The Miller Act
All general contractors performing public building or public works contracts with the federal government must be familiar with the Miller Act. It is a requirement for doing business with the federal government. Pursuant to the Miller Act, a general contractor entering into a public building or public works contract with the federal government must furnish a payment bond in an amount equal to the contract price, unless the contracting officer determines that it is impractical to obtain a bond in that amount and specifies an alternative bond amount.
Miller Act payment bonds guarantee payment to certain subcontractors and suppliers supplying labor and materials to contractors or subcontractors engaged in the construction. As a result, subcontractors have an avenue of relief should they not get paid for work done on the project. Specifically, subcontractors have a right to bring an action against the surety within 90-days after the date on which the person did or performed the last labor or furnished or supplied the last of material for which the claim is made. Any such action must be brought no later than one year after the date on which the person did or performed the last labor or furnished or supplied the last of material. 40 United States Code § 3133.
Limiting Subcontractor Claims
General contractors handling federal work routinely include provisions in their subcontracts that require their subcontractors to exhaust certain dispute procedures prior to filing suit for non-payment or for additional compensation and damages based on alleged extra work, changed conditions, or other grounds. By employing these provisions, general contractors attempt to control the process by which their subcontractors seek recovery for additional compensation or damages. Generally, these provisions require subcontractors to submit their claims through the general contractor against the government, in accordance with the Contract Disputes Act, rather than bringing suit directly against the general contractor under the Miller Act.
For general contractors, these provisions offer a way to avoid costly litigation that may have only arisen because of the government’s denial of a change order or other government action affecting the cost of the project. For subcontractors, however, these provisions limit their rights to recovery and may increase costs associated with recovery. Most importantly, participation in a contract mandated dispute resolution procedure will not toll or extend the Miller Act’s one-year deadline for filing. The one-year deadline is, for the most part, absolute.
Are Miller Act Limitations Enforceable?
General contractors cannot avoid Miller Act lawsuits unless their subcontractors have executed waivers expressly releasing their rights under the Miller Act after the subcontractors have furnished labor or material for use in the performance of the contract. This provision of the Miller Act was added in 1999 to prevent general contractors from requiring that their subcontractors waive Miller Act rights as a precondition to obtaining work on federal projects. It is also directly relevant to the validity of contract provisions requiring exhaustion of dispute procedures prior to initiating Miller Act lawsuits. While some courts interpret these provisions as a de facto waiver of rights under the Miller Act, other courts differ on whether these provisions are enforceable.
Court Decisions Concerning Dispute Remedy Exhaustion Provisions
A number of federal courts have determined that subcontract terms conflicting with the provisions of the Miller Act are unenforceable. Based on this determination, courts have considered whether subcontract provisions requiring exhaustion of dispute procedures prior to initiating a Miller Act suit conflicts with the waiver provisions of the Miller Act. Only a few federal courts have addressed this issue. The majority of courts that have (D.C., Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia), have found that such provisions are unenforceable and do not require dismissal or stay of a Miller Action lawsuit. These courts have focused on the language of the provisions at issue. In these cases, the provisions set forth in the subcontract have conditioned the subcontractor’s right to recovery under the payment bond on the completion of the dispute procedures. By requiring that a subcontractor exhaust other procedures first, the courts have determined that the provision conflicts with the waiver requirements set forth in the Miller Act. The provisions at issue in these decisions also fail to expressly cite to the Miller Act.
A minority of courts (Louisiana, California, and Hawaii) have upheld dispute exhaustion provisions and entered dismissals or stays of Miller Act. Contrary to the decisions referenced above, the courts rendering these decisions based their rulings upon the fact that the provisions at issue included express language that required a stay for Miller Act claims pending exhaustion of the dispute procedures. The courts also found that the provisions were not so extreme as to constitute a waiver. The subcontractor’s Miller Act remedies remained intact pending exhaustion of the contractual dispute procedures.
“Best Practices” for General Contractors and Subcontractors
As is discussed above, only a few states have considered whether dispute provisions requiring exhaustion of remedies are enforceable. The majority of states that have considered the issue have refused to enforce the stays or dismissals required by such provisions. But it is fair to say that the law is still evolving on this issue. General contractors and their counsel should consider the following when drafting these types of provisions: (1) whether the Miller Act is expressly referenced; (2) whether the provision includes a disclaimer that the provision does not serve as a waiver of any Miller Act rights; and (3) whether enforcement of the provision is in furtherance of ongoing dispute procedures contemplated by the provision. The last item is great import because it will always be difficult to convince a court to dismiss or stay a claim if the parties are not in the process of moving forward with the dispute procedures referenced within the applicable provision.
On the other hand, subcontractors should consider whether such provisions should be stricken from their subcontracts when negotiating the terms. If not, subcontractors and their counsel should fully consider whether it is better to proceed with the dispute procedures prior to filing a Miller Act lawsuit or whether filing and later challenging the provision in court is a better option. If the one-year deadline is approaching, subcontractors must either file a Miller Act suit or lose their Miller Act rights.