Fabyanske, Westra, Hart & Thomson P.A. is celebrating its 40-year anniversary this month.
During its four decades of work, the Minneapolis-based firm has successfully represented clients in cases and advocated for legislation related to the state’s construction industry. Looking ahead to its next 40 years, the firm plans to continue shaping the real estate and construction industry through its work, said Matt Collins.
Collins is a shareholder and an attorney with the firm’s construction law department. His work spans litigating for successful verdicts in commercial and business disputes. His clients include leading local, national and international construction companies, while he also has experience that goes beyond the industry, according to the firm.
Although Collins, along with Fabyanske, Westra, Hart & Thomson, has expertise on various topics, he said the firm’s work on the Spearin Doctrine through the Alley Construction Co. Inc. v. State of Minnesota case was among the most impactful on the state’s construction industry.
The Spearin Doctrine says the government impliedly warrants that plans and specifications given to contractors for a public project are accurate and adequate. The firm was the first to use the doctrine in Minnesota, according to its website.
Collins discussed the doctrine, work on cases that ensure public projects are property awarded and trends in the Twin Cities legal community.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Before we began our interview, we were chatting a little bit about different trends that you’re seeing in the Twin Cities legal scene. Can you tell me more about that?
A: Because the Twin Cities is lucky enough to have some large Fortune 500 companies, some of the larger national firms that are based in larger cities and on the coast have identified Minneapolis as a [target] market. … Traditionally, the Twin Cities had organically grown law firms. And so what’s happened is these national firms see Minneapolis as a target. And so they open offices and they … oftentimes charge more per hour than our law firm and may not be able to service some of the clients that use traditionally Minnesota firms.
We see this as an opportunity. We don’t necessarily compete with the national firms for the Fortune 500 companies. … But we can look at small and mid-cap-size businesses [and] individuals, offer them very competitive rates. And our size allows us to be more nimble in making decisions about who you might represent and why. While these larger national firms, often time, have a lot of processes to go through in order to get things approved.
Q: I read that your firm was one of the first to use the Spearin Doctrine. Can you please tell me more about that doctrine and how it was applied?
A: It’s, I think, one of the only United States Supreme Court cases involving construction. Back in 1918, a construction company called Spearin was doing a project … in New York City for the federal government — I believe it was the Navy. And what the Navy did was they provided the plans and specifications about how Spearin was to build the project. And as they were building it, they determined the plans and the specifications were not accurate and were defective. And so [Spearin] incurred additional costs to work around these defective plans and specifications. And what Spearin did is then file a claim against the government, saying that when you provided the plans and specifications, [you] provided an implied warranty that they would be accurate. And the government denied the claim, and so it went to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court issued an opinion that said: No, government, you’re incorrect. You issued these plans and these specifications. You’re making a warranty that as long as the contractor follows them, they can do it without additional costs. And because the plans are defective, you need to pay the additional costs to Spearin.
Following that, it really was a landmark decision for the construction industry, which is, when you think about it, an enormous industry in the United States. And every state balked at that decision, including Minnesota. Our firm, in Alley Construction [Co.] vs. the State of Minnesota, successfully argued for its application and claims for our client, Alley Construction. … That was a pretty significant thing for construction law. And it’s routinely used today and is still binding law on the relationships between the contractor and a public [entity].
Q: Your firm represented a partnership in the largest successful bid protest in Minnesota. Can you explain its impact on the construction industry?
A: We do a lot of these bid-protest cases. … What we are trying to avoid is [when] having the board or the city or the county decide who they are going to award the contract to, they don’t want those decisions to be corrupted because, maybe, a member of the board or city council knows one of the contractors and wants to throw [a] favor by giving them the [contract.]
There was a decision a number of years ago that — I don’t want to get too technical on the legal stuff. But, the Court of Appeals said that in order to do a bid protest, you have to appeal the decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. And our firm was involved with drafting legislation to say: No that’s not the appropriate place to challenge or to protest it. It should be a just regular District Court. And so we not only challenge inappropriately awarded contracts and bid protests, we also help with the legislation that makes that process [work].
Q: I wanted to just get your opinion on what case or legislation your firm has worked on that you think has had the biggest impact on the construction industry here in Minnesota?
A: I think that Alley case was very big. … We’ve been involved in condominium legislation. We’ve been involved in what’s referred to as the subcontractors’ bill of rights; and that is a series of statutes that seek to help even the playing field between general contractors and subcontractors. Because oftentimes, general contractors, they’re sometimes larger companies [and] have more negotiation power. So that subcontractor bill of right has been really, I think, beneficial to the construction industry overall.
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