New Jersey’s Appellate Division has once again served a stark reminder to prospective construction lien claimants regarding who may validly sign a construction lien claim.  The consequences of failing to properly execute a construction lien claim are dire – not only because the lien claim is subject to discharge, but along with that discharge may come an order requiring the payment of the attorneys’ fees and costs of the party making application for such discharge.

In Diamond Beach, LLC v. March Associates, Inc., Docket No. A-1704-17T1 (N.J. App. Div. December 24, 2018) (approved for publication), the court determined that the 2011 revisions to the Construction Lien Law did not serve to clarify or limit the then-existing construction lien signatory requirements, and therefore the 2011 revisions did not apply retroactively to lien claims filed prior to 2011.  Before the 2011 revisions, Lien Law Section 6 explicitly required that a lien be executed by a corporation’s “duly authorized officer.”  The 2011 revisions to Section 6 removed the “duly authorized officer” language, and instead stated that the lien claim form, provided in Section 8, “be signed, acknowledged and verified by oath of the claimant[.]”  The form in Section 8, however, requires that an “officer/member” sign the form, and the suggested notary form provides that the notary be satisfied that the signatory is the “Secretary (or other officer/manager/agent) of the Corporation (partnership or limited liability company)” with “authority to act on behalf of the Corporation (partnership or limited liability company) and who, by virtue of its Bylaws, or Resolution of its Board of Directors (or partnership or operating agreement) executed the [lien claim] on its behalf.”

The trial court in Diamond Beach had ordered that the subject lien claim be discharged because it had been signed by the subcontractor lien claimant’s Accounting & Information Systems Manager, and there was insufficient evidence to support the claimant’s contention that that manager had been expressly authorized to execute lien claims by the claimant’s Board of Directors.  Thus, the court found, under the pre-2011 Lien Law, that the lien claim had not been executed by a “duly authorized officer” of the lien claimant.  The trial court further awarded attorneys’ fees to the project owner, which had sought the discharge of the lien.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s determinations, including the award of fees, reading broadly Lien Law Section 15’s language regarding the circumstances under which lien rights are forfeited and an affected party is entitled to a fee award for obtaining such a determination.

Even under the post-2011 Lien Law, the court signaled that the results would have been the same for essentially the same reasons.  In last year’s published decision, NRG REMA LLC v. Creative Environmental Solutions Corp., 454 N.J. Super. 578 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 234 N.J. 577 (2018), the court conducted much the same analysis under the current law, and held a lien claim unenforceable that had been signed by the claimant’s “financial director” without any written evidence presented that such “financial director” was a corporate officer or designated by the Board of Directors to execute such documents on behalf of the claimant.  In doing so, the court noted that the Lien Law’s “procedural requirements were intended to be stringently applied.”

The critical lesson from the foregoing cases is that any business entity, however formed, that seeks to file a New Jersey construction lien claim, must ensure that the person signing that lien claim, is authorized to do so by the governing documents of that business entity – or by a written resolution or authorization duly executed by the appropriate board, officer, member or partner of that business entity – as that entity’s business form dictates.  The failure to have a properly-authorized individual execute the lien claim will, if challenged, prove fatal to the lien claim and extremely costly to the lien claimant.

 

Home renovations and repairs is big business in Florida, especially in densely populated south Florida where it seems that every available square foot of property is occupied by a residence or commercial building.  That said, it is important to understand the lien rights of contractors, subcontractors and suppliers of materials under Florida law.

First, it is important to understand whether there is a difference between the lien rights of a company that has a contract with the owner of real property as opposed to a company that does not have such a contract.  The prime example of the latter is a subcontractor or supplier of materials for the company that actually does have the contract with the homeowner. One who has a contract with an owner is said to be in privity with the owner, meaning the relationship between the two parties is recognized by law.

The short answer is that both those in privity and those not in privity with owners of real property have lien rights in that Florida Statutes Sec. 713.01 includes in its definition of  lienors, contractors, subcontractors and those who contract with contractors and subcontractors.  The means of perfecting or protecting those lien rights is, however, different.

