If you are a contractor, you love hearing about these types of boxing tales: Contractor works his butt off. Owner benefits from the accelerated work. Contractor seeks early completion bonus. Owner rejects the claim based upon technicality. Contractor fights in court … fights on appeal … and wins! 

That is exactly what happened in Ray Bell Construction Co. v. TDOT (pdf), a 2-1 "split decision" released by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee on November 29, 2010.  In RBCC, the claims commissioner awarded Ray Bell Construction Company a $2.5 million early completion bonus.  The primary issue in dispute was whether the completion date in the parties’ contract could be amended or moved to account for the impact of increased quantities and other delays.  TDOT argued that the completion date could be modified for purposes of the disincentive payment and liquidated damages, but under no circumstance could the date be modified for purposes of the incentive payment.  The contractor argued that the date could be modified for all purposes, including the incentive payment.

The primary issue in the litigation was whether the contractor could rely on evidence of other projects where TDOT had granted an extension to the incentive date.  During the dispute, the contractor learned from TDOT officials that there was a list of "existing" projects where TDOT and its financial participant, the Federal Highway Administration, had agreed in a set of letters between them that the incentive date could be moved, despite a change in FHWA policy.  Although the RBCC project was existing at the time of the TDOT-FHWA letters, it was not included on the list of "existing" projects. 

In the majority opinion, the court of appeals affirmed the claims commissioner’s finding that “a definite latent ambiguity exist[ed] for which parol evidence not only is admissible, but frankly, absolutely necessary in both understanding and deciding the issues in this case."   In his dissenting opinion, Judge Swiney believed that the parties’ contract was "crystal clear" in not allowing a modification to the incentive payment date.   The RBCC decision is a worthy read for a number of reasons:

  1. The decision provides a good overview of the public contracting claims process. Like many other jurisdictions, the Claims Commission in Tennessee resolves claims involving tax recovery, state employee workers’ compensation, negligence by state officials or agencies, and contract claims involving the State. The RBCC dispute went to trial before a claims commissioner and was appealed to the court of appeals.
  2. The decision summarizes the two sides to a contract interpretation question.  Like almost every construction dispute, the contract will determine the rights and obligations of the parties.  In this case, a $2.5 million early incentive payment was at stake and the decision turned on whether there was an ambiguity in the parties’ contact and what evidence could be used to resolve that ambiguity.  The majority and the dissent describe both sides to the issue.
  3. The decision involves a truly "interesting" factual story.  As noted above, the dispute involved a multi-million dollar claim … design delays … easement delays … unexecuted change orders … quantity overruns …  contract ambiguities … a compelling letter by the state agency … a compelling letter by the federal agency … and much more.

Will there be a Round 3?  Don’t know.  TDOT can file an application for permission to appeal to the  Tennessee Supreme Court, which must be filed within 60 days of entry of judgment by the Court of Appeals.  According to the appellate rules, the application shall be granted if two members of the Supreme Court are satisfied that the application should be granted.  In determining whether to grant the application, the Court looks to: (1) the need to secure uniformity of the decision; (2) the need to secure settlement of an important question of law; (3) the need to secure settlement of questions of public interest; and (4) the need for the exercise of the Supreme Court’s supervisory authority.  At this point, it is a waiting game on whether there will be Round 3.

[Note: I was one of the boxers in the ring, along with lead counsel Greg Cashion of Smith Cashion & Orr PLC, at the trial court and court of appeals, but I moved law firms before oral arguments in the appeal. Special thanks to Greg for allowing me to write about this victory.]

Image: Fonzie’s Cousin