Constructive mechanics lien fraud and slander of title are two central topics the appeals court grapples with in Roy Zenere Trucking & Excavating, Inc. v. Build Tech, Inc., 2016 IL App (3d) 140946. There, a commercial properly developer appealed bench trial judgments for two subcontractor plaintiffs – a paving contractor and an excavating firm – on the basis that the plaintiffs’ mechanics liens were inflated and fraudulent.
The developer argued that since the subcontractors tried to augment the lien by adding unsigned change order work to it – and the contracts required all change orders to be in writing – this equaled that voided the liens. The trial court disagreed and entered judgment for the plaintiff subcontractors.
Affirming the trial court’s judgment, the appeals court provides a useful summary of the type of proof needed to sustain constructive fraud and slander of title claims in the construction lien setting and when attorneys’ fees can be awarded to prevailing parties under Illinois’ mechanics lien statute, 770 ILCS 60/1 (the Act).
Section 7(a) of the Act provides that no lien shall be defeated to the proper amount due to an error of overcharging unless it is shown that the error or overcharge was made with an “intent to defraud.” Constructive fraud (i.e., fraud that can’t be proven to be purposeful) can also invalidate a lien but there must be more than a simple overcharge in the lien claim. The overage must be coupled with other evidence of fraud.
Slander of title applies where (1) a defendant makes a false and malicious publication, (2) the publication disparages the plaintiff’s title to property, and (3) damages. “Malicious” in the slander of title context means knowingly false or that statements were made with a reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. If a party has reasonable grounds to believe it has a legal or equitable claim to property, even if it’s later proven to be false, this won’t amount to a slander of title.
Here, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that there was no evidence to support a constructive fraud or slander of title claim. The defendant property owner admitted that the subcontractor plaintiffs performed the contract as well as the extra change order work.
While the Court excluded the unsigned change order work from the lien amount, there was still insufficient constructive fraud or slander of title evidence to sustain the owner’s counterclaims. Though unsuccessful in adding the change orders to the lien, the Court found the plaintiffs had a reasonable basis to recover the extra work in their lien foreclosure actions based on the parties’ contracting conduct where the owner routinely paid extras without signed change orders.
The Court then examined whether the subcontractors could add their attorneys’ fees to the judgment. Section 17(b) of the Act allows a court to assess attorneys’ fees against a property owner who fails to pay “without just cause or right.” This equates to an owner raising a defense not “well grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.” 770 ILCS 60/17(b), (d).
The evidence at trial that the subcontractors substantially performed the paving and excavation work cut in favor of awarding fees to the plaintiffs. There was no evidence to support the owner defendant’s failure to pay the subcontract amounts. The Court held that this lack of a colorable basis not to pay the subcontractors was “without just cause or right” under the Act.
1/ Constructive fraud requires more than a computational error in the lien amount. There must be other “plus-factor” evidence that combines with the overcharge;
2/ Where a contractor has reasonable basis for lien claim, it will be impossible for plaintiff to meet the malicious publication requirement of a slander of title claim;
3/ This case is pro-contractor as it gives teeth to the Mechanics’ Lien Statute’s fee-shifting section.