Mike Pappas was featured in Building Baltimore Magazine's February 2009 Edition for his work with the ABC Joint Legislative Committee.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Mike Pappas was featured in Building Baltimore Magazine's February 2009 Edition for his work with the ABC Joint Legislative Committee.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Mike Pappas was interviewed yesterday [March 25, 2009] at the Baltimore County Bar Association's Technology Expo, held at the Towson National Guard Armory from 11 am until 2 pm.
Pappas, the chair of the Bar Association’s Technology Committee, said that “the Expo was the culmination of the hard work of all of the members of the Committee and in fulfillment of the Committee’s mission to inform the Bar Association’s members about technology in their practices and lives.”
The Expo included 24 vendors and was attended by over 100 people from across the legal community and local businesses.
You can view the interview at: http://blogs.mddailyrecord.com/ontherecord/2009/03/25/video-baltimore-county-bar-association-technology-expo/
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
BY: Faith E. Harrison, Esquire
Originally Published In The HLG Constructor, September, 2008
Do we need an employee handbook?
More and more clients in recent years have inquired as to whether their company should have an employee handbook or employment manual. My answer is to always recommend having one, not because it is required by law (it is not required by law), but because it is the most effective way to make sure that ALL employees understand the company’s policies and procedures. Many workplace misunderstandings and miscommunications can be avoided by having a clear and comprehensive employee manual that is distributed and available to all employees. In addition, an employee manual informs all employees what is expected of them and provides a standard for employees to measure their own performance and the performance of their co-employees so that feelings of unfair or preferential treatment of co-employees can be minimized or even eliminated.
Handbooks or manuals do not have to be long or difficult to understand. In fact, having long or difficult to understand employee manuals defeats the purpose of informing employees of the company’s policies and procedures and what is expected of them. They should be comprehensive, but can be as brief as the employer wants. However, regardless of the length of the document, there are certain provisions which are extremely important to include. Below is a short discussion of some of these significant provisions. The following discussion should be considered only as examples of items that are important to consider when having the handbook or manual drafted. Of course, each employer’s needs and goals will be different, and it is important to consult with competent counsel regarding the individual needs of the employer, so that the employee manual can achieve its goal.
The most important provisions of an employee handbook are the terms of employment provisions. If employees with the company are “at will” employees, the handbook or manual should clearly state that employment with the company is “at will”. This means that either the employer or the employee has the right to terminate the employment relationship, for any reason, at any time. Keep in mind that the fact that an employee may be an “at will” employee DOES NOT allow an employer to terminate an employee for the “wrong reason.” An employer cannot terminate an employee just because the employee is a member of a legally protected class. In other words, an employee cannot be terminated solely because of his or her age, race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability. An employer also cannot terminate an employee in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim or a discrimination claim or for refusing to break a law. Obviously, an employee who meets one of the above criteria and who violates some other provision of employment justifying termination can be fired. However, so long as the employer is not firing an employee based solely on one of these discriminatory or unlawful reasons, the “at will” clause provides the employer with much flexibility to hire or fire as needed.
The handbook or manual should also have an equal employment opportunity statement. This statement reiterates the company’s commitment to administer all terms, conditions and privileges of employment (such as hiring, promotion, compensation, and firing) without regard to an employee’s race, color, creed, religion, age, gender, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, or any other category which is protected by law. Essentially, it means that employees have equal opportunity within the company and therefore, employment decisions will be based solely on ability and job performance and will not be based on one of the legally protected categories.
Employers with more than 15 employees will want to include a statement regarding their compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to employers with more than 15 employees, and which prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. Employers with more than 50 employees will want to include a statement regarding their compliance with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which only applies to employers with more than 50 employees, and which allows eligible employees (both male and female) to take leave for up to 12 work weeks in any 12 month period for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a family member, or if the employee has a serious health condition.
Harassment, including but not limited to sexual harassment, has become an important topic in employment law over the past several years. It is critical that a handbook or manual contain a firm statement prohibiting all forms of harassment in the work place. It is also important that information be included in the manual specifying how harassment should be reported to the employer, how complaints of harassment will be investigated by the employer, and a statement indicating that the employer will take all allegations of harassment seriously and will endeavor to maintain confidentiality with respect to harassment complaints and investigations to the best of its abilities. The goal of the employee manual or handbook’s harassment policy should be to make potential victims comfortable with reporting the harassment and confident that such reports will be taken seriously by the employer and meaningfully addressed.
