Sole Proprietor’s Mechanics Lien OK Where Lien Recorded in His Own Name (Instead of Business Name) – IL Court

 

While the money damages involved in Gerlick v. Powroznik (2017 IL App (1st) 153424-U) is low, the unpublished case provides some useful bullet points governing construction disputes.  Chief among them include what constitutes substantial performance, the recovery of contractual “extras,” and the standards governing attorney fee awards under Illinois’s mechanics lien statute.

The plaintiff swimming pool installer sued the homeowner defendants when they failed to fully pay for the finished pool.  The homeowners claimed they were justified in short-paying the plaintiff due to drainage and other mechanical problems.

After a bench trial, the court entered judgment for the pool installer for just over $20K and denied his claim for attorneys’ fees under the Act.  Both parties appealed; the plaintiff appealed the denial of attorneys’ fees while the defendants appealed the underlying judgment.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

A breach of contract plaintiff in the construction setting must prove it performed in a reasonably workmanlike manner.  In finding the plaintiff sufficiently performed, the Court rejected the homeowners’ argument that plaintiff failed to install two drains.  The Court viewed drain installation as both ancillary to the main thrust of the contract and not feasible with the specific pool model (the King Shallow) furnished by the plaintiff.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s mechanic’s lien judgment for the contractor.  In Illinois, a mechanics lien claimant must establish (1) a valid contract between the lien claimant and property owner (or an agent of the owner), (2) to furnish labor, services or materials, and (3) the claimant performed or had a valid excuse of non-performance.  (¶ 37)

A contractor doesn’t have to perform flawlessly to avail itself of the mechanics’ lien remedy: all that’s required is he perform the main parts of a contract in a workmanlike manner.  Where a contractor substantially performs, he can enforce his lien up to the amount of work performed with a reduction for the cost of any corrections to his work.

The owners first challenged the plaintiff’s mechanics’ lien as facially defective.  The lien listed plaintiff (his first and last name) as the claimant while the underlying contract identified only the plaintiff’s business name (“Installation Services & Coolestpools.com”) as the contracting party.  The Court viewed this discrepancy as trivial since a sole proprietorship or d/b/a has no legal identity separate from its operating individual.  As a consequence, plaintiff’s use of a fictitious business name was not enough to invalidate the mechanic’s lien.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s denial of plaintiff’s claim for extra work in the amount of $4,200.  A contractor can recover “extras” to the contract where (1) the extra work performed or materials furnished were outside the scope of the contract, (2) the extras were furnished at owner’s request, (3) the owner, by words or conduct, agreed to compensate the contractor for the extra work, (4) the contractor did not perform the extra work voluntarily, and (5) the extra work was not necessary through the fault of the contractor.

The Court found there was no evidence that the owners asked the plaintiff to perform extra work – including cleaning the pool, inspecting equipment and fixing the pool cover.  As a result, the plaintiff did not meet his burden of proving his entitlement to extras recovery. (¶¶ 39-41).

Lastly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff.  A mechanics’ lien claimant must prove that an owner’s failure to pay is “without just cause or right;” a phrase meaning 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(a).  Here, because there was evidence of a good faith dispute concerning the scope and quality of plaintiff’s pool installation, the Court upheld the trial court’s denial of plaintiff’s fee award attempt.

Afterwords:

1/ A contractor doesn’t have to perform perfectly in order to win a breach of contract or mechanics’ lien claim.  So long as he performs in a workmanlike manner and substantially completes the hired-for work, he can recover under both legal theories.

2/ A sole proprietor and his fictitious business entity are one and the same.  Because of this business owner – d/b/a identity, the sole proprietor can list himself as the contractor on a lien form even where the underlying contract lists only his business name.

 

 

Contractor ‘Extras’ Claims Versus Quantum Meruit: A Fine-Line Distinction? (IL Case Summary)

Twin axioms of contract law include (1) a quasi-contract claim (i.e. quantum meruit) cannot co-exist with one for breach of express contract, and (2) to recover for contract “extras” or out-of-scope work, a plaintiff must show the extra work was necessary through no fault of its own.

Easily parroted, the two principles can prove difficult in their application.

Archon v. U.S. Shelter, 2017 IL App (1st) 153409 tries to reconcile the difference between work that gives rise to quantum meruit recovery and work that falls within an express contract’s general subject matter and defeats a quantum meruit claim.

The subcontractor plaintiff installed a sewer system for a general contractor hired by a city.  The subcontract gave the City final approval of the finished sewer system.  City approval was a condition to payment to the plaintiff.  The subcontract also provided that extra work caused by the plaintiff’s deficiencies had to be done at plaintiff’s expense.

The subcontractor sued the general contractor to recover about $250K worth of repair work required by the City.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the general contractor on both plaintiff’s quantum meruit and extras claim.  On remand from an earlier appeal, the plaintiff dropped its extras claim and went forward solely on its quantum meruit claim.  The trial court again found for the general and the sub appealed.

Result: Summary judgment for general contractor affirmed.  Plaintiff’s quantum meruit claim fails as a matter of law.

Reasons:

To recover for quantum meruit (sometimes referred to as quasi-contract or implied contract), the plaintiff must prove (1) it performed a service to benefit a defendant, (2) it did not perform the service gratuitously, (3) defendant accepted the benefits of plaintiff’s services, and (4) no contract existed to prescribe payment for the service.

A quantum meruit claim cannot co-exist with a breach of express contract one: they are mutually exclusive.

Parties to a contract assume certain risks.  Sometimes, when they realize their contractual expectations aren’t going to be realized, they resort to quantum meruit recovery as a desperation maneuver.  The law doesn’t allow this.  “Quasi-contract is not a means for shifting a risk one has assumed under the contract.” (¶ 34)(citing Industrial Lift Truck Service Corp. v. Mitsubishi International Corp., 104 Ill.App.3d 357).

