The right to file a mechanic’s lien is established by state statute, allowing those providing work, services, materials or equipment to a construction project with additional valuable security in the event of non-payment of amounts due under a contract for such work, services, materials or equipment.  As a pair of recent unpublished New Jersey Appellate Division decisions illustrate, the proper exercise of those rights can make a significant difference in attempting to obtain payment.

The Construction Lien Law (“CLL”), N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-1, et seq. sets forth the requirements for qualifying for and filing a lien claim against a private commercial or a residential property in New Jersey.   The Municipal Mechanics’ Lien Law (“MMLL”), N.J.S.A. 2A:44-125, et seq. sets forth the requirements for qualifying for and filing a lien against the funds of a project contracted by a New Jersey public agency (though not projects contracted by the State of New Jersey).  In the two recent cases discussed below, a subcontractor on a public project succeeded in obtaining a remedy after filing a lien under the MMLL, while a subcontractor on a private project deprived itself of a potential remedy by failing to file a lien under the CLL.

In Vincent Pools, Inc. v. APS Contractors, Inc. (Docket Nos. A-2670-13T3, A-2688-13T3, Decided March 18, 2016), a subcontractor, Vincent Pools, Inc. (“VP”), was retained by a general contractor, APS Contractors, Inc. (“APS”), to install the plaster work for two swimming pools that were part of a larger municipal pool complex project that Jersey City had contracted with APS to construct.  Upon the completion of VP’s work, a dispute arose over the quality of that work.   Jersey City demanded that the pools be re-plastered, while APS offered, instead, to acid wash the pool.   Jersey City terminated APS’s contract and claimed that it had paid APS in full for the work completed on the pools prior to the termination, though it admittedly did not pay APS for certain outstanding change order work.  APS, in turn, withheld $162,468.92 from VP.  VP then filed a municipal mechanics’ lien claiming a lien on the project funds due and owing from Jersey City to APS, and filed suit seeking, among other things, the enforcement of its lien against Jersey City.  At trial, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of VP on its lien claim in the amount of $150,498.92, as well as substantially more in favor of ABS in connection with ABS’s contract claims against Jersey City.

On appeal, as it related to the verdict in favor of VP on its lien claim, Jersey City argued that it would be double paying if it paid VP any funds on account of VP’s lien, because it had already paid APS in full from the funds appropriated for the pool project.  The Appellate Division recognized that a lien filed under the MMLL is limited to the amount owed by the public agency to the general contractor at the time of the filing of the lien or what thereafter becomes due under the prime contract.  A public agency, therefore, cannot be liable for more than the amount of the public contract if it pays the general contractor pursuant to the contract terms and withholds amounts sufficient to cover any liens filed.  The court determined that the MMLL refers to the full amount of the public contract as the amount to which a lien may attach, and not just the amount that may be allocated to a specific portion of the contract.  Thus, although Jersey City claimed to have paid APS in full for the particular work performed by VP, because Jersey City still owed money to APS on the contract as a whole, plus change orders, VP’s lien attached to those funds.   In fact, to ensure Jersey City was not double paying for VP’s work, the trial court reduced APS’s award to offset amounts previously paid to APS for Jersey City’s prior payment on account of VP’s work, which had not yet been paid to VP.   The Appellate Division further noted that because the MMLL, and New Jersey’s Bond Act and Trust Fund Act are to be read cumulatively, VP’s ability to recover under any one of those acts does not preclude recovery under any of the others.  Thus, the Appellate Division affirmed the verdict in favor of VP on its lien claim.

The unpaid subcontractor in Exterior Walls Systems, LLC v. 3D Contracting of Central Jersey, Inc. (Docket No. A-0383-14T4, Decided February 18, 2016), was not so fortunate.   There, Exterior Wall Systems, LLC (“EWS”) subcontracted with 3D Contracting of Central Jersey, Inc. (“3D”) on a private construction project for JSN Deli Corp. (“JSN”).  EWS claimed that 3D failed to pay it in full for its work. EWS brought suit against 3D, ultimately obtaining a default judgment against it in the amount of $48,000.  As the Appellate Division aptly noted, “[i]mportantly, EWS did not file a lien, pursuant to the provisions of the [CLL] for its work done.”  That is critical, because instead of having a lien on JSN’s interest in the real property on which EWS’s work was performed, and perhaps having had JSN withhold payment to 3D to satisfy EWS’s lien, EWS was left with a potentially uncollectable judgment against 3D.

