Know Your Rights – Limitations on Retainage for Private Construction Projects

The Massachusetts Retainage Act limits the amount of retainage allowed for private construction projects, and imposes mandatory processes for reaching the date of substantial completion, submitting punchlists and completing punchlist items, and submitting applications for payment and obtaining payment of retainage.

The Act applies to all construction contracts signed after November 4, 2014, for privately owned projects where the original contract price with the owner is at least three million dollars and the general contractor, subcontractors, or design professionals would have mechanic’s lien rights , but exempts residential housing projects of one to four units.

Limit on Retainage

Under the Act, no more than five percent retainage may be withheld from any progress payment. Among other things, this prohibits frontloading retainage amounts for a portion of the project, with less held at the end.

Substantial Completion

The Act defines substantial completion as the stage in the project when the work required under the general contractor’s contract with the owner is “is sufficiently complete … so that the project owner may occupy or utilize the work for its intended use.” Substantial completion may apply to the entire project or to a phase of the project, but only where the project owner has expressly allowed substantial completion for defined phases.

In order to reach substantial completion, the general contractor must submit a form for notice of substantial completion, as contained in the Act, to the owner within fourteen days of reaching the stage when the general contractor believes the project is substantially complete. Then the owner has fourteen days to accept or reject the general contractor’s notice. Should the owner fail to timely respond to the notice, the owner is deemed accept to general contractor’s work as substantially complete. If the owner accepts the notice, the date of substantial completion is set and is binding upon all related aspects of the contract. If the owner rejects the notice, it must notify the general contractor in writing of the rejection and include the factual and contractual basis for the rejection and a certification that the rejection is made in good faith. The Act permits an expedited process for the general contractor to dispute the rejection under the contract’s dispute resolution procedures. Alternatively, the general contractor can resubmit a form for notice of substantial completion to the owner for new approval.

Submission of Punchlists and Completion of Punchlist Items

Within fourteen days after acceptance (whether express or deemed accepted) of the notice of substantial completion, or the final and binding resolution of a dispute, the owner must submit a written punchlist “describing all incomplete or defective work items and deliverables” to the general contractor. The owner’s punchlist must be certified as made in good faith.

The general contractor has an additional week after the owner’s deadline expires, or twenty-one total days after acceptance, to submit a punchlist to each subcontractor from whom the general contractor is holding retainage “describing all incomplete or defective work items and deliverables required,” which may include items in addition to the owner’s punchlist. The general contractor’s punchlist to its subcontractors and suppliers must be certified as made in good faith. General contractors, subcontractors and suppliers are permitted to dispute punchlist items directed to them.

Submitting Applications for Payment and Obtaining Payment of Retainage

The general contractor, subcontractors and suppliers from whom retainage is held may submit written applications for payment of retainage no sooner than 60 days following the date of substantial completion. Each contractor shall use the form required by their contract to apply for payment of retainage. Alternatively, the project owner and general contractor may allow for earlier submission dates. An application for payment of retainage must include the punchlist, along with a written list identifying which items have been completed, repaired or delivered, and a certification that the application is submitted in good faith.

Applications for retainage must be paid within thirty days of receipt, minus any withholdings described below. For each tier of contract below the prime contact with the owner, the time period for paying retainage is extended by seven days.

Should the owner or contractor seek to withhold payment of retainage, they are limited to (1) the value of incomplete, incorrect or missing deliverables as either agreed upon by the parties or, if no agreement is reached, no more than two and a half percent of the total adjusted contract price; (2) one hundred and fifty percent of the reasonable cost to complete or correct incomplete or defective work items; and (3) the reasonable value of claims and any costs, expenses, or attorneys’ fees incurred as a result of the claims (but only when permitted by the terms of the contract).

Retainage, or any portion thereof, cannot be withheld unless the party seeking payment receives, before the date payment is due, a written explanation “of the incomplete or defective work items and incomplete, incorrect or missing deliverables, the factual and contractual basis for the claims and the value attributable to each incomplete or defective work item, deliverable and claim.” The explanation of withholding must also be certified as made in good faith.

Moreover, the Act prohibits the owner from holding any portion of retainage due to subcontractors or suppliers that are not the subject of the owner’s claim against the general contractor, unless the owner has declared the general contractor in default under its contract.

As the foregoing makes plain, the Act requires all parties to a project to adhere to strict guidelines in connection with withholding, and later releasing retainage. In order to gain a full understanding of how the Act and other statutes govern Massachusetts construction projects, and how to preserve your rights under those statutes, contractors would be wise to consult with a Massachusetts construction attorney regarding their specific contract and situation.

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