Organization: A Secret To Managing Legal Messes…Start 2010 on the Right Foot

Happy New Year.

Did you make it through 2009 alive?  It certainly was a tough year.  Perhaps your legal bills were more than ever before, or maybe you got by without spending much or anything at all on counsel.   In either case, let’s make a resolution to avoid expensive legal bills in 2010.

How do you do it?

Ask an attorney how to avoid legal messes and expensive litigation, and they’ll likely start discussing legal precedent, contractual provisions and other technicalities.   Sure, all of that stuff is important when you’re knee deep in litigation.  By that point, however, you’ll already have an attorney to handle those issues.

What about before you’re knee deep in litigation; how do you avoid legal messes?

The most valuable piece of advice I give clients who ask me how to avoid legal fights and messes is to be organized.

Organization is your best friend when entering a litigation scenario.   It proves your case when you’re right, and it paints a clear picture of your risk and exposure when your wrong or possibly wrong.   And insofar as your contractual and legal duties are concerned, if you’re organized and know what they are, you’ll have a much better chance of fulfilling them.

Now, you’re quite lucky that it’s now 2010.   That’s because the World Wide Web has been improving for over 20 years now, and it’s got a million ways to help you organize your construction business (large or small) in the new year.

Here are a few of our favorite web applications out there that can help you stay organized, and avoid legal bills and messes.

Keep Your Files Organized

Construction projects can have tons of paper exchanged.   Contract documents, job specs, change orders, correspondence…the list can go on.   And, to top it off, all these documents are being exchanged between you and your employees, and your subcontractors, suppliers, their subs and suppliers, the property owner…the list can go on.

How do you manage all that collaboration, and all that paper?

SugarSync:  This works with PCs, Macs, on iPhones and Blackberrys, on just about anything else…and it’s easy as pie.   Add a file to a folder on your computer, and it instantly gets added to that folder on everyone else’s computers.  You can share files or folders with other companies, allowing them to just see the docs or edit / trash it.

The possibilities are endless, and the cost is low.  This program can single-handely change the way you exchange documents on your construction project.

Box.Net:  Like Sugar Sync, this is another document management system to help you organize documents to a construction project and collaborate with others on the documents.  Insofar as features and collaboration are concerned, Box.net gets the edge.  You can sign documents electronically, send documents via fax, edit docs, send docs via postal mail, and more…all within the box.net interface.   Box.net is entirely web-based, however, meaning you can’t just drag and drop a file into a folder on your PC and let it do its magic.  On the ease of use, SugarSync gets the edge.

Notice and Lien Deadline Management

It doesn’t matter if you just work in one state, or if you work in every state.  Notice and lien requirements are confusing, and the effort required to comply with these requirements can feel constant.   How do you keep up?

ExpressLien:  Enter Express Lien.   This company provides two different sets of services.

First, it helps you manage your lien and notice requirements and deadlines.   You put in your project data, and it calculates your requirements and deadlines and displays it to you all on an easy to read online interface.    How much?  It’s free.

Second, if you want, you can order your notice and lien documents directly through Express Lien.   They will take your project data, create the documents, file/send them, and keep track of all the delivery and filing data in your online profile.   Document filing is done for a low flat fee.

Will The Health Care Bill Hurt Small Contractors?

At the eleventh hour, the U.S. Senate added a provision to the controversial health care bill pending in Congress that has the construction industry on edge.    The Associated General Contractors of America released a statement on their website complaining that “without debate or advance notice, language was added to the Senate health care legislation that singles out small construction firms for harsher treatment than any other industry.”

What is the rub?

Well, while employers with less than 50 employees are typically not required to provide health care coverage, the exemption for construction firms is only those with less than 5 employees!   Failing to provide health care coverage could subject the construction firm to fines.

The Wall Street Journal is running a great article about the construction industry’s reaction to the recent addition to the Senate bill.

Can Cat’s ‘Hybrid’ Dozer Save You or Your Project Money?

