Articles Posted in Construction Law and Mechanics’ Liens

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This one of a series of six posts regarding mechanics’ liens:

Part 1. The basics of credit risk and subcontracting.

Part 2. Reallocating risk in construction projects.

Part 3. Acquiring a lien.

Part 4. Enforcing a lien.

Part 5. Personal liability notices.

Part 6. No-lien agreements.

The last post in our series on mechanics’ liens addresses a situation in which mechanics’ liens are not available. For certain types of projects, the Indiana Mechanic’s Lien Statute permits the owner and principal contactor to enter into an agreement or stipulation that prohibits liens that arise from a particular contract.

There are essentially two categories of projects that are eligible for no-lien agreements. The first category includes “class 2 structures” (as defined at Indiana Code section 22-12-1-5), which encompasses single- and double-unit residential structures and some related projects. The second encompasses construction owned by certain types of utilities, including public utilities, municipal utilities, and rural membership utilities. The details of the projects that are eligible for no-lien agreements can be found at Indiana Code 32-28-3-1(3).

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[Note: This one of a series of six posts regarding mechanics’ liens:

Part 1. The basics of credit risk and subcontracting.

Part 2. Reallocating risk in construction projects.

Part 3. Acquiring a lien.

Part 4. Enforcing a lien.

Part 5. Personal liability notices.

Part 6. No-lien agreements.]

We’ve been examining the role of mechanics’ liens in construction contacts, including the way they reallocate credit risk among contractors and the owner of a construction project. The Indiana Mechanics’ Lien Statute includes another remedy for subcontractors who do not get paid, entirely apart from a mechanic’s lien against the real property where the construction takes place. The statute does not give a name to the remedy, but it’s often called a personal liability notice or PLN.

To see how it works, let’s go back to the hypothetical example of our last article. Assume you are a subcontractor with a $15,000 claim against the general contractor, a claim the GC disputes. Now let’s assume that the deadline for filing a sworn statement and notice of intention to hold a mechanic’s lien has already slipped by. Are you out of luck?

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[Note: This one of a series of six posts regarding mechanics’ liens:

Part 1. The basics of credit risk and subcontracting.

Part 2. Reallocating risk in construction projects.

Part 3. Acquiring a lien.

Part 4. Enforcing a lien.

Part 5. Personal liability notices.

Part 6. No-lien agreements.]

So far we’ve looked at the basics of subcontracting and allocation of credit risk, how a mechanic’s lien changes things by reallocating credit risk, and how a contractor, subcontractor, supplier, or worker goes about acquiring a mechanic’s lien. Now we’ll discuss how to enforce a lien once you have it. Assume you are a subcontractor with a claim against the general contractor, or GC, for $15,000. The GC has withheld that amount from your fees, accusing you of not finishing your work on schedule. The general contractor says it incurred $15,000 in additional labor charges because its workers had to wait around with nothing else to do until your work was completed. You blame the general contractor for the delay and additional expense, and you have recorded a sworn statement and notice of intention to hold a mechanic’s lien in the amount of $15,000. A copy of it has been sent to the owner.

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[Note: This one of a series of six posts regarding mechanics’ liens:

Part 1. The basics of credit risk and subcontracting.

Part 2. Reallocating risk in construction projects.

Part 3. Acquiring a lien.

Part 4. Enforcing a lien.

Part 5. Personal liability notices.

Part 6. No-lien agreements.]

In the first article in this series, we discussed the basics of credit risks associated with subcontracting in an area other than construction. In the second, we examined how a mechanic’s lien reallocates those credit risks for construction contracts. In this one, we explain how a contractor or subcontactor goes about acquiring a mechanic’s lien. For a change of pace, we’ll do it in a question-and-answer format.