As an example, let’s say a homeowner contracts with Company A to install a new roof on her property.  The homeowner and Company A sign a clear, definite contract.  Company A, in turn, contracts with Company B to supply it with all of the materials to install the roof.  Company A and Company B have their own separate contracts, but there is no contract between the property owner and Company B.

Once the job is completed the owner refuses to pay the rather substantial balance that is due and owing to Company A.  Company A, in turn, does not pay the balance that it owes to Company B.  How do each of these respective companies perfect its lien rights on the owner’s real property?

For Company A, the process is quite simple.  Under Florida Statutes Sec. 713.08, it must record a document known as a claim of lien in the county where the real property is located within 90 days of the last date that it provided labor, services or materials.  The statute sets forth, in detail, what must be contained in that claim of lien, and the actual form is provided in Florida Statutes Sec. 713.08.   Amongst other things, the claim of lien must include the name and address of Company A; the labor, services and materials that were furnished and the contract price or the value of what was provided; the name of the owner of the real property; a description of that real property; when labor, services and materials were first and last furnished; and the amount unpaid.

Company B’s ability to perfect its lien rights is a bit more involved.   Although it, too, must record a claim of lien and comply with the requirements of Florida Statutes Sec. 713.08, it has an additional step it must take to ensure that its lien rights are protected.  Pursuant to Florida Statutes Sec. 713.06, prior to furnishing materials or within 45 days of first furnishing such materials, it must serve the owner with a document known as a notice to owner.  Again, the statute  sets forth the actual form—which is quite brief and straightforward– that must be provided, and that form will contain Company B’s name and address, the description of the real property and a description of the materials that were supplied or are being supplied.

Published cases examining the New Jersey Construction Lien Law (“CLL”) tend to be few and far between, but recently the Appellate Division issued a decision to be published, helping to further illuminate, albeit on a fairly narrow issue, the scope of the CLL.  In NRG REMA LLC v. Creative Environmental Solutions Corp., Docket Nos. A-5432-15T3, A-0567-16T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. April 25, 2018), the court analyzed the novel issue of whether, under the CLL, the salvage value of scrap recovered by a demolition contractor may be included in the “lien fund” available for distribution among lien-filing subcontractors and suppliers within that contractor’s chain of contracting.

In NRG REMA, the owner entered into a contract directly with a demolition contractor, pursuant to which the contractor actually agreed to pay the owner $250,000 for the right to demolish a power station but also for title to and the right to sell the resulting scrap metals and equipment (which it estimated at the time would net it millions of dollars).  While the CLL explicitly allows liens to be filed for demolition work, it does not specifically contemplate this type of payment arrangement in determining the “lien fund” – which, at the top contracting tier, is typically based on the simple calculation of the amount owed under the written contract from owner to contractor for the work performed through the date of the lien filing.  Thus, subject to certain limited exceptions, the more paid to the contractor prior to the lien filing, the less the lien fund available for distribution.

While the CLL’s lien fund provision and its lien claim form speak only in monetary terms, other relevant CLL provisions, incorporate the term “contract” whose definition refers to “price or other consideration to be paid” the contractor.  In this case, because the contract specifically required the transfer of title to the salvage materials to the contractor and “it was an essential component of the price [the owner] agreed to pay,” the court deemed such transfer non-monetary “consideration to be paid” to the contractor, and, therefore, part of the “contract price” paid by the owner to the contractor.

Following a lengthy analysis and a balancing of the interests between owner and lien claimant, the court ultimately concluded that, in this case, the lien fund calculation should be based on a contract amount that includes the value of the scrap obtained by the contractor pursuant to its contract, but reduced by the contractor’s cash payment to the owner made prior to the lien’s filing (note: where a contractor was paid for the demolition work and also received title to the salvage, the payment to the contractor would be added to the salvage value to calculate the total contract price).  The court further held that because the owner had transferred title to the scrap at the outset of contract performance, rather than incrementally, the value of the transferred scrap did not reduce the lien fund at that top tier at the time of such transfer, as the CLL provides that the lien fund is not reduced where the owner makes payment of unearned amounts to a contractor prior to a subcontractor’s lien filing.