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You’ve heard all the praise about hybrid vehicles over the past 12-24 months…but did you hear the news from CAT this Christmas?

Yesterday, CAT delivered its first “Hybrid” bulldozer.   The dozer is a hybrid diesel-electric vehicle, that reportedly increases fuel efficiency by 25%.   More than that, CAT reports that the D7E should be more product, require less maintenance, and be all-around better for a company’s bottom line.

The savings in fuel and maintenance and increased productivity is offset by the machine’s price, which is approximately 20% more than the non-hybrid line.  CAT, however, promises that the machine will pay for itself in 2 – 2.5 years.

Check out the D7E website, where you can read more about the product, view its specs, watch videos and more.

Investing so much into construction machinery like a bulldozer is definity not something we run across everyday.   These machines take such a beating, and they are so inefficient as a matter of rule…that it seems counter-intuitivie to have an “efficient” bulldozer.   CAT, though, sees potential benefit in this offering, and perhaps it is something for your company to review.

If you are an equipment lessor, imagine the savings you can have if your maintenance costs were decreased?  How much more could you charge to clients with the promise of fuel savings?

If you’re a contractor with your own dozers, it’s a no-brainier if the efficiencies and productivity match CAT’s testing.   While a bit pricy at first, you’ll reap the rewards quicky.

And you’re saving the world, too.

This article was originally posted on Wolfe Law Group’s topic-specific Louisiana Green Building Law Blog.

Progress towards LRA Grants for Drywall Victims…But We’re Not There Yet

Those living with Chinese Drywall in Louisiana received good news today about the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s efforts to grant them financial relief.   While the news is good, the program is not complete and the funds aren’t quite ready to be distributed.

A few weeks ago, the Louisiana Recovery Authority set aside $5 million for Chinese Drywall victims in the state.   That set into motion a bureaucratic process to have the funds approved for disbursement and a structure set in place to approve future payments to victims.

The first step in the process was the actual setting aside of the $5 million in funds.

The second step in the process was having the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approve the idea.   This second step was accomplished yesterday, December 22nd.

For those living with Chinese Drywall, it’s like an early Christmas present…but not one quite ready to be opened.   A spokesperson for the LRA said it best in an interview with the New Orleans Times Picayune, when she said “This is kind of like half the equation.”

As we stated in prior posts, local, state and federal governments certainly have Chinese Drywall aid on their minds…its just a matter of how and when.   This LRA program seems to be one of the most advanced in the country, insofar as planning is concerned.

But it’s the same punchline at the end of the day for victims:  more waiting.

Stay tuned.

This article was originally posted on Wolfe Law Group’s topic-specific Chinese Drywall Blog.

Contractors Beware – Louisiana Appeal Court Says Compliance with Building Codes is Not a Cause for Change Orders

This fall, the Louisiana 1st Circuit decided Bonvillain Builders LLC v. Gentile, finding that a property owner was not required to pay nearly $50,000 in requested change orders because the extra work was required under the original contract.

In Gentile, the construction contract required the contractor to meet all prevailing building codes. A situation arose with regard to the parish’s drainage requirements, as the original design did not accommodate the code. The drainage study and total completed price for the drainage work was eventually tallied to cost $47k more than estimated.

The contractor wanted the property owner to pay for this, because it was an “unknown condition.” The owner rejected the change orders arguing the contractor was responsible to meet prevailing building codes.

The Gentile court agreed with the property owner. According to the first circuit, the contract unambiguously required the contractor to comply with prevailing building codes. The fact that the designer and the contractor overlooked the drainage requirements and failed to properly provide for the the same in its plans and bid…did not pass the burden of paying for the drainage onto the owner. Instead, the contractor/designer was liable for the mistake.

The court found that the drainage requirements were not a “hidden condition” of the property, but merely, something the contractor and designer overlooked.

What Does It Mean For You?
Nearly every construction contract has a provision similar to the one in Gentile where the contractor (or sub) is required to meet prevailing building codes. When bidding on a project, its critical to bid responsibly. Failing to understand and accommodate the prevailing building codes applicable to the site can end up destroying the project’s bottom line.