A contractor’s claim for ‘extras’ requires the contractor to prove that (1) the work for which it seeks compensation was outside the scope of a contract, and (2) the extra work wasn’t caused by the contractor’s fault.  

In a prior appeal, the Court found that it wasn’t clear whether the extra work was the result of the plaintiff contractor’s mistake.  As a result, the contractor made a strategic decision to abandon its extras claim and instead proceeded on its quantum meruit suit.

At first blush, an extras claim mirrors quantum meruit’s requirement of work that’s not tied to any express contract term.

However, as the Court emphasized, there’s a definite legal difference between a claim for extra work and one for quantum meruit.  “A claim for quantum meruit lies when the work the plaintiff performed [is] wholly beyond the subject matter of the contract that existed between the parties.” [¶ 39]

The key question is whether an express contract covers the same general subject matter as the challenged work.  If it does, there can be no quantum meruit recovery as a matter of law.  [¶ 45]

Applying these principles, the Court found that the work for which plaintiff sought to recover in quantum meruit – sewer pipe repairs and replacement – involved the same sewer system involved in the underlying express contract.  As a result, plaintiff’s quantum meruit claim failed.

Take-aways:

This case provides an interesting illustration of the fine-line distinction between a contractor’s action to recover for extra, out-of-scope work and services that merit quantum meruit recovery.

Contractors should take pains to make it clear in the contract that if they do perform extra work, there is a mechanism in place (i.e. time and materials terms) that quantifies the extras.  Since the sewer repair work fell within the general subject matter of the underlying sewer installation contract, it was easy for the Court to find that the express contract encompassed the plaintiff’s work and reject the quantum meruit claim.

In hindsight, the plaintiff should have pressed forward with its breach of express contract claim premised on the extra work it claimed it performed.

Substantial Performance Doctrine: Contractor Defeats Finicky Homeowners in Construction Case (the ‘You Missed A Spot’ Post)

Two diva-esque homeowners (I don’t judge; I just report) who demanded impossible perfection from a contractor got slapped with a $100,000-plus bench trial verdict in Wolfe Construction v. Knight, 2014 IL App (5th) 130115-U. Affirming the damage award, the appeals court gave content to the substantial performance doctrine, expanded on the requirement of contractual definiteness and applied the governing standards for recovering contractual interest and attorneys’ fees,

The plaintiff contractor was hired to perform renovation work on the defendants’ home after a fire damaged the home.  The written contract required the homeowners to pay for any extras and to also foot the bill for any services not covered by their homeowners’ insurance.  Over a span of about a year, the contractor completed nearly all of the restoration work (about 95% of it) and performed some $30,000 of additional work including interior painting, building a new porch and custom-ordering and installing kitchen cabinets – all at the defendants’ specific request.  But according to the homeowners, the contractor’s work was lacking and the homeowners refused to pay and kicked the contractor off the job.  The contractor sued for breach of contract and after a bench trial, won a $100,000-plus judgment against the homeowners, including amounts for unpaid services, extras, contractual interest and attorneys’ fees.  The homeowners appealed.

Held: Money judgment for the contractor affirmed.

Rules/Reasoning:

The Court upheld the judgment for the contractor; noting that the defendants demanded “perfection and the impossible.”  The law doesn’t require surgical precision in construction contract performance.  Instead, the contractor is held only to the duty of substantial performance in a workmanlike manner.  For substantial performance, a contractor must show there was an honest and faithful performance of the contract in its material and substantial aspects.  The contractor must also demonstrate there was no willful departure from, or omission of the contract’s essential elements.  A nebulous standard, the substantial performance test depends on the unique facts of each case.  (¶33).

During trial, both sides presented expert testimony in support of their position and the Court found that the contractor completed about 95% of the job before the defendants fired it (the contractor).  (¶¶ 25-26).  And since the defects asserted by the homeowners involved items which pre-dated the contractor’s involvement, the Court found those deficiencies weren’t the contractor’s fault.  The Court also found the homeowner’s blatantly biased expert’s testimony to be incredible and even “laughable.”  For these reasons, the Court sided with the contractor on all issues. (¶34).

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s award of interest and attorneys’ fees under the contract; but against only one of the homeowners.  Interest and attorneys’ fees generally are not recoverable unless specified in a written contract.  ¶¶36-37.  If a contract does provide for interest and attorneys’ fees, only the party that signs the contract will have to pay them.  (¶ 37).  Here, the parties’ construction contract clearly delineated that the homeowners would be responsible for the contractor’s attorneys’ fees and would have to pay monthly interest at 1.5% on tardy amounts if the contractor sued. The Court held that since the contractual interest and fee-shifting language was clear, it was enforceable – but only against the defendant that signed the contract.  The homeowner that didn’t sign the contract wasn’t responsible for the over $26,000 in interest and nearly $40,000 in attorneys’ fees awarded to the plaintiff contractor.  (¶ 38).

Aftermath:

Definitely a pro-contractor and anti-persnickety homeowner case.  I suppose perfectionism, as character trait and life ethos, has its merits.  But the law doesn’t require it; at least not in the construction setting.   This case illustrates in lurid detail the perils of a property owner having unrealistic and too-exacting expectations of his contractor.  Blemish-free work is not required under the law.  As this case amply shows, if a contractor substantially performs or is prevented from remedying or completing performance by a recalcitrant homeowner, the contractor will win.  Wolfe Construction also seems to set a fairly lenient benchmark for a contractor to establish substantial performance.  This case should and will likely give property owners pause before they declare a default and fail to pay a contractor.