By Attorney Edward Jesson
It happens more often than we would like to see, but sometimes work is complete, a dispute arises, and suddenly it is discovered that the contract that everyone assumed to be in place was not signed. This happens frequently in construction cases (most often seen with contracts between General Contractors and Subcontractors) but the issue can also rear its ugly head in any other contractual setting, especially where independent contractors are involved.
In legal terms, in order for an agreement between two parties to be binding and valid, there needs to be a “meeting of the minds”. Put simply, it needs to be clear that the parties to the contract intended that contract to govern the relationship between them. Most frequently, a signature on a contract signifies each party’s intent to be governed by that contract.
So what happens when, sticking with the construction industry example, a subcontractor performs all work under its subcontract agreement with the general contractor and then a dispute arises and it turns out the contract wasn’t signed?
Generally, when courts are confronted with an unsigned agreement, their default opinion will be that the parties never reached that “meeting of the minds” and therefore they did not intend to be bound by the terms of that contract.
However, this doesn’t mean that no contract between the parties existed and that the party seeking to enforce its rights under the agreement has no recourse. The court will next look to all other evidence which indicates what the agreement was between the parties. For example, if there were multiple drafts of a contract with different terms included, the court may decide that the earlier draft contracts that had parts removed from them at a later date is evidence that those removed contractual terms were not a part of the parties’ agreement.
Courts may also look to whether there was a “contract implied in fact” between the parties. In the general contractor subcontractor example, evidence that the general contractor asked the subcontractor to perform work and the subcontractor did perform that work would certainly be evidence of a “contract implied in fact”. It would be unreasonable for a court to decide that the subcontractor did that work and did not expect to receive any payment for that work. Oral agreements are oftentimes valid. There is no requirement that many types of contracts be in writing. Therefore, if you’re on the other side (someone completed work for you but you didn’t sign the contract), you don’t get a free pass! If you do not pay, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
In any event, it is important to have a written contract signed by the parties. It sets the expectations of both parties – what they’re supposed to do in exchange for compensation. When it is reduced to writing, there are less evidentiary issues in court. When it is reduced to writing, it is less likely that there will ever be a lawsuit about the terms because a signed contract shows that all parties agreed to the terms.
The attorneys at Jesson & Rains are ready to assist with drafting and review of contracts, and, importantly, assist clients who find themselves in disputes arising from unsigned contracts. Just because you do not have a signed contract, it does not mean you have no rights.
By Attorney Edward Jesson
In 2012, North Carolina’s mechanic’s lien statutes were overhauled. One of the biggest changes was the requirement for a lien agent to be appointed on certain jobs. We still frequently receive questions about lien agent requirements and what the consequences of a contractor’s failure to file a “Notice to Lien Agent” actually are.
Lien agents are only required on projects involving improvements to real property valued at over $30,000.00, except that a lien agent does not have to be designated for projects where improvements are being done to an existing single-family residential building, occupied by the owner, even if those improvements are valued over $30,000.00. That exception also applies if the contract is for the construction of accessory buildings where “the use of which is incidental to that residence.” Generally speaking, the appointment of lien agents is more prevalent in commercial construction projects but it is also sometimes necessary to designate a lien agent for residential projects. While designating a lien agent is generally the owner’s responsibility, there is a limited ability for “custom contractors” (as defined by the statute) to designate the lien agent on residential new construction projects as, presumably, custom contractors should be more familiar with these laws than the average home owner.
In order to fully protect its rights as a contractor to pursue a claim of lien on real property, a contractor must file a Notice to Lien Agent within 15 days after it first “furnishes labor or materials to the project.” While failing to file a notice to lien agent within 15 days is not necessarily fatal to any future lien claims, it may limit the contractor’s lien rights should it be necessary to file a lien at a later date. If a contractor fails to file a notice to lien agent and, prior to filing the notice or to filing a claim of lien on real property, the property is sold or otherwise encumbered, the contractor seeking to enforce its lien rights at a later date may have issues doing so. On the other hand, if a contractor fails to file a notice to lien agent and it then becomes necessary to file a lien, the contractor will likely be able to do so if the property has not been sold or otherwise encumbered.
It is important to note that the lien agent does not take place of the owner or upper tier contractor for purposes of service. Any claims of lien on real property or claims of lien on funds should be filed (where necessary) and served on the owner and any necessary contractors and/or suppliers.
It is best practice, in projects where lien agents are appointed, to file the notice of lien agent as soon as possible—even prior to beginning work. There is a portal to provide Notices to Lien Agents on LiensNC.com, but if you have any further questions, the attorneys at Jesson & Rains would be happy to help.
