Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Colorado Court of Appeals Clarifies When the Statute of Repose is Triggered in Multi-Phase Construction Projects.

On February 2, 2012, the Colorado Court of Appeals answered two questions of first impression under the Construction Defect Action Reform Act (“CDARA”) in Shaw Construction, LLC v. United Builders Services, Inc., 2012 WL 311665 (Colo. App.).

Shaw Construction, LLC (“Shaw”), was the general contractor for a large residential project located in Stapleton. Shaw hired subcontractors to perform the construction work, including United Builders Services and MB Roofing (collectively “Subcontractors”). The project was completed in phases, and the last certificate of occupancy (“CO”) was issued on March 10, 2004. However, the project’s architect did not certify completion of all architectural construction until June 8, 2004.

The community homeowners association brought suit against Shaw on January 28, 2010 for alleged construction defects. Shaw filed its answer and third-party complaint against the Subcontractors on March 29, 2010. No CDARA Notice of Claim was sent to the Subcontractors at the time Shaw’s third-party complaint was filed.[1] The Subcontractors moved for summary judgment on the basis that the six-year statute of repose had expired prior to Shaw filing its third-party complaint. The trial court ruled in the Subcontractors’ favor and Shaw’s interlocutory appeal ensued.

The first question Shaw asked on appeal was a whether a notice of claim to a single construction professional tolls the statute of repose to every construction professional that worked on the project. The second question, was when the statute of repose begins to run in a multi-phase construction project.

The Colorado Court of Appeals rejected Shaw’s first argument that a notice of claim to Shaw would toll the statute of repose for all construction professionals that worked at the project. In making its ruling, the court analyzed the plain language of the statute and went through the legislative history of CDARA. The court found several reasons why this argument lacked merit, including that CDARA’s purpose was to streamline litigation and avoid a general contractor from “needlessly adding claims and parties.” If Shaw’s argument in this regard was accepted, it would not effectuate the changes sought by CDARA.

Next, the court was asked to decide when the statute of repose was triggered in a multi-phase construction defect action. The court's analysis turned on the definition of improvement, an undefined term used in Colorado's statute of repose, which would trigger the six-year limit on claims against construction professionals.[2] See C.R.S. § 13-80-104. Shaw argued that an improvement, for the purposes of triggering the statute of repose in a multi-stage construction project, means the date when the entire project is certified as completed by the architect of record. The Subcontractors argued that an improvement occurs either when each subcontractor’s respective work at the project was completed, or at the latest, when the last CO was issued.

The Court of Appeals held for the Subcontractors and affirmed the trial court's summary judgment ruling. Unfortunately, the court punted when it came to determining which of the subcontractors arguments would be the future of interpreting repose triggers in Colorado. Instead, the court found it unnecessary to determine if an improvement can be determined on a trade-by-trade basis, because the date the last CO was issued on March 10, 2004, and Shaw’s claims filed March 29, 2010 against the Subcontractors were properly dismissed using the latter repose trigger date. Id. at *8.

However, even with a lack of a definitive ruling on when exactly repose is triggered in this matter, the court's opinion cited several cases and provided statutory interpretation that may be insightful in determining a repose trigger date in other matters.  The court noted that “[o]ne quality of an improvement is permanence.” Anderson v. M.W. Kellogg Co., 766 P.2d 637, 641 (Colo. 1988). This is true, “even if the improvement can be removed.” Enright v. City of Colo. Springs, 716 P.2d 148, 150 (Colo. App. 1985). The Court also analyzed the “improvement” language from the statute of repose to be read that “a construction professional could be involved in only one component of a larger product, which would be the focus of 'substantial completion.'” Id. at *9. Finally, the court held, at least in this case, that “substantial completion” had occurred when the last building received a CO.[3] Id. Combined with the court's previous discussion of CDARA intent, this portion of the opinion indicates the court would have held the statute of repose trigger is the last CO date, or the CO date for certain buildings/phases, if it had been appropriate to make such a distinction. 

While maybe not providing the black-letter law construction professionals and attorneys were seeking, this case has begun to clarify when the statute of repose begins to run in Colorado construction defect matters.

The attorney who drafted this entry is no longer with the firm. For additional information regarding Colorado construction litigation, please contact David M. McLain at (303) 987-9813 or by e-mail at mclain@hhmrlaw.com.


