In a decision which follows an onerous trend for California contractors,
the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, ruled that a corporate
entity subcontractor could not seek compensation for work on a project even
though the corporate entity contractor was properly licensed prior to the date the
contract was fully executed and before any on-site work took place.
In a stunning further reversal of fortunes for California contractors, the
Second District Court of Appeal ruled in Great West Contractors, Inc. v. WSS
Industrial Construction, Inc. (2008) DJDAR 6138 (herein, the “Great West
Contractors, Inc.” case) that a steel subcontractor could not recoup compensation
for work performed on a school project even though (i) the contract was not
executed by the general contractor until after the subcontractor had obtained a
valid license; and (ii) all on-site work took place after licensure had been
obtained. This decision follows a trend whereby the courts have severely limited
the doctrine of substantial compliance under Business & Professions Code
section 7031(e). See also, MW Erectors, Inc. v. Neiderhauser Ornamental & Metal
Works Co., Inc. (2005) 36 Cal.4th 412; Pacific Custom Pools, Inc. v. Turner
Construction Co. (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 1254; and Construction Financial v.
Purlite Plastering Co. (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 170, 176-177.
The facts of the Great West Contractors, Inc. case are common enough. In
that case, plaintiff WSS Industrial Corporation, Inc. (“WSS”) a steel
subcontractor, sued general contractor and defendant Great West Contractors,
Inc. (“Great West”) to recover for work WSS performed under a subcontract with
Great West for improvements on a public works project at the New Middle
School For the Deaf in Riverside, California. On August 28, 2001, WSS submitted
a bid proposal to Great West to perform steel construction work on the project
for $440,000.00. At the time WSS submitted its August 28, 2001 bid, it was
incorporated in California but had only applied for, and had not yet obtained, a
corporate contractor’s license. The license was issued by the California State
Contractors License Board on December 21, 2001.
On December 1, 2001, WSS executed the subcontract with Great West,
which subcontract incorporated its August 28, 2001 bid proposal. WSS inserted
its contractor’s license number and returned the subcontract to Great West in
early January 2002. Great West signed the subcontract on January 2, 2002.
All work performed on-site at the project appears to have taken place after
January 2, 2002. However, the August 28, 2001 bid proposal provided that WSS
was to obtain “necessary licenses prior to starting work” and WSS provided a
notice to the state (the owner of the project) on October 10, 2001 that it intended
to begin work on the project within twenty days (the notice was required so the
corporation could be paid for its work).
WSS submitted invoices for preparation of shop drawings and specialized
anchor bolts on October 29, 2001 and again on December 19, 2001. The President
of WSS testified that ordering materials, such as anchor bolts, was included in
the WSS subcontract which was later executed by Great West on January 2, 2002.
Also, WSS sent a third invoice on December 25, 2001 (albeit after the corporate
contractor’s license was issued) for materials to be used on the project.
After Great West failed to pay approximately $91,000.00 under the
subcontract and change orders, WSS filed suit against Great West and the surety
for Great West. At a jury trial, WSS prevailed and obtained an award of
approximately $220,000.00 in contract damages, statutory penalties and interest.
Great West and its surety contested licensure of WSS at trial and filed a motion
for nonsuit which was denied after the trial court found that WSS met the
requirements for substantial compliance under Business & Professions Code
section 7031(e). The trial court also concluded that a valid individual contractor’s
license had been issued at all times to the President of WSS and, in any event,
licensure was not required for tasks the corporation performed prior to obtaining
its license on December 21, 2001.
On appeal, Great West asserted that WSS could not segregate “acts”
performed in furtherance of the subcontract, that licensure was required to
prepare drawings and order materials, and that licensure of the President of WSS
was irrelevant. Great West cited recent case law which confirmed a trend of
strict compliance with the licensure statute. See, MW Erectors, Inc. v.
Neiderhauser Ornamental & Metal Works Co., Inc. (2005) 36 Cal.4th 412 and
Banis Restaurant Design, Inc. v. Serrano (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 1035.