Some caveats: First, mechanic’s lien requirement vary significantly from state to state. Given that this is the Indiana Business Law Blog, we’ll answer the questions based on Indiana law. Also note that the Indiana Mechanic’s Lien Statute is filled with complicated, cumbersome, even archaic language that can be difficult for even lawyers to parse, so we’ll try to give answers that are more easily understood. However, that also means we may leave out some details, making the answers a bit imprecise in some circumstances. As always, this blog is not legal advice and you should not rely on it as a substitute for legal advice.

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[Note: This one of a series of six posts regarding mechanics’ liens:

Part 1. The basics of credit risk and subcontracting.

Part 2. Reallocating risk in construction projects.

Part 3. Acquiring a lien.

Part 4. Enforcing a lien.

Part 5. Personal liability notices.

Part 6. No-lien agreements.]

In part 1 of this series, we discussed a hypothetical situation with a company that hired an ad agency, with the ad agency subcontracting some work to a production company and purchasing advertising time on a television station. The production company bore the ad agency’s credit risk because its contract was with the ad agency, and when the ad agency went out of business the production company faced the possibility of not being paid. In contrast, the television station did not bear the ad agency’s credit risk because its contract with directly with the ad agency’s client. The ad agency’s client faced the possibility of having to pay for the television air time twice – once to the ad agency and a second time directly to the television station when the ad agency failed to pay for the air time on the client’s behalf.

Now let’s look at the credit risks associated with a construction project in which the owner of a construction project hires a general contractor to complete the entire project on a time-and-materials basis, which means that the price paid by the owner is equal to the amount the general contractor pays for the labor (i.e., the “time”) and materials required to do the construction, plus a markup to cover overhead and profit. The general contractor does some of the work with its own employees and subcontracts some of the work, including the installation of the electrical wiring, to another contractor.

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[Note: This one of a series of six posts regarding mechanics’ liens:

Part 1. The basics of credit risk and subcontracting.

Part 2. Reallocating risk in construction projects.

Part 3. Acquiring a lien.

Part 4. Enforcing a lien.

Part 5. Personal liability notices.

Part 6. No-lien agreements.]

This starts a short series of blog articles discussing mechanics’ liens and their cousins, notices of personal liability, concepts that arise in the context of construction contracts and similar agreements. To understand what’s special about construction contracts, you need to understand a bit about how contract law, subcontracting, and credit risk work in other settings. So let’s review the basics.

Imagine your company signs an advertising agency agreement, hiring the ad agency to create a television advertising campaign for your business. The ad agency comes up with the ideas for the commercials, hires a production company to produce them, and purchases advertising time on your behalf from local television stations. The contract to produce the commercial is between the ad agency and the production company, but the contract with the television station is between the television station and your company, signed by the ad agency as your company’s agent, as it is authorized to do by the ad agency agreement.

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iStock_000017700348Small.jpgOwners of Indiana LLCs (and their lawyers) can learn some lessons from a recent case involving an Alabama LLC. The case is L.B. Whitfield, III Family LLC v. Virginia Ann Whitfield, et al.

The Whitfield Case

L.B. Whitfield, III owned half of the voting stock in a business that had been in his family for generations. The other half had belonged to L.B.’s brother, who died and left the stock to a trust for the benefit of his son.

L.B. had four children, his son Louie, and three daughters. After his brother’s death, L.B. became concerned that the 50/50 voting balance might be disturbed if, after he died, his stock were to be divided among his four children. To prevent that from happening, L.B. created a manager-managed Alabama limited liability company to hold his half of the voting stock. L.B. was the sole member, and he and Louie were the two managers. His will provided that his interest in the LLC would pass to his four children in four equal shares.

After L.B. died, Louie continued as manager, and the four children were treated as members of the LLC, with each of them holding 25% of the interest in the LLC. About 10 years later, a dispute arose between Louie and his sisters, and the dispute escalated into litigation. Ultimately, the litigation was resolved on a theory that was not argued in the original pleadings and apparently did not even occur to the parties’ lawyers until several months into the case.

