So, you properly file your construction lien claim within the time allowed by the New Jersey Construction Lien Law (“CLL”), and then timely send out a copy of the lien by certified and ordinary mail to the address of the condominium building where you performed your work. All set, right? Not so fast, according to a New Jersey appellate panel.
In the newly-issued, unpublished decision, Santander Condominium Assoc., Inc. v. AA Construction 1 Corp., Docket No. A-0525-15T3 (N.J. App. Div., October 13, 2017), the Appellate Division upheld a trial court’s decision ordering the discharge of a subcontractor’s construction lien claim upon the application of the condominium association (the “Association”) against whose property the lien was filed, and awarding attorneys’ fees and court costs to the Association. While the subcontractor apparently followed the letter of the law in filing its construction lien claim, its fatal flaw lay in its defective service of the lien claim.
The subcontractor, which had performed façade repair work for the contractor of the Association, filed its construction lien claim after the contractor failed to pay the subcontractor for its work. The subcontractor then sent the lien for service by certified and ordinary mail to the street address of the condominium property. The CLL allows for simultaneous certified and ordinary mail service, but it must be made “to the last known business or residence of the owner or community association….” The physical condominium street address was not the business address of the Association, which, like all corporations, had an easily discoverable registered agent address filed with the State. Service, therefore, was defective.
While service is supposed to be made within 10 days of the lien filing, it may be made later and still be enforceable as long the owner/association is not materially prejudiced by the late service. Disbursement of funds by the owner/association in the interim, however, is, on its face, deemed material prejudice under the CLL. In the Santander case, after the lien was filed, the Association paid the contractor in full on its contract, and, because the lien was deemed to never have been properly served, the CLL’s clear and unambiguous language required that the lien be deemed unenforceable, as there was no longer a lien fund against which the subcontractor’s lien could attach.
The court noted that, even if service had been made to the Association’s proper business address, the certified mailing of the lien had been returned unclaimed and the subcontractor had failed to present any evidence relating to the status of the ordinary mail. Though not discussed in the decision, had the service address been proper, the subcontractor should, at the very least, have proffered evidence that the ordinary mail was never returned as undelivered by the postal service and, therefore, should be presumed to have been delivered to that address.
The court also affirmed the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees to the Association under the CLL (N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-30(c)) because the Association filed its application to discharge a lien that the court deemed to have been filed “without factual basis”.
That last determination, however, is questionable at best, as the lien at issue appears to have been filed with a factual basis, but was deemed unenforceable solely due to a failure of proper service and the Association’s subsequent payment in full to the contractor. Improper service should not be equated with a lack of a factual basis supporting the lien. In fact, under a different section of the CLL (N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-15), which provides the bases for a determination of the forfeiture of lien rights based on an improper lien filing, the CLL defines “without basis” for purposes of that section as “frivolous, false, unsupported by a contract, or made with malice or bad faith or for any improper purpose.” The failure to properly serve an otherwise factually supported lien does not appear to be accounted for in the language of the CLL as a basis for the award of attorneys’ fees.
In any event, the Santander case does serve to illustrate the critical importance of properly and timely serving a construction lien claim. When filing a lien against a condominium association or any other corporate real property owner, a claimant must do a corporate search with the State to ensure it has the proper business address for that entity. Of course, there may be other ways to determine the proper last known business address of the owner/association, for example, through recent correspondence or documentation from that corporation, but the corporation’s registered agent address, as filed with the State, should always be deemed a valid address for service of a lien. Without proper service, the lien will remain unenforceable, and to the extent the owner makes payment to its contractor prior to proper service, the lien fund available to a subcontractor or supplier is at risk of complete depletion. If there is any question regarding the validity or service of a construction lien claim, it is always a good idea to consult an attorney well versed in the requirements of the CLL.