February 17, 2021
Certain complaints frequently arise in construction disputes. One is that the contractor inexcusably had delayed in completion of the project. Another is that the owner has interfered with the contractors work. This blog post takes a look at common schedule change and delay related issues in construction contracting.
Generally speaking, courts look to the language adopted by the parties in their written contract. Analysis of a construction case starts with careful consideration of how a written agreement may control a particular question.
Parties frequently put clauses in construction agreements that deny awards of damages for delays. Courts in different states have held that “no damages for delay” clauses are generally enforceable. These clauses put a burden on the contractor to ask the owner for an extension of time for a delay that arises due to no fault of the contractor. Such requests shift the focus from whether the delay occurred to whether or not the contractor’s request for additional time is reasonable. Many courts will refuse to award a money judgment for delay where the owner committed fraud, concealment or active interference. The court may find in the contract an express or implied duty by the owner to not interfere. This is because the contract will be enforced as a whole. The request for an extension allows the owner the opportunity to consider and accept or reject the request. If the contractor or subcontractor simply continues work without raising the issue then its possible that the court will find that issue waived, depending on how notice requirements are handled in the agreement.
Some construction contracts allow for the owner to move up the completion date for the contract. If the owner puts such language in its contract, the general contractor will likely add similar language to its subcontract agreements. They may ask for terms in the agreement allowing the completion date to be unilaterally moved up or pushed back to provided necessary flexibility in meeting whatever requirements may exist for the project. Such clauses can put a lot of pressure on contractors because of the financial burden involved in greatly increasing the workforce on a given project if the deadline is shortened. Acceleration issues frequently arise in disputes where delays have already occurred and the owner wants the general contractor (or general contractor wants the subcontractor) to get caught up. If the contractor thinks that the owner caused the delay through interference, and the owner maintains that the contractor caused the delay through inadequate supervision (or some other problem) then a dispute may arise regarding who should bear the financial burden of getting caught up in the construction schedule. Federal courts in Virginia recognize three elements for a claim for damages for acceleration: (1) the contractors delays were excusable, (2) the contractor was ordered to accelerate and (3) the contractor accelerated and incurred additional costs thereby.
Even where the written agreement is clear about rights to change the schedule and the effect of that, it can be difficult for the parties to know how to handle this on the job. The general contractor’s superintendent may know that a subcontractor’s work must move faster, but unsure whether the delays can be blamed on the subcontractor. The managers may not clearly inform the subcontractor that the schedule has been officially changed. A subcontractor may not be obligated to request an extension of time if the general contractor is handling a scheduling issue informally.
When a contractor has a justified claim for an extension of time, but is required to incur additional expenses because the owner refuses to grant the extension and insists upon timely completion, this is called “constructive acceleration.”
Where an owner has a delay claim, the measure of damages is either the rental value of the completed structure for the delay period or a reasonable return for that period on the completed structure treated as an investment. Such damages may be difficult to prove and ordinarily would require use of an appraiser or other expert witness.
Generally speaking, the party who commits the first breach of the contract is not entitled to enforce the contract. This rule is subject to numerous exceptions. For example, it only applies to breaches that are “material” and not those that do not go to the “root of the contract.” Examples of a material breach in construction matters include walking-off of a job, failure to make progress payments to a subcontractor (in a subcontract agreement) or causing a structural defect in the building, or items deemed material in the language of the written agreement.
For an owner of a residential lot negotiating a contract for construction of a custom home, the price can be several hundred thousand dollars or more. Local builders’ contracts are often poorly written, or using forms written for a different type of situation that have been poorly adapted for the owner’s project. Lot owners should seek to have an attorney help them negotiate the written agreement, because the risk of the project not going well outweighs the cost of having the attorney’s help. For purchasers of custom homes, a delay or cost overrun can put incredible strain on the family’s life or the business plan for selling the property. Professional negotiation of the written agreement can help the owner avoid a situation where payment obligations are mounting while the terms of the agreement don’t help resolve various disputes over timing or workmanship.
Subcontractors working on commercial or multifamily projects should carefully consider how to handle delay any acceleration issues when they arise. By timely, written response to the general contractor, the subcontractor can protect itself from future attempts to chargeback for delays that may not be the subcontractor’s fault. The general contractor will be familiar with those portions of its standard subcontractor forms that seem to shift the burden of delays onto the subcontractor. However, courts will likely look at such clauses with skepticism in situations where a delay arose due to no fault of the subcontractor and the subcontractor promptly raised the issue with the general contractor with a request for additional time and money.
Selected Judicial Opinions:
McDevitt & Street Co. v. Marriott Corp., 713 F. Supp. 906 (E.D. Va. 1989) affirmed & reversed in part McDevitt & Street Co. v. Marriott Corp., 911 F.2d 723 (4th Cir. 1990)
Shen Valley Masonry, v. S.P. Cahill & Assoc., Inc., 57 Va. Cir. 189 (Charlottesville 2001)