Finally, a drug and alcohol policy, regardless of whether routine drug screening is performed, is important. A handbook or manual must state that the company is a drug and alcohol free work place and that there is a zero tolerance policy for employees working while under the influence of illegal drugs and/or alcohol. If the employer has instituted a routine or random drug screening program, the employee manual or handbook should specify the details of the program and the means and manner in which the program will be implemented.
The level of detail in a handbook or manual with regard to business topics is up to each individual employer. I recommend including as many policies as possible so that employees have a clear understanding of what to expect from the company. Here are some examples of policies to consider:
·Work Hours and breaks
· Probationary period
· Payroll and paychecks
· Time clock/sheets
· Overtime for “Non-Exempt” employees (hourly employees)
· Paid Time Off/Vacation Time/Sick Leave/Personal Leave
· Excused and unexcused absences
· Company holidays
· Benefits (insurance, retirement)
· Job Safety
· Disciplinary action
· Company property (including tools, vehicle, cell phone, computer)
· E-mail, internet, phone usage
· General policies
Last, employers should think about their workplace, including any problems or issues that may have arisen over time, and add any additional topics as needed. A manual or handbook should be individualized for each company so that both the employer’s and the employee’s duties and responsibilities are clearly understood by all, and the handbook or manual should be reviewed and revised every few years to reflect changes in the law and in company policy. It does not matter whether a company has one employee or a hundred, an employee handbook or manual is an important tool that will help avoid problems in the work place.
By: Eli Robbins, Esquire
Originally Published In The HLG Constructor, July, 2008
Payment bonds are the grease that keeps the wheels of the construction industry turning. They provide security for lower-tier contractors and materialmen, ensuring that they will be paid for the labor and materials rendered to the project, and they provide security for owners, providing protection from and/or recourse in the event that a mechanics’ lien is filed against the owner’s property.
While payment bonds come in many forms, the most prevalent payment bond form is the AIA form A312. This standardized payment bond form establishes the circumstances under which the surety will be liable to pay a claim arising under the bond and sets forth the steps a claimant is required to perform in order to properly assert a claim against the surety under the bond. Finally, the A312 payment bond establishes what the surety must do once it receives a payment bond claim.
The obligations of the surety with respect to sub-contractors and materialmen (called “Claimants”) are set forth in the A312 bond in a counter-intuitive manner, as follows:
“With respect to Claimants, this obligation shall be null and void if the Contractor promptly makes payment, directly or indirectly, for all sums due.”
What this provision really means is that the surety is liable to pay Claimants all sums due unless the Contractor (also called the “Principal”) has paid the sums due to the Claimant, either directly or indirectly. Invariably, whether the sum is “due”, thereby invoking the surety’s liability under the bond, or not, is often the subject of much debate. But that discussion is best left for another day.
Having defined the scope of the surety’s liability to Claimants under the bond, the bond establishes the procedure a Claimant seeking to file a claim against the surety must follow. The procedure depends on whether the Claimant is a first-tier contractor—meaning a contractor who has a direct contract with the Principal (the contractor who furnished the bond), or a lower-tier contractor—meaning a contractor whose contract is with someone other than the Principal. Contractors who have a direct contract with the Principal need only provide the surety with a notice stating, with substantial accuracy, the amount of the claim and provide the owner with a copy of the notice to the surety. Contractors who do not have a direct contract with the Principal need to first send a notice to the Principal (with a copy to the owner) stating, with substantial accuracy, (1) the amount of the claim and (2) the name of the party with whom they have a contract. This notice must be sent to the Principal and the owner within 90 days of the last day that labor and materials were rendered to the project. In the event that the Claimant receives a rejection (in whole or in part) of its claim or no response within 30 days after having provided the notice, the Claimant must notify the surety (with copy to the owner) of its claim against the bond and include with its notice a copy of its notice to the Principal.
Once the surety receives a valid notice of claim, the surety must do two things within 45 days: (1) send an answer to the Claimant stating the amounts that are undisputed and the basis for challenging any amounts that are disputed and (2) pay or arrange for payment of any undisputed amounts.
What happens if the surety fails to respond as it is required under the bond? Enter the Wadsworth case.
