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Shabbat Parashat Balak 5780

P'ninat Mishpat: Too Slow to Meet a Non-Deadline

(based on ruling 71098 of the Eretz Hemdah-Gazit Rabbinical Courts)

Case: The plaintiffs (=pl) hired the defendant (=def), an architecture company, to plan their house and gain municipal approval for the plans. Pl signed a contract and paid a 4,000 shekel first payment in Dec. 2010. The process of presenting designs proceeded slowly, and def put a new architect on the project in April 2011. After def cancelled a June 2011 meeting with pl with five minutes notice, pl notified def that he is letting def go. Pl is suing to recover the first installment and an additional 6,000 shekels for the delay def caused and the missed meeting (pl took off from work). Def counters that they did significant work and that according to the contract, only a break of six months is breach of contract; there are no deadline for the work to be completed (def has incentive to proceed, because payment is based on progress). Def are countersuing for the contract to be upheld, i.e., to allow them to finish the job or pay for it.


Ruling: Although def did not sign the contract, def composed it, and thus both sides relied on it regarding mutual obligations. Regarding workers, whatever oral agreements and understandings were in place at the time of the beginning of the work are binding (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 333:1).

Both sides explained the contract’s provision of six months as dealing with a scenario of “losing touch.” One cannot deduce from this that all other delays in progress are acceptable. While beit din accepts def’s claim that there is not an end point of the project because one never knows which delays will be forced on the architect by the owner or the authorities, there are still minimum standards for consistent work.

[Beit din analyzed in detail the schedule of meetings and the sketches that def sent to pl.] It appears that months went by with def making very little progress. Considering that there was not substantive denial of pl’s claim that he several times asked for meetings and was rebuffed, there are clear grounds for grievance. The new architect claimed that the work done by his predecessor was not viable, thereby returning the project back to close to the beginning. The fact that another two months went by until a meeting was set between def and pl and that it was then cancelled without notice, gave pl due cause to feel he was not being taken seriously and could not depend on timely progress. Therefore, def’s counterclaim to hold pl to the contract is rejected.

Although def did put in time and produce some results, pl deserves his first payment back. Regarding work stopped in the middle, whether the worker backed out, or the employer fired him with sufficient justification, the worker gets paid the amount of money he saved the employer by his work (ibid. 4). In this case, since pl’s new architect started from the beginning, which they had little choice about, considering that def enjoys copyright privileges to their plans and did not allow their use, def did not benefit from them, and all that was paid must be returned.

[We will omit the analysis, but] def must pay pl an additional 500 shekels for the damages that their negligence, and especially their not coming to the last meeting, caused.

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