Construction Litigation

Published cases examining the New Jersey Construction Lien Law (“CLL”) tend to be few and far between, but recently the Appellate Division issued a decision to be published, helping to further illuminate, albeit on a fairly narrow issue, the scope of the CLL.  In NRG REMA LLC v. Creative Environmental Solutions Corp., Docket Nos. A-5432-15T3, A-0567-16T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. April 25, 2018), the court analyzed the novel issue of whether, under the CLL, the salvage value of scrap recovered by a demolition contractor may be included in the “lien fund” available for distribution among lien-filing subcontractors and suppliers within that contractor’s chain of contracting.

In NRG REMA, the owner entered into a contract directly with a demolition contractor, pursuant to which the contractor actually agreed to pay the owner $250,000 for the right to demolish a power station but also for title to and the right to sell the resulting scrap metals and equipment (which it estimated at the time would net it millions of dollars).  While the CLL explicitly allows liens to be filed for demolition work, it does not specifically contemplate this type of payment arrangement in determining the “lien fund” – which, at the top contracting tier, is typically based on the simple calculation of the amount owed under the written contract from owner to contractor for the work performed through the date of the lien filing.  Thus, subject to certain limited exceptions, the more paid to the contractor prior to the lien filing, the less the lien fund available for distribution.

While the CLL’s lien fund provision and its lien claim form speak only in monetary terms, other relevant CLL provisions, incorporate the term “contract” whose definition refers to “price or other consideration to be paid” the contractor.  In this case, because the contract specifically required the transfer of title to the salvage materials to the contractor and “it was an essential component of the price [the owner] agreed to pay,” the court deemed such transfer non-monetary “consideration to be paid” to the contractor, and, therefore, part of the “contract price” paid by the owner to the contractor.

Following a lengthy analysis and a balancing of the interests between owner and lien claimant, the court ultimately concluded that, in this case, the lien fund calculation should be based on a contract amount that includes the value of the scrap obtained by the contractor pursuant to its contract, but reduced by the contractor’s cash payment to the owner made prior to the lien’s filing (note: where a contractor was paid for the demolition work and also received title to the salvage, the payment to the contractor would be added to the salvage value to calculate the total contract price).  The court further held that because the owner had transferred title to the scrap at the outset of contract performance, rather than incrementally, the value of the transferred scrap did not reduce the lien fund at that top tier at the time of such transfer, as the CLL provides that the lien fund is not reduced where the owner makes payment of unearned amounts to a contractor prior to a subcontractor’s lien filing.

The court, however, remanded the case back to the trial court for the difficult task of determining, for each lien claimant, both of which resided on the third-tier, the amount of the lien fund that was available at the time each such lien was filed based on the percentage of completion of the work at that time.  The court also made clear that it was solely dealing with the facts before it, and it identified a number of issues along the way, which if the facts were different may require a different analysis or outcome, and which the court made clear, it was not determining in its decision.  Thus, while instructive and useful when dealing with a project on which a contractor obtains salvage rights, the decision is fairly narrow and limited to the facts of that case.   

After the court’s extensive analysis on the lien fund issue, and an apparent victory for the lien claimants, the court found that one of those lien claimants, however, committed a critical technical error in the execution of its lien which precluded its enforcement.  The court reiterated and strictly applied the CLL’s express requirement that a signatory of a lien claim must be an authorized corporate officer pursuant to the company’s bylaws or as designated by board resolution.  The court found that one of the subject liens had been executed by an employee who was informally titled the company’s “financial director”, and had not been properly authorized to execute a lien on behalf of the company.  This case, therefore, serves as an additional warning that any company seeking to file a CLL lien must strictly adhere to its express provisions, lest it risk forfeiture of its lien claim and a potential damages claim based on an improper filing.

Update:  The property owner has appealed the Appellate Division’s decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court, so we will monitor whether the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, and if so, what decision it renders.