In Wadsworth, a general contractor hired Wadsworth to perform site work on the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort in Cambridge, Maryland. Wadsworth’s contract contained a “pay-when-paid” clause which the general contractor relied upon in refusing to pay Wadsworth for the work it performed. Accordingly, Wadsworth filed a claim against the general contractor’s A312 payment bond.
Thirteen days after receiving Wadsworth’s bond claim, the surety acknowledged receipt of the bond claim and requested documentation to support the claim. Notably, the surety did not state the amounts of the claim that were undisputed or the basis for challenging the amounts of the claim it was disputing. Given that the surety failed to comply with the terms of the bond which it issued, Wadsworth argued that the surety implicitly waived its right to contest the claim. Accordingly, Wadsworth sought, and was granted, summary judgment against the surety in the full amount of its claim.
The surety appealed the decision granting Wadsworth summary judgment to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and, after losing there, to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest appellate court in the State. The Court of Appeals upheld the entry of judgment in Wadsworth’s favor holding that the surety’s obligations under the bond were substantive and that the surety’s failure to state the amounts of the claim that were undisputed and the basis for challenging the amounts of the claim that were disputed rendered the entire claim undisputed. Needless to say, this decision, the first of its kind in the United States, shook the entire surety industry. However, the American Institute of Architects (“AIA”), the creator of the A312 payment bond form, refused to modify the requirements of the A312 payment bond despite pressure from the surety industry, and the A312 payment bond remains in popular use.
The Wadsworth rule is gaining traction in other jurisdictions across the country. In Florida, a court went a step further than the Wadsworth court did and held that, under the terms of the A312 bond, a Claimant is not required to substantiate its bond claim. In that case, the Claimant properly submitted a bond claim and, like in Wadsworth, the surety’s response failed to comply with the provisions of the bond. However, in the Florida case, the surety requested that the Claimant file a “proof of claim” and provide substantiation of its claim. The Claimant provided the requested information and, when the surety failed to respond in compliance with the terms of the bond, sued the surety. The Claimant sought to apply the Wadsworth rule to preclude the surety from disputing its claim. The surety attempted to argue that the provision of the proof of claim form and substantiation by the Claimant triggered the 45 day period, which had not expired prior to the Claimant filing suit. The Claimant argued, and the Florida court agreed, that the 45 day period is triggered once a proper notice of claim which complies with the provisions of the bond is received by the surety. Because the bond does not require Claimants to provide additional substantiation of their claims or complete a “proof of claim” form, voluntarily providing these items in response to the surety’s request did not impact the running of the 45 day period at all.
Having failed to convince the AIA to modify the A312 bond , the surety industry is slowly adapting their practices to avoid getting banged by the Wadsworth rule. Some sureties are moving away from using A312 payment bond form altogether. Other sureties have modified the A312 bond form by deleting the paragraph which outlines the surety’s responsibilities upon receipt of a bond claim (including the 45 day response requirement and the requirement that the surety set forth the basis for challenging the disputed amounts of the bond claim) and replacing that paragraph with one that shifts the burden back on to the Claimant. A modified A312 payment bond could require the Claimant to provide a “proof of claim” executed under oath, along with substantiation in support of its bond claim. (Presently, the A312 bond form does not require that the Claimant provide substantiation of its claim along with its notice of claim. Rather, under the current A312 bond form, all a Claimant is required to do in order to initiate a bond claim and trigger the surety's 45 day obligations is to notify the surety that the Claimant has a claim and, with substantial accuracy, the amount of the claim.) As such, the lack of substantiation can, itself, become a basis for denying the bond claim which, when one thinks about it, is disingenuous and bears no relation to the actual merits of the claim. Another modification could enlarge or delete the time period within which the surety may respond to the claim. Finally, the surety can insert a provision preserving its rights notwithstanding a non-timely response. All of these possible modifications are direct responses to the issues raised by the Wadsworth rule and its progeny. As always, it is crucial that a contractor who is considering filing a bond claim read the payment bond terms and conditions very carefully and consult with competent counsel to ensure that it, and the surety in its response, have satisfied all of the requirements of the bond
By: Mike Pappas, Esquire
Orignially Published In The HLG Constructor, January, 2008
This Article is the last in a series of three articles regarding the “time-bombs” in your filing cabinet and will focus on the typical warranties provided by contractors through construction contract documents.
