Parol 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.”).
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