The New York City Building Code, Chapter 33, requires a developer to safeguard adjoining property during the conduct of all construction and demolition operations. Accordingly, a developer and an adjoining property owner may enter into a license agreement, whereby the adjoining property owner provides the developer with access to its property to install Code-required protections.  In return, oftentimes the developer, among other things, pays compensation to the adjoining property owner for such access.  If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the developer may seek to compel such access through the courts pursuant to Section 881 of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law.

While the Building Code does not explicitly provide a right to compensation, when these issues have been brought before them, New York courts have awarded compensation to adjoining property owners.  However, whether compensation is mandated and the amount of compensation is within the courts’ discretion.  Courts often consider the length of time for which access is necessary and the intrusiveness of the developer’s work on the use and enjoyment of the adjoining property by its owner and occupants.  Without clear guidance from the courts, a developer and an adjoining property owner need to give due consideration to the issue of compensation as illustrated below.

In her ruling released late last month, Manhattan Judge Arlene Bluth denied any license fee to the Condominium Board of the Fifth Avenue Tower, an adjoining property owner to the New York Public Library.  The Library will conduct a $200 million overhaul of its main Fifth Avenue branch.  In her decision, Judge Bluth specifically rejected the Condominium Board’s request for a $15,000 / month license fee.  It has been separately reported that the Condominium Board rejected the Library’s offer of a $3,500 / month license fee.  It appears that Judge Bluth may have denied any license fee to the Condominium Board based, at least in part, on the excessiveness of its demands.

In view of the lack of clear guidelines, developers and adjoining property owners should consult with their legal counsel and should be sure not to overplay their hands when negotiating license fees.

Last week, New Jersey’s Appellate Division re-affirmed the principle that a court must strictly apply the terms of a construction contract when determining a dispute between contracting parties.  Where the contract terms speak directly to the issue in dispute, a court may not employ equitable considerations to determine the dispute even if the court believes that strictly applying the contract terms would be unfair to one of the parties under the circumstances.

While this is not a novel legal principle, the Appellate Division, in its unpublished opinion, Wallace Bros, Inc. v. East Brunswick Board of Education, Docket No. A-1432-15T3 (N.J. App. Div.  Nov. 9, 2017), reiterated this tenet in reversing a trial court that granted summary judgment to a general contractor that claimed it was owed final payment on a school construction project because the school board had waited too long to object to the contractor’s work.  The Appellate Division found that there were numerous material factual disputes between the parties when examining their allegations and the language in the parties’ contract.  It, therefore, reversed the trial court’s judgment, and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.  Critically, it appeared from the facts proffered by the school board that the contractor had not yet complied with the contract’s provisions regarding the right to receive final payment, such as the contractor’s obligations to provide standard close-out documentation and its failure to complete punch-list work.

Wallace Bros. serves as a reminder of how important it is for a contractor to review and, where possible, negotiate the terms of a contract before signing it, and then strictly comply with all contract provisions during the course of the project through completion.  In the public contracting context, as in Wallace Bros., the contractor generally must accept the terms of the contract on which it bids.  It then must strictly follow the procedures set forth in that contract when seeking payment for its work, particularly those provisions which explicitly set forth prerequisites to payment.  For example, change order provisions will typically require written documentation signed by the owner setting forth the additions or changes to the specified contract work, along with the price to be paid for that work, before such work is even performed, and therefore before payment is required to be made by the owner for any such work.

Also, as illustrated in Wallace Bros., contractors must be sure to compile and maintain their close-out documentation throughout the project, so that when it is time to submit their close-out packages in connection with final payment, they are not delayed tracking down or locating items such as subcontractor lien waivers, as-built drawings, and manufacturer warranties.  Note that in the private contracting context, a contractor may attempt to negotiate all contract provisions to try to ease the burdens of onerous payment and close-out requirements, as well as other critical terms, such as dispute resolution provisions and requirements relating to the performance and inspection of the work itself.

In sum, contractors must stay on top of their administrative duties and responsibilities in connection with their contracts.  No contracting party wants a construction dispute to end up in litigation, but if it does, the contractor will want to ensure that it has done everything by the book (or by the contract) to avoid getting tripped up by a technical contract prerequisite with which it failed to comply.

