One of the most effective collection procedures available to subcontractors and suppliers to California Construction projects is the “stop payment notice” procedure found under California Civil Code sections 9350 – 9364. Under this procedure, the unpaid subcontractor or supplier may serve the stop payment notice on the public entity and the direct or “prime” contractor and cause the public entity to withhold from the direct contractor 125% of the funds identified in the stop payment notice. Thereafter, funds will not generally be released unless the parties reach a settlement agreement or the issue is decided through litigation, arbitration or mediation. There is however an alternative procedure available to direct contractors to expedite the determination of whether a stop payment notice is valid and to possibly obtain an early release of the funds withheld by the public entity. This “summary proceeding” process could result in release of funds to the direct contractor in less than 30 days. The summary proceeding can also be challenged by the unpaid subcontractor or supplier. All public works contractors, subcontractors and suppliers should be aware of the process. The process for direct contractors to release a stop payment notice and for subcontractors and suppliers to challenge the process works as follows:
After a California stop payment notice has been served and the public entity has withheld funds accordingly, the direct contractor may challenge the stop payment notice by serving an “affidavit” (basically a sworn statement showing why the stop notice is not valid) on the public entity, demanding that the public entity release all funds withheld. Upon receipt of such an affidavit, the public entity will serve the subcontractor or supplier who served the stop payment notice with a copy of the affidavit, along with a “demand for release of funds”. If the stop payment notice claimant does not respond with a “counter-affidavit” by the date stated on the notice sent by the public entity (“not less than 10 days nor more than 20 days after service on the claimant of a copy of the affidavit”), then the public entity will be within its rights to release the withheld funds to the direct contractor, and the stop payment notice claimant will relinquish its stop payment notice rights.