Iberiabank v. Coconut 41, LLC, 2013 WL 6061833 (M.D.Fla. 2013) is a new case involving a failed mixed-use master development (subdivision) that illustrates some of the complexities when a construction project goes bad. It is a great case discussing aspects of Florida’s Lien Law (such as liens for subdivision improvements, single claim of lien, fraudulent liens) that are important for all construction participants. It is also a great case that discusses an unjust enrichment claim for unpaid work and a slander of title claim due to a fraudulently recorded lien. While the facts and issues are lengthy, there are numerous take-aways from this case that should not be ignored and are pointed out at the end of this article.
I. The Failed Development
In this case, a developer purchased approximately 46 acres of land. The land was intended to be developed into a master development. The developer sold approximately 14 acres referred to Development Area 2 to HG Coconut. The developer was responsible for installing the necessary infrastructure outside of Development Area 2 that would be required to develop both the developer’s land and Development Area 2. (This included, among other things, widening a road and sanitary-sewer work.)
To construct the infrastructure, the developer hired a heavy civil contractor. Two contracts were executed. The first contract was for on-site infrastructure improvements to the developer’s land. The second contract was for off-site infrastructure improvements such as the infrastructure improvements needed to develop Development Area 2. (There was no contract between the contractor and HG Coconut, the owner of Development Area 2.)
Because of nonpayment, the contractor recorded a single claim of lien. The lien included Development Area 2 (owned by HG Coconut). Remember, the contractor did not have a contract with the owner of Development Area 2.
II. Claims against HG Coconut – the Owner of Development Area 2 – and HG Coconut’s Claims against the Contractor
The contractor filed a lawsuit and asserted an unjust enrichment claim and lien foreclosure claim against HG Coconut–the owner of Development Area 2. HG Coconut asserted a fraudulent lien claim and slander of title claim against the contractor.
A. Unjust Enrichment
The contractor contended that it benefited HG Coconut (a party it did not have a contract with) through infrastructure work it performed that provided value to Development Area 2. HG Coconut argued that the unjust enrichment claim should be barred because the contractor’s work was incomplete—it did not finish all of its work. The Middle District dismissed this argument equating recovery under an unjust enrichment theory to that of recovery when a contractor substantially performs. When a contractor substantially performs / completes its work, it is entitled to the full contract price minus the owner’s right to recover damages due to the contractor’s failure to render full performance. Since the contractor substantially completed its work subject to the unjust enrichment claim that provided a benefit to Development Area 2, the Middle District held that the contractor was entitled to the fair market value of the work minus HG Coconut’s offset for the remaining work.
B. Lien Foreclosure and Fraudulent Lien
The contractor argued that it was not paid for work performed under its off-site contract (the infrastructure work outside of developer’s land that was also needed to develop HG Coconut’s Development Area 2). HG Coconut asserted an affirmative claim against the contractor arguing that the contractor recorded a fraudulent lien.
The Middle District entered judgment against the contractor on its lien foreclosure claim. The fraudulent lien claim asserted by HG Coconut establishes the problems under Florida’s Lien Law with the contractor recording a lien that included Development Area 2.
