PNN_1503In the world of claims-related contract clauses for design professional agreements, the indemnity and defense clauses get all the attention.  However, lurking in the shadow of the indemnity clause is a menacing cousin with potentially even greater and more frequent impact and risk:  the prevailing party attorneys’ fee clause.  Both clauses share the common risk that they are often not covered by professional liability insurance because each represents a contractually-assumed liability which would not exist in the absence of the contract.

The indemnity clause draws the far greater attention because that obligation and exposure often arises during the claim by way of the defense obligation, as opposed to the attorneys’ fees clause which ultimately comes into play definitively only after a final judgment.  Moreover, many design professionals (and especially their CFOs) are attracted to the prevailing fees clause as a means of effectively collecting unpaid fees.  Without such a clause, they worry that the expense of pursuing collection of unpaid fees will eat up much of the ultimate recovery.  Accordingly, it has some initial positive appeal.

However, that appeal is limited in perspective and overlooks the far greater potential negative impact of the prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause in the context of a professional liability claim which is the all too common response to even justified actions to recover unpaid fees.  As opposed to the indemnity and defense obligation, the prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause will apply far more frequently.  The indemnity and defense clause applies only where the client itself is facing a third-party claim.  By contrast, the prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause will generally apply to every client dispute, regardless if third parties are involved.  Since the majority of claims against design professionals come from the project client, that makes it far more likely and relevant. Moreover, where professional liability issues are involved in the dispute, the presence of the clause may actually dilute the design professional’s fiscal advantage. Specifically, absent the perceived panacea of the prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause, design professionals frequently hold a superior financial advantage during claims by virtue of their insurance which will fund defense costs as compared to the client claimant which is often left to fund the costs of litigation from their own resources. The unfortunate reality is that pacified by the promise or potential to recover their attorneys’ fees at the end of the dispute, many client claimants and their attorneys incur far more than they would absent that prospective reimbursement—even to the point of incurring multiples in expense beyond the prospective recovery. Even if the claim is largely defeated or reduced, even a minimal net recovery may establish the client as the prevailing party entitled to recover the attorneys’ fees incurred in the action.

Whether expressly stated as such, or not, it is important to recognize that a prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause is almost always a two edged sword equally available to both parties. As a matter of consumer protection, nearly every state has statutes which refuse to recognize one-sided attorneys’ fees clauses and automatically convert the clause into a bilateral clause entitling and exposing each side to the benefits and burdens of the clause. (See for example Oregon Revised Statute 20.096 and Florida Statute Section 57.105(7).) Accordingly, a clause which purports to entitle the design professional to recovery of its attorneys’ fees in pursuit of its fees will most often to create and equivalent right of recovery in the client for contract related claim.

Whether proposed by the client or by the design professional, prevailing party attorneys’ fees clauses are a common component of many commercial contracts, including design professional service agreements. An unqualified prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause is almost never a good idea for a design professional. Where such a clause is proposed, the following five options present a descending structure of preferred approaches. In proposing or negotiating any of these five options, frequently the best rationale in support of these approaches is that any dispute should focus on resolution of the dispute and not arming the lawyers for battle.

This has been an excerpt of the March 2015 issue of ProNetwork News, titled Prevailing Party Perils: Attorney’s Fees’ Clauses in Professional Service Contracts. To continue reading about the five preferred approaches to dealing with an unqualified prevailing party attorneys’ fees clause, click here to download the full PDF version of our newsletter for free.

About the Author

David A. Ericksen is a principal shareholder in and immediate past President of the law firm of Severson & Werson in San Francisco, California, and leads the firm’s Construction and Environmental Practices. For over twenty years, Mr. Ericksen has specialized in the representation of architects, engineers, construction managers, design-builders, and other construction professionals. Mr. Ericksen’s expertise covers all aspects of such professional practice as lead litigation and trial counsel, as well as being an active resource for risk management, strategic planning, and transactional matters. He is a trusted and valued resource to design and construction professionals and their insurance carriers across the United States and beyond. He has been repeatedly recognized as an industry leader, including being named a Construction “SuperLawyer” for the last eight years. He is a graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley, a former law clerk to the Washington State Supreme Court, and a member of and resource to numerous construction and environmentally-related professional organizations. Mr. Ericksen is a frequent speaker before construction professional organizations such as the AIA, SEA, ACEC, CSI and others, as well as providing in-house training seminars for firms.

DesignBuildRisk management best serves design professionals when it’s put in place prior to the acquisition of risk. Not damage control strategies, but damage avoidance strategies. In the case of design-build projects–arguably some of the riskiest in the business–this preemptive management of risk should include a number of questions asked by all parties involved. Among those questions: How should the design-build project be structured?