By Attorney Edward Jesson
People and businesses get sued every day, and while no one enjoys being on the receiving end of a lawsuit, there are certain things that should be done to try and make the experience as painless as possible. In North Carolina, a lawsuit is generally started when an individual or a business (also called the “plaintiff”) files a complaint. The clerk of court issues a summons, which must be served on the defendant (the party being sued). This can generally be done by mailing it certified mail, return receipt requested, sending via FedEx or UPS, or having the county sheriff personally deliver a copy of the summons and complaint.
Once the summons and complaint have been served, the defendant has 30 days to respond to the complaint in district and superior courts. In small claims court, when a defendant is served (in some instances this can be achieved by the sheriff leaving a copy of the complaint taped to the front door), they will usually receive a notice of hearing along with the complaint.
Here is the first point that I would like to make clear: if you are served with a lawsuit, please do not wait until day 29 to contact an attorney. Evaluating your position as a defendant in a lawsuit and preparing the correct response takes time. While you can usually get a 30-day extension of time to respond, doing so at the last minute is not always possible, and the extension likely won’t be granted if it is after day 30. If you fail to respond to the complaint in time, the plaintiff may be entitled to a default judgment. It is exactly what it sounds like— they will automatically win “by default”! A default judgment can be hard to overcome once it is entered, and the excuse that you simply “forgot” to respond is usually not enough.
Point number two: Do not answer the complaint without first consulting with an attorney. In an answer, you will generally just admit or deny the allegations to the complaint, but that is not the only response that is available. There are several ways that you may be able to get the lawsuit dismissed (meaning the case is thrown out), but that option is not available if you admit or deny allegations in the answer first. By doing that yourself, you may be preventing an attorney from later dismissing the lawsuit.
For most people who are sued, it is for the first time in their lives (and hopefully the only time). Once the shock, confusion, and anger has worn off, it is important not to bury your head in the snow. Contact a litigation attorney who can help you navigate through the civil system and, hopefully, get your case resolved in the most efficient way possible. If done correctly, you may save a lot of money; however, trying to handle it yourself oftentimes results in the expenditure of more money. If you or anyone you know has been sued, please give the attorneys at Jesson & Rains a call.
We encourage business owners to form formal business structures like Limited Liability Companies and Corporations in order to protect their personal assets from business debts and creditors. However, simply filing the Articles of Organization or Articles of Incorporation with the Secretary of State’s office is not enough. If you do not keep your business and personal finances and operations separate, a court could potentially find that, while there was an apparent separation of the two, in reality, the individual was using his or her business for their own personal affairs and order that the two are not really separate. If this happens, a court could satisfy a business debt or judgment with your own personal assets.
What can you do to avoid this? First, the easiest thing to do is to keep your finances separate. Open a business bank account and only use that account for business income and expenses. Do not pay for personal items out of this account, even if you’re going to reimburse yourself. Keep good records. Do not take liberties with categorizing something as a business expense when it’s really a personal expense. Use a trustworthy business accountant. It is not worth the risk of stretching your deductions to pay less taxes (if it’s not really a business expense) because you’re opening yourself up to personal liability. Second, sign all of your contracts as member of your LLC. Don’t sign them as you personally.
Third, if you own a corporation, you have to comply with the North Carolina Business Corporation Act. You are required to have bylaws, even if you are the sole owner. You are required to vote and install a Board of Directors. If you want to own your corporation, the board (which may just be comprised of you) needs to issue you shares so that there’s a record that you own the business and that you’re not simply just a director or the president of the business. Directors need to keep thorough records of annual meetings and need to vote on business decisions (even if it is just yourself voting). If you do not have robust corporate records, you risk having a creditor ask a court to “pierce the corporate veil” … meaning that a court may find you and your corporation one of the same, and you may be ordered to satisfy corporate debts and judgments with your personal assets, defeating one of the main purposes of owning a corporation. If you or someone you know on a business and you believe that the books and records need to be improved, please give us a call.
No one ever wants it to happen, but it happens. The mailman asks you to sign for certified mail, or, even worse, a sheriff’s deputy shows up on your doorstep and “serves” you. Once the dust settles you are left with a summons and complaint, which are the documents showing that someone has sued you. Furthermore, because you signed for the documents when the USPS dropped them off, or because the sheriff’s deputy personally handed them to you, the person suing you (the “Plaintiff”) knows that you received them.
What to do next? The answer is not to ignore these papers! The clock is now ticking.