Contractor’s performing subdivision improvements are entitled to certain protections under Florida’s Lien Law. Florida Statute s. 713.04(1) provides:
“Any lienor who, regardless of privity, performs services or furnishes material to real property for the purpose of making it suitable as the site for the construction of an improvement or improvements shall be entitled to a lien on the real property for any money that is owed to her or him for her or his services or materials furnished in accordance with her or his contract and the direct contract. The total amount of liens allowed under this section shall not exceed the amount of the direct contract under which the lienor furnishes labor, materials, or services. The work of making real property suitable as the site of an improvement shall include but shall not be limited to the grading, leveling, excavating, and filling of land, including the furnishing of fill soil; the grading and paving of streets, curbs, and sidewalks; the construction of ditches and other area drainage facilities; the laying of pipes and conduits for water, gas, electric, sewage, and drainage purposes; and the construction of canals and shall also include the altering, repairing, and redoing of all these things. When the services or materials are placed on land dedicated to public use and are furnished under contract with the owner of the abutting land, the cost of the services and materials, if unpaid, may be the basis for a lien upon the abutting land. When the services or materials are placed upon land under contract with the owner of the land who subsequently dedicates parts of the land to public use, the person furnishing the services or materials placed upon the dedicated land shall be entitled to a lien upon the land abutting the dedicated land for the unpaid cost of the services and materials placed upon the dedicated land, or in the case of improvements that serve or benefit real property that is divided by the improvements, to a lien upon each abutting part for the equitable part of the full amount due and owing. If the part of the cost to be borne by each parcel of the land subject to the same lien is not specified in the contract, it shall be prorated equitably among the parcels served or benefited. No lien under this section shall be acquired until a claim of lien is recorded. No notice of commencement shall be filed for liens under this section. No lienor shall be required to serve a notice to owner for liens under this section.”
However, just because a contractor performing subdivision improvements has certain lien rights, does not mean it can record a fraudulent lien. A fraudulent lien is defined in Florida Statute s. 713.31(2)(a):
“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.”
If a lien is deemed fraudulent, it is unenforceable. Fla.Stat. s. 713.31(2)(b). Additionally, an owner (or contractor, subcontractor, etc. that suffers damage from a fraudulent lien) can assert a claim for damages against the lienor for recording the fraudulent lien:
“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.”
A lien will be fraudulent if it contains willfully exaggerated amounts which can include liening for amounts that are NOT properly lienable. See Coconut 41, supra, at *15. This is why it is imperative to consult an attorney before recording a claim of lien! Not spending the due diligence in advising an attorney of the facts and the accounting comprising the amount you want to lien for can result in a fraudulent lien. Also, because a fraudulent lien contains a willful exaggeration of amounts, the lienor’s consultation with its lawyer is a factor a court can consider to determine that there was no willful exaggeration. Id. “[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.” Id. quoting Sharrard v. Ligon, 892 So.2d 1092, 1097 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004). Notably, this means that if a lienor is using this defense to counteract a fraudulent lien claim /defense, certain discussions with counsel must be waived to establish the consultation and advice to show the lien and amount was recorded and compiled in good faith.
Here, the contractor recorded a single claim of lien that included Development Area 2. However, the entire lien amount did NOT pertain to infrastructure improving Development Area 2.
The Middle District pointed out that a single claim of lien was not proper because the property liened was owned by different owners. Florida Statute s. 713.09 discusses the concept of a single claim of lien:
“A lienor is required to record only one claim of lien covering his or her entire demand against the real property when the amount demanded is for labor or services or material furnished for more than one improvement under the same direct contract. The single claim of lien is sufficient even though the improvement is for one or more improvements located on separate lots, parcels, or tracts of land. If materials to be used on one or more improvements on separate lots, parcels, or tracts of land under one direct contract are delivered by a lienor to a place designated by the person with whom the materialman contracted, other than the site of the improvement, the delivery to the place designated is prima facie evidence of delivery to the site of the improvement and incorporation in the improvement. The single claim of lien may be limited to a part of multiple lots, parcels, or tracts of land and their improvements or may cover all of the lots, parcels, or tracts of land and improvements. In each claim of lien under this section, the owner under the direct contract must be the same person for all lots, parcels, or tracts of land against which a single claim of lien is recorded.”
For this reason, the Middle District found that the lien was willfully exaggerated. In other words, the contractor acknowledged that of its approximate $195,000 lien, the pro-rata share for work done on Development Area 2 was only approximately $61,000; thus, there was an exaggeration of over $100,000 in the lien that covered Development Area 2. “The Claim of Lien was for the total amount owing for offsite work even though Westwind Contracting knew that only a substantially lesser amount was apportionable to HG Coconut.” Coconut 41, supra, at *16. Although the contractor tried to counteract the fraudulent lien by testifying that it provided its counsel with certain information, there was no testimony that it advised counsel that the lien it wanted recorded included land owned by someone other than the entity that hired it.
