OPINION OF THE COURT
For well over a century, parties to construction contracts in New York were permitted by decisional law and by statute to
In the case before us, plaintiff subcontractor is a Delaware corporation and defendant general contractor is a Florida corporation. The parties agreed that Florida law would govern their contract. Unlike New York, Florida allows pay-if-paid contracts. We must determine whether New York's public policy against such contracts is so fundamental that it should override the parties' choice of law. We hold that it is not, and that the parties' choice of law controls. As we said in Cooney v Osgood Mach. (81 N.Y.2d 66, 79 ), "plainly not every difference between foreign and New York law threatens our public policy. Indeed, if New York statutes or court opinions were routinely read to express fundamental policy, choice of law principles would be meaningless."
On September 10, 1999, Telergy Metro LLC engaged defendant MasTec North America, Inc. to construct a fiber optic telecommunications network from Pleasant Valley to New York City. On November 28, 2000, MasTec subcontracted with plaintiff Welsbach Electric Corp. to do the electrical work for the project. The subcontract included a pay-if-paid clause stating that:
The parties also agreed that termination, suspension or delay of the primary contract between Telergy and MasTec automatically terminated, suspended or delayed the subcontract on both the same basis and effective date. In the event of termination, suspension or delay, Welsbach would be allowed to recover from the owner amounts payable to MasTec less any anticipated gross profit from the work.
In August 2001, Telergy became insolvent and terminated its contract with MasTec, effectively terminating the subcontract. MasTec, and in turn, Welsbach, were not fully paid for their work. Welsbach sued MasTec for the unpaid balance under the subcontract.
In its fifth and eleventh affirmative defenses MasTec asserted that: (1) Florida law, which enforces pay-if-paid provisions, governs the subcontract; MasTec never received payment from Telergy and therefore owes no money to Welsbach and (2) Welsbach can seek recovery only from Telergy, pursuant to the termination provision in the subcontract.
Welsbach moved for partial summary judgment and dismissal of those affirmative defenses, arguing that the subcontract's pay-if-paid provision violates Lien Law § 34. MasTec cross-moved for leave to serve an amended answer with two counterclaims. Supreme Court struck the two affirmative defenses, otherwise denied Welsbach's motion, and granted MasTec's cross motion. The court held that although pay-if-paid clauses are enforceable in Florida, they violate Lien Law § 34 because the subcontractor is forced to assume the risk that the owner will fail to pay the general contractor. On an appeal to the Appellate Division from so much of Supreme Court's order as struck the affirmative defenses, that Court, with one Justice dissenting, affirmed. We now reverse.
Both sides agree that the subcontract's pay-if-paid clause violates New York's public policy.
Generally, courts will enforce a choice-of-law clause so long as the chosen law bears a reasonable relationship to the parties or the transaction (Cooney, 81 NY2d at 70-71). A basic precept of contract interpretation is that agreements should be construed to effectuate the parties' intent (see Greenfield v Philles Records, 98 N.Y.2d 562, 569 ; see R/S Assoc. v New York Job Dev. Auth., 98 N.Y.2d 29, 32 ; W.W.W. Assoc. v Giancontieri, 77 N.Y.2d 157, 162 ). Where an agreement is clear and unambiguous, a court is not free to alter it and impose its personal notions of fairness (see Vermont Teddy Bear Co. v 538 Madison Realty Co., 1 N.Y.3d 470, 475 ; Greenfield, 98 NY2d at 570; Reiss v Financial Performance Corp., 97 N.Y.2d 195, 199 ).
The freedom to contract, however, has limits. Courts will not, for example, enforce agreements that are illegal
Mechanics' liens did not exist at common law; they are creatures of statute (Birmingham Iron Foundry v Glen Cove Starch Mfg. Co., 78 N.Y. 30, 32 ; Derby, The New Mechanics' Lien Law of the State of New York, Preface ). The first mechanics' lien law of New York was enacted in 1830 (L 1830, ch 330). Early New York treatises on mechanics' liens recognized that the right to file a lien could be waived.
In 1929 the Legislature enacted Lien Law § 34. The statute codified decisional law allowing contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers and laborers to waive their right to file and enforce a lien by a signed, written agreement expressing such intent. For decades thereafter, courts upheld these waivers pursuant to Lien Law § 34.
It was not until 1975 that the Legislature repealed the 1929 statute and replaced it with the current version of Lien Law § 34. Even then, the courts perceived no connection between section 34's waiver prohibition and pay-if-paid contracts. Courts continued to uphold pay-if-paid clauses where the parties clearly agreed that payment to the contractor was a condition precedent to the contractor's obligation to pay the subcontractor. (See Schuler-Haas Elec. Corp. v Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 49 A.D.2d 60 [4th Dept 1975], affd 40 N.Y.2d 883  ["(I)f the parties clearly expressed an intention that no subcontractor . . . should have a right to be paid or to sue on the payment bond until all questions relating to the contracts have been resolved and the owner has made his final payment due under the contract to the general contractor, such agreement would be binding, and it would constitute a condition precedent to plaintiff's action against the surety" (emphasis added)].)
By the 1990's there were growing doubts as to whether Lien Law § 34 could abide pay-if-paid contracts, as courts began to realize that such agreements arguably operated as forbidden waivers of the right to enforce a mechanics' lien. As recently as 1995, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals certified to us the question whether Lien Law § 34 is violated when the parties agree that the subcontractor will not be paid if the contractor
Section 34 seeks to protect New York subcontractors from the oppressive use of bargaining power. Here, neither party is a New York corporation; notably, MasTec is a Florida corporation. As dissenting Justice Krausman pointed out, both are sophisticated commercial entities that knowingly and voluntarily entered into the subcontract. Considering these factors and given the checkered history of pay-if-paid clauses in the construction industry, we cannot say they are "truly obnoxious" so as to void the parties' choice of law. In short, Welsbach has not sustained its "heavy burden" of proving that application of Florida law would be offensive to a fundamental public policy of this State (see Cooney, 81 NY2d at 80).
Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed, with costs, plaintiff's motion, insofar as it seeks to dismiss the fifth and eleventh affirmative defenses interposed in the answer, denied and the certified question answered in the negative.
Order reversed, etc.