The Alabama Supreme Court noted that L.B. had been the sole member of the LLC and that, after he died, the LLC had no members. Although L.B.’s will gave his children equal shares of his economic rights in the LLC (his “interest”), economic rights in an LLC and membership are two different things, and the will did not make his children members. The Court further noted that, under the Alabama LLC statute, a limited liability company that has no members is dissolved and its affairs must be wound up, a process which includes payment of its debt and distribution of its remaining assets to the holders of interest in the LLC. Accordingly, the Court held that the assets of the LLC should be distributed in four equal shares to Louie and his sisters.

Interestingly, the Alabama statute provides a way that L.B.’s heirs could have become members and avoided the dissolution of the LLC, but they had to do it by mutual written agreement within 90 days of L.B.’s death, and there was no such written agreement.

How does it work in Indiana?

If the Whitfield case had involved an Indiana LLC, the results might well have been the same. Unless other provisions (discussed below) have been made to avoid the result, when the single member of an LLC dies, that member will be dissociated (i.e., will cease to be a member, Ind. Code 23-18-6-5(a)(4)), the LLC will have no members, and, as a result, it will be dissolved, at least if the LLC was formed after June 30, 1999, (Ind. Code 23-18-9-1.1(c)). As a result, the member’s heirs will not receive an ongoing business; instead, they will receive only the rights to receive distributions from the dissolved LLC after all obligations are satisfied — which may be far less valuable than the business would have been as an ongoing concern.

Note that there are other scenarios that can create a similar result. Under Ind. Code 23-18-6-4.1(e) (which applies only to LLC’s formed after June 30, 1999), a member who assigns her entire interest to another person ceases to be a member. If the person making the assignment is the sole member, the person who receives the interest can become a member under Ind. Code 23-18-6-4.1(b), which provides that the person who receives the interest can become a member “in accordance with the terms of an agreement between the assignor and the assignee.” But what if there are no such terms? What if the agreement simply says, “Seller hereby assigns her interest in the LLC to Buyer,” but doesn’t mention membership? In that case (unless the operating agreement already deals with the situation some other way), the LLC will have no members, and it will be dissolved. In other words, the person who thought he bought an ongoing business may well have bought only the rights to receive distributions from a dissolved LLC.

Now, what if there are multiple members and one of them dies? In that case, the LLC is not dissolved, at least not if it was formed after June 30, 1999, but the member’s heirs may not become members. Although they may inherit the deceased member’s interest (i.e., rights to receive distributions), they will become members (and therefore have the right to participate in the management of the company), only if the operating agreement makes them members or the other members unanimously consent.

What should you do?

If you own an LLC, or if you own part of an LLC, and these possibilities make you uncomfortable, you need a business succession plan that includes two different components. First, it should include appropriate estate planning tools to make sure that your economic interest in the LLC goes to the people you want to taken care of after your death. For example, you may want to designate a transfer-on-death beneficiary to inherit your interest in the LLC. Second, the LLC should have an operating agreement with appropriate provisions to ensure that your heirs benefit not only from the right to receive distributions from the LLC but also receive the other rights of membership, including the right to participate in the management of the business. There are different ways to do that; an attorney with experience in business succession planning, particularly with Indiana LLCs, can help you choose the best one for you.
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House painter.jpgIndiana has a relatively little known statute, the Home Improvement Contracts statute located in Title 24, Article 25, Chapter 11 of the Indiana Code, that protects the customers of home improvement contractors by establishing certain minimum contract requirements. Home improvement contractors are well advised to ensure that their contracts comply with the statute because those who violate it may find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit under companion Chapter 0.5 (Deceptive Consumer Sales) filed either by their customers or by the Indiana Attorney General. This article describes only some of the statutory requirements, and home improvement contractors who want to make sure they comply should seek legal advice.

