The contractor plaintiff in Father & Sons Home Improvement II, Inc. v. Stuart, 2016 IL App (1st) 143666 was caught in several lies in the process of recording and trying to foreclose its mechanics lien. The misstatements resulted in the nullification of its lien and the plaintiff being on the hook for over $40K in opponent attorneys’ fees.
The plaintiff was hired to construct a deck, garage and basement on the defendant owner’s residence. Inexplicably, the plaintiff recorded its mechanics lien 8 months before it finished its work. This was a problem because the lien contained the sworn testimony of plaintiff’s principal (via affidavit) that stated a completion date that was several months off.
Plaintiff then sued to foreclose the lien; again stating an inaccurate completion date in the complaint. The owner and mortgage lender defendants filed separate summary judgment motions on the basis that the plaintiff committed constructive fraud by (1) falsely stating the lien completion date and (2) inflating the dollar value of its work in sworn documents (the affidavit and verified complaint).
Affirming summary judgment and separate fee awards for the defendants, the Court distilled the following mechanics lien constructive fraud principles:
- The purpose of the mechanics lien act (Lien Act) is to require someone with an interest in real property to pay for property improvements or benefits he encouraged by his conduct. Section 7 of the Lien Act provides that no lien will be defeated because of an error or if it states an inflated amount unless it is shown that the erroneous lien amount was made with “intent to defraud.” 770 ILCS 60/7;
- The intent to defraud requirement aims to protect the honest lien claimant who simply makes a mistake in computing his lien amount. But where there is evidence a lien claimant knowingly filed a false lien (either in completion date or amount), the lien claim will be defeated. (¶¶ 30-31);
- Where there is no direct proof of a contractor’s intent to defraud, “constructive fraud” can negate a lien where there is an overstated lien amount or false completion date combined with additional evidence;
- The additional evidence or “plus factor” can come in the form of a false affidavit signed by the lien claimant that falsely states the underlying completion date or the amount of the improvements furnished to the property. (¶ 35).
Based on the plaintiff’s multiple false statements – namely, a fabricated completion date and a grossly exaggerated lien amount based on the amount of work done – both in its mechanics lien and in its pleadings, the court found that at the very least, the plaintiff committed constructive fraud and invalidated the lien.
Attorneys’ Fees and Rule 137 Sanctions
The court also taxed the property owners’ attorneys’ fees to the losing contractor. Section 17 of the Lien Act provides that an owner can recover its attorneys’ fees where a contractor files a lien action “without just cause or right.” The Lien Act also specifies that only the owner – not any other party involved in the chain of contracts or other lienholders – can recover its attorneys’ fees. A lien claim giving rise to a fee award is one that is “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(d).
Based on the contractor’s clear case of constructive fraud in filing a lien with a false completion date and in a grossly excessive sum, the court ordered the contractor to pay the owner defendants’ attorneys’ fees.
The lender – who is not the property owner – wasn’t entitled to fees under Section 17 of the Lien Act. Enter Rule 137 sanctions. In Illinois, Rule 137 sanctions are awarded to prevent abuse of the judicial process by penalizing those who file vexatious and harassing lawsuit based on unsupported statements of fact or law. Before assessing sanctions, a court does not engage in hindsight but instead looks at what was objectively reasonable at the time an attorney signed a document or filed a motion.
Because the plaintiff contractor repeatedly submitted false documents in the course of the litigation, the court awarded the mortgage lender its attorneys’ fees incurred in defending the lien suit and in successfully moving for summary judgment. All told, the Court sanctioned the contractor to the tune of over $26,000; awarding this sum to the lender defendant.
This case serves as an obvious cautionary tale for mechanics lien plaintiffs. Plainly, a lien claimant must state an accurate completion date and properly state the monetary value of improvements. If the claimant realizes it has made a mistake, it should amend the lien. And even though an amended lien usually won’t bind third parties (e.g. lenders, other lienholders, etc.), it’s better to correct known lien errors than to risk a hefty fee award at case’s end.