A Mechanic’s Lien: Something Simple That’s Been Made Complicated
One of the first things I was ever taught about mechanic’s liens is that the legislation’s original intent was for a contractor to be able to perfect a mechanic’s lien without the aid of an attorney. If that’s true, the system is not working as intended. Of course, that is not surprising given the complicated legislation and its arguably inconsistent interpretation.
A mechanic’s lien is unique insofar as it allows a contractor to obtain an interest in real property without requiring any kind of hearing or notice. As long as the lien documents are properly prepared, recorded, and served, the lien is in place. In addition, the fact that mechanic’s liens have priority dates that relate back to the first day that the contractor performs work and/or supplies materials, mechanic’s liens that did not exist when a mortgage was given or the property was sold can appear on the land records after such transactions and take priority over an earlier filed mortgage and/or encumber property owned by someone who was not the property owner at the time the work was performed, materials were supplied and/or services were rendered.
Of course, reading the statutes is not sufficient to completely understand mechanic’s liens. For example, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 49-34 states that a mechanic’s lien must be recorded on the land records within 90 days after the last day of work and must be served upon the owner “not later than thirty days after” the lien is recorded. That may lead one to believe that the owner may be served up to 120 days after that last day of work, but that is incorrect. See Steeltech Bldg. Prods. v. Viola, 2000 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1221, *5, (Conn. Super. Ct. May 15, 2000)(“holding that [r]ead together, 49-34 and 49-35 require the lienor to serve a copy of the certificate upon each owner of the property within 90 days after he ceased performing services or furnishing materials.”) Thus, the only way to truly have 30 days to serve the owner is to record the lien within 60 days of the last day of work and not 90 days.
The mechanic’s statutes also have the ability to be strictly construed or interpreted liberally. See Anthony Julian R.R. Constr. Co. v. Mary Ellen Drive Assocs., 50 Conn. App. 289, 296, (Conn. App. Ct. 1998)(holding that “a mechanic’s lien is a creature of statute and establishes a right of action where none existed at common law… Where a statutory right of action is at issue, the statute must be strictly construed.); see contra. Webster Bank, N.A. v. Half Moon Assocs., 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1164, (Conn. Super. Ct. May 3, 2012)(holding that because “[t]he mechanic’s lien statute is an important legal procedure to protect the rights of material men and laborers who provide materials and services for the improvement of property. It is a remedial statute that should be liberally construed…”). Given this dichotomy, there are many pitfalls for the uninitiated.
A recent Superior Court decision may add a new level of confusion to this already complicated subject matter. In Yard Grp. Landscaping, LLC v. River Highlands Home-Owners Ass’n, a mechanic’s lien was placed upon property owned by an association and individual unit owners. Yard Grp. Landscaping, LLC v. River Highlands Home-Owners Ass’n, 2016 Conn. Super. LEXIS 966, *1 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 5, 2016). Because the individual unit owners were not served with notice of the lien, the court was correct in its decision to discharge the lien. Id. However, the court did not cite the lack of proper service as the reason for the discharge.
In Yard Grp. Landscaping, LLC, the court held that “the services provided by the plaintiff did not constitute an ‘improvement’ within the meaning of §49-33 and, therefore the application to discharge the mechanic’s lien is granted.” Id. However, black letter law that for a mechanic’s lien to be valid, all the individual property owners must be served with a true and attest copy of the lien. Papa v. Greenwich Green, Inc., 177 Conn. 295, 302, 416 A.2d 1196, 1200, 1979 Conn. LEXIS 744, *10 (Conn. 1979)(holding that “when an individual’s property right might be adversely affected and where he has a constitutional prerogative to a timely hearing, such an individual should be provided with a fair and suitable notice of the recording of a mechanic’s lien against that property.”) Thus, because the court in Yard Grp. Landscaping, LLC noted that not all the unit owners were served, one may be lead to believe that such service is not necessary. Therefore, it would have been prudent for the court to have included the improper service as additional grounds for the discharge or to have explained why, in this instance, the failure to serve the unit owners was not necessary, to distinguish this decision from the prior precedent. By making mention of the failure to serve the individual unit owners and then not including it as one of the grounds for discharge, a reader is left with a level of ambiguity and uncertainty that is not consistent with the ideal that we should be governed by a known system of laws.
As stated at the onset, what began as a simple procedure has grown into an ever more complicated system of rules and potential pitfalls.
In light of the foregoing, if you need help with a mechanic’s lien, please feel free to give me a call.