July 5, 2017
Property owners are frustrated when their builder fails to properly complete the agreed upon work for the purchase price. Sometimes these difficulties are relatively minor. Perhaps only a timely warranty claim letter to the builder will get the problems fixed. Not all disputes can be resolved amicably. For relatively simple matters, the owner may be able to sue pro se in small claims court. Many construction disputes require greater commitment of time, know-how and resources to resolve. When the relationship between the contractor and the owner breaks down, it may not be clear to whom should owners turn with contractor complaints. This blog post highlights various options owners may have for obtaining assistance with builder problems.
The Contracting Company’s Leadership:
Owners should first seek to amicably resolve disputes over a contractor’s performance with the company’s representatives. If the concerns can be effectively communicated and negotiated, the owner may avoid having to go to court, arbitrator or governmental agency. Sending a certified letter to the contractor may be necessary under the provisions of a statutory or contractual warranty. Check out my previous post about “Construction Defect Warranty Claims.” Communication can be a useful means of obtaining information. The owner may need to contact the leadership if their inquiries to company employees are ignored.
City or County Government Officials:
In Virginia, the city or county has the legal mandate to enforce the statewide building codes. There are offices staffed with experienced officials who conduct inspections and reviews to determine whether the project meets the building codes. The primary purpose of building code enforcement is to protect public health and safety. The code enforcement process begins long before anyone brings a complaint before the local government. Many projects, especially major renovations and new home construction require drawings to be submitted and a permit granted before work may commence. When presented with a complaint, code enforcement will look at the work on the property and consult the approved drawings and the building codes.
While compliance with the building codes is important, it is not the end of the story. If the contractor only builds to the minimum standard required to pass county inspections, the owner may be disappointed. The concept of a “dream home” includes code compliance, but goes significantly beyond that. Owners have rights not simply to a product that passes code inspection but work that conforms to the contract, warranty and drawings. There are quality control issues that aren’t addressed in most contracts, drawings or building codes. Take caution regarding contractors who talk about “dream homes” before the contract is signed and then only in terms of “code compliance” after getting several payments.
It is important for owners to understand what code enforcement is not. While the officials promote a public function, they do not exist to provide pro bono expert services. They will not provide cost estimates to finish or repair the work. Their job is not to make sure that the owners get what they bargained for in the contract with the builder. In some situations, they may enforce the building code against the owner. If the project is shut down because of code enforcement action, this may cause delays and additional expenses to the owner.
In general, the code enforcement offices do a great job within their specific legal mandate of enforcing the building codes. However, owners must understand that the county or city does not have the broad powers of a court to provide remedies and protections.
If a contractor or owner does not agree with a decision made by code enforcement, there is an appeal process available. However, appeals are rare because of the expenses and delays.
State Board of Contractors:
Contractors must be licensed to engage in the construction services they deliver. The state board performs a useful function in the contracting field. Consumers and the public have good reason to expect the government to protect their health and safety. Also, contractors often take large amounts of money from owners who then expect them to perform on the work. Some people lose motivation once they get the money in their bank account. While we don’t usually categorize contractors as “fiduciaries,” in a sense they are such. The Virginia Board of Contractors deals with the application, issuance and suspension of contractors’ licenses. They also have regulations that can be the basis of a professional disciplinary proceeding if violated. The Contractor’s Recovery Fund provides a means for financial recovery for some consumers in egregious suits where the contractor lacks resources to satisfy a judgment. In a previous post I explored the question, “Should Homeowners Bring Complaints Against Contractors Before Courts or Regulators?” As discussed there in more detail, often there isn’t much benefit to owners to go to the state board until they exhaust remedies elsewhere. However, owners and their attorneys should know what the requirements are for recovery against the state fund so that they can meet those requirements in the lawsuit. The state board will look to the records of the proceedings of the lawsuit in the city or county courts in their investigation. Also, the failure to pay a court judgment is a violation of the licensure regulations. For many aggrieved owners, petitioning the state board only makes sense towards the end of the legal process.
In particularly egregious cases of fraud, embezzlement or other wrongful activities, the contractor may have criminal liability. In most cases, inquiring with law enforcement will not result in charges or restitution order. However, owners should not rule out going to law enforcement entirely. Some cases do rise above civil disputes.
As the years go by, more builders put arbitration clauses in their consumer contracts. In many cases, these arbitration clauses do not help owners. Often, they tend to limit or practically eliminate the consumer’s rights to legal remedies. It can be difficult for owners to navigate the arbitration process without legal counsel because of certain delaying tactics that often occur in arbitration. I recently wrote a blog post about a New Jersey case where a consumer overcame obstructionist use of arbitration provisions. Many property owners do not focus on these provisions when they review the contract during the sales process. When a legal dispute develops, the parties should check the dispute resolution provisions of the contract to see if they mandate arbitration, waive the right to a jury trial or limit the courts where claims may be brought.