Parties objecting to development projects have traditionally been immunized from liability for common law torts, such as malicious prosecution, abuse of process and tortious interference.  This immunity, grounded in the well-recognized Noerr-Pennington doctrine, affords immunity to those who petition the government for redress.  (See  Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc. 365 U.S.  127 (1961); United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657 (1965) (holding that parties seeking relief from the government are generally afforded immunity unless such actions are objectively baseless).

While the immunity afforded objectors has been a difficult one to breach, recent decisions suggest that actions brought against these objectors require careful review of the facts and underlying circumstances before they can be summarily dismissed.  In order to overcome Noerr-Pennington immunity, a litigant must satisfy a two-prong test:  First, proof must be established that the actions of the objector were “objectively baseless,” meaning no reasonable litigant could realistically expect success on the merits of its claims.  Second, proofs must also establish that the conduct in question was brought with the specific intent to further wrongful conduct through the use of the governmental process – as opposed to the outcome of that process.  Importantly, the second prong is only considered if the challenged litigation is first found to be objectively meritless.

Recently, however, meeting the first prong has been made easier by our court’s consideration of an objector’s track record and the presence of other repeated failed filings.  (See Main Street at Woolwich, LLC v. Ammons Supermarket, Inc. 451 N.J. Super. 135 (App. Div. 2017).  In Main Street, the court relied upon a Third Circuit decision in holding that the trial court failed to properly consider the defendant’s alleged pattern of sham litigation.  Hanover 3201 Realty, LLC v. Village Supermarkets, Inc. 806 F.3d 162, 180 (3rd Cir. 2015), cert. denied __ U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 2451 (2016).  By demonstrating that an objector has engaged in a series of unsuccessful administrative and/or court challenges, developers can establish that this activity represents a pattern of utilizing the process to serve the anticompetitive purpose of injuring market rivals.  Under such circumstances, a court could very well conclude that the claims of such objectors were not brought to redress any actual grievances, but rather to promote delay and cause injury.  Accordingly, this broad immunity can be lost where the conduct at issue is merely intended to interfere directly with the business relationships of a competitor.

As a consequence, before filing any action seeking government redress, a putative objector, much like any other litigant, should carefully evaluate the bases for its objections with a legal professional to ensure that they are both grounded in fact as well as supported by sound legal underpinnings.  To do otherwise is to invite abuse of process type claims that now have a much greater likelihood of success.  Reviewing any possible strategy that involves objecting to a rival’s application for development is now, more than ever, a critically important step to insulating the objector from exposure to counter-suits that were previously viewed as questionable nuisance type actions.

New Jersey courts are continuing their trend of extending insurance coverage for third-party construction defect claims.  Following last year’s NJ Supreme Court decision in Cypress Point Condo. Ass’n, Inc. v. Adria Towers, LLC, 226 N.J. 403 (2016), which broadly interpreted the standard CGL policy to extend an insured developer’s coverage to include claims of damage caused by the work of subcontractors, the New Jersey Appellate Division recently issued a published decision approving a trial court’s use (though not its application) of the “continuous trigger” theory of insurance coverage to third-party construction defect claims, thereby, potentially extending coverage in such cases over multiple policy years.

In Air Master & Cooling, Inc. v. Selective Insurance Co.,  A-5415-15T3 (N.J. App. Div. October 10, 2017), the Appellate Division reviewed a trial court’s decision in a declaratory judgment action filed by a subcontractor against two of its insurers.  Those insurers had declined coverage and refused to defend the subcontractor in a construction defect litigation filed by the condominium association (the “Association”), on whose 101-unit building the subcontractor had performed certain HVAC work on the roof and in each individual unit.  The Association and certain unit owners claimed damage due to progressive water infiltration, which they attributed to defective workmanship, and the subcontractor was joined in the litigation as a third-party defendant.