The court, however, remanded the case back to the trial court for the difficult task of determining, for each lien claimant, both of which resided on the third-tier, the amount of the lien fund that was available at the time each such lien was filed based on the percentage of completion of the work at that time.  The court also made clear that it was solely dealing with the facts before it, and it identified a number of issues along the way, which if the facts were different may require a different analysis or outcome, and which the court made clear, it was not determining in its decision.  Thus, while instructive and useful when dealing with a project on which a contractor obtains salvage rights, the decision is fairly narrow and limited to the facts of that case.   

After the court’s extensive analysis on the lien fund issue, and an apparent victory for the lien claimants, the court found that one of those lien claimants, however, committed a critical technical error in the execution of its lien which precluded its enforcement.  The court reiterated and strictly applied the CLL’s express requirement that a signatory of a lien claim must be an authorized corporate officer pursuant to the company’s bylaws or as designated by board resolution.  The court found that one of the subject liens had been executed by an employee who was informally titled the company’s “financial director”, and had not been properly authorized to execute a lien on behalf of the company.  This case, therefore, serves as an additional warning that any company seeking to file a CLL lien must strictly adhere to its express provisions, lest it risk forfeiture of its lien claim and a potential damages claim based on an improper filing.

Update:  The property owner has appealed the Appellate Division’s decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court, so we will monitor whether the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, and if so, what decision it renders.

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.

So you’ve managed to successfully file a construction lien claim in New Jersey.  Well, don’t then kick back and relax for too long, because if you fail to take action to enforce that lien claim within the limited time required by statute, the lien will be rendered unenforceable.  Under the New Jersey Construction Lien Law (“CLL”), a lien claimant must file a lawsuit seeking to enforce its lien within one year of the date of its last provision of work, services, material, or equipment.  This is a strict statutory deadline, which cannot be extended based on equitable circumstances.  It is important to note that the deadline is not one year from the date of the filing of the lien claim itself.  It is also important to ensure that the work, services, material or equipment, on which you are basing your last date of provision, was actually required to be provided by your contract, as the following case illustrates.

In the recent unpublished decision, WJV Materials, LLC v. Erin Contracting, Inc. (Docket No. A-2453-14T1, August 12, 2016), the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s dismissal with prejudice of the claim in a supplier’s complaint seeking to enforce its construction lien claim.  The supplier had filed its complaint on May 2, 2014, which was more than one year after it provided its last delivery of materials on April 3, 2013.   The supplier attempted to argue that its actual last date of work was May 16, 2013, the date its quality control expert visited the site to review and approve the subcontractor’s work product.  The court rejected that argument, as the supplier had been hired solely to provide concrete to the subcontractor at the worksite, which it last did on April 3, and not to unilaterally inspect the work performed with the materials by the subcontractor.  There was no evidence in the record that the subcontractor contracted with the supplier to provide any such inspection services.  Note that this same issue may arise in connection with your initial filing of a construction lien claim, which, on a commercial project, must be filed within 90 days of your last provision of contracted-for work, services, material or equipment.

Many times after filing and serving a construction lien, the property owner or contractor for whom you worked will seek to immediately resolve your lien claim – or will file its own action to discharge the lien if it believes you filed a defective lien.  Often, however, a claimant will file a lien and no immediate action is taken by any party (or the lien is bonded, which still requires you to take timely enforcement action).   Filing a timely and valid construction lien claim is difficult enough.  Once you do so, it is critical that you not fall asleep at the switch and that you file your enforcement action within the time required by the CLL – that is, within one year of the last date of work, services or materials provided pursuant to your contract.