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Recent Changes to the Law of Private Construction Contracts - Your Government is Here to Help You Again - Massachusetts

As part of the end-of-session rush at the Massachusetts General Court this summer, significant changes were made to Massachusetts law governing private construction contracts at the urging of general contractor and subcontractor industry groups. Members of the development and lending community were largely taken unaware as the bill moved forward, and unsuccessfully attempted in the later stages of the process to modify or defeat the legislation. Consequently, developers, lenders, contractors, sub-contractors, design professionals and attorneys need to be aware of substantial changes (and many unanswered questions) created by the new statute in the areas of withholding and release of retainage, defining substantial completion, and preparation of punchlists.

Key highlights of Chapter 276 of the Acts of 2014, to be codified at M.G.L. c. 149, sec. 29F:

  • Applicability: All contracts on projects on which the prime contract (a) is entered into after November 6, 2014, and (b) has a contract price of $3 million or more, except projects of 1 to 4 dwelling units.

  • Withholding of Retainage:  Caps retainage to be withheld from progress payments at 5% (long-standing practice has been to retain 10% of each progress payment, with reduced (or no) withholding of further retainage after the project achieves some level (typically 50%) of completion). 

  • New Definition of “substantial completion”: “The stage in the progress of the project when the work... is sufficiently complete in accordance with the contract for construction so that the project owner may occupy or utilize the work for its intended use…”  Parties may divide a project into phases and apply the statutory scheme applicable to “substantial completion” separately to each designated project phase.

 

Process for determining substantial completion:

  • Within 14 days after achieving substantial completion, the prime contractor submits a notice of substantial completion to the owner (form provided in the statute) with contractor’s determination of the date of substantial completion.

  • Within 14 days after receiving this notice, the owner must accept or reject it and return it to the contractor.  If the owner does neither, the notice is deemed accepted and the date of substantial completion determined by the contractor is binding.

  • If the owner rejects the notice, it must notify the prime contractor within this 14-day period, including the “factual and contractual basis for the rejection”, which must be certified as made in good faith.  The dispute is then governed by the contractual dispute resolution provisions, which the contractor must commence within 7 days of its receipt of the owner’s rejection notice.

 

Punchlist:

  • Within 14 days after the date of substantial completion is established (either through the notice process described above or the applicable dispute resolution proceeding), the owner must submit to the prime contractor a list (certified as made in good faith) of (a) all defective or incomplete work and (b) all outstanding deliverables required under the prime contract.

  • Within 7 days after the prime contractor’s receipt of that list, it must submit a similar list (certified as made in good faith) of all defective or incomplete work and outstanding required deliverables to each sub from whom it is withholding retainage.

 

Release of Retainage:

  • Applications for release of retainage can be submitted starting 60 days after the date of substantial completion (unless the contract provides for earlier submission), and each application must be accompanied by a list (certified as made in good faith) identifying the defective or incomplete work and deliverables on that party’s punchlist which have been completed, repaired and delivered.

  • Contract must permit applications for release of retainage at least monthly.

  • Retainage (other than that withheld in accordance with the new statute) must be released within 30 days of submission of the application for release, with an additional 7 days added for each tier of subcontractor.

 

Withholding Release of Retainage:

  • Only the following amounts can be withheld from retainage in response to an application for its release:

    • For incomplete, incorrect or missing deliverables, either (a) the value of the deliverables as mutually agreed to by the contracting parties, or (b) if no value has been agreed to, the reasonable value of the deliverables (not to exceed 2.5% of the total adjusted contract price of the party seeking release of retainage);

    • 150% of the reasonable cost to complete or correct incomplete or defective work; and

    • Reasonable value of any claims, costs, expenses and, where permitted under the contract of the party seeking release of retainage, attorneys’ fees.

  • No retainage can be withheld unless the withholding party provides to the party seeking the retainage, before the date payment is due, a notice (certified as made in good faith) (i) identifying the defective or incomplete work and the incomplete, incorrect or missing deliverables, (ii) the “factual and contractual basis” for any claims, and (iii) the value attributable to each item of incomplete or defective work, deliverable, and claim.

  • Multiple sequential applications for release of retainage are permitted as work is completed or corrected/deliverables are delivered/claims are resolved.

  • Unless the owner has declared the prime contractor in default under its contract, the owner cannot withhold retainage owed by the contractor to a subcontractor except for withholding based on a default by that sub.

  • Rejection of an application for release of retainage is subject to contractual dispute resolution procedures.  Contract provisions requiring a party to wait more than 30 days after rejection of an application for release of retainage before being permitted to commence dispute resolution procedures are void and unenforceable.

 

Additional Provisions:

  • All communications provided for in the new statute may be made electronically.

  • Section 29F(l) provides that any provision in a contract “which purports to waive, limit or subvert this section or redefine or expand the conditions for achievement of substantial completion for payment of retainage, shall be void and unenforceable.”

The new statute creates major areas of uncertainty for all parties on private construction projects, including:

  • How far an owner can go in adding requirements for deliverables, issuance of permanent C of Os, completion of commissioning, etc. as conditions to achieving “substantial completion”, in light of the new statutory definition of that term and the limitations imposed by Section 29F(l);

  • How an owner can mobilize its design professionals, its lender’s construction inspector, and its own construction team to respond to the prime contractor’s notice of substantial completion in the detailed manner required by the statute within the very short (but required) 14-day period;

  • How disputes over whether substantial completion has been achieved can be resolved through contractual dispute resolution procedures without jeopardizing project delivery deadlines;

  • What constitutes the “factual and contractual basis” required for various actions by the owner; and

  • How lenders will respond to the mandatory reduction in retainage to 5% (some are already saying that they will require an additional 5% in equity from the owner to make up the 10% retainage traditionally withheld by owners).

Although the consequences (intended or otherwise) of this new statute for the real estate lending, development and construction industries in Massachusetts remain to be seen over the coming months and years, they are likely to include:

  • Owners requiring retainage to be withheld on components of the contract price that previously may not have been subject to retainage (e.g., contractor’s fee, general conditions); exercising much greater control over a contractor’s use of contingency funds; requiring bonds from prime contractors and subs more regularly; and policing variations from the project schedule and/or the contract documents more strictly earlier in the project; and

  • Owners being much more selective in the choice of prime contractors and subs, tending towards repeat relationships, leading to greater consolidation within the industry and raising the barriers to entry by new companies.

There is already discussion underway about efforts to amend, limit or repeal this statute, so this will be something to watch for in 2015.

© 2019 SHERIN AND LODGEN LLP

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About this Author

Peter Friedenberg, Sherin Lodgen Law Firm, Real Estate Attorney
Partner

Peter Friedenberg is a partner in the firm’s Real Estate Department. He maintains a broad transactional real estate practice involving acquisition, development, ground leasing, land use permitting, financing, leasing, and disposition of properties, as well as facilities operation and management matters. His clients include public agencies and authorities, developers, lenders, educational institutions, nonprofit entities, and operating companies. Peter became a LEED Accredited Professional in September 2008.

Peter has extensive experience in the...

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