The subcontractor had performed work at the building from November 2005 through April 2008.   In early 2008, unit owners began to notice water infiltration into their units and resulting damage.  A newspaper article published 2010 detailed the 2008 discovery of leaks by the unit owners.  In May 2010, the Association’s consultant issued a report identifying certain areas of the roof in need of replacement though noting it could not determine when the infiltration had occurred.

The subcontractor had three insurers from 2005 through 2015.  The insurer for the period November 2005 through June 2009, agreed to defend the subcontractor under a reservation of rights, as it was the insurer during the period the work was performed and at the time the first water infiltration was alleged to have been discovered.  The next insurer, Selective Insurance, provided coverage from June 2009 through June 2012, and disclaimed coverage, on the basis that the property damage was alleged to have manifested before the policy periods had begun.   The third insurer, with coverage from June 2012 through June 2015, also disclaimed coverage, and was dismissed from the subcontractor’s declaratory judgment case, without appeal, on the basis that its 2012 coverage commenced long after any leaks had started and any resulting damage manifested.

After some discovery was conducted, Selective moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court.  The trial court applied the continuous trigger doctrine of insurance coverage in analyzing whether Selective owed the subcontractor a duty to defend the construction defect claim.  It determined conclusively, however, that the damage to the building had manifested itself before Selective’s June 2009 coverage began.

On appeal, the Appellate Division, while agreeing that the continuous trigger doctrine was applicable in the construction defect context, disagreed with the ultimate determination – or at least found that the record was not sufficiently developed to make that determination.   The appellate court, therefore, reversed the judgment in favor of Selective and remanded the case back to the trial court with guidance on the application of the continuous trigger doctrine in the construction defect coverage context.

The continuous trigger effectively grants continuous coverage to an insured in connection with a third-party damage claim from the date of the initial exposure to the harm through the date of the manifestation of the injury resulting from the harm.  The appeals court rejected the subcontractor’s attempt to extend the doctrine even further to extend to the date of “attribution” – that is, when the particular damage could be attributed to a particular insured.  Doing so would be akin to transforming policy to claims made policy from occurrence-based, and likely escalate premiums or deter policies from being written.  Instead, the court determined that the endpoint of the coverage, or manifestation (or “last pull of the trigger”), should be the date when the harm has sufficiently become apparent or manifests itself to trigger a covered occurrence.

The Appellate Division, guided by the precedential first-party coverage case, Winding Hills Condo Ass’n v. North American Specialty Ins. Co., 332 N.J. Super. 85 (App. Div. 2000), held that the manifestation occurs at that time of the “essential” manifestation of the injury, and not necessarily at the initial discovery of the injury.  The essential manifestation is “the revelation of the inherent nature and scope of that injury.”  In examining whether the May 2010 report (during Selective’s policy period) or 2008 unit owner observations of water infiltration (before Selective’s policy period) should be used as the manifestation or end date of coverage, the court found the record too sparse to make that determination.   There were no depositions, or other evidence, revealing who knew what and when about these construction defects, and the court refused to rely on hearsay statements of the unit owners in the newspaper article.

Accordingly, the court remanded the case back to the trial court for a determination of what information about the building defects at issue were or reasonably could have been revealed between the time of the unit owner complaints and the start of Selective policy in June 2009.   The appeals court also noted that the matter was further complicated by the fact that the water infiltration associated with the roof was not discovered until the May 2010 expert report, while the newspaper article does not mention the roof.  Thus, there were genuine issues of material fact as to, among other issues, when water infiltration problems on the roof first became known or reasonably could have been known.

The Air Master decision continues a trend in New Jersey jurisprudence of expanding, within reason, CGL coverage to insureds.  In particular, in construction defect cases, the courts have recently liberally interpreted policies and legal theories to afford more coverage to insureds.   Where construction defects cause progressive property damage, as in the common case of water infiltration, Air Master will help to guide insurers, insureds and their respective counsel in analyzing whether, based on the facts alleged by a third-party, coverage is available for particular policy years.   It is also likely to spawn additional discovery and expense in the underlying construction defect cases specific to those issues.