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 As a pair of recent unpublished New Jersey Appellate Division decisions illustrate, the proper exercise of those rights can make a significant difference in attempting to obtain payment.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.