Possible Problematic Lien Notice Starts Limitations Clock in Lawyer ‘Mal’ Case

In Construction Systems, Inc. v. FagelHaber LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 172430, the First District affirmed the time-barring of a legal malpractice suit stemming from a flubbed contractor’s lien filing.

Several months after a lender recorded its mortgage on a commercial project, the law firm defendant, then representing the plaintiff contractor, served a Section 24 notice – the Illinois mechanics’ lien act provision that governs subcontractor liens. 770 ILCS 60/24.  While the notice was served on the project owner and general contractor, it didn’t name the lender.  In Illinois, where a subcontractor fails to serve its lien notice on a lender, the lien loses priority against the lender.

After the contractor settled its lien claim with the lender’s successor, it sued the defendant law firm for malpractice. The contractor plaintiff alleged that had the law firm properly perfected the lien, the plaintiff would have recovered an additional $1.3M.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm, the First District agreed with the trial court and held that plaintiff’s legal malpractice suit accrued in early 2005. And since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2009, it was a couple years too late.

The Court based its ruling mainly on a foreboding February 2005 letter from plaintiff’s second counsel describing a “problematic situation” – the lender wasn’t notified of plaintiff’s subcontractor lien. The court also pointed out that plaintiff’s second attorney testified in her deposition that she learned of possible lien defects in February 2005; some four years before plaintiff filed suit.

Code Section 13-214.3(b) provides for a two-year limitations period for legal malpractice claims starting from when a plaintiff “knew or reasonably should have known of the injury for which damages are sought.” [⁋ 20]

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice case normally doesn’t accrue until he/she sustains an adverse judgment, settlement or dismissal. An exception to this rule is where it’s “plainly obvious” a plaintiff has been injured as a result of professional negligence.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it never discovered the lien defect until 2007 when the lender’s successor filed its summary judgment motion (which argued that the lien was defective as to the lender). According to the court “the relevant inquiry is not when [Plaintiff] knew or should have known about the lack of notice as an actual defense, but when [Plaintiff] should have discovered [Defendant’s] failure to serve statutory notice of the mechanic’s lien on [the prior lender] prompting it to further investigate [Defendant’s] performance.” [⁋ 24]

The court again cited the above “problematic situation” letter as proof that February 2005 (when the letter was sent) was the triggering date for plaintiff’s claim. Another key chronological factor was the plaintiff’s 2005 payment of attorneys’ fees.

In Illinois, a malpractice plaintiff must plead and prove damages and the payment of attorneys’ fees can equate to damages when the fees are tied to a former counsel’s neglect. Since plaintiff paid its second counsel’s fees in 2005 for work she performed in efforts to resuscitate the lien’s priority, 2005 was the limitation period’s triggering date. [⁋ 25]

Construction Systems cites Nelson v. Padgitt, 2016 IL App (1st) 160571, for the proposition that a plaintiff does not have to suffer an adverse judgment to sustain legal malpractice injury. In Nelson, an employment contract dispute, the Court held that the plaintiff should have discovered deficiencies in his employment contract (it provided for the loss of salary and commissions in the event of for-cause termination) in 2012 when he sued his former employer, not in 2014 when the employer won summary judgment.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that its damages were unknown until the lien litigation was finally settled and that it couldn’t sue until the lien dispute was resolved. The court held that the extent and existence of damages are different things and that it’s the date a plaintiff learns he/she was damaged, not the amount, that matters.

Lastly, the court nixed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel concern – that plaintiff couldn’t argue the lien was valid in the underlying case while arguing the opposite in the malpractice suit. According to the court, the plaintiff could have entered into a tolling agreement that would suspend the statute of limitations pending the outcome of the underlying case.

Conclusion

Construction Systems reaffirms that a legal malpractice claim can accrue before an adverse judgment is entered or an opponent files a formal pleading that points out claim defects.  Moreover, the payment of attorneys’ fees directly attributable to a former counsel’s neglect is sufficient to meet the damages prong of a legal malpractice case.

This case and others like it also make clear that the limitations period runs from the date a plaintiff learns she has been injured; not when financial harm is specifically quantified.

To preserve a possible malpractice claim while a plaintiff challenges an underlying adverse ruling, practitioners should consider tolling agreements to suspend any statutes of limitation and guard against possible judicial estoppel concerns (taking inconsistent positions in separate lawsuits).