Applicability

The Home Improvement Contacts statute applies to contracts between a consumer and a “home improvement supplier” for any alteration, repair, replacement, reconstruction, or other modification to residential property, whether the consumer owns, leases, or rents the residence, but only if the contract is for more than $150. The statute defines “home improvement supplier” as someone who engages in or solicits home improvement contracts, even if that person does not actually do the work. For example, if a homeowner buys installed carpet from a carpet store, the contract to install the carpet is covered by the Home Improvement Contracts statute even if the store owner doesn’t actually perform the installation but instead subcontracts the work to someone else.

Contract Requirements

Not surprisingly, home improvement contracts must be in writing. Although the Home Improvement Contracts statute does not include an express requirement for a written contract, and although the definition of “home improvement contract” includes oral agreements, as a practical matter it is impossible for an oral contract to comply with the statute.

Section 10(a) of the Home Improvement Contracts statute includes a laundry list of requirements. For example, the contract must include the name of the consumer and address of the home; the name, address, and telephone number of the contractor; the date the contract was presented to the consumer; a reasonably detailed description of the work; if specifications are not included in the description, then a statement that specifications will be provided separately and are subject to consumer approval; approximate start and end dates for the work; a statement of contingencies that may seriously alter the completion date; and the contract price.

The requirement that the contract contain specifications (or a statement that specifications will be supplied later for approval by the consumer) deserves a little more attention. The statute defines specifications as “the plans, detailed drawings, lists of materials, or other methods customarily used in the home improvement industry as a whole to describe with particularity the work, workmanship, materials, and quality of materials for each home improvement.” Note that a specification must describe the work, workmanship, materials, and quality of materials with particularity.

Consider, for example, a contract to paint the exterior of a home. Does it comply with the requirement for a contract to contain specifications if the only description of the work is, “Paint all exterior siding and window frames with gray exterior latex paint”? Does that describe the work “with particularity”? Probably not. For example, it does not specify the number of coats of paint, obviously a significant consideration. Moreover, the specification of “exterior latex paint” is probably inadequate in light of the range of quality and prices of exterior latex paint available on the market, and “gray” is probably not specific enough either, given that paint stores carry a wide spectrum of colors that can reasonably be called gray.

Specific Requirements and Accommodations for Work Covered by Insurance

Section 10(b) of the statute deals with special issues presented by contracts to repair damage that is to be covered by an insurance policy. Several of the provisions provide alternative ways for the contract to comply with the general requirements listed in Section 10(a). For example, the requirement to include the start date can be satisfied by specifying that the repairs will begin within a specified amount of time after it is approved by the insurance company. Similarly, the contract price can be expressed by stating the amount owed by the consumer in addition to the amount of the insurance proceeds, and that includes a contract provision that the contractor will not charge the consumer any amount above the amount of the insurance proceeds. Note, however, that because of the prohibitions in Section 10.5 (discussed below), the consumer is responsible for any insurance deductible.

More importantly, Section 10(b) requires home improvement contracts for repairing exterior damage that covered by insurance to give the consumer a right to cancel the contract within three days of receiving notice from the insurance company denying coverage for some or all of the repairs. The contract must include some very specific language dealing with the right to cancel, and it also must include a form, attached to but easily removable from the contract, that the consumer can use to cancel the contract.

Prohibitions

Section 10.5 of the statute also contains some prohibitions that home improvement contractors need to know about. One has already been mentioned — contractors are prohibited from paying or rebating to the consumer any part of an insurance deductible or giving any sort of gift, allowance, or anything else of monetary value to the consumer to cover the insurance deductible, including things like referral fees and payments in exchange for the consumer allowing the contractor to place a sign in the yard.

As another example, Section 10.5(d) contains a blanket prohibition on home improvement contractors acting as public adjusters.
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Construction contract.jpgI explained in my last two posts how construction managers can be subject to liability when a construction contractor’s employee is injured. Ordinarily, the construction manager has no duty to provide a safe workplace for the employees of a construction contractor and, therefore, is generally not liable for injuries to those employees. However, a construction manager can assume a duty to those employees in one of two ways — either by contract or by actions — and end up with liability for injuries.

