What Architects & Engineers Need to Know about the New Lien Law

engineering plansI have previously discussed the ABCs of Lien Laws for those making claims on a project (that is, architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers) and the 123s of Lien Laws for project owners.  Now, time to learn some new tricks:  enter, the Lien Agent.

In case you’ve been hiding in your man-cave waiting for warmer weather to arrive and missed all the hoopla, as of April 1, 2013, North Carolina has a new lien law act.  Essentially, for *most* construction projects [there are a few limited exceptions for low dollar work or single family, owner occupied residences],  owners will need to file a notice of an entity to be their “Lien Agent”, and contractors will file notices within a short window of starting work.  If done correctly, it should keep everyone aware of who is on the project, who is doing what work, and who may have a lien.

The most pertinent part that affects architects and engineers?  This:

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 44A‑11.2

(h)        When a lien agent is not identified in a contract for improvements to real property subject to G.S. 44A‑11.1 entered into between an owner and a design professional, the design professional will be deemed to have met the requirement of notice under subsections (l) and (m) of this section on the date of the lien agent’s receipt of the owner’s designation of the lien agent. The owner shall provide written notice to the lien agent containing the information pertaining to the design professional required in a notice to lien agent pursuant to subdivisions (1) through (3) of subsection (i) of this section, by any method of delivery authorized in subsection (f) of this section. The lien agent shall include the design professional in its response to any persons requesting information relating to persons who have given notice to the lien agent pursuant to this section. For purposes of this subsection, the term “design professional” shall mean any architects, engineers, land surveyors, and landscape architects registered under Chapter 83A, 89A, or 89C of the General Statutes.

In other words, if the owner designates a lien agent up front, you follow the process and note your involvement for the record.

What if the owner does NOT designate a lien agent up front? You are covered by default, once he does so.  And he will do so, as  before the owner can get a building permit, he will be forced to designate a lien agent.  Nice, right?  You have built in protections, and you don’t need to worry about filing a lien and damaging a relationship with an owner if they are slow to pay.

The on-line system for selecting Lien Agents (for owners) and notifying Agents of your work (for everyone else) on a project is LiensNC.  A helpful tip sheet  produced by the Title Insurance industry walks you through the process.

Many other fine folks have weighed in on the nuts & bolts of how the new system works, so I will not repeat it all here.  Instead, let me direct you to a few of these resources (apologies in advance for anyone I may have slighted):

Bryan Scott:  A good place to start for a broad overview of what you need to know

For the designer’s perspective, from Matthew Bouchard:

I’m a design professional providing services prior to the execution of a contract for construction.  What if there’s no lien agent in placing during my pre-construction performance?

That depends on whether your contract is with the owner or with another design professional.  If you are in direct contractual privity with the owner and your contract does not include the lien agent information, the owner is responsible for providing your contact information to its lien agent upon the owner’s appointment of same.  If you are a design subcontractor, you should make a written request to the owner for the lien agent’s contact information.  By statute, you will have no obligation to comply with the preliminary notice requirements until you receive the contact information you have requested.

I believe that the new lien law will help design professionals, as you no longer have to worry about alienating the owner by filing a lien or risk losing your lien priority.  Instead, the lien agent will be as common as a building permit.  You will be protected from the beginning with little effort, and without even having to depend on the owner.   What do you think?

Comments? Questions?  Share you thoughts in the comments box, below.  

Photo (c) Seattle Municipal Archives.

 

 

Don’t Go Changing (My Date of First Work): The NC Court of Appeals Upholds Contractor Lien Rights (Guest Post)

Today, a guest post by Bonnie Keith Green, a construction lawyer and litigator with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Bonnie represents general contractors, subcontractors, materialmen, suppliers, and sureties in construction disputes. 

Through her involvement with the National Association of Women in Construction and the ACE Mentor Program, Bonnie developed a particular interest in representing minority and women-owned construction companies.  She currently chairs a joint committee of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Construction Law Section and the United Minority Contractors of North Carolina.  

Bonnie and the firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, represented Superior Construction Corporation from the beginning of the case (discussed below) through the appeal.

Green, BonnieIn a recent victory for contractors, a unanimous three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that a contractor’s signing of a partial, interim lien waiver did not change the contractor’s date of first furnishing and that the contractor’s lien rights continued to relate back to the date of first furnishing, or first work on the project.

