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.

 

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.

 

 

New York’s Public Policy On Construction Dispute Venue Trumps Illinois Forum-Selection Clause – IL 2d Dist.

Dancor Construction, Inc. v. FXR Construction, Inc., 2016 IL App (1st) 150839 offers a nuanced discussion of forum selection clauses and choice-of-law principles against the backdrop of a multi-jurisdictional construction dispute.

The plaintiff general contractor (GC) sued a subcontractor (Sub) in Illinois state court for breach of a construction contract involving New York (NY) real estate.  The contract had a forum selection clause that pegged Kane County Illinois (IL) as the forum for any litigation involving the project.  

The trial court agreed with the Sub’s argument that the forum-selection clause violated NY public policy (that NY construction litigation should be decided only in NY) and dismissed the GC’s suit.  Affirming, the Second District discusses the key enforceability factors for forum-selection clauses when two or more jurisdictions are arguably the proper venue for a lawsuit.

Public Policy – A Statutory Source

The Court first observed that IL’s and NY’s legislatures both addressed the proper forum for construction-related lawsuits.  Section 10 of Illinois’ Building and Construction Contract Act, 815 ILCS 665/10, voids any term of an IL construction contract that subjects the contract to the laws of another state or that requires any litigation concerning the contract to be filed in another state.

NY’s statute parallels that of Illinois.  NY Gen. Bus. Law Section 757(1) nullifies construction contract terms that provide for litigation in a non-New York forum or that applies (non-) NY law.

Since a state’s public policy is found in its published statute (among other places), NY clearly expressed its public policy on the location for construction litigation.

Forum Selection and Choice-of-Law Provisions

An IL court can void a forum-selection clause where it violates a fundamental IL policy.  A forum-selection clause is prima facie valid unless the opposing side shows that enforcement of the clause would be unreasonable.

A forum-selection clause reached by parties who stand at arms’ length should be honored unless there is a compelling and countervailing reason not to enforce it. (¶ 75)

A choice-of-law issue arises where there is an actual conflict between two states’ laws on a given issue and it isn’t clear which state’s law governs.  Here, IL and NY were the two states with ostensible interests in the lawsuit.  There was also a plain conflict between the states’ laws: the subject forum-selection clause was prima facie valid in IL while it plainly violated NY law.

Which Law Applies – NY or IL?

Illinois follows Section 187 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws (1971) which provides that the laws of a state chosen by contracting parties will apply unless (1) the chosen state has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction and there is no other reasonable basis for the parties’ choice, or (2) application of the law of the chosen state would violate a fundamental policy of a state that has a materially greater interest than the chosen state on a given issue.

The Court found the second exception satisfied and applied NY law.  

Section 757 of NY’s business statute clearly outlaws forum-selection clauses that provide for the litigation of NY construction disputes in foreign states.  As a result, the contract’s forum clause clearly violates NY’s public policy of having NY construction disputes decided in NY.

The question then became which state, NY or IL, had the greater interest in the forum-selection clause’s enforcement?  Since NY was the state where the subcontractor resided, where the building (and contract’s finished product) was erected and the contract ultimately performed, the Court viewed NY as having a stronger connection.  Since allowing the case to proceed in IL clearly violated NY’s public policy, the Court affirmed dismissal of the GC’s lawsuit.

Afterwords:

Forum selection clauses are prima facie valid but not inviolable.  Where a chosen forum conflicts with a public policy of another state, there is a conflict of laws problem.  

The Court will then analyze which state has a more compelling connection to the case.  Where the state with both a clear public policy on the issue also has a clearer nexus to the subject matter of the lawsuit, the Court will apply that state’s (the one with the public policy and closer connection) law on forum-selection clauses.