EWS attempted to levy on any and all of 3D’s assets, to the extent there were any, including any amounts claimed due by 3D from JSN under 3D’s contract with JSN.  JSN, however, had earlier won a dismissal of a lawsuit 3D had filed against it for amounts allegedly due under that contract, based on the statute of limitations.  EWS, thereafter, filed a motion seeking an order compelling JSN to turn over to EWS funds allegedly owed by JSN to 3D, which the trial court denied.    EWS appealed, and the Appellate Division determined as a matter of law that, based on the facts before it, there was no “debt” from JSN to 3D that would be subject to EWS’s execution or garnishment under the relevant New Jersey statutes.  The Appellate Division, therefore, affirmed the trial court’s denial of EWS’s turnover motion, leaving EWS without a remedy against the owner and, instead, attempting to collect the debt directly from 3D, which may or may not have assets sufficient to satisfy EWS’s judgment.

While, in the above cases, VP still may have been able to recover from APS even if it had not filed a lien, and EWS still may not have been able to recover on its claim even if it had filed a lien, there is no question that the filing of a valid lien claim provides subcontractors and others contributing to a public or private project in New Jersey with substantial valuable additional protections and rights when attempting to collect a debt.  All potential beneficiaries of the CLL and the MMLL should understand when and whether they are entitled to assert a lien claim under these laws, and the deadlines and any other conditions precedent to filing a lien, so that their rights under these laws are not inadvertently lost, waived or otherwise diminished.

On April 14, 2016, the New Jersey Appellate Division, in a precedential decision, determined that injured parties are not obligated to serve pre-suit tort claims notices under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“TCA”) on private government contractors.

In Gomes v. County of Monmouth, et al. (A-1679-14T4, approved for publication), plaintiff filed a lawsuit against, among others, Correct Care Solutions, Inc. (“CCS”), alleging that she had been injured after being unlawfully denied access to her prescribed antibiotic medication during her incarceration at the Monmouth County Correctional Institution (“MCCI”).  CCS is a private company that, during the relevant time, provided medical services to inmates housed at the MCCI pursuant to a contract with the County of Monmouth.   The trial court ruled that plaintiff’s claims were barred as against CCS because she had failed to serve CCS with notice of her claim within ninety days of the accrual of the claim, as the trial court determined was required by the TCA under N.J.S.A. 59:8-8.  On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that there was no obligation, “either in the language of the Tort Claims Act or one logically compelled by the policies underlying the statutory scheme[,]” requiring a plaintiff to provide a tort claims notice to a public entity’s private contractor.

The Gomes court, however, was careful to point out that its holding was limited to the TCA’s pre-suit notice provisions, and did not extend to any other possible protections offered by the TCA to government contractors.  For example, the court expressly “recognize[d] that, in appropriate circumstances, private contractors retained by State and local governments to perform some of their functions may be protected by the TCA’s immunities and special defenses under the concept of ‘derivative immunity.’”  One of the cases cited by the court where such immunity was found to have applied was Cobb v. Waddington, 154 N.J. Super. 11 (App. Div. 1977), certif. denied, 76 N.J. 235 (1978).  In Cobb, plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident, and sued, among others, a Department of Transportation (“DOT”) contractor that had been performing road construction work at the site of the accident and had set up barricades which plaintiff struck during the accident.  The barricades, however, had been specified in type and configuration by the DOT, and the contractor merely followed the DOT’s specifications in purchasing and setting up the barricades.  Because the DOT was found to be immune from liability under the TCA based, among other things, on its protected exercise of discretion, and because the contractor was merely acting pursuant to the DOT’s exercise of discretion, the DOT’s immunity was deemed extended to the contractor.

Contractors, including construction contractors, who perform work for any governmental entity in New Jersey, as well as their counsel, should be aware, in light of the Gomes decision, that they are not entitled to the protections of the TCA’s pre-suit tort claims notice provisions, although they still may be subject to other protections afforded by the TCA, such as derivative immunity.