Now, even though the lien was deemed unenforceable, HG Coconut still needed to prove its damages due to the fraudulent lien. The Middle District, however, found that HG Coconut failed to prove such damages. Remember, the damages are included in Section 713.21: “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.” HG Coconut did NOT put any evidence of the court costs, reasonable attorneys’ fees, bond premium, or punitive damages.
C. Slander of Title
In addition to asserting an affirmative claim for fraudulent lien, HG Coconut also asserted a claim against the contractor for slander of title based on the lien. This is a common claim when a party believes a lien was improperly recorded against their property. The elements of slander of title in Florida are: 1) a falsehood, 2) that has been published or communicated to a third party, 3) the defendant knew or should have known the falsehood would result in inducing others not to deal with the plaintiff, 4) the falsehood does result in others not dealing with the plaintiff, and 5) actual and/or special damages (inclusive of attorneys’ fees) are proximately caused by the falsehood. Coconut 41, supra, at *17 quoting McAllister v. Breakers Seville Ass’n, Inc., 981 So.2d 566, 574 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008). However, even if all of the elements above are proven, a defense to slander of title is good faith. Coconut 41, supra, at *18. This defense is important because good faith raises a privilege and shifts the burden to the plaintiff asserting the claim to prove actual malice in order to recover under a slander of title theory of liability. Id. quoting McAllister v. Breakers Seville Ass’n, Inc., 981 So.2d 566, 574 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008).
Here, the court did not need to delve into whether there was actual malice because HG Coconut did not prove the elements of slander of title. In particular, there was no evidence that the lien caused or induced anyone not to deal with HG Coconut or that the contractor should have known the lien would have that effect. Further, there was no evidence that HG Coconut incurred any actual and/or special damages caused by the lien. While HG Coconut clearly incurred attorneys’ fees, it did not put on any evidence as to the amount of fees it incurred.
III. Important Take-Aways
Below are important points to take-away from this case:
- Unjust enrichment is a claim that can be asserted if a contractor is not in contractual privity with the owner of the land and work was knowingly performed that conferred a benefit to the owner’s land
- An owner can offset damages in an unjust enrichment claim by asserting as a defense that the work was incomplete/ the contractor failed to fully perform its work
- A notice to owner is not required for subdivision improvements
- If a lien for subdivision improvements includes multiple parcels of land, it shall be prorated among the parcels (if not otherwise stated in the contract)
- A single claim of lien can cover different land/ parcels if the owner is the same person
- If there are multiple contracts, there should be separate liens for each contract (even if with the same owner)
- A fraudulent lien includes a willful exaggeration and can include amounts not properly lienable
- A party asserting a fraudulent lien needs to present evidence of its damages: attorneys’ fees, court costs, bond transfer costs, punitive damages, etc. to be entitled to damages due to the fraudulent lien
- Consultation will a lawyer is a defense to a fraudulent lien but all of the important communications with the lawyer regarding the formation and compilation of the lien must be waived and must come into evidence to establish the good faith basis of the lien and lien amount
- Slander of title is a difficult claim to prove based on a construction lien; the plaintiff must show defendant knew the lien would result in third parties not dealing with the plaintiff and, in fact, third parties did not deal with plaintiff because of the lien
- A plaintiff in a slander of title action must prove its actual and/or special damages and special damages can include attorneys’ fees
- A defendant in a slander of title action should assert good faith as a defense which would shift the burden to the plaintiff to prove actual malice
For more information on fraudulent liens and slander of title, please see: https://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/owners-defending-a-lien-especially-a-patently-fraudulent-lien/
For more information on liens and lienable items/ amounts, please see: https://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/the-final-furnishing-date-and-lienable-amounts-for-construction-liens-decided-on-a-case-by-case-basis/
For more information on unjust enrichment theories, please see: https://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/subcontractors-and-unjust-enrichment-claims/
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.