The real key is understanding what is and what is not a “change order.” The term gets used so frequently by those working on a construction project, we sometimes forget its true meaning and warp the term to work to a party’s convenience.

A change order is not issued overtime the cost of work or scope of work is greater than anticipated. It’s only issued when the scope of work is changed.

If the owner adds a new complex to the plans, or requires a different quality of materials – this will likely result in a change order. However, if you simply didn’t correctly estimate the amount of work that would be required for a task or misunderstood the prevailing building codes…a change order will not be an available remedy.

Like the situation in Gentile, you will be legally responsible for your own mistake.

Of course, this Gentile case will not likely apply to a scenario where a change is required because of a hidden site condition. If a hidden site condition is found, a change order is appropriate. The court in Gentile just clarified something that may seem a bit obvious: failing to take into account the building codes in the parish was not a hidden condition, regardless of whether it was or was not scoped in the original plans.

This article was originally posted on Wolfe Law Group’s topic-specific Louisiana Construction Law Blog.

Fast Action Required To Make Homeowners Insurance Claims

In the past, we discussed whether Homeowners Insurance will be liable for Chinese Drywall damages in Louisiana.  While the jury is still out on this issue, we’ve posted on a number of occasions that the courts may very well find coverage for chinese drywall losses within homeowner insurance policies.

Now, many are reporting that a guest lecturer at the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters just recently predicted that courts will find at least some coverage for Chinese Drywall damages (As per Merlin Law Group).   Earlier in the year, the folks at Merlin Law Group also posted that the FC&S Bulletin’s June 2009 edition also indicated that there would be coverage for Chinese Drywall losses under homeowner insurance policies.

So, while it’s far from certain that Chinese Drywall damages will be covered by standard homeowner insurance policies…it’s also far from certain that courts will disallow such coverage.   One thing is certain:  insurance companies have largely taken the position that the policies do not cover the damages, and are denying these claims across the board.

This begs the question:  what is the next step?

In Louisiana, most policy holders have just 1 year to file suit for insurance benefits.  The time period begins from when the policy holder knew or should have known of the occurrence or loss.

News of Chinese Drywall problems broke across Louisiana between January and March 2009.   Arguably, those with Chinese Drywall “should have known” of the problem starting at this time.   To be safe, homeowners with Chinese Drywall are facing a very important deadline as the new year approaches.

With so many questions about who is liable for this Chinese Drywall mess, it would be quite devestating for homeowners who may have a viable claim against their homeowners insurance, to lose that claim because they failed to take the necessary action before the alloted time expired.

News around the country is that the insurance industry may be liable for these Chinese Drywall losses.   If you have Chinese Drywall losses, you should consider filing suit to enforce your claim for coverage….or risk losing the opportunity.

This article was originally posted on Wolfe Law Group’s topic-specific Chinese Drywall Blog.

How Bad Are The Damages…And What Does That Mean Legally?

Chinese Drywall talk is riddled with hearsay.

Is it or is it not bad for your health?   Must the drywall be replaced completely, or can a filtration system solve the problem?   Will the corrosive elements cross-contaminate into other components of the home, or is it isolated in the drywall only?

These questions certainly have practical implications.   After all, the answers to some of these questions will dictate how the drywall is actually repaired.

However, the questions also have implications in the legal arena.

Most notably in Louisiana, the severity of the damages related to corrosive drywall will be a large factor in deciding the question of whether the builder is or is not liable to homeowners for the installed drywall.

In previous posts here at the Chinese Drywall Blog, we discussed the Louisiana New Home Warranty Act and whether it will or will not create liability for builders who installed Chinese Drywall.   Because of the Act’s wording, it may simply come down to how severe the Chinese Drywall damages are.

Under the NHWA, builders are liable to homeowners for any “major strucutral defect” for a period of 5 years.   The question becomes, therefore, are the Chinese Drywall damages major structural defects?

