It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over. Why Project Completion in California Isn’t as Straightforward as You Might Think

Yogi Berra

Baseball legend Yogi Berra was famous for his pithy quotes such as “the future ain’t what it used to be,” “half the lies they tell about me aren’t true,” and what is probably his most famous, “it ain’t over till it’s over.”

The last, of course, begs the question of when over is over? And, on California construction projects when over is over, or more accurately, when a project is complete, can be as paradoxical as a “yogiism.”

Why “Completion” is Important in California

In California, project “completion,” is important not only for getting paid, but for knowing the deadlines associated with California’s statutory construction payment remedies.

Statutory completion deadlines

So When is a Project Completed?

It depends on whether it’s a private works project or public works project.

  • Private Works Projects: On private works projects, under Civil Code section 8180 “completion” is deemed to occur on the occurrence of any of the following events:

(1)   Actual completion of the work of improvement;

(2)   Occupation or use by the owner accompanied by a cessation of labor;

(3)   Cessation of labor for a continuous period of 60 days; or

(4)   Recordation of notice of a cessation after cessation of labor for a continuous period of 30 days.

Provided, however, that if a private works project is subject to acceptance by a public entity, completion occurs on acceptance by the public entity.

  • Public Works Projects: On public works projects, under Civil Code section 9200 “completion” is deemed to occur at the earliest of the following events:

(1)   Acceptance of the project by the public entity; or

(2)   Cessation of labor for a continuous period of 60 days.

Clearer But Not Necessarily Clear

California’s definition of “completion” certainly makes things clearer. But clear? I don’t think so. Indeed, the very definition of “completion” opens its own can of worms:

  • What is “actual completion”? Is it receipt of manuals and warranties? Is it receipt of a final pay application? Is it the owner saying “yup, you’re done”?
  • What is “occupancy or use”? Is it turning on the utilities? Is it watering the landscaping? Moving furniture in? Or do people have to be using it for its intended purpose?
  • What is “cessation of labor”? Does it only include physical labor at the site? How about work performed off site? How about work performed at the office?
  • What is “acceptance by a public entity”? Is it receipt of a final sign off by the building department? Is it receipt of a certificate of occupancy? Or is it something else.

I don’t know myself and I don’t think Yogi Berra would either. It’s what you call “arguable,” and what we lawyers call “business.”

4 Responses to “It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over. Why Project Completion in California Isn’t as Straightforward as You Might Think”

  1. Marty Wilson

    I wonder . . . on a private project that had received a building permit sign-off, but the punch list wasn’t 100% completed; would that extend the “project completion” if the contractor hadn’t received final payment and now wants to lien the project even though 90 days had passed beyond the permit final and owner occupancy?

    Reply
    • Garret Murai

      Thanks Marty. Your example highlights the ambiguity that can arise when law and facts don’t neatly line up. Is building permit sign off “actual completion” when there is punch list work yet to be done? Is there “occupation and use by the owner accompanied by a cessation of labor” since substantial completion has been reached but there is punch list work yet to be done? I think two courts could reach different conclusions.

      Reply
  2. Evan Adams (@evan_adams)

    I think the list should include construction & design defect. Unique to California in term and something a lot of us really have to hold our breath until that 10 year mark.

    Reply

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