Court Weighs In On Constructive Fraud in Contractor Lien Dispute, Summary Judgment Burdens – IL First Dist.

The First District affirmed partial summary judgment for a restaurant tenant in a contractor’s mechanics lien claim in MEP Construction, LLC v. Truco MP, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 180539.

The contractor sued to foreclose its $250,000-plus mechanics lien for unpaid construction management services furnished under a written contract between the contractor and restaurant lessee.

The lessee moved for summary judgment arguing the contractor completed only about $120,000 worth of work and so the lien was doubly inflated.  The lessee further contended that the majority of the liened work was done by plaintiff’s sub-contractors; not the plaintiff. The trial court sided with the lessee and found the plaintiff’s lien constructively fraudulent.

Affirming, the appeals court first restated the familiar, governing summary judgment standards and the contours of constructive fraud in the mechanics’ lien context.

The “put up or shut up” litigation moment – summary judgment requires the opposing party to come forward with evidence that supports its skeletal pleadings allegations.

Statements in an affidavit opposing summary judgment based on information and belief or that are unsupported conclusions, opinions or speculation are insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

Section 7 of the Illinois mechanics lien act (770 ILCS 60/7) provides that no lien shall be defeated due to an error or overcharging unless the overcharge (or error) is “made with intent to defraud.” Section 7 aims to protect the honest lien claimant who makes a mistake rather than the dishonest claimant who makes a knowingly false statement. Benign mistakes are OK; purposeful lien inflation is not.
An intent to defraud can be inferred from “documents containing overstated lien amounts combined with additional evidence.” The additional evidence or “plus factor” requires more than a bare overcharge on a document: there must be additional evidence at play before a court invalidates a lien as constructively fraudulent.

Affirming the trial court’s constructive fraud ruling, the First District pointed to plaintiff’s president’s sworn statement which indicated plaintiff only performed a fraction of the liened work and that the majority of the lien was from subcontractors who dealt directly with the lessee. Critical to the court’s conclusion was that the plaintiff did not have contractual relationships with its supposed sub-contractors.

Looking to Illinois lien law case precedent, the Court noted that lien overstatements of 38%, 82% and 79% – all substantially less than the more than 100% overstatement here – were all deemed constructively fraudulent by other courts. [⁋ 17]

The Court also affirmed the lower court’s denial of the contractor’s motion for more discovery. (The contractor argued summary judgment was premature absent additional discovery.) Illinois Supreme Court Rule 191(b) allows a party opposing summary judgment to file an affidavit stating that material facts are known only to persons whose affidavits can’t be obtained due to hostility or otherwise. The failure to file a 191(b) motion precludes that party from trying to reverse a summary judgment after-the-fact on the basis of denied discovery. [⁋ 20]

Here, the contractor’s failure to seek additional time to take discovery before responding to the lessee’s summary judgment motion doomed its argument that the court entered judgment for the lessee too soon.


Constructive fraud requires more than a simple math error. Instead, there must be a substantial overcharge coupled with other evidence. Here, that consisted of the fact the contractor neither performed much of the underlying services nor had contractual relationships with the various subcontractors supposedly working under it.

The case also solidifies the proposition that while there is no magic lien inflation percentage that is per se fraudulent, an overstatement of more than 100% meets the threshold.

Procedurally, the case lesson is for a summary judgment respondent to timely move for more discovery under Rule 191(b) and to specifically identify the material evidence the summary judgment respondent needs to unearth in the requested discovery.

Defective Lis Pendens In Wisc. Suit Doesn’t Warrant Contempt Sanctions Against NY Lawyer – Seventh Circuit Says

imageThe Seventh Circuit recently considered the scope of civil contempt of court and the range of permissible sanctions for an out-of-state attorney who misfiles a document that potentially impedes the sale of real estate.

In Trade Well International v. United Central Bank, ( a New York attorney admitted temporarily in Wisconsin to pursue a Federal case there mistakenly filed a construction lien when he meant to file a lis pendens in a replevin suit seeking the return of furnishings his client provided to a Wisconsin hotel.  The lien clouded the hotel’s title and put a wrench in the defendant’s efforts to sell it to a third party.

As a sanction for the faulty filing, the district judge revoked the lawyer’s pro hac vice status (this allows a lawyer from state to practice temporarily in another), held him in contempt and fined him $500.  The lawyer appealed.

Held: Reversed. The sanction was too harsh.

Q: Why?

A: Under Wisconsin law, a lis pendens must be filed whenever legal relief is sought affecting real property that could confirm or change interests in that property.  The lis pendens must be filed in the register of deeds for the county where the real estate is located.  Fixtures are classified as real property by Wisconsin statute.

When a lis pendens is filed, a subsequent purchaser or lender on the property is bound by the proceedings in the same manner as a party to the lawsuit.

A lis pendens prepared by a member of the Wisconsin Bar doesn’t have to be authenticated. But where a non-member of the Wisconsin Bar prepares it, the lis pendens must be authenticated (sworn to under oath by a public officer of the State).

The purpose of the lis pendens is to give constructive notice to third parties that there is a pending judicial proceeding involving real estate.  A  lis pendens differs from a construction lien in that (unlike the construction lien) it doesn’t create a lien on real property.

Here, the attorney’s lis pendens was facially deficient since it referenced Wisc’s construction lien statute and it wasn’t properly authenticated.

The court then discussed the applicable contempt of court nomenclature.  A contempt sanction is civil if it is “remedial” but criminal if “punitive.” Where a litigant or lawyer is punished for out-of-court conduct, the contempt is “indirect.” For criminal contempt, the court must give notice to the party that it is being charged (with criminal contempt) and must ask the government to prosecute the contempt.

Before holding someone in civil contempt, the court must specify what “unequivocal” court order or command was violated by the person being sanctioned.  An order of contempt is immediately appealable.

Reversing the district court’s contempt finding, the Seventh Circuit held it was unclear whether the contempt finding was criminal or civil since the trial judge didn’t specify in the order.

The record also showed that the attorney was at most negligent: he mistakenly recorded a lis pendens that referenced (but shouldn’t have) Wisconsin’s construction lien statute. The Seventh Circuit stressed that negligence or hasty drafting isn’t enough to support a finding of bad faith under the law.

Since the district court couldn’t articulate the basis for its contempt finding against the NY attorney and because there was no evidence of intentional conduct by him, the contempt sanctions were improper and the contempt order was vacated.


1/ Out-of-state counsel must familiarize himself with applicable law in the jurisdiction he’s temporarily admitted to practice in and should probably retain local counsel to assist who is more versed in the specifics of the forum/foreign jurisdiction;

2/ A contempt order must specify whether it’s civil or criminal and must explicitly reference the court order that was violated;

3/ Criminal contempt has a due process component: the sanctioned party must be given notice and an opportunity to be heard and the government must prosecute the formal civil contempt proceeding.