A warranty is a promise, made by the person providing the warranty, or the “warrantor”, that goods or services provided by the warrantor are of the quality represented and will be replaced or repaired if found to be faulty. In the construction industry, a warrantor can be a general contractor providing a warranty to an owner, a subcontractor providing a warranty to the general contractor, or manufacturers and vendors providing warranties to any of the above.
The warranties on a construction project typically start with the manufacturer of each of the component materials which are purchased and delivered to the site by vendors and subcontractors. These same vendors and subcontractors often supply their own warranties on the materials and services which are incorporated into the component systems within the structure being built. Finally, the general contractor often provides a warranty to the owner of the structure that encompasses the entire structure and all of its component subsystems and materials. Upon the final completion of a typical multi-story construction project, there can be scores of separate warranties which pertain to the completed structure and all that lies within.
Manufacturer and Vendor Warranties
The least complicated warranties are those warranties provided by vendors or manufacturers on products which are supplied to the project. These warranties are often clearly limited to manufacturing defects and benefit the recipient of the warranty by assuring that any defects covered under the warranty will be repaired or replaced during the warranty period. The fact that the warranty typically is for a definite period of time protects the warrantor by limiting its contingent liability for defects to the duration of the warranty. The main pitfalls associated with these warranties arise from conflicting language which may be included in purchase orders or other contract documents. Although the warranty language in the form supplied by the warrantor appears to be cut and dry, that standard warranty language can often be modified or superseded by language included in the upper-tier contract documents which are incorporated or “flowed down” to the warrantor. It is thus incumbent upon the warrantor to know and understand the scope of the warranty that it is required to provide pursuant to the relevant contract documents prior to submitting its bid so that it can adequately evaluate the risk posed by a non-standard warranty requirement, assess the cost of that risk, and include that cost in its bid instead of assuming that its standard warranty will suffice. The result may be a breach of contract action against the warrantor. A breach of contract action, unlike a breach of warranty action brought under a warranty, has the potential for unlimited damages; the damages available in breach of warranty actions are typically limited by the terms of the warranty.
Subcontractor and Contractor Warranties
Warranties provided by subcontractors and contractors are usually mentioned in the contract documents and create an obligation on behalf of the warrantor to provide its items or work in accordance with the contract documents and free from defects or deficiencies. It is often believed that these warranties, especially those set forth in the most common contract documents (AIA, AGC, etc.), are limited in time to one year. However, as will be explained, that is often not the case.
The most common contract warranty language usually resembles the warranty language found in section 188.8.131.52 of AIA form contract number A201 (1997) which obligates the warrantor that:
“[i]n addition to the contractors obligations under paragraph 3.5, if within one-year after the date
of Substantial Completion of the Work … any of the work is found to be not in accordance with the requirements of the Contract Documents, the Contractor shall correct it promptly after receipt of written notice from the Owner to do so unless the Owner has previously given the Contractor a written acceptance of such condition.”
Section 3.5.1 of AIA A201 (1997) provides that:
“[t]he Contractor warrants to the Owner and Architect that material and equipment furnished under the Contract will be of good quality and new unless otherwise required or permitted by the Contract Documents, that the Work will be free from defects not inherent in the quality required or permitted, and that the Work will conform to the requirements of the Contract Documents.”
Neither of the aforementioned provisions limit the actual warranty obligations to “one-year.” Instead, section 184.108.40.206 creates a “call-back” period during which the warrantor is obligated to return and correct, repair or replace its work in the event that it is found to be non-compliant with the contract documents. Note that the obligations of section 3.5.1 are not limited in time at all. Rather, pursuant to the obligations of section 3.5.1, should any work be discovered at any time to be non-compliant with the contract documents or otherwise not in compliance with the warranty representations, the warrantor is required to bring the work into compliance.
Another common misperception is that the contract language which expressly limits the warrantor’s “call back” warranty obligations to one year applies to all warranty obligations contained in the contract. Unfortunately, courts across the country have consistently ruled that the one year “call back” warranty limitation cannot be construed to apply to all warranty obligations set forth in the contract, and that, in order for warranty obligations to be effectively time limited, each time limitation must be expressly and conspicuously set forth with respect to each warranty obligation contained in the contract.
