issued a payment claim and the superintendent issued an assessment within the relevant statutory timeframe[3].  The assessment stated (relevantly):

“This Payment Schedule has been produced pursuant to the Works Contract for the residential flat being constructed at 98 River Terrace, Kangaroo Point, between the Principal ‘Kangaroo Point Developments MP Property Pty Ltd’ and the Contractor ‘RHG Contractors Pty Ltd’. This Payment Schedule confirms that the Superintendent has assessed, calculated and certified the proper value of Work Under the Contract.”[4]

A week later, the principal’s solicitors issued correspondence enclosing a further purported “payment schedule” to the contractor denying the validity of the payment claim and stressing that if it was incorrect on that point, the document under the correspondence was to be taken to be the principal’s payment schedule for the purposes of the BIFA[5].

The contractor proceeded to adjudication citing the superintendent’s assessment as the principal’s payment schedule under the BIFA and the adjudicator agreed[6].  The principal applied to court for an order declaring the adjudicator’s determination void.

At first instance, Dalton J agreed with the principal that (notwithstanding the Deeming Clause) the superintendent’s assessment was not a payment schedule and ordered the adjudicator’s determination void.  Her Honour considered that the assessment did not comply with s 69(b) of the BIFA because it was a recommendation only as to payment and the document failed to state “the amount of the payment, if any, the respondent proposes to make”, as required by the BIFA[7].

The Queensland appellate court (Sofronoff P, wth McMurdo and Mullins JJA agreeing) overturned the trial judge’s order.  Sofronoff P said the following as to the standard form clause 37.2:

“For many years now, those engaged in construction have employed the standard form contracts drafted by a committee of Standards Australia, a not-for-profit company which, among other things, prepares draft general conditions of contract for various kinds of commercial transactions… Clause 37, which deals with progress claims, as been in its current form since 2004 when the Act of that year was passed.  It has been the subject of much academic analysis and has doubtless been relied upon by commercial parties thousands of times since then.  The effectiveness of clause 37.2 to engage the adjudication provisions of the 2004 Act, and now the current Act, has never been called into question.[8] (emphasis added)

The effect of the issue of the certificate by the superintendent was the triggering of the principal’s obligation to pay.  Accordingly, the certificate does meet the requirement of s 69(b) of the BIFA[9].

The Deeming Clause was, therefore, “neither artificial nor contrived” [10].  The court considered it relevant that there was no other contractual mechanism whereby a payment schedule would be provided[11].  It would be commercially unworkable for the principal and the superintendent to each issue payment schedules (i.e. one for the purposes of statute and one for the purposes of the contract) because they may differ materially (e.g. provide a vastly differing scheduled amount) [12].

Bucklands Convalescent Hospital v Taylor Projects Group [2007] NSWSC 1514 (Bucklands)

We are not sure whether Sofronoff P’s comment that the effectiveness of clause 37.2 of the Australian Standard contract had never been called into question considered authorities from other east coast jurisdictions.

For example, in Bucklands, Hammerschlag J considered the effectiveness under the NSW statute of clause 37.2 of the AS4000-1997, which provides for the same mechanism of superintendent assessment as the AS4902-2000.

While His Honour considered that the question of jurisdiction should be determined by the adjudicator at first instance[13], His Honour[14], noted that a principal may clothe an agent with authority to provide a payment schedule on their behalf for the purposes of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (NSW Act).  The requirement for the superintendent to act honestly and impartially in performing certain functions under the contract, including assessing payment claims, is not the issue at hand[15].  The question:

“…is whether in the circumstances Simmat was exercising function under the contract. Whether it was or was not is a matter of fact. As a matter of law it does not seem to me that a person who is a Superintendent under a contract and who has certifying functions under it is incapable of being appointed as agent to respond to a payment claim under the Act.”[16]

The question was not answered in Bucklands as this was the job of the adjudicator.

