Michael Vitiello

Michael Vitiello

Father’s Day is a good time to reflect on all of the great things that our fathers have done for us and how they have influenced our lives in so many ways.  As I reflected back this year on all of the things I have learned from my dad, I realized that my dad’s life-long love and pride in the construction industry unexpectedly and unknowingly influenced my own career choice as a construction lawyer.

My essay this week on ENR.com is called No Tie on Father’s Day: Daughter’s Tribute to Construction Dad.”   I wrote it with my own personal experiences in mind.  However, since it was posted to the site on Friday, I have heard from several people who have told me that those experiences and feelings were strikingly similar to their own.

So, it seems as though a generation of hard-working construction professionals, like my dad, have passed their love and pride in the industry to their children who are making construction part of their lives in their own way and finding a special way to connect with their fathers.

I am happy to share with you that I will be a contributing editor to ENR’s Viewpoint section offering commentary about legal and risk issues facing the design and construction industries.

My first contribution is titled, “An Uphill Battle Against LEED-Based Codes” where I review my predictions regarding the reception of the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) in the year ahead and the impact that the soon-to-be released version of LEED will have on the relevance of the IgCC. Click here to read the ENR.com article.

I invite you to follow along at ENR.com for future updates. We will also be posting links to those updates here and on our LinkedIn company page.

Thank you for your continued support.

This week Governor Nathan Deal signed Georgia HB 434 which amended the Georgia Lien Law to allow lien claimants to include overhead costs and interest in amounts claimed in mechanic’s and materialman’s liens.

As I discussed in my last post, the changes were sought by contractor groups to overcome a 2012 decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals that specifically held that overhead and administrative costs were not lienable. See 182 Tenth, LLC v. Manhattan Construction Company.

 

Problem solved, right?!  Not exactly.

Unfortunately, the new language potentially causes new problems and case-by-case litigation over whether certain costs are lienable.  This is because the standard now for determining the amount of the lien is “the amount due and owing the lien claimant under the terms of its express or implied contract, subcontract or purchase order.” O.C.G.A. §44-14-361(c).

This change appears to make the lien claimant’s contract the controlling authority on what amounts are lienable rather than looking to statutory definitions or references for that answer.  This would be a significant departure from how the Georgia Lien Law has been interpreted in the past. And, more importantly, it will turn the issue of “what is lienable” into a case-by-case determination.

 

What is “due and owing?”

Here are a few situations that I think will arise as a result of the new statutory language:

  • We now know that interest can be included in the amount of the lien, but at what rate?  The new Lien Law is not clear on that issue.  If the contract contains an interest clause, then presumably the contract rate would apply, but often contracts do not provide for interest on unpaid amounts.  If that is the case, should the general pre-judgment interest rate apply, the rate for commercial accounts, or should the interest rate of the Georgia Prompt Pay Act apply?
  • Another issue that will almost certainly be raised by this new language is whether attorneys’ fees can be included in a lien if the lien claimant’s contract allows recovery of attorneys’ fees.  But, what if the contract allows for recovery of attorneys’ fees only if the lien claimant prevails?
  • Historically, delay damages for extended overhead and idle equipment have not been lienable because these were not labor and materials that were actually incorporated into the project.  However, it is at least arguable now that a lien claimant can include delay damages if its contract allows recovery of delay damages.  However, what if the lien claimant is a subcontractor whose contract provides that the sub recovers delay damages only to the extent that the prime contractor recovers from the owner, but it has not yet been determined that the delay was caused by the owner or that the prime will recover delay damages from the owner?

There is a potential here for contractors to use this new and untested language to inflate or exaggerate the liens by including significant amounts for items that are actually in dispute.  For example, claims for delay damages and attorneys’ fees can outsize contract balances and change orders by exponential amounts.  If this starts to happen, expect owners to take action—either by seeking relief from the courts in the form of penalties or damages for overstated liens, or by lobbying the Georgia Legislature for further amendments to the Georgia Lien Law that provides better guidance as to what items are lienable.

Georgia Lien Law Changes

Georgia Flag

Last year, the Georgia Court of Appeals issued a decision in a case called 182 Tenth, LLC v. Manhattan Construction Company, in which it narrowly defined the scope of costs that could be included in the amounts claimed in a lien.  For contractors, especially prime contractors and construction managers, it was a horrible decision because it effectively eliminated a substantial portion of the amounts that could be included in a lien against an owner.

