By: Robert Ruggieri
Last week we blogged about an important decision recently handed down by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on the enforceability of pay-if-paid provisions in Pennsylvania. In Sloan & Company v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, a surety, Liberty Mutual, was found not liable to pay Sloan, a subcontractor, on a payment bond claim because of a valid pay-if-paid provision in the subcontract between Sloan and Shoemaker, the general contractor who had secured the payment bond. The Court held that Shoemaker did not have to pay Sloan in full because it did not get paid in full from the project owner. Because Shoemaker was not liable under the contract, the Court held that its surety could not be liable on the bond claim.
The Sloan case certainly clarifies many issues regarding pay-if-paid provisions and liquidating agreements in Pennsylvania. However, language in the Court’s opinion calls into question the opinion’s lasting impact, and suggests that particular aspects the Court’s ruling may be limited by developments in Pennsylvania’s Mechanics’ Lien Law (Lien Law) that went into effect after the subcontract in question was formed.
Pennsylvania’s Public Policy in Favor of Subcontractors’ Right to Secure Payment
In the Sloan case, the subcontract between Shoemaker and Sloan required that Sloan waive its right to file a mechanics’ lien. Sloan argued that if the surety was able to rely on the pay-if-paid provision in the subcontract as a defense to payment on Sloan’s bond claim, this would result in a situation that is contrary to Pennsylvania’s public policy that favors subcontractors’ right to secure payment.
This public policy is spelled out in a 2007 amendment to the Lien Law. Specifically, Section 1401(b) of the Lien Law makes lien waivers invalid, and unenforceable, unless they are given in exchange for payment for work performed by the subcontractor, or, unless the contractor has posted a bond guaranteeing payment for labor and materials provided by subcontractors.
The purpose of this provision is to provide subcontractors with an alternate avenue for recovery of payment in exchange for their waiver of lien rights. A subcontractor gives up the protection afforded by the lien in consideration for the protection of a surety bond. In Sloan, that protection was taken away by the pay-if-paid provision. Importantly, however, this provision of the Lien Law was not in effect at the time Sloan entered into the subcontract.
Surety’s Ability to Rely on Pay-if-Paid Provision May Be Contrary to Public Policy
In a footnote, the Court stated that its ruling in favor of the surety was not contrary to public policy because the Lien Law amendment came into affect after Sloan entered into the subcontract, and Sloan, without relying on this policy, freely accepted the tradeoff between a mechanic’s lien and a surety bond.
However, this footnote begs the questions:
- Would the Court have ruled the same way if Sloan entered into the subcontract after the 2007 Lien Law amendment? and;
- Going forward, will courts allow a surety to rely on a pay-if-paid provision in a contract entered into after the 2007 Lien Law amendment where the subcontractor was required to waive its lien rights?
The Court did not address these questions in its opinion. However, arguments can certainly be made that after the 2007 Lien Law amendments, it is against Pennsylvania public policy to allow a surety to rely on a pay-if-paid provision as a defense to a subcontractor’s payment bond claim, where the subcontractor was required to waive its right to file a lien; and, had the Sloan Court been interpreting a contract entered into after the amendments that its ruling would have been different.
The Sloan decision does nothing to prevent a subcontractor, who waived its lien rights after the 2007 Lien Law amendment, from arguing that a surety’s reliance on a pay-if-paid provision is against Pennsylvania’s public policy. Subcontractors can, and will, argue that the purpose of the Lien Law amendment is to ensure that a subcontractor who is required to waive its lien right will have the protection of a payment bond; and that allowing a surety to rely upon a pay-if-paid provision to deny payment on a bond claim thwarts the very purpose of the surety bond and defeats the purpose of the Lien Law amendment.
On the other hand, sureties will rely on the Sloan decision, as well as other established principles of surety law holding that a surety’s liability is only triggered when the principal’s (general contractor’s) debt matures. Because the pay-if-paid provision prevents the general contractor’s debt from maturing, the surety cannot be held liable. Finally, sureties will argue that surety bonds are provided for the primary benefit and protection of the obligee, usually the owner, not the subcontractors, and therefore, a subcontractor’s reliance on the bonds is misplaced.
So, while the Sloan decision is certainly an important one in the line of cases dealing with pay-if-paid provisions, its impact may be limited and subject to change. In the realm of pay-if-paid provisions, many questions remain. It is likely that in the near future a court will have to answer the tough questions the Sloan Court was able to avoid.