In a ruling that the winning lawyer said saved the construction industry from being “turned on its head,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has reversed an award of $155,000 in legal fees in a dispute over the superstructure at Miami’s $1 billion Brickell CityCentre.
Senior Circuit Judge Frank Hull wrote the decision released Monday, joined by Judges Robin Rosenbaum and Julie Carnes. The panel reversed a ruling from U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke of the Southern District of Florida granting $154,536 in attorney fees to International Fidelity Insurance Co. and Allegheny Casualty Co. — referred to jointly by the court as Fidelity.
On the winning side is Americaribe-Moriarty Joint Venture, a general contractor on the massive mixed-use development. The dispute arose when the contractor replaced a subcontractor, Certified Pool Mechanics, called “CPM” in the opinion. The contractor contended the sub failed to perform and then sought relief under a Fidelity performance bond.
Fidelity sought a declaratory judgment that Americaribe was not entitled to assert a claim against the performance bond and won at the district court level. The Eleventh Circuit upheld that ruling.
But then Fidelity asked for the fee award, which the district judge granted.
“In the first appeal, we affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Fidelity, holding Fidelity had no liability under its performance bond,” Hull wrote. “Subsequently, the district court awarded attorney’s fees to Fidelity against Americaribe.”
On a second appeal, Americaribe argued Fidelity wasn’t entitled to recover fees because the performance bond and the subcontract didn’t provide for it, and the panel agreed.
Richard Chaves of Ciklin Lubitz in West Palm Beach represented the Americaribe-Moriarty Joint Venture, or AMJV.
“The unchecked effect of the district court’s decision would impact not just our client (AMJV) but contractors and subcontractors across the state of Florida,” Chaves said in an email Tuesday.
“Contractors and subcontractors routinely enter into bonded contracts which contain prevailing party attorneys’ fee provisions and/or separate indemnity provisions, and have asserted (and likely will assert in the future) claims against performance bonds which are typically challenged by the issuing surety,” he said. “Fidelity’s position that — despite not having performed their surety obligations under their performance bond — they were entitled to prevailing party attorneys’ fees from AMJV under the indemnity provision of the underlying subcontract (to which Fidelity was not a party) is contrary to Florida’s public policy and, if made into legal precedent, would have turned the construction industry on its head.”
Chaves also suggested Hull’s decision may have helped avoid trouble beyond disputes over performance bonds.
“Contracts are governed by common law,” Chaves said. “An errant decision can create havoc in existing commercial relationships and create uncertainty in future ones.”
Edward Etcheverry of Etcheverry & Harrison in Plantation represented Fidelity. He had no comment by deadline.
The case is Fidelity v. Americaribe-Moriarty JV, No. 17-10814.