Archives for March 2015

Mechanics’ Lien Doesn’t Secure Attorneys’ Fees and Costs – Utah Supreme Court

Q: Does a mechanics lien secure payment of attorneys’ fees and costs (in addition to the amount of improvements) incurred by a lien claimant under the Utah mechanic’s lien statute?

A: No.

In an earlier article (http://paulporvaznik.com/contractors-attorneys-under-illinois-mechanics-lien-law/502) I tried to harmonize some Illinois cases that discuss whether attorneys’ fees can be added to a mechanics lien amount.  It’s an important question since mechanics’ lien attorneys’ fees often end up astronomical; especially where there’s multiple litigants and the case drags on for several years.  

In Illinois, attorneys’ fees can only be assessed against a property “owner” but only after a finding that its failure to pay was “without just cause or right.” 770 ILCS 60/17.  Today’s post features a case from Utah, a place I’ve never practiced.  I deemed the case post-worthy because it highlights a lien issue likely to recur in mechanics’ lien cases.

2 Ton Plumbing, Inc. v. Thorgaard, 2015 WL 404592 (Utah 2015), involves the reversal of a contractor’s lien award of nearly $50K that included fees incurred over the course of a circuitous lien case involving multiple property owners and lenders.  In reversing the lien judgment, the Court expands on Utah’s lien statute (Utah Code Section 38-1a101-804 (the “Lien Act”)), as well as the philosophy underpinning mechanics lien law.

Under Utah’s Lien Act, a lien attaches to the value of services, labor, materials or equipment furnished or rented on an improvement or structure. It also allows a “successful party” to recover a “reasonable attorneys’ fee” which the court taxes as “costs” on the losing party. The Lien Act also allows the successful claimant to recover “costs” of preparing and recording the lien including reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred in preparing and recording the lien notice.

In gutting much of the lien amount, the Utah appeals court held that attorneys’ fees are normally only allowed by statute or contract.  If a lien claimant could always augment his lien amount with his attorneys’ fees, the amount claimed would be a “moving target” (the amount would keep going up indefinitely) and so frustrate the Lien Act’s purposes. ¶¶ 25, 35, 42.

The court also noted that since a party has no obligation to pay an opposite side’s attorneys’ fees in a lien case unless that party has lost the case, fees, by definition, can’t be included in a lien amount. Otherwise, it would be tantamount to putting the proverbial “cart before the horse” by allowing a lien claimant to tack on (future) fees before he was deemed a successful party. ¶¶ 38-42.

Afterword:

A decision worth noting for its universal applicability.  Since lien case fees are often substantial, it’s important to know what amounts can and can’t be included in a lien claim.  As 2 Ton shows, a failure to lien for the proper amount can have unfortunate fiscal ramifications.

 

 

Motions to Dismiss Where The Same Parties Are (Already) Litigating In Another Forum

In Hergan v. Pawlan Law, LLC (2013 IL App 1st) 113812-U, the First District applies the “same parties, same cause” motion to dismiss rule.

The plaintiff sued defendant and her lawyer based on fraudulent statements made in connection with various loan transactions stemming from a realty investment contract. There were some four (4) other lawsuits pending at the time plaintiff sued.  The Court granted the defendants’ 2-619(a)(3) motion based on the multiple pending cases involving the litigants.

Illinois Code Section 2-619(a)(3) governs dismissal of a complaint where there is “another action pending between the same parties for the same cause.” 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(3).  This section is a procedural device aimed at avoiding duplicative litigation. It applies where there is a pending case involving the same parties for the same cause.

The “same parties” requirement doesn’t require that the parties be identical; all that’s required is that the litigants’ interests be sufficiently similar. The 2-619(a)(3) movant demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the two (or more) actions stem from the same underlying transaction and involve parties whose interests are substantially aligned. ¶¶ 26-27.

The test is whether the different actions stem from the same underlying transaction; not whether the specific legal theories or causes of action are the same. So, if in the prior case, the complaint sounds in breach of contract and in the later filed case, the complaint seeks rescission, the second case can still be dismissed if it derives from the same underlying facts.

