PAROL EVIDENCE CAN BE USED TO DEFEAT FRAUDULENT LIEN

shutterstock_162610553Parol or extrinsic evidence can be used to defeat an argument that a lien is a fraudulent lien.  And, just because a lien amount exceeds the total contract amount does not presumptively mean the lien is willfully exaggerated or recorded in bad faith.  Finally, a ruling invalidating a construction lien can create the irreparable harm required to support a petition for writ of certiorari.  All of these issues are important when dealing with and defending against a fraudulent lien and are explained in a recent case involving a dispute between an electrical subcontractor and its supplier.

 

In Farrey’s Wholesale Hardware Co., Inc. v. Coltin Electrical Services, LLC, 44 Fla.L.Weekly D130a (Fla. 2d DCA 2019), there were various revisions to the supplier’s  initial purchase order, both from a qualitative and quantitative perspective, and a ninth-revised purchaser order was issued and accepted.  The electrical subcontractor claimed that deliveries were late, unassembled, and did not include the required marking (likely the UL marking), to pass building inspections.  As a result, the subcontractor withheld money from the supplier and the supplier recorded a lien in the amount of $853,773.16 and filed a foreclosure lawsuit.

 

The subcontractor moved for a motion for partial summary judgment that the lien should be deemed a fraudulent lien and invalid because it was overstated by approximately $32,000.  The subcontractor argued that taking the amount of the ninth-revised purchase order and deducting the undisputed amount paid to the supplier would result in a lien amount of $825,417.06, approximately $32,000 less than the supplier’s lien amount.  The supplier, through an affidavit, argued this delta is nothing more than a good faith dispute and can be explained because the total cost of materials furnished to the job site was based on its initial purchase order and its revised purchase order.  The subcontractor countered that the affidavit is  parol evidence and should be disregarded because the parties agreed on the total amount of the supplies through the ninth-revised purchase order and the supplier was trying to create a new contract through the affidavit.  The trial court agreed and found the lien fraudulent, and issued a partial summary judgment invalidating the supplier’s lien.  The subcontractor moved for a petition of writ of certiorari.

 

Parol Evidence Rule

 

“[T]he parol evidence rule prevents the terms of a valid written contract or instrument from being varied ‘by a verbal agreement or other extrinsic evidence where such agreement was made before or at the time of the instrument in question.’” Farrey’s Wholesale, supra(citation omitted). The parol evidence rule, however, is not applied to exclude evidence of subsequent agreements modifying the original agreement, or of fraud, accident, or mistake.  Id.  

 

The appellate court, reversing the trial court, found that the parol evidence rule “does not bar extrinsic evidence offered for the purpose of showing whether the filing of a construction lien was made in good or bath faith.  This is a separate and distinct inquiry that does not trigger the parol evidence rule.”   Hence, the appellate court maintained there were disputed issues of material fact as to whether the lien was fraudulent.

 

The appellate court further found that the trial court erred in finding the lien fraudulent in that just because the lien amount exceeded the ninth-revised purchase order does not mean it was willfully exaggerated.  In other words, even if the ninth-revised purchase order was the complete agreement, the lien, in of itself, is not willfully exaggerated just because the lien exceeded the total amount of the contract. 

 

Appeal of Lien

 

On another important point in this case, because the appeal was based on a writ of certiorari (versus a final appeal of a final dispositive judgment), there had to be irreparable harm to justify the basis of the appeal.  The appellate court held there would be irreparable harm if the supplier had to wait until the end of the litigation to appeal because its judgment would then be unsecured (it would be without a remedy to pursue its lien which had been transferred to a lien transfer bond).  See Farrey’s Construction Wholesale, supra  (“This means that on remand [back to the trial court], all matters pertaining to Farrey’s construction lien, which includes the status of the lien transfer bond, will be returned to their prejudgment postures.”). 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

SIGNIFICANT ISSUES TEST APPLIES TO FRAUDULENT LIEN CLAIMS TO DETERMINE ATTORNEY’S FEES

imagesConstruction lienors need to appreciate on the frontend that recovering statutory attorney’s fees in a construction lien action is NOT automatic—far from it.  This is because the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees in a construction lien action is determined by the significant issues test,”subjective test with no bright line standards based on who the trial court finds prevailed on the significant issues in the case.  If you want to talk about the subjective and convoluted nature of recovering attorney’s fees in a construction lien action under the significant issues test, a recent opinion by the Fourth District Court of Appeal is unfortunately another nail in the coffin.   

 

In Newman v. Guerra, 2017 WL 33702 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017), a contractor recorded a construction lien on a residential renovation project and filed a lien foreclosure lawsuit.  The homeowner countersued the contractor and asserted a fraudulent lien claim pursuant to Florida Statute s. 713.31.  An evidentiary hearing was held on whether the lien was a fraudulent lien and the trial court held that the lien was fraudulent (therefore unenforceable) because it included amounts that were not lienable under the law.  The remaining claims including both parties’ breach of contract claims proceeded to trial.  There was no attorney’s fees provision in the contract.  At the conclusion of the trial, the court found that the contractor was entitled a monetary judgment on its breach of contract claim. 

 

Question:  If the owner prevailed in the contractor’s construction lien claim and established that the lien was in fact fraudulent, is the owner entitled to his statutory attorney’s fees? 