More specifically, the Court held that various overhead and administrative costs contained in Manhattan’s pay applications, which were part of the contract price, were “unlienable” because they were not labor or materials that actually went into the property.  Those “unlienable” costs included:

  • staff
  • mobilization
  • power
  • safety
  • office supplies
  • small tools
  • temporary road
  • job site copier
  • progress photos
  • job site communications
  • job signage
  • dumpster rentals/pulls
  • unit certifications
  • general liability insurance
  • preconstruction
  • phone/water
  • job site trailer
  • job toilets
  • computers
  • fuel and oil
  • blueprints
  • record drawings
  • postage/courier
  • temporary fence
  • cleanup crew
  • final clean
  • builder’s risk insurance

This year, Georgia contractors lobbied the legislature to change the lien law in order to overcome the limitations imposed by the narrow interpretation of the Court in the Manhattan case.  HB 434 was passed on the last day of the legislative session.  A copy of the version that passed and is on its way to the Governor can be found here.

Georgia HB 434 modifies O.C.G.A. §44-14-361 to include the following language:

 (c) Each special lien specified in subsection (a) of this Code section shall include the amount due and owing the lien claimant under the terms of its express or implied contract, subcontract, or purchase order subject to subsection (e) of Code Section 44-14-361.1.

 (d) Each special lien specified in subsection (a) of this Code section shall include interest on the principal amount due in accordance with Code Section 7-4-2 or 7-4-16.

 Under the new law (after it is signed and goes into effect), contractors should be able to include in lien amounts the costs found “lienable” in the Manhattan case as long as those amounts are due under the terms of the contract.  But, I think the new language will not add clarity or guidance in a situation where the parties dispute whether an amount is “due and owing” under the terms of the contract.

In my next post, I’ll give at least two examples of how this new statutory language will lead to continued uncertainty and further litigation over what can be included in a lien.

North Carolina Lien Law Changes

North Carolina

North Carolina’s legislature made big changes to the state’s lien laws that went into effect this year.  One of the most critical changes—the “Mechanic’s Lien Agent” requirement—became effect on April 1, 2013.

The new law requires project owners or prime contractors to designate a Mechanic’s Lien Agent at the time of contracting and to post the information relating to the Lien Agent at the project site.  Any contractor or supplier that may potentially be a lien claimant must provide the Lien Agent with a preliminary notice of its involvement of the project within 15 days after first beginning work or supplying labor or materials.

To support these new requirements, North Carolina has created an online clearinghouse/filing system called the NC Online Lien Agent System at www.liensnc.com, which became active on April 1st.

My friend and fellow construction lawyer Bryan Scott, who practices with Spilman Thomas & Battle in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has written two very detailed and practical articles about the new requirements of the North Carolina lien law [click here] and the new NC Online Lien Agent System at www.liensnc.com [click here].

It’s no secret that the construction industry in the Atlanta-metro area has been struggling (on life support) for at least the past three years.  Before the recession, our city and region was thriving on meaty public and private construction projects and construction jobs were plentiful.  When the recession hit, development and construction projects halted.  Private construction all but evaporated, and competition for public construction projects has become fierce—to the point where contractors are taking jobs on razor thin profit margins, just to have work to keep their employees working and their doors open.

Now, the City has negotiated a deal with a private partner—Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons to build a new $1 billion stadium—in which the City will be paying roughly 20% of the cost of the project.  This is the largest single construction project to occur in this area in a long time.  It is, without question, going to boost the local construction industry and bring back some of the construction jobs that have been lost in the past few years.

The Atlanta Business Chronicle reported on the stadium deal today.  A full version of the story can be found here.  For people who are not convinced that this project is a good thing for Atlanta, here are a few points from the article that I think are important:

  • The public contribution for stadium construction is capped at $200 million, which would come from the hotel-motel tax collected by the city — almost exclusively (more than 85 percent) from visitors and tourists, not residents of the city. 
  • The existing hotel-motel tax revenue stream is the sole public funding source for the stadium construction and any risk associated with repayment is carried by the bond holders, not the city. 
  • No property taxes or new taxes of any kind would be paid by or levied on city residents or businesses to fund construction of the new stadium. The city will not serve as a backstop for any debt associated with the construction of a new stadium and this agreement will not affect the city’s bond capacity or credit capacity. 

It’s not every day that a billion dollar construction project comes along, and certainly Atlanta hasn’t seen a project of this magnitude in years.  Hopefully, it will be a catalyst to more development and construction that will lead to steady growth in our local construction industry.