In a recent ground-breaking decision, the New Jersey Tax Court in AHS Hospital Corp., d/b/a Morristown Memorial Hospital v. Town of Morristown shattered the previous near incontestability of the tax exemption that has shielded nonprofit hospitals from local property tax obligations for over 100 years.  In response, the New Jersey Legislature, in conjunction with the New Jersey Hospital Association, quickly joined forces in an attempt to formulate a “fix” and alleviate the resulting great uncertainty that has left municipalities and nonprofit hospitals clamoring for answers.

The resulting bi-partisan supported fix, embodied by Bill No. 3299 (approved early this year) was sent to the Governor’s desk for signing with just days left in the recently completed legislative session.  Unfortunately, due to the fast track of this legislation, the late submission of the bill for consideration to the Governor’s office, claims of constitutional infirmity swirling, the Governor, not having been afforded adequate time for fair comment, instead allowed the time to lapse for taking action on the bill.  As a result, the bill was killed by virtue of the Governor’s pocket veto.

The import of this failed bill is that while it worked to attempt to reaffirm the longstanding exemption applicable to nonprofit hospital property, it also, in a controversial twist, declared that even those portions of the hospital that were being utilized for, or supporting, for-profit medical activities, should be exempted from taxation.  By attempting to continue the exemption, even for components deemed unquestionably “for-profit” by the tax court in the AHS Hospital case, this bill worked to effectively strip away the host municipality’s ability to effectively contest the applicability of the exemption.  In return, however, the Legislature attempted to create a special “Community Service Contribution” obligation that was to be borne by the hospital in lieu of paying taxes.  This contemplated Community Service Contribution was championed by the sponsors as being readily calculable and serving to remove the need for costly litigation to determine what, if any, portions of the hospital should remain exempt.  The funds received by the municipality through this “contribution” obligation in turn would have been earmarked to offset local expenses and financial hardships created by the presence of these typically large facilities that introduce thousands of patients, employees, professionals and associated vehicular activity into the community.  The failed bill therefore, although controversial, appeared to strike a reasonable balance between stakeholders, affording both hospitals and municipalities benefits that were left to chance in the unstable environment created in the aftermath of the recent tax court decision.

The killed bill would have required non-profit acute care hospitals to pay a Community Service Contribution equal to $2.50 a day for each licensed hospital bed at the exempt acute care facility.  In addition, satellite emergency care facilities of acute care hospitals would have been required to contribute $250 a day for each such facility.  These mandatory contributions were to have been made in equal quarterly installments and, as in the case of tax payments, payable on February 1, May 1, August 1 and November 1 of each year.  These new obligations were to also have been treated the same as other local tax obligations from an enforcement perspective (i.e., the same penalties for late payments and exposure to municipal lien foreclosure actions would apply in the event defaults).

The proposed legislation also dictated that 5% of these contribution payments were to be paid to the County.  Such fund sharing would not otherwise have been required in the traditional payments made in lieu of taxes (so-called “PILOT” payment) setting.  As a result, the failed bill also afforded county officials some measure of comfort and pre-empted any claims that counties were being unfairly ignored.

This failed legislation further afforded the subject hospitals and satellite emergency care facilities an opportunity to seek relief from these Community Service Contributions obligations where the facility was able to demonstrate that it: 1) had a negative operating margin in the prior tax year; 2) was not in full compliance with the financial terms of any bond covenants, 3) was in financial distress, or 4) was at risk of being in financial distress.

The present impasse however occasioned by the pocket veto continues an environment of uncertainty that will undoubtedly foster a spike in tax court actions to determine the scope and applicability of the hospital tax exemption.  Consequently, the question that remains is not if, but when, some refashioning of this proposed legislation will find its way back to the desk of the Governor for adoption.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a precedential opinion last week when it ruled that a New Jersey real estate developer had standing to pursue antitrust claims against the owner of a nearby ShopRite who engaged in anti-competitive activities designed at blocking the developer from bringing a Wegmans to its property.