[1] If a proper CDARA Notice of Claim had been sent to the Subcontractors before the statute of limitations and repose had expired, the statute of limitations and repose would have been automatically tolled for a period of no less than 60 days. See C.R.S. § 13-20-805.
[2] Presumably, the trial court held that Shaw could not take advantage of C.R.S. § 13-80-104(2), which lengthens the statute of repose if the claim arises in the 5th or 6th year after substantial completion, because Shaw had received a CDARA Notice of Claim on May 15, 2007, and filed its claims more than two years later.
[3] The court hedged its holding here by stating that Shaw failed to provide evidence or argument that the subcontractors continued to work after the last certificate of occupancy was issued. See Shaw at *9-10.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

In Colorado, you may now be able to recover attorneys’ fees and costs expended in piercing a corporate veil.

In 2001, Swinerton Builders contracted with Beauvallon Corporation to construct The Beauvallon, a condominium building in downtown Denver. The contract, though amended, was an AIA Document A201, which included mandatory arbitration and a fee-shifting provision, which provided:

In the event of any litigation between the parties, the prevailing party shall be entitled to reimbursement for all reasonable attorneys’ fees, expert fees, court costs, and all other third-party costs of the litigation incurred by the prevailing party.

After construction, Swinerton instituted an arbitration proceeding against Beauvallon Corporation and Craig Nassi, individually. The claims included against Beauvallon Corp. included breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The sole claim against Mr. Nassi was for breach of contract, arising out of an alleged personal guarantee. Swinerton later voluntarily dismissed its claims against Mr. Nassi, without prejudice, but expressly noted its contention that Beauvallon Corp. might be the alter ego of Mr. Nassi.

Ultimately, the arbiters awarded Swinerton more than $1,000,000 in damages, interest, attorneys’ fees, and costs against Beauvallon Corp. The district court confirmed the arbitration award. In a separate action, Swinerton brought two claims against Mr. Nassi, the first seeking a declaratory judgment that Beauvallon Corp. was Mr. Nassi’s alter ego and that he was bound by the terms of the contract between Swinerton and Beauvallon Corp. and by the arbitration award. The second claim sought to pierce Beauvallon Corp.’s corporate veil. The district court found in favor of Swinerton and found that Swinerton could pierce Beauvallon Corp.’s corporate veil and hold Mr. Nassi personally liable for the arbitration award. The district court did not, however, award Swinerton its attorneys’ fees and costs in the action, finding that: “The attorney fees necessary for this [veil-piercing] action are separate and distinct [from the arbitration award fees], therefore, now awardable under the contract retroactively.” It is from this ruling that Swinerton appealed.

In Swinerton Builders v. Nassi, 2012 WL 310781 (Colo. App. February 2, 2012), the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of award of attorneys’ fees and costs. In so ruling, the Court of Appeals noted: “Numerous courts have held that an action to pierce the corporate veil is not a separate and independent cause of action, but rather is merely a procedure to enforce an underlying judgment.” Id., at 13. The holding of the Court of Appeals was that:

[A] party who prevails in an action to pierce the corporate veil of a corporation may recover the attorney fees and costs incurred in that action if (1) the action was brought to enforce a breach of contract judgment against the corporation, and (2) the contract underlying the judgment authorized an award of fees and costs for enforcing the judgment against the corporation.

Id. at 1.

The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court for a determination and award of the appropriate amount of attorneys’ fees and costs to Swinerton.

If you have questions about the Swinerton Builders v. Nassi case, or generally about construction litigation in Colorado, you can reach David M. McLain by telephone at (303) 987-9813 or by e-mail at mclain@hhmrlaw.com.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Another district court weighs in on the impact of HB 10-1394.

Recently, United States District Court Judge Miller ruled in favor of a motion for partial summary judgment in the case of Continental Western Insurance Company v. Shay Construction, Inc. Continental Western Insurance Company v. Shay Construction, Inc., 2011 WL 3236102 (D. Colo. 2011). Judge Miller’s order ruled on arguments between the insurance carrier (“Continental Western”) and the subcontractor (“Shay”) regarding the application of HB 10-1394, codified as C.R.S. § 13-20-808. It is important to review the underlying case before digging into Judge Miller’s order.

