In construction, some risks have nothing to do with how well a contractor executes a project. Licensing problems is one of these risks. Even a brief lapse caused by an unintentional administrative error can give the CSLB grounds to discipline a contractor, or enable a customer to seek disgorgement and other remedies provided by Business and Professions Code section 7031. This article discusses five tips for mitigating the liabilities associated with licensing problems.
Tip 1: Take workers' compensation insurance very seriously. Workers’ compensation insurance problems can trigger license suspension in California. Business and Professions Code section 7125.4 calls for automatic suspension if a contractor cannot provide proof of workers’ compensation insurance for any period of time. This is particularly serious for residential remodelers who claim exemption for workers’ compensation but are later discovered – usually during litigation with a homeowner – to have “off the books” workers helping them. Courts can declare the contractor retroactively unlicensed under these circumstances and order it to disgorge, i.e., to pay back, every penny paid by the customer for the entire project (even for materials). (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 7031, subd. (b); Wright v. Issak (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 1116.) The contractor will also find itself unable to collect any amounts owed to it by the customer. (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 7031, subd. (a).)
Tip 2: Watch out for licensing confusion after a merger or acquisition. The economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 resulted in consolidation throughout the building industry. The newly merged or acquired entities often allowed redundant licenses to expire, assuming they could complete all pending projects under the umbrella of the acquiring company's license. Many learned this was a mistake the hard way. Armed with the California Supreme Court's opinion in MW Erectors, Inc. v. Niederhauser Ornamental & Metal Works Co., Inc. (2005) 36 Cal.4th 412, customers began refusing to pay invoices and demanding disgorgement under Business and Professions Code section 7031 because the original contractor did not maintain licensure “at all times.” Many of these customers succeeded.
Tip 3: If a license suspension has occurred or is imminent, prepare to prove substantial compliance. Section 7031(a) and (b) give a disgruntled or indebted customer every incentive to capitalize on a contractor's licensing problems. Subdivision (e) is where a contractor must turn to protect its interests if this happens. It allows the contractor to prove “substantial compliance” with licensing requirements and avoid (a)’s and (b)’s sharp edges if it can show the following:
(1) The contractor “had been duly licensed as a contractor in this state prior to the performance of the act or contract”;
(2) It “acted reasonably and in good faith to maintain proper licensure”; and
(3) It “acted promptly and in good faith to remedy the failure to comply with the licensure requirements upon learning of the failure.”
The Court of Appeal confirmed in Judicial Council of California v. Jacobs Facilities, Inc. (2015) 239 Cal.App.4th 882 that a contractor, upon request, is entitled to a hearing on these three factors before it is subjected to disgorgement under Section 7031(b). The legislature amended Section 7031 shortly after the Court of Appeal published this case. The Assembly’s floor analysis went so far as to directly quote the opinion’s observation that penalizing a construction firm for “technical transgressions only indirectly serves the Contractors Law’s larger purpose of preventing the delivery of services by unqualified contractors.” (Assem. Com. on Bus. and Prof., Off. of Assem. Floor Analyses, analysis of Sen. Holden's No. 1793 (2015-2016 Reg. Sess.) as amended August 2, 2016, p. 2.) This echoed an industry consensus that clarifying the law was needed to ensure that properly licensed and law-abiding construction firms were not “placed at fatal monetary risk by malicious lawsuits motivated by personal gain rather than consumer protection.” (Assem. Com. on Judiciary, com. on Assem. Bill No. 1793 (2015-2016 Reg. Sess.), pp. 6-7.)
Unfortunately, existing law does not give many examples of what it means to act “reasonably and in good faith to maintain proper licensure” or to act “promptly and in good faith” to fix license problems. A practical approach is for a contractor to work backwards by assuming it will need to prove substantial compliance at some point in the future. Designated individuals within the organization should have clear responsibility over obtaining and renewing the proper licenses and should keep good records. If necessary, these designees can testify about the contractor's internal policies and their efforts to fix licensing problems when they arose. For example, if the suspension resulted from not providing the CSLB proof of workers’ compensation insurance, the designee can testify about the cause (a broker miscommunication, transmission error, etc.) and produce documents showing how he or she worked promptly to procure a certificate of insurance to send CSLB. Saved letters, emails, and notes from telephone calls will provide designees and their successors with an important resource months or years down the line if a dispute arises and the contractor is required to reconstruct the chronology of a licensing glitch and prove its due diligence.
Tip 4: Don't sign new contracts unless all necessary licenses are active and any problems are resolved. A recently-formed contractor should not begin soliciting and signing contracts until all required licenses are confirmed as “active.” The first requirement of substantial compliance – being “duly licensed as a contractor in this state prior to the performance of the act or contract” – cannot be met by a contractor that first obtains its license mid-project. (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 7031, subd. (e)(1); Alatriste v. Cesar’s Exterior Designs (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 656.) A licensed contractor should also consider refraining from signing new contracts if there is any reason to believe its license might be suspended in the near future – especially if the suspension will be retroactive. Having a suspension on record at the time of contracting may complicate the question of whether the contractor was “duly licensed . . . prior to performance” for the purposes of substantial compliance.
Tip 5: Any judgment against a contractor can cause license suspension if not handled promptly and correctly. The Business and Professions Code authorizes the CSLB to suspend the license of a contractor that does not pay a construction related court judgment within 90 days. The term “construction related” is interpreted to include nearly all types of disputes involving a contractor. (16 Cal. Code Reg. 868; Pacific Caisson & Shoring, Inc. v. Bernards Bros. Inc. (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 1246, 1254-1255.) This means a contractor should treat a judgment against it for unpaid office rent, for example, as one carrying the same consequences as one arising from a construction defect or subcontractor claim. The contractor should also not assume that filing an appeal, or agreeing with the other side to stay enforcement, automatically excuses the 90-day deadline in the eyes of the CSLB. It does not. A contractor must notify the CSLB in writing before this period expires, then post bond for the amount of judgment, if it wishes to delay payment for any reason. (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 7071.17, subd. (d).) A suspension may result if it does not. This applies even to small claims judgments.
Recent case law and the 2016 amendments to Business and Professions Code section 7031 provide some solace to those caught in the dragnet of California's licensing laws. But avoiding these problems altogether is preferable. Consider licensing the foundation of a successful business and deserving of the same attention as the structures a contractor builds.
Eric R. Reed is a business and insurance litigator in the Ventura office of Myers, Widders, Gibson, Jones & Feingold, LLP.