Judges & Juries:
Last but not least, owners can bring their complaints against builders before state or federal courts. Under our legal system, the judiciary, i.e. judges, have the legal mandate to interpret contracts and statutes and provide remedies for any breach. In Virginia, if the claim is for $5,000.00 or less it may be brought in the Small Claims Division where the parties do not ordinarily have attorneys. However, any party may bring a case out of small claims by retaining an attorney and filing for removal. Claims for money for $25,000.00 or less (not including court costs, attorney’s fees or interest) may be brought in the General District Court for the city or county where the property is located. The General District Court has the advantage that proceedings there tend to be faster and cheaper for consumers. Claims over $25,000.00 may be brought in the Circuit Court where cases may take up to a year to be resolved. Litigation in the Circuit Court tends to have lots of motions, discovery and other pretrial activities. Some of my readers say that consumers and owners should not go to litigation because it can be expensive and uncertain. In my view, there are reforms that the general assembly or the judiciary could take to reduce the laboriousness of litigation. I do not believe that creating an alternative to the court system within government agencies procedures works for owners or consumers. I explored this in a previous post on this point. That makes it too easy for special interests to gain control over the process through lobbying.
The bank exercises a significant amount of control over the construction process. The builder typically looks to the bank for payment. The bank will send out its own private inspectors to look at the progress on the job site and report to the loan officer whether completion of a phase of construction warrants disbursement of a draw. The purpose of the bank inspector is to protect against fraud and to confirm that the payment would be adequately secured by the bank’s lien on the property. This inspector works for the bank and does not focus on whether the owner would ultimately be happy with the work that is being done. Owners should not impede the bank inspection process and take heed if the loan officer calls to their attention that the inspector raises any questions.
Mechanic’s Lien Agent:
In Virginia and some other states, the law requires that a Mechanic’s Lien Agent be appointed at the beginning of the project. The purpose of the MLA is to accept delivery of notices by subcontractors and material suppliers that they have not been paid so that such issues can be resolved without a mechanic’s lien being filed by anyone working or supplying to the jobsite. The MLA is not there to provide a dispute resolution service regarding any threatened lien but may be a source of information for owners seeking to confirm what is happening with their contractor and its subs.
To whom should owners turn with contractor complaints? That depends upon the facts of the case. One of the problems with all these separate venues, officials or information sources is that an owner might focus on one and miss a deadline to obtain the remedy they are entitled to from another. This consumer protection landscape is ripe for confusion by the people it is designed to protect. Ideally, the owner will not need to resort to any of these options and can negotiate a good deal and obtain a great result without having to bring grievances before an official, judge or arbitrator. Many owners experience this. However, owners are at a disadvantage. While they have the money that contractors want, they don’t have the technical or legal experience needed to get what they want out of the process. Contractors have experience preparing and negotiating written contracts and change orders. They know what to say to sell their services. They know the officials that work at the county inspection offices. They have their own lawyers. Consumers look to the builder for both the service itself and information about how to shop for the service. For most property owners, a custom home is the largest purchase they will ever make. Getting an attorney or other experienced person to review the contract before signing it can go a long way towards getting the bargain they seek. Owners should not rely upon their adversary to provide them with useful legal counsel. Seeking legal counsel may not require a commitment to a year of litigation. In fact, it may be the best means of avoiding that.
July 15, 2016
A disgruntled contractor or supplier may attempt to collect a payment from owners by filing a Memorandum for Mechanics Lien against the real estate. Under Virginia law, claimants (contractors or material suppliers) can interfere with owners’ ability to sell or refinance property by filing a lien in land records without first filing a lawsuit and obtaining a judgment.
A March 2016 opinion by federal Judge Leonie Brinkema shows why purchasers at Virginia foreclosure sales must give care to mechanics liens. In April 2013 and October 2015 Jan-Michael Weinberg filed a Memorandum of Mechanics Lien against a Fairfax County property, then owned by Ann & James High. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank later foreclosed on the High property. In early 2016, Mr. Weinberg brought a lawsuit to enforce the mechanics lien against J.P. Morgan Chase and the property.
If a claimant pursues a Memorandum for Mechanics Lien correctly, the property may be sold to satisfy the secured debt. A Memorandum for Mechanics Lien is a two-page form that anyone can download online for general contractors or subcontractors. The filing fee is a few dollars. By contrast, removal of the lien may require significant time and attention by the owner. Overall, it is best for owners to work with their advisory team to avoid having contractors file mechanics liens in the first place. Sometimes, disputes cannot be easily avoided and owners must deal with recorded liens. A Memorandum for Mechanics Lien differs from a mortgage or a money judgment. Fortunately for the owner, Virginia courts apply strict requirements on contractors pursuing mechanic’s liens. Just because a contractor fills out all the blanks in the form that doesn’t meant it necessarily is valid. This blog post is a brief overview of key owner considerations. The Weinberg case provides a good example because the court found so many problems with that lien.
