Rolled Blueprints and gavel of justice

On July 9, 2014, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed a bill (S.B. 145) into law that amends the Pennsylvania Mechanics’ Lien Law of 1963 (the “Lien Law”). The new law took effect on September 8, 2014 and affects subcontractor lien rights on residential construction projects as well as the order of lien priority between mechanics’ liens and open-end mortgages.

Liens on Residential Property

Under the new law, an unpaid subcontractor no longer has lien rights if all three of the following conditions are satisfied:

  1. The property owner or tenant has paid the full contract price to its general contractor;
  2. The property is or is intended to be used as the owner’s or tenant’s residence; and
  3. The property in question is a one or two unit residential property or townhouse.

In other words, this amendment protects homeowners from having to pay twice for the same work (e.g., where the owner pays the general contractor but the general contractor fails to pay its subcontractor). The new law includes a procedure through which an owner can discharge or reduce the amount of the mechanics’ lien by petitioning the court and proving that he or she has paid the full contract price to the general contractor.

Changes to Lien Priority

Through S.B. 145, the Pennsylvania Legislature has also changed how the Lien Law addresses the question of lender priority. As we have blogged previously, “priority” refers to who gets paid first if a property encumbered with multiple mortgages, mechanics’ liens, or the like is sold. Before the new law was passed, a mechanics’ lien could enjoy priority over a mortgage if the work in question began before the bank recorded the mortgage and the loan proceeds secured by the mortgage were used, in part, for non-construction costs.

With the new changes to the Lien Law, these open-end mortgages will enjoy priority over a mechanics’ lien claim as long as at least 60% of the loan proceeds are used to pay the “costs of construction” (which is defined in S.B. 145 very broadly to encompass just about every conceivable construction cost including taxes, bonding, and permits). These changes appear to be the legislature’s response to situations like the one in which the Pennsylvania Superior Court encountered in the case of Commerce Bank/Harrisburg, N.A. v. Kessler. In Kessler, a contractor’s mechanics’ lien was given priority over a bank’s open-end mortgage on the property in connection with a construction loan because not all of the proceeds from the loan were used to cover the costs of construction.

What Do These Amendments Mean to Players in the Construction Industry?

For subcontractors, the risk of nonpayment on residential projects increases because the homeowner may be able to demonstrate that it paid the general contractor in full. In those instances, the subcontractor’s recourse will most likely be limited to a breach of contract lawsuit against the general contractor. It is important for all members of the construction industry to note that this new protection to owners is limited to residential properties where the owner intends to use it as his or her residence.

Lenders and title companies will likely celebrate the changes to the Lien Law because it effectively overrules the Kessler decision and defines “costs of construction” more broadly such that open-end mortgages in connection with construction loans are likely to enjoy priority over a mechanics’ lien claim under most circumstances.

As is evident from these amendments, the Lien Law is a powerful and complicated statutory remedy that affects the rights of most participants in a construction project including lenders, owners, contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers. These latest changes remind us how challenging it can be to balance and navigate the competing rights and interests of each player. Anyone with questions regarding these new changes or the Lien Law generally should feel free to contact Cohen Seglias.

Jason A. Copley is the Managing Partner at Cohen Seglias and a Partner in the Construction Group. His practice is focused on representing contractors, subcontractors and owners in the areas of construction and commercial litigation.

Daniel E. Fierstein is an Associate in the Construction Group of Cohen Seglias and focuses his practice on construction law. Dan counsels clients at all tiers of the construction industry, including general contractors, subcontractors, owners, developers, and design professionals.