An article in yesterday’s DJC discussed a general contractor’s (Perini) desire to get subcontractors paid, despite a nearly $500 million dispute over the construction of the $8.5 billion Mirage City Center project in Las Vegas. I was particularly drawn to this phrase in the article: “The subcontractors have not been paid as a result of the dispute, because their contracts require them to wait until Perini and MGM Mirage settle their final bills.”
Sure sounded like those subs have “pay if paid” subcontracts. Almost every subcontract we see these days has a “pay if paid” clause in it (an option for “pay if paid” was added to the AGC of Washington 2002 subcontract edition), which if done correctly, places on the subcontractors the same risk as is placed on the general contractor for the owner’s possible non-payment. Although some jurisdictions do not allow it (California, for example), “pay if paid” is doing away with the old “payment within a reasonable time” that Washington subcontractors used to count on. And, because “pay if paid” has changed the traditional risk paradigm for them, subcontractors have begun asking for assurances of the owner’s financing before committing to a project, just the way that general contractors do.
And why not? These days, other factors are beginning to test “pay if paid” in all-new ways. Owners have projects financed by banks on the FDIC watch list, and numbers of local projects have had lost their financing during construction, leaving no way for the general to be paid, therefore precluding the subs from being paid under the “pay if paid” clauses in the subcontracts. And, in Mirage-like disputes, subs must just stand by, because the general has no obligation to pay unless it has first been paid by the owner.
Also, the ways general contractors contract with owners continues to evolve, often without enough consideration of how that evolution needs to deal with the way subs get paid. For example, the “services addendum” model of general contracting, in which the general becomes a minority member of the owner’s developing entity has gained traction in our area. There are significant tax advantages for the project owner to have the general contractor as a “partner” in the project. But, doing so makes a “pay if paid” provision in a general’s standard subcontract agreement very difficult to understand or accept. If the general is one of the project’s titular owners, and “pay if paid” is designed to shift the risk of the owner’s failure to pay to the sub….well, you get the picture.
Add to the mix the fact that many subcontracts now require subs to waive their rights to lien the project. It’s easy to understand why a sub might have difficulty giving up its statutory right to the security of a lien while also accepting the risk of the owner’s failure to pay. Not a lot of protection left after agreeing to those two terms.
In the Mirage matter, Perini and the owner both have lots of money to spend battling about who owes who what, in a process that might take years to resolve. And even though publicizing the subs’ plight may be a self-serving effort by Perini to get the owner to resolve things faster, it’s nice to see a general contractor expressing concern about getting the subs’ needs addressed, regardless of a contractual clause that says it didn’t have to.