 

While equity may suggest “yes” as the answer, the answer is not necessarily.  This is because of the significant issues test where the court is going to look at the outcome of the entire litigation to determine the party that prevailed on the significant issues in the entire case.   Since the contractor ultimately recovered a money judgment, the court held the owner was not the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees under the significant issues test.  The contractor was not either, but this is beside the point since the owner established the lien was fraudulent and the contractor recovered a money judgment under a breach of contract claim that did not provide for attorney’s fees.  Nonetheless, the court maintained:

 

In sum, the trial court properly applied the “significant issues” test…in denying the homeowner’s claim for attorney’s fees under section 713.31 [fraudulent lien statute]. Even if a party prevails on a fraudulent lien claim, the party must be the prevailing party in the case as a whole to be entitled to attorney’s fees under section 713.31.

Newman, supra, at *4.

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

WHAT IS A FRAUDULENT LIEN?

What is a fraudulent lien? 

 

Just because a construction lien is recorded does not mean the lien is a fraudulent lien.  In fact, getting a lien declared a fraudulent lien is not an easy feat.

 

A fraudulent lien is defined in Florida’s Lien Law.  Florida Statute s. 713.31(2)(a) states:

 

“Any lien asserted under this part in which the lienor has willfully exaggerated the amount for which such lien is claimed or in which the lienor has willfully included a claim for work not performed upon or materials not furnished for the property upon which he or she seeks to impress such lien or in which the lienor has compiled his or her claim with such willful and gross negligence as to amount to a willful exaggeration shall be deemed a fraudulent lien.”

 

But, “a minor mistake or error in a claim of lien, or a good faith dispute as to the amount due does not constitute a willful exaggeration that operates to defeat an otherwise valid lien.” Fla. Stat. s. 713.31(2)(b).

 

So, a lien that (a) willfully exaggerates the amount, (b) willfully includes work not performed or materials not furnished, or is (c) compiled with willful and gross negligence, constitutes a fraudulent lien.   But, a minor mistake in a lien does not constitute willful exaggeration to constitute a fraudulent lien. And, a good faith dispute as to what a lienor claims it is owed does not constitute willful exaggeration to constitute a fraudulent lien.

 

What is the recourse if a fraudulent lien is recorded?

 

Florida Statute s. 713.31(2)(b) explains:

 

“It is a complete defense to any action to enforce a lien under this part, or against any lien in any action in which the validity of the lien is an issue, that the lien is a fraudulent lien; and the court so finding is empowered to and shall declare the lien unenforceable, and the lienor thereupon forfeits his or her right to any lien on the property upon which he or she sought to impress such fraudulent lien.”

 

So, if a fraudulent lien is declared, the lienor loses its lien—the lien becomes unenforceable. 

 

Plus, with respect to an action for damages, s. 713.31(2)(c) states:

 

“An owner against whose interest in real property a fraudulent lien is filed, or any contractor, subcontractor, or sub-subcontractor who suffers damages as a result of the filing of the fraudulent lien, shall have a right of action for damages occasioned thereby. The action may be instituted independently of any other action, or in connection with a summons to show cause under s. 713.21, or as a counterclaim or cross-claim to any action to enforce or to determine the validity of the lien. The prevailing party in an action under this paragraph may recover reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. If the lienor who files a fraudulent lien is not the prevailing party, the lienor shall be liable to the owner or the defrauded party who prevails in an action under this subsection in damages, which shall include court costs, clerk’s fees, a reasonable attorney’s fee and costs for services in securing the discharge of the lien, the amount of any premium for a bond given to obtain the discharge of the lien, interest on any money deposited for the purpose of discharging the lien, and punitive damages in an amount not exceeding the difference between the amount claimed by the lienor to be due or to become due and the amount actually due or to become due.”

 

So, in addition to the fraudulent lien being declared unenforceable, the lienor can be liable for damages including, without limitation, attorneys’ fees, court costs, and, potentially, punitive damages in an amount not exceeding the difference between the amount claimed by the lienor to be due and the amount actually due.

 

What does this mean?

 

It is important for lienors  to consult with counsel prior to preparing and recording a lien since a routine defense to a lien is that the lien is an unenforceable fraudulent lien.

 

Here are important tidbits regarding fraudulent liens:

 

 

  • Including amounts in the lien NOT authorized by contract can render the lien fraudulent. See Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill v. Volpe Const. Co., Inc., 511 So.2d 642, 644 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987) (“The inclusion of items not authorized by change orders or by contract renders the lien fraudulent and unenforceable.”); accord In re Hayes, 305 B.R. 361, 366-67 (M.D.Fla. 2003).   For instance, think disputed change order requests.  Sometimes, it is better to pursue these amounts in a breach of contract action so as not to risk the lien being declared fraudulent.  But see In re American Fabricators, 917 B.R. 987, 992 (M.D.Fla. 1996): “The test for determining whether extras [changes] are lienable under Florida’s mechanics’ lien law is whether work was performed (i) in good faith; (ii) within a reasonable time; (iii) pursuant to the terms of the contract; and (iv) is necessary to finish the job.”

 

  • Consulting with counsel including full and complete disclosure of pertinent facts regarding the lien will help establish that there is a good faith dispute as to the amount in the lien and, therefore, there is no willful exaggeration to support a fraudulent lien.   As one appellate court explained “[A] lienor can rely on consultation with counsel prior to filing the claim of lien as evidence of good faith only in the event of a full and complete disclosure of the pertinent facts to the attorney from whom the advice is sought before the lienor acts on the advice. Consultation with an attorney is not entitled to any legal weight if the contractor did not disclose all pertinent facts to the attorney.”  Check out this article for more information on the value of consulting with counsel.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.