In January 2012, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a decision in Bricklayers of Western Pennsylvania Combined Funds v. Scott’s Development Co., that we called a “mechanics lien earthquake” because it overturned decades of prior precedent that in order to properly file and perfect a mechanics lien, a contractor or subcontractor, needed to strictly follow the requirements of the mechanics lien law. Before Bricklayers, courts would routinely strike mechanics liens that deviated, even slightly, from the Pennsylvania mechanics lien law’s requirements. The reasoning behind this was that because the lien law was a “creature of statute” it needed to be “strictly construed” by the courts. However, the Superior Court turned that on its head in 2012 when it held that the lien law was not subject to strict construction, but, rather, it should be “liberally applied.” In the Bricklayers case, the liberal construction meant union health and welfare funds and, even individual employees, enjoyed mechanics lien rights.
As can be imagined, the Superior Court’s decision in Bricklayers did not sit well with many in the construction industry and an appeal was filed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted “allocator” (allowance) of appeal in the Bricklayers case in order to review the Superior Court’s decision. Last week, the Supreme Court issued its opinion and overturned the Superior Court’s decision in Bricklayers. (Those wishing to read it can click HERE.)
The Supreme Court’s decision left many in the industry happy because it held (correctly) that individual employees, laborers, and, in particular, union fringe benefit funds do not enjoy mechanics lien rights because they do not meet the definition of subcontractor under the lien law.
What the Supreme Court did not do (much to the chagrin of many construction lawyers including me) is explicitly state that the lien law should always enjoy strict construction and affirm prior holdings that any deviations from the lien law will result in a lien being dismissed. Instead, the Court held that clear and unambiguous portions of the law should be given the intent of the General Assembly while ambiguous provisions may be subject to additional review.
What this means is that if a provision is clear, such as stating that a lien shall be filed within six months of a contractors completion of its work, then Court’s should strictly construe it and strike any lien file more than six months after completion. However, if the provision of the law is ambiguous a contractor could have some wiggle room. Because most of the provisions of the lien law, in our opinion, are pretty straightforward and clear, it is hard to envision a scenario where a deviation from the lien law’s requirements should not result in a dismissed lien. Moreover, because the requirements are clear, there should not be any deviations in the first place. The lesson: look at the lien law and follow it – its pretty starightforward.