However, His Honour’s comments suggest that the use of the standard-form contractual mechanism by the superintendent when progress certificates is likely to give rise to an implication that the superintendent had authority to issue a statutory payment schedule and that the payment certificate was indeed to be interpreted as such.  We consider it likely that the courts would continue to take positions on these issues which is facilitates the objects of the legislation, rather than unduly technical interpretations which themselves would prejudice a party.

Take away tips

As:

  1. the agent (e.g. superintendent, architect, quantity surveyor, etc) will usually act as agent of the respondent under the contract for the purposes of issuing progress certificates (even if they must assess payment claims honestly, reasonably, fairly or the like); and
  2. judicial interpretation of the interplay between widely-used standard form contractual mechanisms tends to favour and facilitate commercial workability,

we are of the view that additional drafting of the kind of the “Deeming Clause” in the RHG Constructions case may not necessarily be required to ensure compliance with the legislation and ensure that the respondent’s interests will not be prejudiced[17].  However, if it is omitted, ensuring that the agent’s payment certificate:

  1. states that it is a payment schedule under the relevant legislation; or
  2. annexes a further document provided by the respondent confirming that the superintendent’s assessment of the amount payable should be taken to be the scheduled amount under the legislation,

are prudent steps to take.  It would also be beneficial for the contract or terms of engagement between the agent and the respondent to expressly state that part of the agent’s engagement is to issue payment schedules under the legislation on behalf of the respondent, having regard to Bucklands and the classic agency case Baulderstone Hornibrook Pty Ltd v Queensland Investment Corporation [2007] NSWCA 9.

What to do if you are the respondent party (e.g. the principal or owner) and you disagree with your agent’s assessment of the payment claim?  That will be the subject of one of our next articles!

[1] E.g. see s 14(1) of the NSW Act.

[2] E.g. see s 14(4) of the NSW Act (subject to s 17(2)).

[3] Kangaroo Point Developments MP Property Pty Ltd v RHG Construction Fitout and Maintenance Pty Ltd & Ors [2021] QSC 30 at [5].

[4] Ibid at [13].

[5] Ibid at [6].

[6] Ibid at [19].

[7] Ibid at [14].

[8] RHG Construction Fitout and Maintenance Pty Ltd v Kangaroo Point Developments MP Property Pty Ltd & Ors [2021] QCA 117 at [23].

[9] Ibid at [27].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid at [28].

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bucklands Convalescent Hospital v Taylor Projects Group [2007] NSWSC 1514 at [26].

[14] At [33] referring to Baulderstone Hornibrook Pty Ltd v Queensland Investment Corporation [2007] NSWCA 9.

[15] Ibid at [34].

[16] Ibid at [35].

[17] Assuming the respondent agrees with the superintendent’s assessment.

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].

Case Study – Architect’s Adjudication

In December, Bradbury Legal acted for a Queensland architecture firm in preparing an adjudication application against a builder for unpaid payment claims and variations claims. The architect was engaged to design an aged care facility in the New South Wales area. The builder sought to withhold over $200,000 from our client’s payment claim, citing back charges, defects, and unapproved variations.

In late October, our client submitted its payment claim for approximately $335,000. After issuing the section 17(2) notice, the builder certified just under $103,000, a difference of over $200,000. The Adjudication Application involved numerous late nights (including an all-nighter by Vinesh, Frankie, and Lachy), reviewing various documents, and drafting submissions and statutory declarations so that the Adjudication Application would be served before the Christmas shutdown period. In the end, the Adjudication Application totaled six folders worth of documents substantiating our client’s right to payment. This was a phenomenal effort by the Bradbury Legal team given the quantity of documents involved, the complexity of the issues, and the strict timeframes under the Security of Payment Act.

The Adjudicator awarded an Adjudication Amount of over $240,000 in favour of our client, representing an incredible result which the client was incredibly thankful for. The Adjudication Amount represented more than double the scheduled amount by the builder, promoting greater cashflow for the architecture firm.

Bradbury Legal is highly experienced in preparing and responding to adjudication applications. If you or anyone you know is struggling to be paid from a head contractor or developer or you have received an adjudication application, please contact Bradbury Legal.

