Recently, I had the pleasure to talk with Marilyn Odendahl from the Indiana Lawyer and discuss the Indiana Court of Appeals decision in Alva Electric, Inc., et. al. v. Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp., et. al., Case No. 82A01-1201-PL-2. The Court’s opinion can be found here. In this case eight contractors sued the school corporation and a Foundation for failing to abide by public bidding laws. Ms. Odendahl wrote an excellent article about the case and you can read it here.
At its essence this case is about whether a project is public versus private. For contractors this distinction matters. More and more state and local municipalities, facing tight budget constraints are partnering with private enterprises to collaborate on projects. When a municipal entity procures a project on its own that will be used by the public, this distinction is clear. When its clear, the ground rules are well known. Contractors understand they will have to go through a bidding process and follow other rules required for public projects. They also understand that if a project is public, contractors may not file a lien on a public project. Rather, these projects typically require a bond and a contractor may file a claim against the bond in order to get paid.
Where things become cloudy are when projects aren’t clearly public or private. They are quasi-public projects. As was the case in Alva, when it appears a project is owned by a private party and the parties proceed as though the project was a private project, public construction law statutes may be ignored and subcontractors may believe they have lien rights that really don’t exist. The public entity may not get the necessary bond that was, in fact, required by statute. This belief may expose all parties, including the owners, to legal risks if a court ultimately determines that the project is a public project.
Determining whether a project is public versus private can be difficult. Surprisingly, legal title to the project has little impact on this determination. As was found in Alva, some the factors considered most heavily by the courts are (1) who is primarily funding the projects, (2) who is the intended beneficiary, and (3) what is the extent of the municipality in the project.