Once the movant establishes that the same parties and same cause are involved in two (or more) separate suits, the Court examines four factors: (1) comity (giving respect to another forum’s decisions); (2) preventing multiplicity, vexation and harassment; (3) the likelihood of obtaining complete relief in another forum; and (4) the res judicata effect of a foreign judgment on the local forum.

The Court doesn’t have to weigh all four factors; just the one(s) applicable to a given case.  Here, the only factor that applied was the “multiplicity” one. Clearly, the five pending suits involved the same parties and the same transaction: the loans and investment contract. As a result, there was clear multiplicity among the various actions involving the parties. The other factors didn’t apply because all five suits were pending in the same forum – the Cook County Circuit Court. ¶¶ 29, 33-36.

Afterwords:

Hergan provides a cogent summary of the elements that a 2-619(a)(3) movant must establish when trying to dismiss an action based on a pending suit involving the same parties and same cause;

The case demonstrates that where multiple suits are filed involving common litigants, principles of judicial economy and efficiency will weigh in favor of dismissing repetitive actions and instead consolidating them into already pending cases.

Suit to Unmask Nasty Yelp! Reviewer Nixed by IL Court On First Amendment Grounds

With social media use apparently proliferating at breakneck speed, Brompton Building v. Yelp! Inc. (2013 IL App (1st) 120547-U)) is naturally post-worthy for its examination of whether hostile on-line reviews are actionable by the business recipients of the negative reviews.

A former tenant, “Diana Z.”, spewed some invective about an apartment management company where she questioned the management company’s business competence, integrity and people skills; especially as they related to billing and handling tenant rent payments.

The building owner (not the management company; by this time there was new management) sued Yelp!, the online review site, to unearth the reviewer’s identity through a Rule 224 petition for discovery so that it could later sue the reviewer for defamation and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage.  The court found the on-line review consisted of protected expressions of opinion and denied the petition for discovery. The plaintiff building owner appealed.

Result: Affirmed.

Rules/Reasoning:

Rule 224 allows a party to engage in discovery for the singular purpose of ascertaining the identity of one who may be responsible in damages.  The case law applying Rule 224 provides significant protection for anonymous individuals so that there private affairs aren’t intruded on.  The Rule’s mechanics: (1) the petition must be verified, (2) it must say why discovery is necessary, (3) it must be limited to determining the identity of someone who may be responsible in damages to the petitioner; and (4) there must be a court hearing to determine that the unidentified person is in fact possibly liable in damages to the petitioner.   ¶ 13.

The Rule 224 petition must set forth factual allegations sufficient to survive a Section 2-615 motion to dismiss (that is, does the proposed complaint state a cause of action?) in order to successfully seek pre-suit discovery.

In Illinois, defamation suits are defeated by the First Amendment to the US Constitution where the challenged statement isn’t factual (it’s an opinion, for instance) and the action is brought by (1) a public official, (2) a public figure, and (3) actions involving media defendants by private individuals.

There is no defamation for “loose, figurative language” that no person could reasonably believe states a fact. Whether something is sufficiently fact-based to underlie a defamation claim involves looking at (1) whether the statement has a readily understood and precise meaning, (2) whether the statement can be verified, and (3) whether its social or literary context signals that it is factual.  ¶ 20.

Illinois courts also espouse a policy of protecting site defendants like Yelp! from a potential torrent of lawsuits by recipients of negative postings.  In addition, the Federal Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230) usually insulates a website like Yelp! from liability for publishing third party comments.

Here, the plaintiff failed to allege actionable defamation against Yelp!  While the court conceded that Diana Z.’s statement that the property manager was a liar and illegally charging tenants were factual on their face, when considered in context – the plaintiff couched her rant in hyperbolic speech – the statements were (protected) expressions of opinion. ¶¶ 29-30.

Since the plaintiff couldn’t make out an actual defamation claim against the anonymous Yelp! reviewer, its petition for discovery was properly denied.

Take-aways:

This is but one of many lawsuits involving vitriolic on-line criticism of businesses. In Illinois, the law is clear that to get a court to order a website operator to unveil an anonymous reviewer’s identity, the plaintiff must make a prima facie showing that the review is defamatory or had a tendency to cause third parties to dissociate from it and take their business elsewhere. Failing that, the court will deny a petition for discovery and the plaintiff will be left without a defendant or a remedy.