Construction Section

This section was formed to serve the needs of Tennessee attorneys practicing in the area of construction law. Its purpose is to further the knowledge of its members and to act as an advocate for those attorneys in the legislature and the courts.

The Hunt Law Firm
P.O.Box 171119
Memphis, TN 38187
Immediate Past Chair
Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel P....
605 Chestnut Street, Liberty Tower Suite 1700
Chattanooga, TN 37450
Hagan Law Group, PLLC
119 E. Main St.
Murfreesboro, TN 37130

Update on Retainage Laws

One of the most widely used “end of the project” leverage tools used by owners is retainage. Many times retainage can equal a contractor’s profit margin on a job. Getting withheld retainage back at the end of the job is essential. Far too often owners (and architects) forget that retainage is the contractor’s approved and earned money. In addition, since most prime contractor’s subcontract out the majority of the work (and in turn withhold retainage), much of the retainage is actually subcontractor retainage. Almost all construction contracts also set out the conditions under which retainage will be released, and give the owner the right to withhold retainage in the event of a dispute.

Tennessee’s retainage laws are located in the Prompt Pay Act (T.C.A. § 66-34-101, et. seq.) and can be summarized as follows: for any public or private project, retainage cannot exceed 5%; (2) if the prime construction contract exceeds $500,000, it is mandatory that the owner place the retainage into a separate, interest bearing escrow account with a third party; (3) the prime contractor is responsible to its subcontractors, if retainage qualifies to be escrowed (regardless of the subcontract amount), to ensure that a “project retainage account” is created; and (4) when deposited, retainage becomes the “property” of the contractor/subcontractor. These laws are mandatory and cannot be “waived” in the contract. The failure of an owner (or prime contractor) to comply is not only a criminal violation (Class C misdemeanor), but if the escrow mandate is ignored, the owner has to pay the contractor a daily penalty of $300 from the very first day that retainage was withheld and not escrowed. Legal fees for a bad faith violation can also be recovered. To be clear, this escrow rule also potentially exposes the prime contractor to the same $300 a day penalty from each and every subcontractor, regardless of the amount of the subcontract. In a recent case that settled, an owner who refused to escrow only $50,000 in retainage ended up paying the contractor a $300,000 penalty (1000 days X $300).

Most contracts allow an owner with set off or withhold retainage in the event of a dispute (defective work, liquidated damages, liens, a defunct contractor). There are provisions in the PPA which set out when an owner is required to release retainage (T.C.A § 66-34-204). Before a recent case, the “consensus” among lawyers was that these contract provisions govern. However, in Beacon4, LLC v. I & L Investments, LLC, 2016 WL 4545736 (Tenn. App. 2016)(cert. denied), the Eastern Court of Appeals held that notwithstanding and regardless of what the contract says about the ability of an owner to withhold retainage, an owner retainage release must occur within the earliest of the 3 statutory 90 day periods (issuance of a U&O permit; issuance of a certificate of substantial completion from the project architect; or when the owner begins to use or could have used the improvement). Yet another recent case held that the PPA is a “remedial” statute which should be liberally construed in favor of the beneficiaries of the retainage and prompt pay laws. Aarene Contracting LLC v Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corp, Case No. E2016-01155-COA-R3-CV (December 20, 2016).

To make these rulings clear, assume there is $100,000 in properly escrowed retainage, but it is discovered near the end of the project that the entire roof is defective and will cost $500,000 to repair. Assume further that the owner and lender did not require a performance bond. Under this scenario, the normal strategy of the owner (and lender)  would be to use the retainage to help pay for the repairs or, at the minimum, hold on to the retainage until the dispute is resolved. However, arguably under Beacon, even if the contractor is financially unstable (or even out of business), the owner would be required to fork over the $100,000 even when there is no guaranty that this money will be around when the dispute is finally resolved.

— David Taylor, a Nashville attorney with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP is a member of the TBA Construction Law Section's Executive Council

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Supreme Court: Contractors Not Liable to Homeowners After Fire

A general contractor and two subcontractors are not liable to the homeowners after a fire destroyed their partially completed home, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled. The court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of the case based on insufficient evidence as to the cause of the fire. The cause of the 2012 blaze was unknown but was found to have started on the back deck of the house, making it accessible to the public and vulnerable to a number of potential fire starters such as arson, improperly discarded cigarette butts, electrical issues and more.
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