New Retainage Rules in Louisiana Protect General Contractors

On September 1, 2010 by

As pointed out last month by our friends at the Louisiana Construction Law Blog (Blogspot), Louisiana just passed new retainage rules that became law on August 15, 2010.    The act (SB 218) amends the Private Works Act to add §9:4815, requiring property owners to place “retainage” in escrow accounts.

It’s a remarkable change of the status quo in Louisiana, and from my perspective, good news for general contractors (and really anyone else furnishing labor and/or materials).

What The New Rule Requires

So, what exactly changes with this new rule?

We’re all familiar with the concept of retainage:   money withheld from a prime contractor by the property owner until the completion of work.   Before this law, property owners were responsible for holding the money and disbursing it when contractually required.   As every contractor knows, this leads to the owner dragging its feet in releasing the retainage and motivates the owner to figure out ways to hold onto the cash.

The new law changes these circumstances significantly, by requiring the property owner to deposit the retainage amounts withheld into an interest bearing escrow account, and into the control of an independent escrowing agent.

Earned interest accrues in favor of the contractor, and the money is released by the escrowing agent pursuant to requirements of the statute.  If there’s a dispute between the owner and general contractor, the money is preserved as security pending the outcome of litigation.

When The New Rule Applies (and Doesn’t Apply)

The retainage requirement applies to all projects over $50,000.00 that are not:  (i) a single or double family residence; or (ii) classified under a list of specific industries (see list of industries in quote of legislation below).

This means the retainage law will apply to nearly all commercial projects, and all multi-unit (3+) residential construction.   The law applies to private projects only, and not State or Federal projects (which are governed by separate laws).

Who is Protected?

Well, the law itself only positively affects the property owner and the prime contractor.   Largely, therefore, the law is designed to protect general contractors by ensuring the retainage money is available when due.   Just as the construction lien will act as security, so too will the escrowed retainage.

But, does this protect the subcontractors and suppliers on a project?    The short answer is “no.”   The long answer is closer to a “yes.”

While the retainage money is not held in escrow for the direct benefit of the subcontractor, the general contractor has a duty to pay subcontractor and supplier accounts once the money is made available (and there are misappropriation laws to this effect).   There’s an additional practical benefit.  Since many sub and general disputes are rooted in a dispute with the property owner, this new law may reduce the owner/GC disputes, and thus reduce the GC/sub disputes.

Interesting Questions

Finally, I’ll leave you with some interesting questions that may arise in the coming years about this new retainage law:

(1)  What is the enforcement mechanism? As written, the law requires escrowing of retainage funds, but there is no penalty if a property owner doesn’t do it.   In all likelihood, this means the general contractor will be required to insist on compliance.  When competing with other general contractors for business, it may be tough to make this a staunch requirement.

(2)  Will Subcontracts Intervene to Claim the Money? Subs/Suppliers do not directly benefit from the new retainage rules.  However, if the subs / suppliers know that money is there, and they have a claim on it, can they intervene in any dispute between the owner and prime contractor to make a claim on the money?   Can they get an attachment or sequestration on the funds pending the dispute between them and the general contractor?

(3)  Interest Accrues to the Subcontractor? And perhaps the most interesting question concerns the interest on retainage.   Previously, the property owner benefited from the retention of funds.  Now, the general contractor benefits from fund retention.   Are subcontractors or suppliers entitled to their proportionate share in the accrued interest?

The Law Text

Here is the new law’s text, in full.   Enjoy.

§4815. Escrow of funds due under contract; procedures

A. When, under the provisions of this Part, a contract in the amount of fifty thousand dollars or more is entered into between an owner and a contractor and if in accordance with the terms of such contract funds earned by the contractor are withheld as retainage by the owner from periodic payments due to the contractor then such funds shall be deposited by the owner into an interest bearing escrow account. The provisions of this Section shall not apply to a contract for a single family residence or double family residence. The provisions of this Section also shall not apply to a contract for the construction or improvement of the following types of industrial facilities that are, or will be, engaged in activities defined or classified under one or more of the following subsectors, industry groups, or industries of the 1997 North American Industry Classifications System (NAICS):

(1) 22111 electric power generation; (2) 321 wood products manufacturing; (3) 322 paper manufacturing;(4) 324 petroleum and coal products manufacturing; (5) 325 chemical manufacturing; (6) 326 plastics and rubber products manufacturing; (7) 331 primary metals manufacturing; (8) 562211/562212 hazardous and solid waste landfills; (9) 422710 bulk stations and materials; (10) 486110 crude oil pipelines; (11) 486910 refined petroleum products pipelines; (12) 486210 natural gas pipelines; (13) 486990 other pipelines; (14) 211112 natural gas processing plants.

B. An escrow account under the provisions of this Section shall be located at a qualified financial institution and shall be under the control of an escrow agent. The escrow account and escrow agent shall be selected by mutual agreement between the owner and the contractor.

C. Upon completion of the work that is the subject of the contract, the funds, including any interest located in the escrow account shall be released from escrow under the following conditions:

(1) If there are no existing claims by the owner, the whole amount shall be paid to the contractor within three business days upon receipt by the escrow agent of a written release signed by the contractor and the owner.

(2) If there is a dispute between the owner and contractor and the contract does not provide for binding arbitration of such dispute:

(a) Undisputed amounts shall be released by the escrow agent within three business days of receipt of a notarized request of the contractor.

(b) Disputed amounts that are the subject of a judicial proceeding shall be released by the escrow agent within three business days of the receipt of a final order by the court. Upon receipt of the order of the court, the escrow agent shall pay the contractor or owner such amounts as are determined by the court.

(3) If there is a dispute between the owner and contractor and the contract provides for binding arbitration of such dispute, the following shall occur:

(a) Undisputed amounts shall be released by the escrow agent within three business days of receipt of a notarized request of the contractor.

(b) Disputed amounts that are the subject of binding arbitration under the contract shall be released by the escrow agent within three business days of the receipt of a final order by the arbitrator who has been selected by mutual agreement between the owner and the contractor. Upon receipt of the order of the arbitrator, the escrow agent shall pay the contractor or owner such amounts as are determined by the arbitrator under the rules as defined in the contract between the owner and the contractor.

D. Receipt by the escrow agent or the qualified financial institution in which the escrow account is maintained of what purports to be a written release signed by the contractor and owner, or an order by a court or arbitrator, shall be a full release and discharge of the escrow agent for transfer of funds to the contractor. Neither the escrow agent nor the qualified financial institution in which the escrow account is maintained shall be held liable to any party based on any claim that the written release is unauthorized, forged, or otherwise fraudulent.

E. Neither the escrow agent nor the qualified financial institution in which the escrow account is maintained pursuant to the provisions of this Section shall have any liability to the owner, contractor, or any other person when complying with the provisions of this Section.

On Sep 01, 2010

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