For that reason, some construction managers have been reluctant to have any involvement with safety programs. By drafting contracts carefully, a construction manager can be fairly certain of not assuming a duty contractually, but it is difficult to know exactly what actions a construction manager can or cannot take without incurring liability. The Plan-Tec and Hunt cases discussed in our last post create some certainty. Specifically, a construction manager may take on contractual commitments to perform certain actions without assuming a duty to the employees of construction contractors and, consequentially, without incurring liability it would not otherwise have.

However, the construction management must avoid contractually undertaking to be the “insurer of safety for everyone on the project.” Here are some examples of what a construction manager should include in the construction management contract:

(a) To “make certain its avoidance of liability” the court in Hunt said a construction manager can include a provision with language expressly disavowing responsibility for job-site safety (EX: “in no case shall…the Construction Manager…have either direct or indirect responsibility for matters relative to Project safety.”).

(b) In Plan-Tec, the court held that the construction manager had not assumed a duty because the construction management contract “unequivocally state[d] that the contractors were to have the responsibility for project safety and the safety of their employees.” This language demonstrates that the responsibility for project safety belonged to the construction contractors, not the construction manager.

(c) Hunt’s contract stated that the construction manager’s services were “rendered solely for the benefit of the [Project Owner] and not for the benefit of the Contractors, the Architect, or other parties performing Work or services with respect to the Project.” This confirmed that no one but the Project Owner, not even a subcontractor’s injured employee, could expect to “benefit” from Hunt’s contract with the Project Owner or claim the contract obligated Hunt to assure their safety.

(d) Hunt’s contract provided that Hunt was not “assuming the safety obligations and responsibilities of the individual Contractors,” and that Hunt was not to have “control over or charge of or be responsible for…safety precautions and programs in connection with the Work of each of the Contractors, since these are the Contractor’s responsibilities.” In addition, it said that the construction contractor was the “controlling employer responsible for its own safety programs and precautions,” and Hunt’s responsibility to review, monitor, and coordinate those programs did “not extend to direct control over or charge of the acts or omissions of the Contractors, Subcontractors, their agents or employees or any other persons performing portions of the Work and not directly employed by Hunt.” This proved that Hunt was not vicariously liable for a subcontractor’s negligence in executing its own safety precautions.

Given the above contract provisions which help construction managers to avoid contractually assuming responsibility for job-site safety, consider one related reminder about avoiding liability as a result of actions. Remember how construction managers can become liable when they voluntarily perform safety obligations beyond what they previously agreed to in the construction management contract? For this reason, one last contract provision which would benefit construction managers could require that, if the project owner demands that construction manager begin to perform additional safety obligations, such new obligations would first be incorporated into the original contract via an amendment. This would serve as a contractual way to manage the risk of that other means of incurring liability – the construction manager’s actions.

Now, here are some examples of what a construction manager seeking to avoid liability should not include in a construction management contract:

(a) Provisions by which the construction manager accepts the “duty to maintain safety on the project.”

(b) Provisions providing that the construction manager is responsible for the contractors’ compliance with state and federal regulations. A provision like that could show that the construction manager was undertaking legal oversight of the subcontractors. As recounted in point (d) above, construction managers can safely contract to review, monitor, and coordinate safety programs and precautions, but not to be responsible for those programs as the “controlling employer.” The important inquiry is whether the construction manager has agreed to ensure contractors’ compliance with the law or whether the construction manager has only agreed to monitor contractors’ compliance for the project owner.

(c) Language such as: the construction manager “shall take reasonable precautions for safety of…employees on the Work.”

(d) Language such as: The construction manager “shall take all necessary precautions for the safety of employees on the work.”

(e) Language such as: The construction manager “shall take all necessary precautions for the safety of all employees on the project.”