At Victor O. Schinnerer’s most recent Annual Meeting of Invited Attorneys, Jonathan C. Shoemaker, of the Lee & McShane law firm, answered this question and others based on his own research “on the contractual and professional risks of participants in design-build projects.”

According to Shoemaker, there are many ways “to structure design-build teams, including teaming agreements, joint ventures, partnerships, and newly-formed companies owned by the design-build team.” The following is an excerpt from a post on the Schinnerer website:

[Shoemaker] defines the organization of a design-build team as either a vertical relationship (e.g., a traditional prime contractor/subcontractor organization) or a horizontal relationship. And he points out that the vast majority of design-build teams are contractor-led, with the design firm serving as a subcontractor to the contractor.

According to Shoemaker, a horizontally structured relationship is where a contractor and a design firm come together to form a joint venture, a partnership, or a new company to provide fully integrated design-build services. He defines the most common horizontal structure, the joint venture, as “a business undertaking by two or more persons engaged in a single defined project.” A joint venture structure typically includes:

joint control over the joint venture’s decisions (as opposed to the prime contractor having control);

liability for the joint venture’s losses (as opposed to liability for only the design professional’s losses);

and profit sharing (as opposed to only the profit earned under the design agreement).

Shoemaker also examines the risks to the design professional on a design-build project and discusses how the risks vary depending on the design firm’s involvement.

Visit the Schinnerer website to read the entirety of the post.

The Keys to Keeping a Project on Track

PN - Vol. 22, No.1. 2015In 1985, after five years prosecuting criminals as an assistant US attorney, I became deputy general counsel of The American Institute of Architects.  On my very first day, I was introduced to civil law.  In his gravelly voice, the general counsel explained to me that the key to success in my new position was to “think liability”.  I understood, as the traditional casebooks teach in law school, that appellate decisions in commercial cases tend to focus on determining where something went wrong and deciding who should be blamed. Liability was the proverbial ‘hot potato’, something to be avoided at all cost.  As a result, lawyers teach and are trained to concentrate on anticipating potential liability and finding ways to avoid or transfer it so their clients are not caught in its web. The general counsel wanted me to think the same.

There are big downsides to lawyers defining “success” as drafting a contract intent on anticipating potential failures and pushing responsibility to other parties with the least bargaining power.  Project problems require a nimbleness that can be lost if contract structures are excessively rigid. The industry as a whole also incurs huge costs from procedural requirements that needlessly force parties to jump through time-consuming hoops before an issue can be resolved.  This kind of “success” hurts and ultimately impairs the competitiveness of the U.S. construction market.

The better a contract party has allocated project risk away from itself, the more it may also have created disincentives for other parties to collaborate, prevent problems and, when they occur, find solutions. It can also hurt the party who has used market power to divest itself of risk.  Self-serving narcissism has never built either the trust or the chemistry necessary for group effort to succeed or for firms to get hired. It can also hurt the legal profession: Too many in the business world already think the best way to lose a deal is to bring in a lawyer to draft a contract.  And these problems are all easily avoidable and totally unnecessary. Continue reading “The Keys to Keeping a Project on Track”

Law BooksYes, we know. We’ve given them a shout-out before, but it’s well-deserved. Here’s an excerpt from their most recent post, an answer to a design professional FAQ:

Why are some words in your contracts capitalized and others aren’t?

I recently received a telephone call from a policyholder asking this question because of a minor issue that arose when the term “notice of award” was capitalized in the general conditions, but was not capitalized in the instructions to bidders. His attorney advised that “it could be argued” (a not-unusual term for an attorney to use when trying to interpret contract language) that since the term was not capitalized in the instructions to bidders that it was not the same as the written notice defined in section 1 of the general conditions. The policyholder advised that the issue of telephone notification vs. written notification had been resolved, but it got him thinking about the many terms in his contract documents that are sometimes capitalized and sometimes not and he wondered why.

Capitalized words by convention usually mean defined terms. For example, “XYZ Corporation (‘Client’) promises to….” allows the rest of the contract to use “Client” instead of the full name. The same applies to other defined terms. You define them and then use the capitalized word thereafter to differentiate it from common English terms interpreted as their common meaning.

Visit the Schinnerer RM Blog to continue reading…

“Brochurebiage”

brochurebiage

Yes, “brochurebiage” is a word we made up. It refers to that optimistic and puffed‐up verbiage that can creep into a professional’s brochures or other promotional materials. Many people are rightfully proud of their past work and skill and need to sell that experience and ability to prospective clients. However, use such language with caution.

