Condo Assessment Liens And Slander of Title

Section 9 of the Illinois Condominium Property Act (765 ILCS 605/9) allows a condominium association to place a lien on a unit for unpaid assessments.    

But what if an association records an inflated assessment lien against a unit owner? Does the unit owner have any recourse? 

The First District answered these questions in Kurtz v. Hubbard, 2012 IL App (1st) 111360.

The plaintiff, a Gold Coast condo unit owner, filed a multi-count action against her condo association alleging slander of title and the tort of presenting someone in a false light when the association sued for possession of plaintiff’s unit and recorded a lien two weeks later.

The plaintiff sued the association, alleging the lien was false and impaired the unit’s marketability and placed her in a false light before the community since the lien was a public record.

The lien stated that the plaintiff owed over $15,000 in delinquent assessments.  Plaintiff eventually paid off the lien (under protest) and then filed suit.  The  trial court dismissed all claims on the association’s 2-619 motion.  Plaintiff appealed dismissal of the false light and slander of title claims.

The First District reversed the dismissal of the slander of title and false light claims.  It first held that unlike court pleadings (which are absolutely privileged), assessment liens don’t merit th same level of protection.  Assessment liens are only qualifiedly privileged.  A qualified privilege can be defeated by a showing of malice.  Malice means knowledge of a statement’s falsity or a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity. ¶¶ 10, 22.  Otherwise, the court wrote, “unscrupulous condominium associations could record fraudulent assessment liens against homeowners with impunity.”  ¶ 18. 

Yeah?  So?

Kurtz teaches important lessons for associations and unit owners alike.  It vindicates the power that associations have to record liens and sue to evict defaulting unit owners.  But the case also cautions associations to lien the proper amount.  Otherwise, the owner may have valid slander of title and false light claims against the association.  However, the unit owner will still have the burden of proving the association’s knowledge of the lien’s falsity or reckless disregard as to the lien’s accuracy.

Mechanics’ Lien Enhancement Rule – Post-Cypress Creek

Section 16 of the mechanics lien statute (770 ILCS 60/17), which codifies the enhancement rule (please see prior post), was recently amended in the wake of 2011’s LaSalle National Bank v. Cypress Creek 1, LLP decision:

http://www.state.il.us/court/Opinions/SupremeCourt/2011/February/109954.pdf

In Cypress Creek, the Illinois Supreme Court severely diluted contractor’s lien rights by allowing a construction lender to trump contractors’ rights to sale proceeds.  The Court accomplished this by allowing the lender to take priority to the amount of property improvements it funded – even funds paid to contractors that didn’t record liens.  Essentially, as Justice Freeman said in his detailed dissent, the Court put lenders that fund property improvements on a par with contractor lien claimants and conferred lien creditor status on the lender by “judicial fiat”.  This resulted in the lender getting the lion’s share of sale proceeds while the contractors received only a  fraction of the monies. 

Another pro-lender, anti-contractor holding of the Cypress Creek was that lien claimants only took priority for the specific value of their individual improvements; as opposed to proportionally taking priority to the total value of all contractor improvements to the land. The result: banks and lenders were thrilled; contractors were furious.

After public outcry and warring legislative bills, the legislature passed H.B. 3636, and the bill was signed into law on February 11, 2013 as P.A. 97–1165.  It essentially reverses Cypress Creek and provides that a lender has priority only to the value of the land at the time of the owner-general prime contract and that lien claimants (contractors) take priority for the value of all improvements constructed after the prime contract (not just the specific improvements performed by an individual contractor).

770 ILCS 60/16 of the Act now reads:

When the proceeds of a sale are insufficient to satisfy the claims of both previous incumbrancers and lien creditors, the proceeds of the sale shall be distributed as follows: (i) any previous incumbrancers shall have a paramount lien in the portion of the proceeds attributable to the value of the land at the time of making of the contract for improvements; and (ii) any lien creditors shall have a paramount lien in the portion of the proceeds attributable to the value of all subsequent improvements made to the property.

 At this point it’s too early to tell what impact HB 3636 will have on construction lending and mechanics lien law in Illinois.  Stay tuned.

PBP

Illinois Contractor’s Lien Issues: The Enhancement Rule

The enhancement doctrine comes into play when liened property goes to foreclosure sale and the sale proceeds are insufficient to pay off both the lender and competing lien claimants. The lender, who often records its mortgage before the contractor’s lien attaches, will argue that its mortgage interest takes priority over the contractor’s lien and any property sale proceeds should go first to the lender. 

The contractor will counter that it’s unfair for his lien to get extinguished after he furnished valuable improvements to the property just because his lien happened to attach after the lender recorded its mortgage against the property.  Recall that in Illinois, the lien attaches on the date of the owner-general contractor contract and relates back to that prime contract date.

Enter the enhancement rule.  Codified at Section 16 of the Mechanics Lien Act, 770 ILCS 60/16, it allows a contractor whose lien attached after the mortgage was recorded to still take priority over the lender to the value of improvements furnished to the property.  The theory being that the contractor should be able to defeat or “prime” the prior mortgage in the amount the contractor improved or “enhanced” the value of the property.

To prove enhancement, a contractor must demonstrate that: (1) the work was authorized by the owner; (2) the contract price was reasonable; (3) he performed his obligations under the contract; and (4) the work constitutes a valuable and permanent improvement. Lyons Sav. v. Gash, 279 Ill.App.3d 742 (1st Dist. 1996); Erickson Brothers, Inc. v. Jenkins, 41 Ill.App.2d 180 (1963).

The question then arises as to how to prove enhancement.  Typically, the contractor will employ the market value approach.  This usually requires the contractor to provide expert testimony and appraisals to show the “before and after” value of the property – by comparing the property value before the contractor’s improvements vs. the value after the liened improvements.

However, in Gash, the court held that the market value approach was not the proper method to prove enhancement and instead found that the contract price was the proper measure of enhancement.  The basis for this holding was that the amount of the contractor’s improvements was minuscule compared to the Property’s value. Gash, 279 Ill.App.3d at 747.

In Gash, the contractors’ liens totaled $78,411.55 and the property sold for over $4 million at foreclosure sale.  Because the market value theory of enhancement contained a 10% margin of error or variance, and because the property value far exceeded the lien claims, the court held that the market value theory was improper and instead the contract price was the correct gauge of enhancement. Id. at 745-47.

This is a significant holding for contractors because it dispenses with the time, expense and burden (evidential and time-wise) of hiring an expert to testify concerning before and after property values.

Going forward, if you represent a contractor whose lien attached after a mortgage was recorded on the property, it’s critical that you prove that your client enhanced the property’s value. 

Where the property value dwarfs the lien amount, the contract amount will be the presumed enhancement amount.  However, if it’s a closer call (there is not a huge gap between property value and lien amount), be prepared to hire an appraiser or similar opinion witness to testify concerning the value of the property before and after your client’s improvements.  Proving this amount will enable your client to trump a prior competing mortgage lien.