Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Who Pays When the General Contractor Goes Bust

Today, as we await the start of the Court’s November term, we begin our first look previews at the most recent additions to the Court’s civil docket. First up is Lake County Grading Company, LLC v. The Village of Antioch, a case out of the Second District which poses a potentially important question for cash-strapped local governments: when the general contractor on a public improvement goes bankrupt, who pays the subcontractors?

The general contractor in Lake County signed two agreements to make public improvements in two residential subdivisions. The GC hired the plaintiff as a subcontractor to perform grading work. There’s no dispute that the subcontractor performed all the work in compliance with the contract, but was never paid in full.

The contract (not to mention the Public Construction Bond Act) required that the GC provide surety bonds based on the cost of the improvements, which the GC did. The problem was that the bonds which the GC obtained and the defendant accepted were performance bonds only. They didn’t guarantee payment to the subs, even though the Public Construction Bond Act specifically requires it. Before the job was completed, the GC stopped work and ultimately declared bankruptcy.

The sub delayed sending out lien notices because it wanted to protect its working relationship with the GC. Ultimately – more than 180 days after last performing work (I’ll explain why that’s important momentarily) – it filed notices of lien claims on the work. Plaintiff then filed a five-count complaint against the defendant village. Three of the counts were dismissed – two for lien claims for public funds and one for unjust enrichment. Lake County turns on the remaining two claims, for third party beneficiary breach of contract, based on the defendant’s failure to require a bond from the GC guaranteeing payment, not just performance. The trial court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the sub wasn’t entitled to payment from anybody. The argument went like this: the Bond Act incorporated a payment guarantee into the performance bond provided by the GC, which the sub should have sued on, but since the sub had waited more than 180 days from its last work to begin proceedings, it was out of luck.

The Second District affirmed judgment for the subcontractor. The fatal flaw in the defendant’s argument, the Court held, was that it implicitly assumed that the sub’s only remedy was via the Bond Act. Not so, the Court noted – section 2 of the Bond Act expressly states that the remedies under the Act are cumulative of any other remedies available in statutory, regulatory or common law. The sub’s argument was that it was a third-party beneficiary of the construction contract between the bankrupt GC and the defendant.

Third party beneficiary status in Illinois turns on whether the language of the contract reflects an intent to directly benefit the individual. The language must expressly identify the third party by name, or at least describe the class to which it belongs. The Court held that the provision in the general contract empowering the GC to hire subcontractors was sufficient to qualify. Given that the payment bond requirement of Section 1 of the Bond Act is automatically read into the construction contract as a matter of law, the Court held that the defendant had breached the contract when it failed to require a payment bond from the general contractor. Since the sub wasn’t suing on the bond, the statute of limitations contained in the Bond Act didn’t apply.   Any other ruling, the Court found, would essentially shift the burden of ensuring that the GC obtained a payment bond from the government entity itself to the insurer who wrote the bond. The Court declined to follow Shaw Industries, Inc. v. Community College District No. 515, a 2000 case from the Second Division of the First District which had refused to allow a subcontractor to sue as a third-party beneficiary under a construction contract in order to get around the statute of limitations in the Bond Act.

We expect Lake County to be decided by the Court within six to eight months.

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