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Awards of Attorneys’ Fees and Statutory Penalties are “Discretionary” even when the Government acts in Bad Faith

In A. Scott Enterprises Inc. v. City of Allentown, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that an award of statutory interest and attorneys’ fees under Section 3935 of the Procurement Code is not automatic even where a jury finds the public owner to have withheld payment in bad faith. Rather, the decision to issue such an award is within a judge’s discretion.

This case arose out of a contract awarded by the City of Allentown to A. Scott Enterprises (ASE) to build a public road in 2009. After the discovery of arsenic contamination on site threatened ASE with additional substantial costs to continue with the project, and attempts to negotiation a continuation of the project failed, ASE sued the city to recover its losses. At trial, ASE presented evidence Allentown was aware of possible contamination when it entered a contract with ASE, and failed to disclose this to ASE or incorporate terms regarding this possibility into the parties’ contract. At trial a jury found the city breached its contract and withheld payments in bad faith, awarding ASE $927,299. When ASE motioned the court for an award of statutory interest and attorneys’ fees, the trial court denied ASE’s request outright, without analysis, stating such an award was unwarranted because ASE’s evidence on damages was “conflicting.”

ASE then prevailed on appeal to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which had held in 2014 that a bad faith finding automatically entitled a contractor to recover its attorney’s fees and the 1% penalty, because, otherwise, “the finding of bad faith is a meaningless exercise with no consequence for the government agency found to have acted in bad faith.” But the Supreme Court ultimately disagreed.

In reversing the Commonwealth Court’s decision, the Supreme Court held “Section 3935 of the Procurement Code allows—but does not require—the court to order an award of a statutory penalty and attorney fees when payments have been withheld in bad faith. The court’s determinations in this regard are subject to review for an abuse of discretion.” The Court also noted “the instances where a finding of bad faith is deemed not to require a Section 3935 award at all presumably will be rare.”

Ultimately, in this case, the trial court’s reliance on the presence of “conflicting” evidence concerning the contractor’s damages alone was insufficient to support its denial of a Section 3935 award outright. For this reason, the case was remanded to the trial court for reconsideration of ASE’s original motion.

Therefore, although an award of attorneys’ fees and/or the 1% penalty under Section 3935 is not “automatic,” a court still must have a reasonable basis for denying such an award against an agency that withheld payment in bad faith. In A. Scott Enterprises, the Supreme Court declined to articulate a test for lower courts to apply in determining whether to enter an award under Section 3935; thus, trial courts are without guidance to determine whether attorneys’ fees and/or penalties must be assessed.