UPDATE 3/11/14 7:00 p.m. I just received word that the N.C. Land Title Association believes it needs more time to explain to other construction industry stakeholders the concerns giving rise to its legislative proposals. As a result, NCLTA has decided not to pursue its current proposals as part of the legislative study committee’s recommendations for legislation during the upcoming short session. NCLTA will seek to discuss its concerns with interested stakeholders over the next few months in the hope of reaching a consensus on solutions that can be recommended as legislation during the 2015 long session. In the interim, I am leaving this post up for informational purposes only.
With apologies to Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again.
Like in 2012, when the N.C. Land Title Association (“NCLTA”) successfully guided lien agent legislation through the North Carolina General Assembly’s short session, the organization is once again promoting a policy proposal widely opposed by the contracting community in advance of the Legislature’s May reconvening for its abbreviated 2014 get-together.
This time, the NCLTA has the Claim of Lien Upon Funds in its sights.
Here’s what you need to know:
The House Committee on Mechanics’ Liens and Leasehold Improvements of the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes at 1:00 p.m. on Monday, March 3. Now that the Committee has spent its first two of four meetings considering the pros and cons of potential legislative action, the expectation is that its members will turn their focus to considering actual legislative proposals next week.
Contractors and suppliers are likely to push for legislation extending liens on leaseholds to the underlying “fee simple” ownership interest of landlords in virtually all circumstances, while commercial realty and banking interests are likely to ask the General Assembly to do nothing. You can read more about these polar opposite approaches in my previous liens-on-leasehold blog posts here and here, respectively; a white paper from the N.C. Subcontractors Alliance, Inc., embracing an expansive approach to contractor protection, can be found here.
Between these poles, might a middle ground be found?
Representative Sarah Stevens
I had the pleasure yesterday of attending the first of four meetings of the “House Committee on Mechanics’ Liens and Leasehold Improvements,” a non-standing legislative research committee of the North Carolina House of Representatives co-chaired by Representatives Sarah Stevens (R-Mt. Airy) and Dean Arp (R-Monroe). The Committee’s work is focused primarily on whether the state’s mechanics’ lien statutes should be tweaked to strengthen the lien rights of contractors performing work for project owners who lease, rather than own, the property being improved.
Represenative Dean Arp
Current statutory law allows contractors to place a lien on so-called “leasehold estates” (see N.C. Gen. Stat. § 44A-7(7)), but as Raleigh construction attorney Henry Jones, counsel to the Carolinas Electrical Contractors Association and N.C. Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Contractors, explained, such liens, in practice, are “illusory,” for two reasons: (1) when the lease is terminated, so are any lien rights asserted against the tenant’s leasehold interest; and (2) a successful levy against a leasehold generally means accepting not only the lease’s benefits, but also its burdens, including the obligation to make rent payments.
The 2011 Pete Wall Plumbing decision of the N.C. Court of Appeals, which Research Division staff member Shelly DeAdder did a terrific job of summarizing, is a vivid example of how a contractor can be left holding the bag when a leasehold interest is terminated. As Representative Stevens put it, “Poor Pete Wall did the work, but didn’t get paid,” and the expiration of its lien rights when the leases at issue were terminated by the record owner represented an “unfair result.” Judge Steelman’s concurring opinion in Pete Wall Plumbing, while acknowledging the majority opinion “reaches the correct legal conclusion under the present state of our statutory and case law,” called upon our state legislature to “consider revising the provisions of Chapter 44A to prevent this unjust result.”
The big question for the Committee to consider over the coming weeks is this: under what circumstances might it be appropriate to permit a contractor performing a tenant improvement to place a mechanics’ lien on the record owner’s “fee simple” interest?