Paralegal Fees Can Be Tacked On to Attorney Fees Sanctions Award – IL First Dist.

Aside from its trenchant discussion of the constructive fraud rule in mechanics lien litigation, the Illinois First District in Father & Sons Home Improvement II, Inc. v. Stuart, 2016 IL App (1st) 143666 clarified that a paralegal’s time and services can be added to a claim for attorneys’ fees as a sanction against a losing party who files false pleadings.

In an earlier post, I discussed how the lien claimant in this case lost its lien foreclosure suit for misstating the completion of work date and inflating the monetary value of work and materials it affixed to the subject site.  The property owner and a lender defendant filed a fee petition and sanctions motion, respectively.

Examining the lender’s motion for Rule 137 sanctions, the Court stated some black-letter rules that govern fee petitions:

  • Under Rule 137, a party can recover attorneys’ fees incurred as a result of a sanctionable pleading or paper (one filed without an objectively reasonable legal basis);
  • Typically, “overhead” expenses aren’t compensable in a fee motion.  The theory is that overhead costs are already built into an attorneys’ hourly rate;
  •   Overhead includes telephone charges, in-house delivery charges, photocopying, check processing, and in-house paralegal and secretarial services;
  • However, when a paralegal performs a specialized legal task that would normally be performed by an attorney, the paralegal’s fees are recoverable since those services would not be considered overhead.

The Court found that the lender’s paralegals performed myriad services that would normally be done by an attorney – namely, researching the title history of the subject property and preparing a memorandum summarizing the title history.  By contrast, a paralegal’s general administrative tasks were disallowed by the court and could not be sought in the sanctions motion.

Afterwords:

When preparing a fee petition, the prevailing party should also include paralegal time and services; especially if they involve researching real estate land records and summarizing a title history.  While the line separating legal services (which are recoverable) and administrative or overhead expenses (which aren’t) is blurry, Father & Sons stands for the proposition that a fee petition or Rule 137 sanctions motion can be augmented by paralegal fees where the paralegal performs specialized work that contains an element of legal analysis.

 

Lien Inflation and “Plus Factors” – Constructive Fraud in Illinois Mechanics Lien Litigation

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.

Afterwords:

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.

 

 

 

 

Constructive Fraud in IL Mechanics’ Lien Suits: A Case Study

ACHere’s one from the vault.  While dated, the case is still relevant for its cogent discussion of important and recurring mechanics’ lien litigation issues.  In Springfield Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. v. 3947-55 King Drive at Oakwood, LLC, 387 Ill App 3d 906 (1st Dist. 2009), the First District examined the concept of constructive fraud and discussed when a subcontractor can bring alternative unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims in a lien suit.

The plaintiff was a subcontractor who installed HVAC materials on a construction project consisting of two adjoining properties  for a total contract sum of about $400,000.  When the general contractor fired it, the plaintiff liened both parcels each for $300,000 – the total amount plaintiff was then due for its HVAC work.  The result was a “blanket lien” on the properties for a total of about $600K – double the proper amount.

The plaintiff sued to foreclose its liens and filed companion (and alternative) claims for quantum meruit and unjust enrichment against the general contractor and owner defendants.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims.  The court held that the lien claim was constructively fraudulent since it was inflated by almost two times the actual lien amount and because the lien wasn’t apportioned among the two property parcels.  The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims because it held that a subcontractor’s only remedy against an owner is a mechanics lien foreclosure action.

Held: Affirmed in part; reversed in part

 Constructive Fraud

The First District found there was no evidence of constructive fraud by the subcontractor; noting that Section 7 of the Lien Act aims to protect honest lien claimants who make a mistake rather than claimants who intentionally make a false statement or who knowingly inflates their lien.  That’s why someone must show an intent to defraud in order to nullify a lien.

While acknowledging that the plaintiff subcontractor’s lien totaled about $600K – nearly double of the amount it was actually owed – the Court looked beyond the liens’ numerical overcharge and found no additional evidence of fraudulent intent. 

This holding amplifies the First District’s Cordeck Sales, Inc. v. Construction Systems, Inc. (382 Ill.App.3d 334(1st. Dist. 2008)) ruling – a case viewed with near-Biblical reverence in Illinois mechanics lien circles – that a mechanics lien won’t be invalidated for constructive fraud simply because its inflated.  There must be an overstatement “in combination” with other record evidence that allows the court to infer fraudulent intent.  Here, there was no additional fraud evidence and the Court reinstated the subcontractor’s lien claim.

Quantum Meruit/Unjust Enrichment

The Court sustained the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s equitable counts of quantum meruit and unjust enrichment.  The general rule is that a subcontractor like plaintiff can’t recover for unjust enrichment where the entire work to be performed by the subcontractor is under a contract with the general contractor.  See Premier Electrical Construction Co. v. La Salle National Bank, 132 Ill. App. 3d 485, 496 (1st Dist. 1985). 

In such a case (no privity between owner and subcontractor), the general contractor has the power to employ whom he chooses and the owner is entitled to presume that any subcontracting work is being done for the contractor; not the owner.  Since there is normally no direct contract between a subcontractor and the owner, a subcontractor can’t claim that its work unjustly enriched the owner.

So, unless the subcontractor proves that it dealt directly with a property owner, its exclusive remedy against an owner is a statutory, mechanics lien suit.  Swansea Concrete Products, Inc. v. Distler, 126 Ill. App. 3d 927, 932 (5th Dist. 1984).  If the subcontractor misses the time deadlines to record its lien (four months, usually) or fails to timely file suit to foreclose the lien (two years post-completion of job), the subcontractor can’t then try to recover against the property owner under quantum meruit or unjust enrichment. 

Here, since the plaintiff’s contract was with the general contractor and not the owner, the plaintiff’s remedy against the general contractor was for breach of contract and its remedy against the owner was a mechanics’ lien suit.  As a result, the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims were properly dismissed.

Afterwords: Even though the case is now several years old, Springfield Heating has continued relevance in construction lien litigation because it is the First District’s most recent word on the showing a property owner must make to prove a subcontractor’s constructive fraud when attempting to defeat a lien on the owner’s property.  Clearly, a numerical overcharge isn’t enough to defeat a lien. 

The owner must show additional “plus factors” which signals  fraudulent intent by the lien claimant.  The case also further supports the black-letter proposition that a subcontractor’s sole remedy against a property owner is a mechanics’ lien suit.  This rule will always apply unless the subcontractor can prove that the owner specifically requested or induced the subcontractor’s labor and materials on the owner’s property.