In the case of Hanover 3201 Realty, LLC v. Village Supermarkets, Inc., et al., a developer, Hanover 3201 Realty, LLC (“Hanover Realty”), signed a contract with Wegmans to develop a full-service supermarket at its Hanover, New Jersey property.  The contract required Hanover Realty to secure all necessary governmental permits and approvals within two years, otherwise Wegmans could walk.  Soon thereafter, Village Supermarkets, Inc. (“Village”), the proprietor of a ShopRite supermarket in Hanover (in addition to two dozen others throughout New Jersey), took actions purportedly aimed at frustrating Hanover Realty’s efforts to obtain all requisite government approvals.  Such actions included: (i) filing an appeal with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) concerning a flood hazard area permit that had been awarded to Hanover Realty, (ii) challenging a wetlands permit already awarded by the DEP to Hanover Realty, (iii) filing an objection with the New Jersey Department of Transportation suggesting that Hanover Realty, on top of making certain improvements to the intersection near the proposed Wegmans, should be compelled to construct an extensive highway overpass near the project, and (iv) commencing a state court lawsuit to nullify a rezoning approval Hanover Realty had obtained from Hanover Township in order to use the property for retail purposes.  These acts, all of which were either largely denied or rejected by the respective administrative or judicial authorities, led Hanover Realty to file a federal lawsuit alleging that the efforts of Village (along with its wholly-owned subsidiary that owns the ShopRite site) were anti-competitive shams designed for no other purpose than to unfairly block its efforts to bring Wegmans to that market space.

After the District Court first dismissed the suit, Hanover Realty appealed and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in part, holding that Hanover Realty’s injuries were “inextricably intertwined” with the noted anti-competitive conduct, and Hanover Realty thus met the legal standard for asserting a valid antitrust claim.  The Third Circuit found that the end goal of the misconduct was designed to injure Wegmans by keeping them out of the market.  In doing so, Hanover Realty, the party tasked with obtaining all necessary permits and approvals, was targeted by the sham petitions and was forced to unnecessarily incur substantial attorneys’ fees, costs and delays in its development plans.  While the Third Circuit limited its holding to allow Hanover Realty to pursue anti-monopolization claims in the market for full-service supermarkets (and not including the market for full-service supermarket rental space because the parties were not deemed “competitors” in that space), the Court also determined that the wrongful activities triggered the “sham exception” to the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which ordinarily affords broad immunity from liability to those who petition the government for redress of their grievances.  The Court found that the anti-competitive activities that were intentionally lodged with no purpose other than to thwart Hanover Realty’s development activities with Wegmans were substantial enough to overcome this otherwise widely-applied privilege.

Whether or not Hanover Realty’s claims ultimately prove successful in the lawsuit, the Third Circuit’s ruling carries a meaningful warning for commercial landlords and tenants seeking to block the entry of a competitor in its market space.  Any such efforts must be strategically and tactfully employed with a legitimate purpose, in contrast to the borderline frivolous legal and administrative challenges from Village and ShopRite against Hanover Realty and Wegmans.  Though these types of anti-competition claims are still somewhat of a rare species in the commercial real estate arena, the Hanover Realty decision will certainly provide frustrated developers and landlords with another ace in their sleeve to fight against existing competitors trying to remain the only game in town.

On October 21, 2015, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed a trial court ruling that a South Jersey landlord did not violate a coffee-related exclusivity provision in its lease with Starbucks when it subsequently rented space in the same strip mall to McDonald’s – another purveyor of coffee products.

In Delco LLC v. Starbucks Corporation, Delco, the owner-operator of a shopping center in Rio Grande, New Jersey had rented space to Starbucks.  The Starbucks lease contained an exclusivity clause that essentially barred any other tenant at that shopping center from selling coffee, espresso and tea drinks.  However, an exception to this provision was allocated for “any tenant . . . occupying twenty thousand contiguous square feet or more . . . and operating under a single trade name.”  Starbucks’ coffee exclusive at the shopping center became an issue when Delco sought to bring in McDonald’s as a tenant, and Starbucks voiced an objection.  Though there was no question that McDonald’s sells coffee and tea at its fast food restaurants, Delco envisioned leasing 40,000 square feet of contiguous space to McDonald’s – more than twice the size needed to satisfy the exception to the exclusivity provision under the Starbucks lease.  Based upon the clear and unambiguous lease language, the Appellate Division summarily affirmed the trial court’s determination that Starbucks’ objection to the McDonald’s lease lacked any merit, and that Delco was also entitled to attorneys’ fees.

While the Starbucks decision did not establish new law, it is an invaluable reminder for commercial landlords and tenants to carefully negotiate all lease terms, including exclusivity provisions.  Particularly on the tenant side, if a party to a lease is concerned about being “the only game in town” – such as Starbucks being the only tenant selling coffee products at a shopping center – then that party must cautiously negotiate and craft the terms that are ultimately memorialized in the governing lease documents.