Ultimately, the Indiana Supreme Court held that even though Hunt had agreed to some safety-related responsibilities in the original contract, those responsibilities didn’t invoke “vicarious liability.” In doing so, the court chose to further the policy of providing “a way of promoting safety without exposing contract managers to suits like this one,” rather than encourage construction managers to avoid taking on any responsibility for promoting job-site safety for fear of incurring liability.
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As discussed in my last post, general contractors and construction managers have very different roles in a construction project. General contractors are sometimes sued when their subcontractor’s employees are injured on the job, but that’s not as often the case for construction managers. In addition, the liability analysis is quite different for construction managers because, unlike general contractors, construction managers do not have overall responsibility to perform the construction and they generally only contract with project owners, not with other subcontractors. A recent Indiana Supreme Court opinion, (“Hunt Construction Group, Inc. v. Garrett“) (“Hunt“)sheds light on the analysis of construction manager liability.

The opinion concluded litigation which had arisen out an accident which occurred during the construction of the Lucas Oil Stadium. In Hunt, a subcontractor’s employee was injured and subsequently sued the construction manager (“Hunt”). The Hunt court based its analysis on Plan-Tec, Inc. v. Wiggins (“Plan-Tec“), the first reported case in Indiana where the employee of a subcontractor sued a construction manager. Indiana courts use Plan-Tec as a “template” to evaluate claims of negligence against construction managers for injuries suffered by subcontractors’ employees, and the central test of the template specifically says that “a construction manager owes a legal duty of care for job-site employee safety in two circumstances: (1) when such a duty is imposed upon the construction manager by a contract to which it is a party, or (2) when the construction manager assumes such a duty, either gratuitously or voluntarily.'” Thus, a court will determine whether a construction manager is liable for the employee’s injury based on the construction manager’s contracts and actions, and only one of these is necessary to prove liability.

Three things in Plan-Tec led the court to find no contractual liability for the construction manager: (1) The construction manager’s contract did not specify that the construction manager had any safety responsibilities, (2) the subcontractor’s contracts clearly indicated they had responsibility for project safety and the safety of their employees, and (3) the subcontractor’s contracts expressly disclaimed that the construction manager had any direct or indirect responsibility for project safety.

Unlike in Plan-Tec, in Hunt, the construction manager’s contract did impose some general safety-related responsibilities on the construction manager. For example, Hunt was responsible for approving contractors’ safety programs, monitoring compliance with safety regulations, performing inspections, and addressing safety violations. Hunt also had the ability to remove any employee or piece of equipment deemed unsafe. However, the court determined that none of the safety-related provisions imposed on Hunt a specific legal duty to or responsibility for the safety of all employees at the construction site. Instead, the contract included “clear language limiting [Hunt’s] liability” which persuaded the court that the construction manager did not have a legal duty of care to subcontractor’s employees for job-site safety. We will explore that specific contractual language which limited Hunt’s liability in the next post.

But even if construction managers are not liable because of their contracts, they can still, by their actions or conduct, assume “a legal duty for job-site employee safety.” In Plan-Tec, it was Plan-Tec’s assuming of new supervisory duties beyond those required by the initial construction documents and after the project had already begun which raised the issue of whether it had assumed by its actions such a legal duty of care. For example, Plan-Tec took on extra responsibility by appointing a safety director, initiating weekly safety meetings, directing that certain safety precautions be taken by the subcontractors, and daily inspecting the scaffolding (which scaffolding ultimately injured the employee in that case). However, in Hunt, the court affirmed that the Plan-Tec ruling does not mean that a construction manager must avoid all such responsibilities in order to avoid liability for workplace injuries. In fact, Hunt had equally undertaken each of the previously mentioned actions taken by Plan-Tec. The difference was that, in Hunt’s situation, none of these actions were beyond those required by the original construction documents, and (as discussed above) those documents limited Hunt’s liability. This simple fact indicated to the court that Hunt did not by its actions assume a legal duty for the employee’s safety. Because Hunt neither assumed a duty by its contracts nor its actions, Hunt prevailed.
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