In addition to the express warranties discussed above, implied warranties can also be problematic. An implied warranty is a warranty that is imposed against the warrantor by virtue of the warrantor’s actions or representations, or by law. Chief among the implied warranties is the implied warranty of workmanlike construction. This warranty imposes a duty upon the party rendering the work to provide work that is of good quality, free from defects, and in conformance with the contract documents. This warranty generally requires materials or work which is within the skill of a builder of average abilities. Although this implied warranty was originally applied only to residential construction projects, the courts have expanded its coverage to include condominiums, apartments, and even commercial buildings. Needless to say, aside from the statute of limitations and its specific application in each particular case, this implied warranty obligation is not limited in time.
It should be noted that the statute of limitations would, theoretically, provide some time limitation to all warranties, whether they are expressly time limited or not. However, the application of the statute of limitations and the event which triggers the running of the statute of limitations is very fact specific, and as a practical matter, one should not rely upon the statute of limitations as providing a cut-off date for contingent warranty liability.
There are ways to avoid warranty problems lurking in your filing cabinets. First, all contracts should be carefully reviewed prior to execution. All warranty obligations should be identified and, if not acceptable to the parties, negotiated. Qualifying language such as “substantially” should be added to warranty provisions in order to avoid demands for strict compliance with the design documents. Next, language which warrants against broadly defined items should be avoided. The scope of the warranty and any exclusions should be clearly defined, and all warranties should be clearly time limited.
Friday, February 29, 2008
Mike Pappas was recently featured in the Government Affairs Newsletter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. for his work with the ABC Joint Legislative Committee in Maryland. Mike has been a Member of the Legislative Committee for 3 years and has been a member of ABC since he joined the firm.
To read the article in full, go to: http://www.abc.org/Government_Affairs/Politics/Get_Involved_In_Politics/Monthly_Grassroots_Newsletter.aspx
Then "Click" on "Grassroots Newsletter-March 2008"
Congratulations to Mike for this recognition of his hard work on behalf of all contractors.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
By: Mike Pappas, Esquire
Orignially Published In The HLG Constructor, November 2007
This article is Part II in a series of articles about the dangers lurking in the files of businesses in the construction industry. This article focuses on “flow down provisions” and “incorporation provisions” pursuant to which obligations contained in other documents or contracts are imposed upon subcontractors by reference in standard subcontract agreements. These two items, often overlooked, typically explode when the project is not going well and the owner, general contractor, or subcontractor try to enforce a contract provision. At that time, it is often too late to do anything about them or take any steps to protect yourself and your business.
Flow Down Provisions
Flow-down provisions require subcontractors to assume all of the obligations and responsibilities towards the contractor that the contractor assumes towards the owner. Typically, contractors are required under the prime contract to structure their agreements with subcontractors in such a way that the contractor’s obligations in the prime contract are “flowed-down” to the subcontractors. The danger arises when subcontractors are not provided with or do not read the prime contract, and are not, therefore, familiar with the obligations contained therein.
A typical flow-down provision requires the subcontractor to “assume toward the contractor all obligations and responsibilities which the contractor assumes towards the owner and the architect.” See, AIA Document A401-1997.
For general contractors and owners, flow-down provisions provide the ability to predict and control the rights and obligations of all parties on the project throughout the course of construction. Flow-down provisions can be especially dangerous to subcontractors since they were, by their nature, negotiated long before the subcontractor was in the picture. Flow-down provisions often include terms that are not favorable to subcontractors’ positions, or which require them to assume risks that are not accounted for in their project price. Thus, it is vitally important for subcontractors to know all terms which flow-down to them on every project. Likewise, it is equally important for the general contractor to remember that flow-down clauses are two-way streets. Not only does the subcontractor assume certain obligations not specifically enumerated in the subcontract, but the general contractor also assumes obligations to the subcontractor that do not appear in the four corners of the subcontract itself.
Incorporated Documents Provisions
Incorporated document provisions typically set forth a listing of other documents that, while not attached, are made a part of the agreement. The incorporation provision creates a danger of uncertainty by including other terms into the current contract, which are often not at hand to evaluate at the time the document is reviewed or executed. The danger from incorporation provisions arises when the incorporated documents are not provided or are not read and they contain conflicting or additional terms not included in the document to which they are incorporated.
The dangers of both flow-down and incorporation provisions can be seen in the following case.