The decision is Wachovia Bank National Association, LLC and Preserve Holdings, LLC v. Superior Construction Corporation and Western Surety Company.

Superior was the general contractor and contracted with the original owner, Intracoastal Living, LLC, to construct a condominium development known as “The Preserve” in Oak Island, North Carolina. Superior began work on April 22, 2005.  Approximately one month later, Intracoastal, the owner, and Wachovia, the construction lender, executed a loan agreement and promissory note and recorded a deed of trust on the property.  During construction, Superior submitted regular pay applications, including its first two pay applications, dated May 11, 2005 and June 9, 2005.  Consistent with industry practice, these pay applications contained partial lien waivers.

Two years later, after failing to receive all payments due from the owner,Superiorfiled a claim of lien on the property, stating that it first furnished labor and materials to the project on April 22, 2005.

Wachovia eventually foreclosed on the project, also due to non-payment by Intracoastal.  In a separate lawsuit, Wachovia brought a declaratory judgment action, asking the court to rule that its deed of trust had priority overSuperior’s lien.  The case was transferred to theNorth Carolina Business Court.

Preserve Holdings, which was formed by a prior owner of Intracoastal, placed an upset bid during Wachovia’s foreclosure, and obtained title to the property, along with all of improvements made bySuperior.  Preserve Holdings was required to post a cash bond in the amount of approximately $950,000.00, because the status of Superior’s lien was uncertain.  After its purchase, Preserve Holdings replaced Wachovia as the plaintiff in the declaratory judgment litigation.  Superior’s bonding company, Western Surety, also claimed entitlement to the cash bond because of payments it made to subcontractors on Superior’s behalf.

The issue for the North Carolina Business Court in the declaratory judgment action was whether Superior’s lien related back to its date of first work and had priority over Wachovia’s subsequently-recorded deed of trust, thus entitling Superior to the cash bond; or alternatively, whether Superior had waived its lien rights by signing the partial, interim lien waivers along with its pay applications, placing its lien behind the deed of trust in priority, and thus entitling Preserve Holdings to the cash bond.

The North Carolina Business Court considered the language of the interim lien waivers and held that they unambiguously waived Superior’s right to lien the property for any work “up to and including” the date of signing the waiver.  The Business Court held that this language resulted in a change to Superior’s date of first work and placed Superior’s lien after Wachovia’s deed of trust.

The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that Superior’s date of first work did not change because of the execution of partial, interim lien waivers.  Interestingly, the Court of Appeals looked at the exact same language as the Business Court, and also held that the lien waivers were unambiguous.  The Court of Appeals, however, held that the lien waivers unambiguously did not change the date of first furnishing.

The Court of Appeals focused on the language “on account of” contained in the lien waivers, holding that the “on account of” language indicated a causal connection between the contractor’s lien waiver and the specific payment being received by the contractor in exchange for its lien rights.  This causal connection meant that the lien waiver was only for that particular payment and did not waive Superior’s rights as to future work or retainage.

The Court of Appeals’ holding is more consistent with the construction industry’s long-standing practice of using partial, interim lien waivers—and the parties’ (at least the contractor’s)—intent in this instance.  The Court of Appeals’ decision may well be viewed as controlling precedent in any future cases involving similar lien waivers.  There is a need for caution, however.  Contractors, subcontractors, materialmen, and suppliers are cautioned to have lien waivers reviewed by their lawyers and to add language explicitly stating that the partial waiver of lien rights in exchange for payment does not alter or change the date of first furnishing and does not waive lien rights for future work or retainage.

The ruling comes at a time when the status of legislation to overhaul North Carolina’s lien laws is uncertain.  House Bill 489, which was introduced during the 2011 General Assembly, and would have required all parties to use standard, form lien waivers, has been referred to a Study Commission.  It may be considered for passage later this year, or possibly during the short session in 2012.  While the legislation is on hold at the moment, the Court of Appeals’ decision is favorable for contractors.  In these difficult economic times, any victory such as this in favor of the enforcement of contractors’ lien rights is a welcome development.

Bonnie and I welcome your thoughts and opinions on the case in the comments section, below.

Lien Law Unlikely To Change– Yet

detour signFor those of you following the proposed revisions to the NC lien law that is currently at the NC House Judiciary Subcommittee B, a quick update:  the proposed bill (HB 489) is unlikely to be voted on this legislative session due to its unpopularity with several constituency groups, including both the AIA-North Carolina and the NC Home Builders Association.

