by Quenda Behler
We've all been there at some point: The contract's signed
and you've started the job, but the customer says your work
isn't good enough. Even though you believe the work meets the
industry standard, you go ahead and put in more hours to
improve it, because that's what your customer wants.
But then, when you bill for that extra work, the customer says
he shouldn't have to pay you more for doing it right. Is he
What Are You Entitled To?
As long as there's no language to the contrary in the
contract, you are entitled to the money. Which leads to a
second question: Can you walk off the job until you're
That's a very tricky question, one that's been fought over in
countless lawsuits. In certain circumstances — which
are too complicated to go into here — it's permissible
to walk off the job if you aren't being paid for something you
are entitled to be paid for. But do not take this step lightly:
If you walk, and it turns out you are not entitled to that
money, you will be in breach of contract (see "Know When To
Walk — And When Not To," 3/05).
A recent Pennsylvania lawsuit helped clarify that when you do
more than what the contract calls for to make the job better
than average, you're entitled to extra money unless you've
already agreed not to charge for that work.
The contract in the lawsuit specifically referred to an
industry standard established by the SSPC/Society for
Protective Coatings for painting (wash the wall so many times,
put on a certain number of coats, use a particular quality of
paint). However, when the inspector — whom the
customer hired — refused to sign off on work done to
that standard, the painting company went ahead and met the
higher demands of the inspector because the customer insisted
that it do so. Then the painting company billed for the extra
When the customer refused to pay, the painting company walked
off the job and refused to come back until it received the
extra money. The contract allowed either party to cancel the
contract at any time, and that's what the customer did. When
the painting company walked off the job, the customer cancelled
the contract and hired another painter. The original painting
company then sued for the money owed for the extra work and
also for breach of contract.
Burden of Proof
What did the painting company have to prove in court to win
its case? It had to prove plenty, but not what a plaintiff in
this sort of case usually has to prove: what standard of
workmanship was agreed to. That's because the contract already
defined a standard by referring to the detailed standards
established by the SSPC.
Since it could prove what the standard was and that its work
met that standard before it did the extra work, the painting
company won the part of the lawsuit in which it asked to be
paid for that extra work.
The company did not get damages (loss of profit and so forth)
for breach of contract, though, because the contract allowed
the customer to cancel at any time.
Local standards. What if there is a dispute about the quality
of work and your contract does not state what the standard of
work is to be? In that case, it's assumed by the court that the
work will meet the "locally accepted standard" in your industry
in your area.
But what is the industry standard in your area? The plaintiff
is going to say it's one thing and the defendant is going to
say it's something else.
Since it isn't written down, the court has to decide what the
local standard is based on what the parties to the dispute say
it is. Frequently this means bringing in expert witnesses,
which adds time and cost to an already expensive and
time-consuming process. From the Pennsylvania painting
contractor's point of view, it was good that the contract
contained written standards; when his case got to court, half
the battle was already won. He simply had to prove that his
work met those standards.
A workmanlike manner. Many contracts contain language along
the lines of "Work will be performed in a good and workmanlike
manner." This is good language, but it's not as good as a
reference to a specific industry standard, because not everyone
will agree on what "good" and "workmanlike" mean. As with
"locally accepted standards," what these words mean has to be
established after the fact — usually in court.
What You Should Do
What advice should you take away from this situation? That
it's useful to include detailed industry specific standards in
Actually, written standards can help you avoid having to sue
in the first place: When the attorney for the other side sees
the standards spelled out in the contract, he may tell his
client to settle because the risk of losing in court is too
You can put an industry standard into your contract by listing
the standard followed by language like "is hereby incorporated
by reference." If you can't find a standard you want to use,
write your own detailed specifications and put them into the
contract. Use clear, simple language that says exactly what
you're going to do and what you think is good enough.
Even if you agree to abide by an inspection — and
especially if you agree that the customer doesn't owe you a
payment until after your work passes inspection —
you'd better make it clear what's good enough.
In the case of the Pennsylvania painting contractor, it would
have been better if he'd gotten the customer to sign a change
order for the change in "specification." But given how the
customer was behaving, it's unlikely he'd have signed. The
contractor was fortunate to be in a position where he could
afford walk away from the job and wait to collect in court. Not
every contractor can afford to do this.
If a customer of yours refuses to sign a change order for
something you must do to finish the job, I strongly suggest
writing him a letter to remind him that you do expect to be
paid for the extra work, change order or not. The letter may
not convince the customer to pay, but if the dispute leads to a
legal proceeding, it will show your intent.
Quenda Behler Story, author of The
Contractor's Plain-English Legal Guide, has practiced and
taught law for more than 25 years.