It’s that time of year again when Georgia legislators work to pass the laws that will take effect for 2013-2014.  This year, there are a couple of bills working their way through the chambers that will directly affect construction contractors and construction projects in this State.

HB434

Introduced by Representatives Tom Weldon, Wendall Willard, and Mike Jacobs, HB 434 adds language to the Georgia mechanic’s lien law (O.C.G.A. §14-44-361) that specifically allows a lien holder to include in the lien amount “the amount due and owing…under the terms of its contract, subcontract, or purchase order.”

It also provides that in the absence of a contract, the lien may include amounts for “the unpaid value of the labor, materials, and services provided by the lien claimant for the improvement of real estate.”

HB 434 is currently before the Judiciary Committee.

SB70

Senate Bill 70 allows the Georgia Department of Transportation greater flexibility in using the design-build delivery method for procuring construction related services and expands the use of design-build projects.  The bill allows the DOT to skip over the Request for Qualifications step, and procure a design-build contract simply through a Request for Proposals.  The bill also eliminates some of the restrictions and requirements relating to design-build procurements.

SB 70 passed the Senate unanimously on February 25, 2013 and is now making its way through the House.

Check back for updates on these bills in the final weeks of the legislative session.

Do you know of any other bills pending in the Georgia Legislature that might be of interest to the construction industry?  If so, tell us about it.

The Georgia Solar Energy Solar Association (“GSEA”) hosted its 2013 Policy Forum last week at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.  The program focused on the status of solar markets nationwide and in Georgia, as well as discussions about current Georgia laws and regulations governing energy policy and future changes that would open the markets for solar in the state.

2012 Solar Policy Initiatives

In 2012, GSEA conducted a major campaign with Georgia legislators to pass a bill that would have expressly permitted the use of power purchase agreements (PPAs), solar equipment leases and other types of third-party financing for solar projects.  According to the presenters at the Policy Forum, the solar market will never really open up in Georgia until those financing arrangements are permitted.

The 2012 bill met with steep opposition from Georgia Power and local EMCs because, they claimed, that such transactions violated the state’s Territorial Act, which regulates the utility industry and provides that only registered utility companies can sell power, and assigns territories to those utility companies. (see my 2012 blog post about this issue).  While the 2012 bill ultimately did not pass, it certainly caught the attention of Georgia Power and made the utility companies realize that the Georgia solar industry and its advocates were gaining momentum and support.

2013 Solar Policy Initiatives

GSEA appears to be continuing its course to pursue legislation that will allow PPAs and third-party financing.  A revised version of the 2012 bill has been introduced this year by Senator Buddy Carter as SB 51 2013.   GSEA will also continue to push to raise the cap on the state tax incentives for renewable energy projects.

What stands in the way of these solar policy initiatives? 

According to several panelists, including State Representative Chuck Martin and Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols, the biggest hurdle to solar-friendly legislation is Georgia’s low power rates.  Georgia and the southeastern states have the lowest electric rates in the country (by a lot in comparison to areas like the northeast).

Here’s why that is important (or at least why legislators and regulators think it’s important):  low power rates are apparently one of Georgia’s competitive advantages in attracting businesses to move to this state—and no one in elected office wants to take any action that could be seen as anti-economic development. 

Commissioner Echols and Representative Martin believe that legislation that opens the market to solar PPAs could create conditions that “run off companies and manufacturers with higher utility rates.”  No elected official wants to be positioned as “anti-business” or “anti-economic development” if the debate is framed in those terms.  But….

Does adding solar power to Georgia mean higher rates?

Georgia Power doesn’t think so.  Georgia Power sought approval to increase its purchase of solar power from independent producers from the current 55MW to 210MW over the next two years.  The program is called the Advanced Solar Initiative Program.

According to Ervan Hancock, a manager of renewable and green strategies for Georgia Power, the reason that Georgia Power is voluntarily seeking to increase its solar purchases is that “it is now economically feasible to add solar to [Georgia Power's] portfolio.”  Hancock went on to explain that Georgia Power has considered solar and other renewable energy sources for a long time but has never believed—until now—that it could include solar in its portfolio without causing a rate increase to its customers.  The reason Georgia Power believes that solar power can now be added without rate increases is because the costs of equipment have significantly decreased in the last 12-18 months, making the cost of solar power much less expensive.

So, if Georgia Power can add solar power without increasing rates, why do legislators believe that PPAs or solar leases will cause utility rates to go up?

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