- Who? The land records system in Virginia index by party names. For this reason, the claimant must correctly list its own name and the name of the true owner of record. The owner’s team will need a title report and the construction contract. Whether the claimant is a general contractor, subcontractor or supplier will determine which form must be used. Mr. Weinberg’s Memorandum for Mechanics Lien claimed a lien of $195,000. Virginia law requires a contractor to have a “Class A” license for projects of $120,000 or more. Judge Brinkema found this Memorandum defective because Weinberg’s claim was not supported by a reference to a Class A license number. In some residential construction jobs, the Virginia Code requires appointment of a “Mechanic’s Lien Agent” to receive certain advance notices of performance of work from claimants that might later become the object of a mechanics lien. This creates an additional hurdle for the contractor, suppliers and subcontractors. In many construction projects, the builder works with the owner’s bank to obtain draws on construction loans. If mechanics lien disputes arise, owners can work with the bank to obtain documents.
- What? The Memorandum for Mechanics Lien must describe the dollar amount claimed and the type of materials or services furnished. The written agreement determines the scope of work, payment obligations and other terms. Generally speaking, only construction, removal, repair or improvement of a permanent structure will support a mechanics lien. Mr. Weinberg claimed that he conducted “grass, shrub, flower care,” “week killer,” “tree removal/cutting,” general property cleanup,” “infrastructure work,” “planting grass,” “site work,” “general household work” and “handy man jobs.” The Court found that this description of work was invalid. The work described was either landscaping or too vaguely connected to actual structures. Where the agreement was for work that could actually be the basis of a mechanics lien, the owner should consider how much of the work the contractor actually performed? Is the work free of defects? Does the Memorandum state the date the claim is due or the date from which interest is claimed?
- When? The contractor or supplier must meet strict timing deadlines for the mechanics lien. Generally speaking, the Memorandum for Mechanics Lien must be filed within 90 days from the last day of the month in which the claimant performed work. Judge Brinkema observed that Mr. Weinberg failed to indicate on the Memoranda the dates he allegedly performed the work. Also, no Memorandum may include sums for labor or materials furnished more than 150 days prior to the last day of work or delivery. Furthermore, the claimant must bring suit to enforce the lien no more than 6 months after recording the Memorandum or 60 days after the project was completed or otherwise terminated. Weinberg’s 2013 Memorandum was untimely because he did not sue to enforce it until 2016. Because Weinberg’s 2015 Memorandum was the same as the 2013 version, they both probably describe the same work on the property.
- Where? The Memorandum for Mechanics Lien must correctly describe the location of the real estate that it seeks to encumber. If it lists the wrong property, the lien may be invalid. Property description problems frequently arise in condominium construction cases because the same builder is doing work in the same building for multiple housing units. The Memorandum must be filed in the land records for the circuit court for the city or county in Virginia where the property is located.
- Why? There is usually a reason why a contractor decides to file a Memorandum for Mechanics Lien instead of pursuing some other means of payment collection. The Highs allegedly didn’t pay Weinberg for his landscaping and handyman services. The Highs’ weren’t able to pay their mortgage either. Weinberg filed for bankruptcy. In order to resolve a mechanics lien dispute with a contractor, an owner should consider how the dispute arose in the first place. Is someone acting out of desperation, confusion, or is the lien a predatory tactic? Could investigation need some other explanation?
- How? The owner must understand how the mechanics lien dispute with the contractor relates to the overall plan for the property. Mr. Weinberg tried to use mechanics liens to collect on debts. At the same time, he went through bankruptcy and the property went through foreclosure. Context cannot be ignored. Few owners can afford to remain completely passive in the face of a dispute with a contractor. The owner may have a construction loan or other debt financing to consider. An unfinished project is difficult to sell at a favorable price. Potential tenants won’t lease unfinished property.
On March 15, 2016, Judge Brinkema denied Mr. Weinberg’s motion to amend his lawsuit and dismissed the case. When a contractor or supplier files a Memorandum of Mechanics Lien against property, the owner must carefully consider whether to pay the contractor directly, deposit a bond into the court in order to release the lien and resolve the dispute with the contractor later, bring suit to invalidate the lien on legal grounds or simply wait 6 months to see if any suit is brought in a timely fashion to enforce the lien. Fortunately for owners, there are strict requirements on contractors for them to take advantage of mechanics lien procedures. A Virginia property owner should consult with qualified legal counsel immediately upon receipt of a Memorandum of Mechanics Lien to protect her legal rights.
Case Citation: Weinberg v. JP Morgan Chase & Co. (E.D. Va. Mar. 15, 2015)