By Alexander Barthet

You are busy building an addition for a customer. The job is on schedule but some disagreements come up over change orders you have submitted. The owner disputes your claim for extras. You explain that the scope of the contracted work has been changed but the owner just isn’t seeing it your way. You proceed to complete the punch list work and receive a check in the mail for a significant portion of your balance, but it is less than the amount you had invoiced. The check is marked “payment in full” in the memo line and is enclosed with a letter by the homeowner explaining his position on the change orders. He insists that the check represents full payment. You wonder – if you cash the check, will you still be able to make a claim for your unpaid balance? Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, the answer is no.

When there’s an existing dispute regarding an amount due and the parties mutually intend to settle that dispute by accepting a certain payment amount (such as a check marked “payment in full”) then that payment will result in the discharge of the prior disputed obligation (an accord and satisfaction in legal terms).

One court found that a claim for additional payment wouldn’t be allowed even though the claimant explicitly wrote “payment in full” on the check and believed he was reserving his right to more payments. That said, a customer cannot simply claim that partial payment of an invoice constitutes payment in full half way through the job and expect the contractor to fully perform the balance of the contract.

The lesson is clear: when a dispute arises with a customer and that customer marks a check “paid in full”, especially when the check is accompanied by a letter or note explaining why the check is to constitute full payment, the best practice is to avoid cashing the check and attempt to resolve the dispute directly for the correct amount or an agreed on lesser amount. Simply cashing the check and expecting you can argue about it later would be a mistake – a big mistake.

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