A subcontractor entered into a subcontract for a project which specifically incorporated the terms, conditions and provisions of the prime contract. The prime contract contained a flow-down provision which required subcontractors to assume all duties and obligations toward the general contractor that the general contractor assumed towards the owner. The subcontractor never obtained a copy of the prime contract. The subcontract contained a claims provision that required the subcontractor to submit its claims to the general contractor with “sufficient time to allow the contractor to submit claims to the owner.” Upon encountering a condition that gave rise to a claim, the subcontractor, believing that it was being diligent, submitted a formal written claim to the general contractor within seven (7) days of the occurrence. However, unbeknownst to the subcontractor, the prime contract required the general contractor to submit its claims to the owner within five (5) days of the occurrence or they were “forever waived.”
Based upon this requirement, the owner denied the subcontractor’s claim. Accordingly, the subcontractor filed for arbitration, which was mandated by the provisions of the prime contract. At the arbitration, the arbitrator upheld the owner’s denial of the claim, reasoning that that the subcontractor failed to comply with the incorporated provisions of the subcontract when it failed to timely submit its claim. The fact that the subcontractor did not have a copy of the prime contract and did not know of the five day notice requirement was not an excuse. To add insult to injury, the general contractor was awarded the costs of the arbitration, including its attorneys’ fees, because the prime contract had a prevailing party provision which was incorporated into the subcontract as well.
In the above case, had the subcontractor taken the time and invested the funds to obtain, read and understand the provisions of the prime contract, which were incorporated by reference into the subcontract at the time the subcontract terms were being negotiated, the loss might have been avoided. The subcontractor could have simply delivered its notice of claim within the time frame allotted, or the time frame could have been negotiated to include more days before the subcontract was executed. Additionally, needless legal fees could have been avoided had the subcontractor known and appreciated that the prime contract contained an arbitration provision and a prevailing party provision which entitled the prevailing party to recover its expenses and attorney’s fees as well.
The effects of flow-down and document incorporation provisions can be easily managed during the subcontract negotiation process. The parties, with knowledge of the provisions, can often negotiate a more equitable process which does not put the subcontractor at a disadvantage. In the event that the objectionable terms cannot be negotiated, the subcontractor, with knowledge and an understanding of all of the obligations included in subcontract, is able to more accurately determine its risk exposure, and can then price the project accordingly.
Flow-down and document incorporation provisions are a fact of life in the construction industry. Flow-down provisions are supposed to allow the parties to share risks and stand in relatively equal positions with respect to their counterparts on the project. They also allow for the rights and obligations of all parties on a project to be determined at the commencement of the project and for the consistent treatment of all claims or issues that arise on the project. For general contractors and owners, flow-down provisions provide predictable risk allocation and defined participation in the project by all. For subcontractors, the benefits are often lost due to failure to recognize and address obligations imposed by flow-down provisions during negotiation of the subcontract. Additionally, document incorporation clauses often incorporate documents which subcontractors never obtain, much less read and appreciate. As such, parties to these clauses are frequently surprised to discover that they are obligated to comply with terms and obligations they have never seen. Actively procuring and reviewing all documents that are incorporated into the subcontract during subcontract negotiation phase will prevent the effects of these time bombs in your files.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
By: Mike Pappas, Esquire
Orignially Published In The HLG Constructor, September 2007
Undoubtedly, if your filing cabinets are like those found in most businesses, they are likely to contain items that are long forgotten. However, because of the nature of many businesses, there may be several items located in your filing cabinets that could cause you tremendous distress and cost you or your businesses a tremendous amount of money.
The next several issues of the HLG Constructor will contain a series of articles regarding the “time-bombs” in your files. This edition will focus on personal guarantees included in credit agreements, confessed judgments/promissory notes, and in bonding agreements with sureties. Future editions will cover the unexpected effects and obligations of “flow-down” provisions, incorporation clauses, and warranties.
The personal guarantee is often overlooked or misunderstood at the beginning of a project or business relationship. Even if it were considered at the outset, its importance is often erroneously minimized and it often ends-up filed away and forgotten. This seemingly harmless document typically explodes when the project is not going well or the business is having cash-flow problems. At that time, it is often too late to do anything about it or take any steps to protect yourself and your business.
Personal guarantees are promises or undertakings that an individual or individuals will satisfy an obligation that an entity has undertaken but fails to satisfy. Personal guarantees are typically made by principals or officers of companies and are most often encountered in credit applications from suppliers. These guarantees are usually signed when the company is young or when a new supplier is needed. Personal guarantees are also commonly found in promissory notes, settlement agreements, and fee arrangements.
