New Jersey's Appellate Division recently reversed a trial court's dismissal of a general contractor's claim against a performance bond, holding that the bond must cover the general contractor as the intended obligee, even though the general contractor was not expressly named in the bond.
In Allied Building Products Corp. v. J. Strober & Sons, LLC, et al., A-1113-12T4 (NJ App. Div., September 5, 2014), Dobco, Inc. ("Dobco") was the general contractor for a science hall renovation project at William Paterson University. J. Strober & Sons, LLC ("Strober") bid for and was awarded a roofing subcontract on the project. The subcontract between Dobco and Strober required Strober to obtain payment and performance bonds, in the form annexed to the Dobco-Strober subcontract (which required that Strober be named obligee on the bonds).
Strober was awarded the subcontract with Dobco, but in accordance with the company's procedure, Colonial did not review the actual subcontract. Nevertheless, an underwriter approved issuance of the performance bond, and Strober paid for the bond.
However, when the performance bond was issued, it named William Paterson University as the obligee, rather than Dobco. Dobco advised Strober that it rejected the bond, because it was required to name Dobco as obligee. As a result, Strober issued payment and performance bonds naming Dobco as obligee, using a power of attorney and Colonial's seal. Colonial asserted that the bonds were a nullity, because Strober was only authorized to issue bid bonds using Colonial's seal and power of attorney, in accordance with its "partnership account." Nevertheless, Dobco rejected these bonds as well, and demanded that Colonial issue the bonds with various documents that ordinarily accompany payment and performance bonds. Strobco did not procure the bonds, but nevertheless began its work on the project.
During the project, Dobco became concerned with Strober's performance, and requested the bonds that had not been delivered. Strober repeatedly contacted Colonial, but was advised several times that the bonds were "still in underwriting," even though Colonial had already accepted the premium. Eventually, Dobco terminated Strober, and Strober filed for bankruptcy protection. Dobco filed a claim against the bond, but it was denied because Dobco had rejected both sets of bonds, and Colonial maintained, therefore, that they were not in effect.
On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court dismissed Dobco's claim against the bond, citing established New Jersey law that a surety is "chargeable only according to the strict terms of its undertaking and its obligation cannot and should not be extended either by implication or by construction beyond the confines of its contract." Since Dobco rejected both bonds, the trial court found that there was no valid contract between Colonial and Dobco.
The Appellate Division reversed, noting that, when a bond incorporates a contract by reference, the bond and the contract must be considered as one integrated document in ascertaining the meaning of the bond's provisions. The Appellate Division held that "strict construction" should have only applied after the extent of the surety's undertaking was determined; it should not have been used to interpret the language creating the surety's obligations under the bond. Thus, the Court held that the bond was intended to secure Strober's contractual obligation to Dobco, which required Strober to obtain a performance bond, naming Dobco as obligee. In so holding, the Court stated, "[W]hen Colonial agreed to bond [Strober's] performance, it undertook the obligation to do so in the form required by the contract. That Colonial chose not to review the contract it bonded cannot relieve it of obligations voluntarily undertaken." The Court was unmoved by Colonial's argument that Dobco rejected both bonds, and ordered the bond reformed, consistent with the Dobco-Strober subcontract.