If the damages can be remediated with a simple filtration system, you can count on the builders using this as evidence that the defect was not a major structural defect.  If they are successful, the 1 or 2 year warranty period, as opposed to the 5 year warranty period, would apply, and many of the currently filed claims would be considered as tardy.

If the damages cannot be easily remediated, however, and require the replacement of all sheetrock, and even the replacement of some elements of the framing…the homeowners will argue that this more closely resembles a major structural defect.   Accordingly, the 5 year warranty period would apply.

More specific information about whether the Chinese Drywall damages will be covered under the New Home Warranty Act is found on our blog here.

While knowing the severity of the damages is important to estimate the damage itself, and to understand how to fix the damages….the severity and scope of damages plays an even more important role in the litigation against builders who installed contaminated drywall.   It may be a very important question to answer when deciding whether the 5 year NHWA period applies.

This article was originally posted on Wolfe Law Group’s topic-specific Chinese Drywall Blog.

Does Chinese Drywall Affect My Obligation To Pay My Mortgage?

Many folks with Chinese Drywall (clients and non-clients) have contacted our offices with this inquiry.   The logic makes sense:  If the mortgage on a property is x, and the value of the property has since dropped below x because of Chinese Drywall, is there some room for “a break” from the mortgage company?

Legally?   Not Really – At Least Not Yet

For the time being, the legal answer is “not really.”

Unfortunately, when you signed your mortgage agreement, you agreed to pay the amount of the note regardless of the property’s condition.   Therefore, the fact that the property condition is worsening because of Chinese Drywall does not act to modify any obligations under the mortgage note itself.

Now, this is usually not a problem because mortgage companies require the property to be insured.    In the case of Chinese Drywall, as we’ve previously discussed, the applicability of insurance to the loss is a bit complex.

There is some chatter on Capital Hill on this very issue, and a bill has recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a margin of 419-1 that would “encourage” banks and mortgage companies to provide homeowners with Chinese Drywall temporary forbearance on their mortgage payments.

What does this mean?

It means that the federal government would likely give the banking companies some incentive ($$$) to allow its mortgage holders with Chinese Drywall (you) to temporary not make mortgage payments.   If the bill passes, homeowners with Chinese Drywall may have some legal recourse to request mortgage forebearance, and avoid foreclosure on their home while actions to recover for the Chinese Drywall losses progress.

Practically Speaking…There May Be Room For Negotiation

While homeowners may not have the legal right to receive “a break” from their mortgage company, the financial realities of Chinese Drywall may open the window for some practical remedies.  Namely, to request a forbearance.

What is a forbearance? Wikipedia defines it as follows:

In the context of a mortgage process, forbearance is a special agreement between the lender and the borrower to delay a foreclosure. The literal meaning of forbearance is “holding back.”

Loan borrowers sometimes have problems making payments. This may cause the lender to start the foreclosure process. To avoid foreclosure, the lender and the borrower can make an agreement called “forbearance”. According to this agreement, the lender delays his right to exercise foreclosure if the borrower can catch up to his payment schedule in a certain time. This period and the payment plan depend on the details of the agreement that are accepted by both parties.

Forbearance is usually for temporary financial problems. If the borrower has more serious problems, for example if it is a variable-rate mortgage and the interest rate becomes unaffordable for the borrower, then forbearance is usually not a solution.

While you are not entitled to a forbearance without the U.S. legislation getting further along (and perhaps even being made stronger)…the realities you face as a homeowner are not lost upon mortgage companies.  After all, if the property is worth less than the mortgage, they really don’t have much motivation to foreclose on the property.

Contact your mortgage company and request a forbearance.  They will likely send you a forbearance application, and depending on the severity of your drywall problems, they may grant the forbearance.  Remember, however, that forbearance agreements are temporary, and interest usually continues to accrue during forbearance periods.

This article was originally posted on Wolfe Law Group’s topic-specific Chinese Drywall Blog.