According to NC Bar Association Construction Law section chair, Nan Hannah, a vote is unlikely in this legislative session.  However, there is the potential for a study commission to continue the conversation and discuss alternative lien law changes that might satisfy all constituents.

Such a study commission will only occur is Subcommittee Chairman Paul Stam hears from those in the industry that such a study commission is desired.  In addition to the Construction Section of the Bar, the American Subcontractors Association of the Carolinas supports the idea, as do other industry groups.

If you want to add your voice of support for a study commission, contact Representative Stam  or Co-chairman Representative Grier Martin.

Do you believe that the proposed lien law revisions adequately protect designers? Is a study commission worthwhile?  Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

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Photo: (c) freefoto.com via Creative Commons License.

Update/Correction to Lien Law post

opps sign After my last post, I received a call from Doug Jeremiah, who is the Chair of the Design Professionals Liason Committee (of which I am a member).  According to Doug, the concerns I expressed for designers have been, if not eliminated, then significantly reduced by the current version of the draft lien law bill.

Designers, like any other party on the construction contract, can now file their own, separate Notice of Commencement, which would then (in all likelihood) pre-date other Notices of Commencement on the Project.  To file a Notice of Commencement under the proposed bill, the Designer first must ask the Owner to file a Notice of Commencement.  If the Owner does not do so, the Designer is free to file his own Notice of Commencement (See section 44A-9.1 (3)(c)).  This is the same procedure used by Contractors to file a Notice of Commencement.

Practice Tip (should the bill pass):

How the Owner will view the request for an early Notice of Commencement may still be an issue.  If the bill passes, a good, proactive discussion with the Owner should help prevent creating animosity.  Better yet, you might consider a Company Policy of always having a Notice of Commencement filed on every project.  That way, you can simply blame the “company policy” rather than implying, or having the Owner infer, that you don’t trust their financial viability.

Thanks, Doug, for setting me straight.  Opinions or thoughts about the proposed lien law revisions?  Drop me a line in the comments, below.

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Photo credit: Streetfly JZ via Creative Commons License.

Lien Law Changes: Bad for Designers?

UPDATE:  Designers may file Notices of Commencement when they start their work, which should eliminate or significantly reduce the priority date concerns expressed below.  See this post for more details.  — mdb  3/4/11

gavel, law books, & hard hat

The work of the NC Bar Association’s Construction Section Lien Law committee continues, and it may drastically change the lien law landscape for architects and engineers.

On February 18, the Construction Law Section Council, the governing body of the Section, voted 11-4 to accept the latest draft version which must still be approved by the NC Bar Board of Governors.  After approval by the Board, it will then need sponsorship at the General Assembly.   The lien law changes have divided the construction industry – some believe the changes are beneficial, while others worry about new requirements contained within the bill.

Of particular note for architects and engineers, the new lien law envisions a new Notice of Commencement which would then act as the first date of service for everybody who works on the project.  The new law would give almost everyone on a project the same priority date.  Almost all liens would then relate to and take effect as of the Notice of Commencement date.

In other words, designers and others who perform work very early in the project would have no stronger lien rights than those who perform work at the very end of the project.  If there are insufficient funds to satisfy all of the liens, the net result is that architects and engineers will have to share pro rata will all contractors and subcontractors from the owner’s assets.   (And, to answer a question posed to me the other day, yes, architects and engineers have lien rights on projects in North Carolina!)

Is there a way around this for designers and other early performers? Yes and no.  One way a designer can protect his priority is by filing a Claim of Lien before the Owner files the Notice of Commencement.  (See section 44A-10 of the new draft bill).  However, as you can imagine, filing a Claim of Lien before construction has even started is likely to be frowned upon by the Owner.  Furthermore, the lien would have to be timely perfected, which involves actually suing the Owner.  Obviously, use of the Claim of Lien to beat the proposed Notice of Commencement date will have limited, if any, practical use for construction professionals who are working on a project and want to maintain a good relationship with the Owner.

There are many good things in the new bill: a way to streamline payment issues to ensure subcontractors are timely paid when the general contractor is paid, for example, as well as an attempt to provide lien rights to parties even after a bankruptcy filing, which had been made impossible by recent cases.   However, the priority issue is definitely bad for designers, as well as others who do their work very early in the project.

Comments, questions, or thoughts about the proposed changes?  Let me know in the comment section, below.  And sign up for regular email updates from this Blog, so you never miss a post.

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