If a construction lien is improperly filed or contains errors, an owner will try to capitalize on the improper filing or errors in order to get the lien discharged from his property. This is what an owner should do, although he should not lose sight over the difference between a ministerial error in the lien that you do not bank your entire defense on versus a truly substantive error under Florida’s Lien Law that could give the owner leverage in the dispute (e.g., not recording the claim of lien within 90 days from final furnishing, a subcontractor/supplier not serving a notice to owner, a lien from an unlicensed contractor, or a lien that includes improper amounts for nonlienable items).
The recent case of Premier Finishes, Inc. v. Maggirias, 2013 WL 5338052 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013), illustrates an error in a lien (that appears ministerial at first glance) that resulted in the lien being discharged by the trial court. However, although not discussed in the opinion, this case addresses much more than an error in a lien, but an interesting licensing issue.
In this case, a contractor was engaged to build a house. The contractor entered into the contract under a fictitious name. However, from reviewing the case, it does not appear that the fictitious name was a registered fictitious name, nor does it appear that the fictitious name was registered as a licensed contractor. Rather, it was simply an acronym used by the licensed contractor.
A payment dispute arose when the owner terminated the contractor, and the contractor recorded a claim of lien and moved to foreclose the lien. However, the lien was recorded and lawsuit initiated by the contractor and not the fictitious name that entered into the contract. The owner argued that the contractor was not a proper lienor and therefore the lien should be discharged because it was not the entity that actually entered into the contract. The trial court agreed.
On appeal through a petition for a writ of certiorari, the Second District reversed for two main reasons.
First, the Court held that a contract entered into under a fictitious name is enforceable (even if that fictitious name is not properly registered). See Fla. Stat. 869.09(9). The Court explained: “[I]f Premier Finishes [contractor] was the real entity using the fictitious name when entering into the contract, it is the actual party to the contract or the contractor…and is entitled to proceed with a claim of lien against the Owner.” Premier Finishes, 2013 WL 5338052 at *3.
Second, under Florida’s Lien Law, a ministerial error does not invalidate a lien unless the owner can show he was prejudiced by the error. See Fla. Stat. 713.08(4). The owner will have to show how he was adversely affected / prejudiced by the error, which would require an evidentiary hearing and can be quite challenging to prove.
Now, what is interesting about this case is whether there was any argument that the lien should be unenforceable because the fictitious entity that signed the contract was an unlicensed contractor (assuming this is the case). Under Florida Statute s. 489.128, contracts entered into by an unlicensed contractor are unenforceable in law or in equity by the unlicensed contractor. Thus, an unlicensed contractor cannot properly lien. Instead of the focus being on the error in the lien due to the lien being recorded by the contractor instead of the fictitious entity, the argument could center on the fact that the contract was entered into by an unlicensed contractor and, therefore, the contract and corresponding lien are not enforceable. Perhaps, the owner plans on raising this argument to establish prejudice.
While the contractor can certainly raise arguments to address the fact that the fictitious name is properly licensed since the contractor that owns the fictitious name is properly licensed, a contractor that is required to be licensed by the state (e.g., general contractor, mechanical contractor, electrical contractor, plumbing contractor, etc.) is technically supposed to register and identify the fictitious name it is doing business under. See Fla. Stat. 489.119. Although, notably, there is an older case, Martin Daytona Corp. v. Strickland Const. Services, 881 So.2d 686 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004), that held that a subcontractor’s failure to obtain a license under its fictitious name did not render the contract unenforceable. However, this case was decided under a previous version of Florida Statute s. 489.128 and, importantly, the current version of this statute likely would not have applied to this case since the subcontractor (a mason) is not required to obtain a state license like a general contractor. It is uncertain how this case would be decided under current law.
The key is to double check your liens to ensure they are accurate and do not contain errors. Naturally, it is always a good thing to work with an attorney to prepare your lien so that if you know that if an error will likely exist you can game plan accordingly. For example, if you entered into contracts in the name of an unregistered fictitious name, the decision in Premier Finishes can support your argument that the fictitious name would not render the contract or lien unenforceable especially if the fictious name is used by a properly licensed contractor. Also, contractors needs to be sure they maintain proper licenses to remove any argument that the contract or lien is unenforceable. Keep in mind that under the law, a contract with an unlicensed contractor is unenforceable one-way by the unlicensed contractor; the other party to the contract can still seek recourse.
Please contact David Adelstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.