Under the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, you have 30 days to respond to a lawsuit (whether that response is an “answer,” “motion for extension of time to respond”, “motion to dismiss the lawsuit” or otherwise). If you do not respond to the lawsuit in any way within 30 days, then the Plaintiff has the option to pursue a default judgment against you. A default judgment is a court order granting judgment in the Plaintiff’s favor because you failed to respond. It is the same as a regular judgment, just as if you had gone to trial and lost. You now owe the Plaintiff money. By ignoring these legal papers, you have waived your ability to present any valid defenses to the Plaintiff’s case.
The first step in obtaining a default judgment is to obtain an entry of default from the clerk of court. The clerk (or judge) will look at the court’s records and any affidavits provided by the party seeking a default in deciding whether to enter default. The most important effect of the entry of default is that all allegations in the Plaintiff’s complaint are deemed admitted.
The second step is to obtain a default judgment. The party moving for a default judgment must show the court that complaint and summons were properly served on the defaulting party and that personal jurisdiction exists.
In certain instances, a default judgment can be granted by the clerk without the need for a hearing, but in most cases an evidentiary hearing in front a judge will be required before awarding an amount of damages. Further, the court may not award punitive damages by way of a default judgment.
If you mistakenly fail to respond to a lawsuit, there are ways to set aside the entry of default and/or a default judgment, though it is not certainly not guaranteed that you will be successful. To set aside an entry of default, you need to show the court that there is “good cause shown” for you to fail to respond to the complaint. The North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure also provide a procedure to have a default judgment set aside, but again, you are only able to do so under a limited set of circumstances. Of course, to set aside a default judgment you must show that there was mistake, excusable neglect, fraud, or other extenuating circumstances. If you received a copy of the summons and complaint but simply ignored the lawsuit, the default judgment will not be set aside.
Because there is no guarantee that a court will set aside an entry of default or default judgment, especially if legal papers are intentionally ignored, if you receive a summons and complaint, be it in the mail or personally delivered to you, the best course of action is to contact a
litigation attorney, like Edward Jesson at Jesson & Rains, who can guide you through the process and make sure to avoid any issues with defaults. If you learn that a default judgment has been entered against you or your business, and you believe you have never been served with any legal papers, please contact Jesson & Rains at once.
We are frequently asked what is the difference between an independent contractor and an employee. Hiring independent contractors is often the cheaper choice for employers as the employer saves on taxes and other administrative costs that are involved with hiring and firing traditional W2 employees. However, mistakenly (or intentionally) classifying employees as independent contractors can cost employers thousands of dollars in fines, taxes, and back wages, as well as cost the government millions of dollars in taxes. Several years ago, the News and Observer wrote an article about contractors in the construction industry who were intentionally misclassifying those who should have been employees as independent contractors in order to save money. The article found that the misclassification of employees cost the state of North Carolina $467 million in lost tax revenue that should have been paid by employers; and that was just from a sampling of federally funded projects in North Carolina—ignoring the vast amount of private construction in the State.
On August 11, 2017, Governor Cooper signed into law the Employee Fair Classification Act (S.B. 407). Many in the construction industry have supported this move, feeling that the misclassification of workers by their less scrupulous competitors was making it difficult for them to compete. Companies that misclassify employees and independent contractors can save more than 20% on their labor costs.
The new act provides a way for the state to receive complaints that employees are being misclassified as independent contractors by creating the Employee Classification Division within the North Carolina Industrial Commission. The Employee Classifications Section’s website states that:
Upon receiving the complaint for employee misclassification the Director will provide this information to the North Carolina Department of Labor, North Carolina Industrial Commission – Compliance and Fraud Investigative Division, North Carolina Department of Commerce - Division of Employment Security, and North Carolina Department of Revenue where each separate agency shall conduct independent investigations to determine whether violations of their operating statutes has occurred. If determined there has been a violation of any operating agency statute, each agency will ensure the necessary enforcement actions under the respective statutes.
As such, should a complaint be made, independent investigations will be made into the company being complained of by several different North Carolina governmental agencies and employers could be facing multiple fines from multiple state agencies. Also, employers are now required to post notices including the following information:
To avoid any issues with the Employee Classification Section, employers must ensure that they are correctly classifying employees as either employees or independent contractors. While the classification is determined case by case and depends a great deal on the specific facts surrounding each individual’s employment, here are some basic considerations:
That is not an exhaustive list, and no one question will determine whether a worker should be considered an employee or an independent contractor. However, if in answering those questions, you are finding that you have a lot of control over how the worker performs his or her work, then it is likely that they should be classified as an employee and not an independent contractor.
If you find yourself questioning whether your worker should be classified as an employee or an independent contractor, or if you find yourself being investigated by the Employee Classification Section, please give Jesson & Rains a call to assist you in the matter.
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