Client Alert: Contractors Can’t Sue Owners’ Individual Representatives for Payment

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has finally answered a key question that has plagued real estate developers, contractors and subcontractors for years: Can contractors hold the people who authorized the work individually liable for payment?

The issue stems from ambiguous language in the Pennsylvania Contractor and Subcontractor Payment Act (CASPA) of 1994. The act ensures that owners of a construction project pay contractors and subcontractors in a timely manner for their work. CASPA defines an “owner of a project” as anyone who owns an interest in the property and orders improvements to be made, including any successors who buy or inherit the property and agents of the owner who are acting on behalf of the owner.

The term “agents of the owner” became a point of contention in a recent case, Scungio Borst & Associates v. 410 Shurs Lane Developers, when a contractor tried to hold an “agent” individually liable for payment. In that case, contractor Scungio Borst & Associates completed construction work on a condominium complex owned by 410 Shurs Lane Developers. Robert DeBolt, who owned a 50% share in 410 Shurs, signed the contracts on the company’s behalf, and gave verbal direction for Scungio to perform an additional $2.6 million worth of work. In November 2006, the developer terminated its contract with Scungio Borst, leaving $1.5 million in outstanding payments.

When Scungio requested payment for the outstanding amount, DeBolt refused on behalf of the company. Scungio then filed a lawsuit under CASPA against both the company and DeBolt, seeking to hold him personally liable. Scungio’s suit against 410 Shurs went to trial, and a judge ordered 410 Shurs to pay nearly $2 million to Scungio.

Meanwhile, DeBolt filed for summary judgment, claiming he could not be held personally liable under CASPA because he was not a party to the contract as an individual. Rather, only the company was a party to the contract. The judge granted summary judgment in DeBolt’s favor.

Scungio appealed the case to a seven-judge panel of the Superior Court, arguing that Scungio had been acting as an agent of the company when he ordered the work and, therefore, qualified as an “owner” liable for payment under CASPA. A majority of the judges disagreed with Scungio, asserting that the law was not intended to create individual liability for agents. Rather, CASPA merely grouped “agents” in with property owners to make it clear that project managers, architects and other representative agents were not contractors entitled to the payment benefits under CASPA. Thus, the Superior Court upheld the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.

Three of the judges dissented, accepting Scungio’s argument that the term “agents” has been used in other Pennsylvania laws, such as the Wage Payment Collection Law. In many of those cases, Pennsylvania courts have determined that an “agent” authorized to make decisions on a company’s behalf could be held personally liable for payment.

Scungio appealed the question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld both of the lower courts’ rulings. The Supreme Court emphasized that under standard contract law, a contract only imposes liability on the parties that signed the contract. The purpose of CASPA was to ensure that contractors got paid — not to create a new class of people who are individually liable for contractual payments despite not being a party to the contract. Thus, the Supreme Court held definitively that contractors cannot hold agents for a company personally liable for contractual payments owed by the company.

This material is for informational purposes only.  It is not and should not be solely relied on as legal advice in dealing with any specific situation.

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