Remedial Work Does Not Extend the Deadline to Commence an Action on a Payment Bond

As most contractors are aware, if they are not paid for their labor, materials, and/or services, they can strengthen their position prior to filing a lawsuit by filing a mechanic’s lien, or by making a claim against the project’s bond claim. Of course, both options are not generally available. Typically, the choice is based upon whether the project is private or public. On private projects, a contractor (or supplier) is allowed to gain a security interest in the property by filing a mechanic’s lien. On public projects, federal and local governments passed laws requiring the general contractor on public projects to post “payment bonds,” which guarantee the payment of those who supply labor, materials, and/or services to the property. In other words, because governments were not willing to let public lands be subject to foreclosure, on public projects, statutorily required payment bonds were created to take the place of mechanic’s liens. Of course, private owners may require general contractors to post payment bonds on private projects as well, but this post only addresses the statutory payment bonds required on public projects.

The law that requires payment bonds on federal projects is known as the Miller Act. The various state laws that require payment bonds on state projects are often referred to as “Little Miller Acts.” The requirements are the Miller Act and the various Little Miller Acts are generally similar.

Recent Supreme Court Case Teaches Important Lessons

It is no secret that public works construction is a difficult business.  On any given project there are innumerable ways that things can go wrong. With any project involving excavation and underground utilities, encountering changed conditions should not be a surprise.  Of course, such changed conditions are not the contractor’s responsibility.  What is the contractor’s responsibility, however, is providing the public owner with proper notice of its claims in accordance with the subject agreement.

One of the reasons public works construction projects are more onerous than their private counterparts is because public owners rarely negotiate contract terms. Contracts that are slanted significantly in the public owner’s favor are the norm.  Thus, as the contractor in a recent state Supreme Court decision learned, it is vitally important to read the contract and abide by its terms.

One of the lessons from Old Colony Cosntr., LLC v. Town of Southington, 316 Conn. 202 (Conn. April 21, 2015) is that general assertions of entitlement to damages and/or additional contract time is not sufficient when the contract requires more detail.  During the long duration of the project, the contractor in Old Colony repeatedly indicated that each problem that occurred impacted its schedule and costs. 

Mechanic’s Liens – Legislative Update

Every year, state legislatures across the country pass new laws and revise old ones.  In fact, these state legislatures often tinker with existing statutes that have been in place for many years and are working as intended.  This year, the Connecticut legislature has raised a bill, Raised Bill No. 887, “An Act Concerning the Requirements for the Filing of a Mechanic’s Lien” (the “Act”), that may have an adverse effect on the construction industry through unintended consequences.

The Act would add a new requirement for a mechanic’s lien to be valid.  Specifically, the Act states that the contractor performing the work must hold “the appropriate registration or license to perform the services.”  On one hand, the Act has the valid purpose of discouraging unlicensed individuals from performing construction services.  On the other hand, this revision to the mechanic’s lien laws would be duplicative of the laws and regulations pertaining to licensure already in place insofar as the existing laws and regulations prohibit certain work from being performed without a license.  In addition, the mechanic’s lien statutes are not the best place to address this issue.

The mechanic’s lien laws were established in all fifty states to provide contractors and suppliers with recourse in the event of nonpayment for their labor,

Connecticut Statutes Provide Assistance with Receiving Prompt Payment on Public and Private Construction Projects

Under Connecticut law, an owner should pay its general contractor within 30 days of having received the general contractor’s application for payment; the general contractor, in turn, is required to pay its subcontractors and suppliers within 30 days of having received payment from the owner; and the subcontractors should then pay their sub-contractors and suppliers within 30 days of having received payment from the general contractor and so on down the line.  See Gen. Stat. § 49-41a and Conn. Gen. Stat. § 42-158j.

The provisions in § 49-41a and § 42-158j are substantially similar except that:

1.) Only private owners are required to make payment to their general contractors within a specified number of days after receiving an application for payment; and

2.) The statute only applies to public projects for which a payment bond is required, which is any public works project whose contract amount exceeds $100,000.

Both statutes also have similar enforcement procedures.  Either a subcontractor on a public project to which the statute applies or general contractors and subcontractors on a private project can make demand for payment by way of registered or certified mail and, within 10 days,

Connecticut Courts Treat Two Mechanic’s Lien Deadlines Differently

The Connecticut courts have often been schizophrenic in their interpretation of Connecticut mechanic’s lien law.  On one hand, the courts refer to mechanic’s liens as a right created by statute and, therefore, must be strictly interpreted.  On the other, the courts refer to mechanic’s liens as remedial in nature and, therefore, should be liberally construed.  Based upon some recent decisions, it appears that that deadline to record and serve the mechanic’s lien is being strictly interpreted but the deadline to foreclose the lien is being liberally construed.

For a mechanic’s lien to be valid, it must be recorded within 90 days of the last day worked.  The mechanic’s lien, however, will expire if not foreclosed within one year of its recording.  Recently, the courts examined whether: 1.) the 30 day time limit for service was included within the 90 days for recording; and 2.) if the 30 days a marshal has to serve papers extended the one year deadline to foreclose.  Based upon the language of the statutes, the decisions came out the exact opposite as you might expect.

Conn. Gen. Stat. §49-34 states that the lien must be recorded within 90 days after the last date worked and served upon the owner within 30 days of recorded the certificate.

Pending Legislation Concerning Mechanic’s Liens

Right now, the Connecticut Legislature is considering Proposed Bill No. 5682 (the “Proposed Act”), which states as its purpose “[t]o establish a process for the holder of a mechanic’s lien to establish priority for the lien effective upon the filing of a ‘Notice of Commencement of Work’ with the town clerk for recording with deeds of land.”  The text of the Proposed Act states, however, that the lienor must be an architect and that the lienor’s priority is established upon the date of filing.  Such language raises many questions.

The “priority” of a mechanic’s lien pertains to where the mechanic’s lien stands in line with regard to the other claims against a property such as mortgages and other interest should the property go into foreclosure.  Presently, the priority of a mechanic’s lien relates back to the first date that the lienor, i.e. the person filing the mechanic’s lien, worked on the project.  There is some logic in creating a separate statute for design professionals because – unlike an excavation contractor – no one can see when a design professional starts work but, if that were the reason for the change, why does the Proposed Act only pertain to architects and not engineers as well. 

Don’t Get Creative When Attempting To Enforce Mechanic’s Lien Rights

In Connecticut, the law pertaining to mechanic’s liens is well settled.  You will not come across many issues of first impression while trying to enforce a mechanic’s lien and, therefore, practitioners should not attempt to drive the proverbial square peg into a round hole.  Such an attempt was made (and failed) in a matter recently decided by the Connecticut Superior Court.

In that case, an assignee of a mortgage brought a foreclosure action and named a contractor as a defendant because the contractor’s mechanic’s lien was subsequent in right to the interest being foreclosed.  Normally, if the property proceeds all the way through the foreclosure process, a contractor holding a subordinate lien allows his interest in the property to expire because the only way to maintain the lien is to pay off the foreclosing mortgage but , in this case, the contractor did not give up that easily.

Here, the contractor alleged that the assignee became the “owner” of the property by virtue of the construction mortgage and, as such, was responsible to pay for the work that the contractor performed.  The court identified 2 issues that allowed the court to dispose of the contractor’s claim on summary judgment.