Licensed professionals promoting themselves as the best around can be an effective way to attract clients. The risk comes when they enter into a contract that refers to or incorporates language in promotional material because it could needlessly raise the standard of care. In California, while licensed professionals may hold themselves to a high personal standard, the default legal standard by which professional negligence or malpractice is evaluated is the standard of care of an average professional in the same field and community. This default standard of care is favorable for licensed professionals because it means to avoid liability, they do not need to be perfect. After all, who is?

This average standard of care can be modified however through contract. Professionals sometimes inadvertently do this when a contract refers to or incorporates a proposal or other promotional item that promises superlative services or the “highest standard of care.” Including a standard of care that goes beyond what is required by law unnecessarily raises the bar for performance and exposes the professional to a greater risk of liability if there are allegations that the work was anything less than perfect. Additional problems may arise because professional liability insurance typically covers the average standard of care, so a contract promising a higher standard might not be covered, which could leave the professional on the hook alone.

To minimize this risk, avoid exaggerated language that over‐promises in contracts. Rather than say a professional will provide the absolute best services, say they work hard to provide professional services that lead to successful projects. Show clients examples of superlative work. Finally, avoid contracts that refer to or incorporate promotional materials because that could unnecessarily raise the standard of care, or limit such incorporation only to the scope or fee portion of the proposal. Highlighting past success and emphasizing skill is necessary to generate business, but exercise caution and balance when using or referring to brochurebiage in contracts.

This article has been reprinted with permission from its authors, David E. Barker and Erin Dunkerly of Collins Collins Muir + Stewart LLP in California. 

Nothing contained in this article should be considered legal advice. Anyone who reads this article should consult with an attorney before acting on anything contained in this or any other article on legal matters, as facts and circumstances will vary from case to case.

cloudcomputingIn this age of terabyte-sized digital memory banks and the seemingly infinite storage possibilities of “the cloud,” understanding how long a design professional should retain project documents can be tricky. More and longer aren’t always better, but there are legalities to consider before any kind of purge takes place. For architects and engineers, basing a firm-wide retention policy on consideration of the relevant statute of repose is usually a good start. For latent defect claims in California, for example, that’s ten years from the date of substantial completion.

According to attorney Jennifer Suzuki at Long & Levit LLP in California:

There is no statute of repose for personal injury claims arising from alleged construction defects.  (Such claims must be brought within two years from date of injury regardless of completion date.)  Although it is much less expensive these days to retain records in a digital form rather than in hard copy, most firms do not find it feasible to retain all their records in perpetuity.  It’s always a judgment call based on a cost/benefit analysis.

In the absence of notice of a pending or threatened claim, I believe many of our clients retain their records for ten or twelve years. (The additional two years allows extra time for Doe amendments and delayed service of process.)  Some clients designate different retention periods based on the type of project record, e.g., correspondence, drawings, etc.  In the event of a pending or threatened claim, clients should adopt a litigation hold so that no potentially relevant records are inadvertently destroyed as part of a normal destruction policy.

The following is an excerpt from the Small Businesses & Self-Employed page on the IRS website. Just a few rules of thumb on tax-related documents:

The length of time you should keep a document depends on the action, expense, or event the document records. Generally, you must keep your records that support an item of income or deductions on a tax return until the period of limitations for that return runs out.

The period of limitations is the period of time in which you can amend your tax return to claim a credit or refund, or that the IRS can assess additional tax. The below information contains the periods of limitations that apply to income tax returns. Unless otherwise stated, the years refer to the period after the return was filed. Returns filed before the due date are treated as filed on the due date.

Note: Keep copies of your filed tax returns. They help in preparing future tax returns and making computations if you file an amended return.

1. You owe additional tax and situations (2), (3), and (4), below, do not apply to you; keep records for 3 years.

2. You do not report income that you should report, and it is more than 25% of the gross income shown on your return; keep records for 6 years.

3. You file a fraudulent return; keep records indefinitely.

4. You do not file a return; keep records indefinitely.

5. You file a claim for credit or refund* after you file your return; keep records for 3 years from the date you filed your original return or 2 years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later.

6. You file a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction; keep records for 7 years.

7. Keep all employment tax records for at least 4 years after the date that the tax becomes due or is paid, whichever is later.

We’ve also published a ProNetwork News issue on this topic, titled Document Retention and Disposition: A Key Element of a Design Professional Quality Control Manual. If you have questions about document retention or other risk management-related issues, don’t hesitate to call on your local a/e ProNet broker!

