For years construction lawyers in Pennsylvania have been taught that the requirements of the Mechanics Lien Law must be strictly followed or a mechanics lien claim will be stricken and lost. In decades of precedent, it has been repeatedly stated that the Pennsylvania Mechanics Lien Law is a “creature of statute in derogation of the common law” and, therefore, in order for a lien claim to be valid it must be filed in strict compliance with the Mechanics Lien Law.
Construction attorneys representing owners, whose property became subject to a mechanics lien, have used this well established principal to dismiss mechanics liens for any variety of deviations from the Mechanics Lien Law. Failing to attach a written copy of the construction contract to the lien; failing to properly identify the owner of the property; failing to properly serve the lien; and failing to give proper notice are some examples of deviations from the strict requirements of the Mechanics Lien Law that have resulted in mechanics liens being dismissed.
However, on January 6, 2012, the Superior Court in Bricklayers of Western Pennsylvania Combined Funds, Inc. v. Scott’s Development Company, 2012 WL 29299. overturned decades of precedent and held that “[p]ursuant to the plain language of 1 Pa .C.S.A. § 1928(a) and (c), the Mechanic’s Lien Law of 1963 cannot be strictly construed on the basis that it is in derogation of the common law. See 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1928(a), (c).” A copy of the decision is available here.
In Bricklayers, the Superior Court addressed the viability of mechanics lien claims that the trustees of employee benefit funds filed for unpaid contributions owed to union members under collective bargaining agreements between a contractor and the unions. The trial court concluded that the union members were not “subcontractors” under the Mechanics Lien Law because the collective bargaining agreements were not traditional subcontractor agreements, and the union members were employees and/or laborers of a contractor. The Superior Court overruled the trial court and concluded “that under the specific facts presented in this case, the unions are subcontractors and given the unique legal relationship that exists between the trustee and the union, the trustee has standing to assert a mechanics’ lien claim on behalf of the union.”
The Court refused to strictly construe the Mechanics Lien Law as it had done in the past because “the ‘derogation of common law’ precept violates the commands of 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1928(a) and (c)” Thus, “[it] should no longer be used in connection with the Mechanics Lien Law of 1963.” Moreover, the Court held “[t]his is especially true since Sampson–Miller,the source of the strict construction rule, erroneously rested on case law interpreting the Mechanics’ Lien Law of 1901 and inaccurately transposed it to the successor statute, the Mechanics’ Lien Law of 1963.” Therefore, the Court concluded, “the statute must be liberally construed to effect [its] objects and to promote justice.” Based upon its holding, the Superior Court for the first time permitted unpaid unions – through their trustee fiduciaries – to assert a mechanics lien claim for unpaid benefit funds.