By: Maria L. Panichelli
It is vital that construction contractors, regardless of tier or trade, understand the basic principles of contract surety bonds. An understanding of how bonds are used in construction; and, importantly, how the surety company prequalifies the contractor is critical. Surety Bonds are mandated by various federal, state and local laws, but may also be required by the private sector as well. Recently, as part of WIPP’s Give Me 5 webinar series, bonding specialist Ellen Neylan, along with construction counsel, Jennifer M. Horn and Maria Panichelli, discussed these issues in detail. Below are some highlights of the discussion.
The Performance Bond secures the contractor’s promise to perform the contract in accordance with its terms and conditions, at the agreed upon price, and within the time allowed. The Payment Bond protects certain laborers, material suppliers and subcontractors against nonpayment. Since mechanic’s liens cannot be placed against public property, the payment bond may be the only protection these claimants have if they are not paid for the goods and services they provide to the project.
In order to obtain a bond, the contractor must be prequalified. Sureties should not bond a contractor that does not meet their prequalification standards. The surety company’s pre-qualification process carefully analyzes the contractor’s entire business operation, much like a bank, because the surety is backing the promise that the contractor will perform the contract. The surety determines the contractor’s ability to meet current and future contract and financial obligations.
The parameters of bonding on a project are often dictated by the law. For example, the Federal Miller Act requires surety bonds for the “construction, alteration, or repair of any public building or public work of the United States for an amount greater than $100,000.” When filing surety claims against Miller Act bonds, subcontractors should be aware that timing is critical. Even though no notice is required, first tier subcontractors must wait 90 days from non-payment to give the bond principal a chance to make payments. In addition, all suits must be filed within one year of last work performed or materials supplied. It’s very important that the claim notice clearly state the amount being claimed, the name of the party to whom labor or supplies were provided, and that the subcontractor is making a formal claim against the bond principal.
The Surety will not pay claims without regard to their merits, but it should be expected to respond to claims promptly and, if denying a claim, offer an explanation. Finally, the Surety, with the aid of legal counsel, can assert all defenses of its bond principal, unless precluded by bond or contract language. Examples of defenses might include: breach of contract; recoupment/setoff; and failure to mitigate damages.