With VA Mechanic’s Liens Sometimes “Substantial Compliance” is Enough (but don’t count on it)
Virginia mechanic’s liens are a powerful and tricky beast that in most cases require absolute precision in their preparation. However, an interesting opinion recently came out of the Virginia Supreme Court that may provide a bit of a “safe harbor” from the total form over function nature of a mechanic’s lien.
In Desai, Executrix v. A.R. Design Group Inc., the Court considered a lien memorandum that had what could be described as technical flaws in the preparation of the mechanic’s lien by A. R. Design Group. The basic facts are that A. R. Design Group used the form of lien found in Va. Code Sec. 43-5 (also found as Form CC-1512 at the Virginia Judiciary website) when it recorded two lien memoranda for two pieces of property owned by a trust. Relating to one of the two properties, the memorandum failed to identify the “Owner” as the trustee of the trust. On the memoranda relating to both properties the affidavit verifying the amounts claimed did not identify the signatory as agent for A. R. Design Group, instead listing the agent as the claimant and further failed to state a date from which interest is claimed or a date on which the debt was due.
Needless to say, the owner argued that each of these technical defects invalidated the memoranda and therefore they should have been released. Somewhat surprisingly the Fairfax, Virginia Circuit Court disagreed and held the liens to be valid. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the lower court. The held that the failure to add the word “Trustee” after Ulka Desai’s name did not invalidate the lien because the trustee had all of the rights of ownership and furthermore that naming Desai in the memorandum served the purpose of putting third parties on notice of the lien.
As to the naming of a vice president of A. R. Design Group as claimant, the Court held that this was not a “substantial” defect that would cause prejudice to a party or thwart the purpose of the statute. Because the claimant was properly identified in the lien memorandum itself and it was clear that the person executing the affidavit was an agent of the company, the Court held that this defect was not substantial and held that it fell within the safe harbor of Va. Code Sec. 43-15.
Finally, and more interestingly, the Court found that failure to state a date from which interest could be claimed or a date when the amounts due are or would become payable in this case were not fatal. As to the interest, the Court stated that in the case before them no interest was being claimed so no date was necessary. As to the failure to state a date when the amounts claimed are due, the Court looked at the requirements of Va. Code Sec. 43-4 and Va. Code Sec. 43-5 and concluded that because A. R. Design Group used the form found in Section 43-5:
[t]he memoranda were substantially compliant because they closely tracked the form required by Code § 43-5, they provided sufficient notice that the owner was claiming amounts due and any defect in the memoranda would not thwart an underlying purpose of the statute, such as providing notice to third parties. Therefore, A.R. Design is entitled to the safe harbor provided by Code § 43-5.
In short, the Virginia Supreme Court looked at a lien memorandum that had a technical flaw or two and concluded that its substantial compliance with the mechanic’s lien statute and its purpose did not require its invalidation.
Does this case mean that you shouldn’t worry about title searches, proper certification of mailing, and other technical requirements of the lien statutes? Of course not. Does this mean that the assistance of a Virginia construction lawyer that is experienced with mechanic’s lien matters is now unnecessary? Nope. The Court in this case was looking at a particular set of facts and circumstances. Frankly, the lien claimant was a bit lucky in my opinion because of the particular confluence of circumstances. I would still be very careful with mechanic’s liens and would not read this one case as a thawing of the strict requirements of these powerful collection tools.
As always, I recommend that you read the case yourself and draw your own conclusions. If they are different from mine, I’d love to hear them.
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