Milender White Construction Company (“Milender White”) was a general contractor on a project in Grand County, CO and in early 2008 entered into several contracts with Shay for the framing, siding, and related work on the project. Shay was insured by Continental Western under a commercial general liability (“CGL”) insurance policy. Continental Western canceled the policy on or about April 27, 2009 for non-payment.
Shay hired Wood Source, Inc. and Chase Lumber Company (collectively, the “Subcontractors”) to furnish materials, labor, and equipment for construction on the project. The Subcontractors filed suit against Shay alleging non-compensation for work and materials, seeking to enforce a mechanic’s lien. Both Milender White and Shay were named as defendants. In its answer, Milender White asserted cross-claims against Shay for breach of the contracts entered into in 2008. Milender White asserted many claims of breach, but there were four important claims to note: (1) Shay’s failure to perform work to the quality standards and requirements of the subcontract and contract documents; (2) Shay's performance of defective work, not in compliance with the requirements of the subcontract and contract documents and failing and/or refusing to correct deficiencies; (3) Shay’s failure to pay the Subcontractors; and (4) Shay’s failure to hold harmless and indemnify Milender White from claims originated by Shay’s Subcontractors.
The motion for summary judgment at issue, came about after Continental Western filed its complaint seeking declaratory judgment that the insurance policy does not cover Shay’s dispute with the Subcontractors or Milender White, particularly Milender White’s cross-claims. Continental Western was seeking summary judgment on the issue that the terms of the insurance policy did not include and/or expressly exclude coverage for the damages claimed by Milender White. Continental Western was also seeking summary judgment on Shay’s counterclaims (breach of contract, bad faith breach under insurance contract, and statutory bad faith) arguing that Shay was not entitled to a defense or indemnity in the underlying lawsuit brought by the Subcontractors.
The insurance policy stated, “We will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies.” Coverage also applied to an “occurrence” defined in the policy as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” The insurance policy also excluded several things, such as contractual liability, damage to property, and damage to your work.
Continental Western’s first argument essentially stated the insuring language, “those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages,” only applies to damages resulting from tort actions, not claims of breach of contract. Judge Miller denied this argument because Colorado courts have not spoken on the issue and the language could arguably be ambiguous, which must be construed against the insurer.
Continental Western’s second argument, however, received favorable support from Judge Miller. Continental Western argued that the claims in the underlying lawsuit are not born from property damage resulting from an “occurrence” (defined as an “accident”), but rather allege the failure to provide services as promised under a contract. The damage alleged is Shay’s own defective work and damage to work of other trades resulting from repair of Shay’s deficient work. Continental Western argued that generally, poor workmanship is not a covered occurrence under a GCL policy. General Security Indemnity Co. of Arizona v. Mountain States Mutual Casualty Co., 205 P.3d 529 (Colo. App. 2009). Despite being effectively overruled by HB 10-1394, C.R.S. § 13-20-808 signed into law on May 21, 2010, Judge Miller found the General Security case was persuasive law because the policy was canceled roughly a year earlier, and not in force on May 21, 2010. Because the policy had been cancelled before the statute's effective date, Judge Miller effectively found that the statute does not apply retroactively.
Judge Miller did concede that even with the application of General Security, the cross-claims may allege an occurrence under the policy. Milender White’s cross-claims allege that Shay’s defective work required repair, resulting in damage to work of other trades. Shay’s poor workmanship also brought on damage to a third party, which arguably falls within the definition of occurrence and thus within the scope of the insurance policy.
Judge Miller did, however, agree with Continental Western’s argument that the asserted claims which allege property damage and were not breach of contract claims, are excluded under the “damage to property” exclusion mentioned above. The policy’s specific language called for exclusions related to: “(j) Damage to Property . . . (5) that particular part of real property on which you or any contractors or subcontractors working directly or indirectly on your behalf are performing operations, if the “property damage” arises out of those operations; or (6) that particular part of any property that must be restored, repaired or replaced because ‘your work’ was incorrectly performed on it.”
It is important that Milender White gave notice to Shay of the deficiencies during construction and that Shay damaged the work of other trades while repairing is own work. Judge Miller found that exclusion (j)(5) applied to both Shay’s allegedly defective work and the damage allegedly caused to other trades when Shay performed repairs to its work. Furthermore, Judge Miller found that the (j)(6) exclusion regarding “your work” (defined as any work or operations performed by you or on our behalf) also applied to both Shay’s defective work and the damage it directly inflicted on other subcontractor’s work in its repair of its poor workmanship. Accordingly, Judge Miller found that the policy did not cover claims asserting breach of contract that do not involve property damage and the policy excluded the claims alleging property damage under exclusions (j)(5) and (6).

While Judge Miller’s finding is only an order in the district court and not an appellate court decision, it is sure to garner some attention. In the future, we will be following the issues as they are sure to reach the Colorado Courts sooner rather than later.
The attorney who drafted this entry is no longer with the firm. For additional information regarding Colorado construction litigation, please contact David M. McLain at (303) 987-9813 or by e-mail at mclain@hhmrlaw.com

Disclaimer

The information contained in this blog is provided for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice and should not be construed as providing legal advice on any subject matter.