From the creditor’s perspective, a personal guarantee is a form of collateral from an actual person for the extension of credit to a business since businesses, other than sole-proprietorships, are usually legal fictions. Possessing a personal guarantee gives the creditor a person to go after if the business fails to pay its obligations. While most personal guarantees are executed by corporate officers or principals, many times, they are executed by the treasurer or comptroller of a company. Sometimes unwitting employees sign and submit credit applications, not realizing that they may be obligating themselves personally in the event of non-payment by the company.
Moreover, many sureties require personal guarantees from the principals of the business for which they provide a bond. Often these personal guarantees accompany indemnification agreements which require the business to repay the surety for any money that the surety has to pay on behalf of the business. Accordingly, when the indemnification provisions include personal guarantees by the principals or corporate officers, they become liable in the event that the surety pays. Additionally, most indemnification obligations also provide for reimbursement of costs associated with claims made against the bond including attorney’s fees, court costs, investigation costs, and expert fees.
Problems arise from personal guarantees when the business fails to fulfill its obligations and the creditor or surety looks to the person that signed the guarantee to fulfill the obligation. Many times the creditor or surety is forced to go to the personal guarantee because the business has fallen behind on payments or has failed to pay altogether. Typically, the principals of the business may also be experiencing financial hardships at the same time. Nevertheless, the personal guarantee will operate to endanger the personal assets of the person that signed the guarantee (the guarantor).
Courts have upheld personal guarantees by corporate officers and company principals for centuries. Barring the existence of fraud in inducing the guarantor to enter in the obligation, they are very difficult to defeat and are typically upheld. Even if a corporate officer leaves the company, their personal guarantee obligations may continue. Accordingly, corporate officers or principals should carefully note each time they undertake a personal obligation on behalf of the business and should consider a means of protecting their personal assets beyond the traditional formation of LLC’s, LP’s or Corporations.
In the worst cases, the guarantor was an accounts payable clerk who signed a credit application from a vendor and was sued by the vendor to recover when the company has not paid. The good news for this employee is that the courts have traditionally not enforced such obligations on the employee if the employee did not receive consideration for undertaking the obligation. The bad news for the employee is that the courts across the country are not clear on their application of this maxim or on how to define adequate consideration in this situation. The worst news for these employees is typically they will have to hire their own lawyer to defend them from the lawsuit as the company cannot afford to defend them or the company’s lawyer cannot represent both the employee and the company due to conflicts of interest.
There are additional steps that can be taken to minimize the impact of personal guarantees or eliminate them altogether. First, as many of these guarantees were made at the outset of a business relationship with vendors, suppliers, or sureties as collateral, they can be revisited or renegotiated at your request, once the company establishes a track record with the creditor. Many suppliers, vendors, and sureties will release the personal guarantee based upon your company’s good payment history and credit relationship. However, don’t expect to get a surety to release a personal guarantee which protects a bond it has already issued and for which payment obligations may still exist unless you are willing to offer some other sort of collateral to cover the obligation.
Sometimes, vendors and suppliers will release the personal guarantees in exchange for faster payment terms and/or a higher finance charge on payments beyond a certain age. If your company has always paid its bills on time with a vendor, they will likely be willing to work with you. Nevertheless you should remember that credit managers and sureties are inherently averse to risk. So, be prepared to make your case by showing your payment history with them and possibly other vendors as well.
When you are successful at renegotiating your credit agreement, care should be taken to assure that the personal guarantee is actually and finally released and the credit agreement is actually modified to reflect the release of the personal guarantee. An attorney should review any modifications to personal guarantees to verify that that they comply with and are not contradictory to any contractual and legal requirements. Any modifications to personal guarantees should also be signed and witnessed by both parties.
Personal guarantees are an unavoidable certainty in the construction industry today. They are an effective way for vendors, suppliers, and sureties to secure their risk when providing services, materials or bond coverage. Personal guarantees are so prevalent in the everyday business of the construction industry they are often quickly forgotten or their possible importance is minimized until a company experiences cash-flow issues or a project goes terribly wrong. Fortunately, through understanding the obligation included in each personal guarantee and careful planning you can avoid surprises and minimize the impacts of personal guarantees. Moreover, by proactively revisiting your existing personal guarantees with suppliers, vendors, and sureties, you may be able to avoid personal obligations altogether.