Here comes the discussion of an appeal I was intimately involved in dealing with a construction lien. See Suntech Plumbing and Mechanical Corp. v. Bella Isla, LLC, 2022 WL 14672765 (Fla. 3d DCA 2022). Unfortunately, it was a losing result on my end but not a losing result to the issue at-hand. You should ask what in the world does this mean. I will tell you.
Here is the fact pattern. A subcontractor files a construction lien foreclosure lawsuit against an owner for unpaid contract balance. In the same lawsuit, the subcontractor sues the general contractor for breach of contract and unjust enrichment associated with an approximate three-year delay on a construction project. The project was scheduled to be completed in 2019. It was not. The project was pushed into COVID and into 2022. (The subcontractor did not sue the general contractor for amounts subject to the lien foreclosure claim.) The general contractor, assuming the defense of the owner, moved to stay the lawsuit pending the outcome of arbitration based on an arbitration provision in the subcontract. The subcontractor did not dispute the arbitration provision, but argued that arbitration provision should not extend to the owner that was (a) not bound by the subcontract, (b) would not be a party to the arbitration, and (c) the amounts pled against the general contractor did not include the amounts subject of the lien foreclosure lawsuit. At a minimum, the lawsuit should be stayed, not dismissed. Nevertheless, the trial court dismissed the entire lawsuit in an order that states that it is a final order with language that the lien may be “reinstated” after the outcome of the arbitration (that the owner is not a party to).
This is a big deal. Construction liens are creatures of statute. And, a construction lien, no different than a mortgage, is only as good as its lien priority. (The priority of a lien is critical!). Well, there is NO statutory procedure to reinstate a construction lien. None. There is also no authority that even contemplates such a procedure. Thus, what happens to the priority of the lien and what happens to the corresponding lis pendens? I have no clue other than the best recourse was to immediately appeal on two fronts: (1) appeal the trial court’s ruling as a final order based on language in the order stating it is a final order, and (2) in an abundance of caution, move for a petition of writ of certiorari due to the irreparable harm posed by the dismissal of a lien foreclosure lawsuit (regardless of the unheard-of reinstatement language). This is the recourse pursued with the appeals consolidated. The sentiment was that, at worst case, the appellate court would remand for the lawsuit to be stayed, not dismissed, so as not to impact the integrity (priority) of the lien and lis pendens. The worst thought was that if the appeal was lost, there was not really a loss in this case because a loss would ultimately mean the lien and lis pendens are still in play where an argument cannot be made otherwise. Although, honestly, a loss was not really considered here because there is no such thing as reinstating a lien.
Welcome to the unpredictability of the law.
First, the appellate court ruled that the trial court’s order, despite saying it was a final order, was not really a final order subject to an automatic appeal. “Because the trial court’s order of dismissal, however, is neither a final order nor an appealable nonfinal order we lack jurisdiction to consider [subcontractor’s] appeal of the dismissal order.” See Suntech, supra, at *1.
Second, the appellate court ruled that the reinstatement language did not constitute irreparable harm to support the basis of certiorari relief.
[Subcontractor] alternatively seeks certiorari review of the trial court’s order of dismissal; however, the trial court’s order expressly retained jurisdiction to enforce any arbitration award and to reinstate [subcontractor’s] lien foreclosure claim against [owner] should arbitration not resolve the matter. [Subcontractor] has therefore failed to establish irreparable harm necessitating exercise of our certiorari jurisdiction.
Suntech, supra, at *1.
Ok. So, the lien (and lis pendens) should remain in effect. But what about their priority? How do you reinstate a dismissed construction lien (and how does this effect lien priority)? Why is the lien even dismissed when the owner is not a party to the arbitration and not bound by any arbitration award? How is a dismissed lien not irreparable harm when the lien serves as the collateral for nonpayment? What happens to the lis pendens? Does this mean that a general contractor can always move to dismiss a lien foreclosure claim from a subcontractor based on an arbitration provision that the owner is not bound to or an arbitration the owner is not a party to?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Do you? The continued lack of answers prompted a motion for rehearing seeking clarity because the ruling, frankly, benefits no one in the construction industry and extends to buyers, sellers, title companies, etc. You can’t ignore the lien and lis pendens based on the appellate court’s ruling. But how do you treat the lien from a priority standpoint (including the lis pendens) and how the lien gets reinstated is another thing.
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And, again, welcome to the law! In my view, this is a bad opinion for the construction industry as a whole. It will be used in the wrong fashion to create a situation where the lien and lis pendens are in some unknown legal purgatory with an undefined outcome.