Vague Oral Agreement Dooms Mechanics Lien and Home Repair Act Claims – IL First Dist.

The First District recently examined the quantum of proof necessary to prevail on a breach of oral contract and mechanics lien claim and the factors governing a plaintiff’s request to amend its pleading.

In Link Company Group, LLC v. Cortes, 2018 IL App (1st) 171785-U, the Defendant hired the plaintiff – his former son-in-law – to rehab a residence in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. After a dispute over plaintiff’s construction work and billing issues, the plaintiff sued to foreclose a mechanics lien and for breach of contract. The defendant counter-sued and alleged plaintiff violated the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act (IHRRA) requires, among other things, a contractor to provide certain disclosures in writing to a homeowner client. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s lien and contract claims and denied summary judgment on defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. All parties appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court first took aim at the plaintiff’s breach of contract and mechanics lien claims.

While oral contracts are generally enforceable, they must contain definite and essential terms agreed to by the parties. For an oral contract to be enforceable, it must be so definite and certain in all respects that the court can determine what the parties agreed to.

Here, the substance of the oral contract was vague. When pressed at his deposition, the plaintiff was unable to articulate the basic terms of the parties’ oral construction contract. Since the court was unable to decipher the key contract terms or divine the parties’ intent, the plaintiff’s breach of contract failed.

The plaintiff’s inability to prove-up its oral contract claim also doomed its mechanics lien action. In Illinois, a valid mechanics lien foreclosure suit requires the contractor to prove an enforceable contract and the contractor’s substantial performance of that contract. Since the plaintiff failed to establish a binding oral contract, by definition, it couldn’t prevail on its mechanics lien claim.

The First District also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend its complaint. While amendments to pleadings are generally liberally allowed in Illinois, a court will not rubber stamp a request to amend. Instead, the court engages in a multi-factored analysis of (1) whether the proposed amendment would cure the defective pleading, (2) whether other parties would sustain prejudice by virtue of the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether previous opportunities to amend the pleadings could be identified.

Here, the plaintiff’s proposed implied-in-fact contract was “nearly identical” to the stricken breach of oral contract claim. An implied-in-fact contract is one where contract terms are implicit from the parties’ conduct. Here, the parties conduct was too attenuated to establish definite contract terms. As a result, the proposed implied-in-law contract claim was facially deficient and didn’t cure the earlier, failed pleading.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s failure to allege an enforceable oral agreement also precluded summary judgment on the defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. A valid IHRRA claim presupposes the existence of an enforceable contract. Since there was no written agreement and the parties’ oral agreement was unclear, there was no valid contract on which to hook an IHRRA violation.

Afterwords:

This case cements proposition that a valid oral contract claim requires proof of definite and certain terms. A plaintiff’s failure to allege a clear and definite oral agreement will prevent him from asserting either a mechanics lien or Home Repair Act claim based on the putative oral agreement.

Link Company also illustrates the four factors a litigant must satisfy in order to amend a pleading. If the proposed amended complaint fails to allege a colorable cause of action, a court can properly deny leave to amend despite Illinois’ liberal pleading amendments policy.

Massive Wind Turbine Tower A Trade Fixture, Not Lienable Property Improvement – IL Second Dist.

AUI Construction Group, LLC v. Vaessen, 2016 IL App (2d) 160009 wrestles with whether a massive wind turbine tower that can be removed only by detonating several bombs at a cost of over half a million dollars qualifies as a lienable property improvement or is a non-lienable trade fixture under Illinois law.

The property owner and turbine seller signed an easement agreement for the seller to install a turbine on defendant’s land for an annual fee.  The easement provided the turbine would remain the seller’s property and that the seller must remove the structure on 90 days’ notice.  The seller also had to remove the turbine when the easement ended.  The turbine seller then contracted with a general contractor to install the turbine who, in turn, subcontracted out various aspects of the installation.

The owner-general contractor agreement and the downstream subcontracts referenced the easement and stated the turbine system remained the seller’s property.

When the plaintiff sub-subcontractor didn’t get paid, he sued its subcontractor, ultimately getting an arbitration award of over $3M.  When that proved uncollectable after the subcontractor’s bankruptcy, the plaintiff sued the property owner to foreclose a mechanics lien it previously recorded to recover the unpaid judgment.  The trial court dismissed the suit on the basis that the turbine was a removable trade fixture that was non-lienable as a matter of law.