Disclaimer: As with all posts on The ProNet Blog, this post is not intended to convey legal advice. Readers in all cases should engage competent legal counsel with respect to particular issues, contracts, and disputes.

PNN_1409The closely watched California Supreme Court case of Beacon Residential Community Association v. Skidmore Owings and Merrill et. al. has been decided, and the opinion is bad news for California Architects.  The Court held that architects owe a duty of care to future homeowners in the design of residential buildings where the architect is a principal architect on the project, meaning that the architect is not a subordinate to other design professionals.

Case background and procedural history

As a refresher, this case involved the design and construction of residential units in the Bay Area of California. Originally held as apartments, the units were converted by one of the developers into condominium units. After completion, the condominium association filed a lawsuit against the original developers, contractors, and designers alleging a long list of construction and design defects. Among the issues was a complaint that the individual units did not include air conditioning and that the quality of the windows used was so deficient that the individual units experienced excessive heat gain, making them unlivable.

Skidmore Owings and Merrill (“SOM”) and HKS, Inc. (“HKS”) were the architects for the project. In reliance on past case law in California, SOM and HKS filed a motion in the trial court arguing that they did not owe any duty of care to the condominium association because neither SOM nor HKS had contracted with that entity. The trial court granted that motion. The intermediate appellate court reversed that ruling, holding that under other California law, SOM  and HKS  in fact did owe a duty to subsequent owners who were foreseeable even though SOM or HKS did not contract with them. This created an arguable conflict between cases, and thus the California Supreme Court accepted the case for resolution.

Our firm was privileged to file an amicus brief on behalf of the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Architects, California Council, arguing that architects should not be held to owe a duty to downstream owners with whom the architect did not contract. Continue reading “California Supreme Court Rules Against California’s Architects in the Beacon v. Skidmore Owings Case”

PNN_1405Seen any changes the past thirty years in the delivery of professional design services?  Sure, you have—particularly in the area of construction documents. Raised stools and drafting tables, pounce, and lead-darkened calluses on the middle finger of the draftsmen have, for the most part, yielded to CAD. Although CAD’s promise of error-free drawing may have proven elusive, many of its other promises have been fulfilled. Some even appear understated in hindsight—in part because CAD and the Internet seem to have been made for each other. Their combined effect reduces trying to list all the ways CAD has changed project delivery to a futile exercise.

Like CAD in the ‘80’s, BIM seems to hold similar promise today—a fact not lost on contractors, A/E’s, and project owners alike. Digital models are more-and-more often offered or requested as “deliverables.”  And multiple models for the same project are not uncommon—as building team participants explore their usefulness at various stages of design and construction. Some models are used much like enhanced CAD construction documents, provided and controlled largely by the A/E. But many incorporate data contributed by sources other than licensed design professionals, including suppliers, fabricators, contractors, and subs. Not surprisingly, many contractors and construction managers view BIM as a means for carving out an increased share of the project delivery pie—and are taking full advantage of it as both a marketing and performance tool. Some of them have even become the primary creators and custodians of digital models. Of course, that is not altogether unnatural. After all, it’s hard to ignore a tool that can show what will be built—and also to be useful in actually building it. Continue reading “The Design Professional in the Age of BIM: Things that change; things that don’t.”

construction

Sometimes the grounds for termination are absolutely clear. And sometimes several legal options are available. But when preparing to terminate a subcontract, there’s one more question to ask: Is this the right business decision? We turn to Burns Logan’s Southeast Construction Law Blog for the answer.

The following is an excerpt from a September 2014 post on the blog titled Subcontract Termination: Not for the Faint of Heart:

After a few weeks of poor performance by the stucco subcontractor, my client and I sat down to determine all the possible avenues to resolve the issues. The first thing we did was pull out the subcontract which controlled the stucco subcontractor’s work. We wanted to be sure that the subcontract included all the necessary provisions to allow my general contractor client to remedy the situation. Some of the common default provisions in subcontracts include:

  • failure to prosecute the work promptly and with due diligence;
  • failure to prosecute the work in a workmanlike and safe manner;
  • failure to supply proper supervision;
  • failure to properly staff the job;
  • failure to supply materials and equipment of proper quality and quantity;
  • failure to promptly correct defective or deficient work;
  • failure to pay sub-subcontractors or suppliers;
  • failure to maintain the project schedule as directed by the contractor; and
  • failure to submit proper progress and completion schedules.

We found that this subcontractor had violated many of the standard default provisions in my client’s subcontract. Therefore, we felt we had the proper authority to issue notices of default.

Continue reading “Subcontract Termination: The right business decision?”