Suspension of relief: take out notices, jurisdictional error and Security of Payment Act

In Parrwood Pty Ltd v Trinity Constructions (Aust) Pty Ltd, the Court confirmed that, for the purposes of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act 1999 (NSW) (SOPA), taking the work out of the hands of a contractor will not remove reference dates accrued before the take out notice is served, even if they are not actually used until after the take out notice is issued.

Although the facts were unusual and complicated, in the unique world of the SOPA they are not unheard of. This note is useful for parties considering whether:

  1. to issue a take out notice instead of a termination notice (particularly for NSW construction contracts entered into before 21 October 2019); or
  2. to withdraw an adjudication application in the event of jurisdictional error by an adjudicator on the first determination, to re-lodge before a new adjudicator.

The facts

The contractor was working under the principal in a residential building project. The contractor accrued reference dates on the 25th day of each month. The contract contained an AS standard clause where the contractor fails to show reasonable cause for its default:

“the Principal may by written notice to the Contractor:

(a) take out of the Contractor’s hands the whole or part of the work remaining to be completed and suspend payment until it becomes due and payable pursuant to subclause 39.6; or

(b) terminate the Contract.”

The parties fell into dispute and the principal asked the contractor to show cause.

Then:

  • on 25 August 2019, the monthly reference date for a SOPA claim came about;
  • on 3 September 2019, the principal issued a notice that took out of the contractor’s hands all of the work remaining to be completed, instead of terminating the contract; and
  • on 6 September 2019, the contractor issued a payment claim in the amount of $2,023,645.76. This payment claim was said to use the 25 August 2019 reference date.

In response, the principal scheduled “$Nil”.

The contractor applied for adjudication under the SOPA. The adjudicator declined to determine an amount that the contractor was owed (if any), finding the payment claim was invalid.

After it received the first adjudicator’s decision, the contractor “withdrew” its application, and made a second adjudication application. The contractor argued that the first adjudicator had failed to exercise his statutory function in declining to determine the amount owing. The second adjudicator considered the application and awarded over $400,000 to the contractor. The principal applied to the Supreme Court to set aside the second adjudication determination.

There were two broad issues that the Court was required to consider.

Suspension and payment claims

The first issue was what effect the take out notice had on the ability to issue payment claims.

The Court found that even though the payment claim was served after a take out notice, it was saved by the fact that it was served for a reference date occurring before the take out notice was made.

The outcome would have been different if the take out notice was served before the reference date. In this case, the contractor’s rights are suspended by the take out notice, and it cannot make a payment claim under the fast-track SOPA. It can, however, still make a claim under general law.

A take out notice cannot extinguish a right to make a payment claim that already exists.

Second Adjudication

Jurisdictional error

The second issue concerned the unusual circumstances in which a claimant may effectively redo its application.

The Court found that the first adjudicator had not made a ruling that, for example, the contractor was entitled to “$Nil”. Rather, the adjudicator had decided that, no matter what he thought about the facts, he could not determine any adjudicated amount (“I must decline therefore from determining …”).

The first adjudicator had failed to determine the amount of the progress payment (if any) to be paid, as required under section 22(1) of the SOPA. Therefore, the first purported determination was void.

Making a second application

Section 26(3) of the SOPA allows for a claimant to withdraw an application and make a new adjudication application, if the adjudicator accepts the application but then “fails to determine the application within the time allowed”. The claimant must withdraw and make the new application within five business days after it is entitled to withdraw the previous adjudication application.

This may occur where the adjudicator has made a jurisdictional error in failing to determine the application.

If the original decision is decided by a court to be valid (because there was no jurisdictional error), then the second application is wasted. However, if the original decision is declared void, then the second application may still be valid.

Conclusion

It pays to be aware of when reference dates arise, and when take out notices can and should be served. Principals concerned to issue effective take out notices should be mindful of existing reference dates which have or may accrue before that notice.

Claimants should be keenly aware of the existence of any jurisdictional error on the part of adjudicators. Such error may allow them to re-lodge an adjudication application.