Subcontractor’s Failure to Get Certified Mail ‘Green Cards’ into Evidence = Draconian Trial Loss in Lien Spat

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a harsh result against a subcontractor who failed to properly serve a Section 24 notice in accordance with the strictures of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act.

The earth-moving subcontractor recorded a lien against a nascent Starbucks in Chicago’s western suburbs seeking payment for various change orders. It sent its lien notice to the property’s lender by certified mail but not to the property owner.

After a bench trial, the trial judge reluctantly found for the property owner defendants and held that the subcontractor’s lien notice failed to follow the Act.  The subcontractor appealed.

Affirming judgment for the property owner, the Court first emphasized the oft-cited rule that since rights created by the Act are statutory, the statutory technical and procedural requirements are strictly construed. The burden of proving that each requirement of the Act has been satisfied is on the party seeking to enforce its lien – here, the subcontractor.  But where there is no dispute that an owner actually received notice, courts will overlook technical defects.

Section 24 of the Act requires a subcontractor to serve notice of its intent to lien by certified mail or personal delivery to the record owner and lender (if known)within 90 days after completing the work on the property. 770 ILCS 60/24(a).

An exception to this notice requirement is where a general contractor’s sworn statement provides the owner notice of the subcontractor’s work and unpaid amount.

While courts will uphold a lien notice sent only to an owner (and not to the lender) since there is no concern of the owner being prejudiced or having to pay twice, the reverse isn’t true. Citing to half-century-old case law, the Court held that since notice to an owner is the ‘very substance of the basis on which a mechanic’s lien may be predicated,’, the Court refused to excuse the subcontractor’s failure to serve the owner with its lien notice even though the lender was given proper statutory notice.

And while the plaintiff attached some certified mail green (return) card copies to its written response to Defendant’s directed verdict motion at trial, the plaintiff never authenticated the cards or offered them in evidence at trial. As a result, the appeals court refused to consider the green cards as part of the appellate record. (An appeals court cannot consider documents that were not admitted into evidence at trial.)

In addition, the plaintiff’s trial testimony was conflicting. The Plaintiff’s owner’s testimony conflicted with a 2014 affidavit of mailing prepared by one of Plaintiff’s employees.  This evidentiary dissonance failed to show the owner’s actual notice of the plaintiff’s lien notice.  As a result, the trial court found that the plaintiff failed to carry its burden of proving that it complied with its Act lien notice rules.

The court then rejected the subcontractor’s argument that the owner had actual notice of its work since it saw the plaintiff performing grading work on the property and the plaintiff sent regular invoices to the owner’s agent.  However, under Illinois law, the mere presence of or owner’s knowledge that a contractor on a job is not a valid substitute for the required statutory notice.

The court also nixed the subcontractor’s claim that the owner had actual notice of the subcontractor’s work based on the sworn statements submitted to the owner from the general contractor. While courts have upheld an otherwise deficient subcontractor lien notice where sworn statements in the record plainly show the subcontractor’s identity and amounts owed.  Here, there were no sworn statements in the record. A trial witness may only testify to matters on which he/she has personal knowledge. Ill. R. Evid. 602. Since the plaintiff didn’t call to testify the owner’s construction manager – the only one who supposedly received the GC’s sworn statements (that identified plaintiff) –  there was no competent evidence that the owner received and reviewed any sworn statements that referenced the plaintiff’s work and amounts owed.

Afterwords:

This case shows how unforgiving statutory notice requirements can be in the mechanics lien context.

In hindsight, the subcontractor plaintiff should have introduced certified mail receipts into evidence.

Failing that, it should have called the owner’s construction manager as an adverse agent to lock in testimony that the general contractor furnished the owner with sworn statements and those statements sufficiently identified the subcontractor plaintiff.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.