Affirming, the Second District first noted that Illinois’ Mechanics Lien Act (770 ILCS 60/0.01 et seq.)(MLA) protects those who furnish material or labor for the improvement of real property.  The MLA allows a claimant to record a lien where its labor, materials or services improves the property’s value. In Illinois, real estate improvements are lienable; trade fixtures are not.

The factors considered in determining whether equipment is lienable includes (1) the nature of attachment to the realty, (2) the equipment’s adaptation to and necessity for the purpose to which the premises are devoted, and (3) whether it was intended that the item in question should be considered part of the realty.  Crane Erectors & Riggers, Inc. v. LaSalle National Bank, 125 Ill.App.3d 658 (1984).

Intent (factor (3)) is paramount.  Even where an item can be removed from land without injuring it, doesn’t mean the item isn’t lienable. So long as the parties manifest an intent to improve the realty, a removable item can still be lienable.  Moreover, parties are free to specify in their contract that title to equipment furnished to property will not pass to the land owner until its fully paid for.

Applying the three-factored fixture test, the court found the  nature of attachment, and necessity of the item for production of wind energy weighed in favor of finding the turbine lienable.   However, the all-important intent factor (factor number 3 above) suggested the opposite.

The easement agreement specified the turbine seller retained its ownership interest in the turbine and could (and had to) remove it at the easement’s end.  The court wrote: “the easement agreement establishes that the tower was a trade fixture.”  (¶ 20)

The Court also found that plaintiff’s “third party” rights were not impacted since plaintiff’s sub-subcontract specifically referenced the easement and prime contract – both of which stated the turbine would remain seller’s property. (¶ 23)

The Court examined additional factors to decide whether the turbine was lienable.  From a patchwork of Illinois cases through the decades, the Court looked at (1) whether the turbine provided a benefit or enhancement to the property, (2) whether the turbine was removable without material damage to the property, (3) whether it was impractical to remove the item, (4) whether the item (turbine) was used to convert the premises from one use to another, and (5) the agreement and relationship between the parties.

The sole factor tilting (no pun intended) in favor of lienability was factor 4 – that the turbine was essential to converting the defendant’s land from farmland to harnessing of wind energy.  All other factors pointed to the turbine being a nonlienable trade fixture.

The Court noted the property owner didn’t derive a benefit from the turbine other than an annual rent payment it received and rent is typically not lienable under the law.  The Court also pointed out that the tower could be removed albeit it through a laborious and expensive process.  Lastly, and most importantly, the parties’ intent was that the turbine was to remain seller’s personal property and for it not to be a permanent property improvement. (¶¶ 38-39)

The Court also rejected the subcontractor’s remaining arguments that (1) the Illinois Property Tax Code evinced a legislative intent to view wind turbines as lienable improvements and (2) it is unfair to disallow the plaintiff’s lien claim since it could not have a security interest in the turbine under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).

On the tax issue, the Court held that Illinois taxes turbines to ensure that wind turbines do not escape taxation and is purely a revenue-generating device.  Taxation of a structure is not a proxy for lienability. (¶¶ 43-44)

The Court agreed with that the subcontractor plaintiff did not have a security interest in the turbine under UCC Section 9-334 since, under that section, security interests do not attach to “ordinary building materials incorporated into an improvement on land.”  Since the turbine was replete with building materials (e.g. concrete, rebar, electrical conduit), the UCC didn’t give the plaintiff a remedy.  The Court allowed that this was a harsh result but the parties’ clear intent that the turbine remain the seller’s personal property trumped the policy arguments.

Afterwords:

This case strikes a blow to contractors who install large structures on real estate. Even something as immense as a multi-piece turbine system, which seemingly has a “death grip”- level attachment to land, can be nonlienable if that’s what the parties intended.

Another case lesson is for contractors to be extra diligent and insist on copies of all agreements referenced in their contracts to ensure their rights are protected in other agreements to which they’re not a party.

The case also portrays some creative lawyering.  The court’s discussion of the taxability of wind turbines, UCC Article 9 and the difference between a lease (which can be lienable) and an easement (which cannot) and how it impacts the lienability question makes for interesting reading.