Actions to compel judgment on mechanic’s liens must be filed separately from the liens themselves, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled, affirming both case law on the issue and the trial court’s opinion.
A demolition company that had brought the suit had relied on an opinion from the Superior Court in 2012, arguing that the Mechanic’s Lien Law should be interpreted liberally, thus allowing its case to survive. But the court declined to take that route.
The company, Terra Technical Services, had initially filed 17 mechanic’s liens in 2010 totaling just over $900,000 against a property owner. It later filed civil action complaints under the same docket numbers as the liens to get judgments on them. The trial court struck its complaint and the company appealed to the Superior Court.
“An action does not commence by the filing of a mechanic’s lien claim,” Superior Court Judge Paula Francisco Ott wrote for the three-judge panel. “Likewise, where one files a mechanic’s lien claim and then files a complaint in the same proceeding, an action does not commence. As such, Terra’s argument that under a joint reading of Mechanic’s Lien Law and the Rules of Civil Procedure, the statute and the rules do not require the initiation of a new action under a separate term and number to enforce a lien claim is erroneous and misguided.”
The rules governing that law state that an action for a mechanic’s lien starts with the filing of a complaint, not the filing of the lien, according to the court’s opinion in Terra Technical Services v. River Station Land.
Looking to Bricklayers of Western Pennsylvania Combined Funds v. Scott’s Development, which was decided by the Superior Court in 2012, Terra had argued that “a liberal construction of the law should be applied to the matter,” Ott said in her opinion. She was joined by President Judge Susan Peikes Gantman and Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen.
“In this regard, Terra asserts the Mechanic’s Lien Law and the Rules of Civil Procedure do not entail the initiation of a new action under a separate term and number to enforce a lien claim but ‘simply require the filing of a complaint with the prothonot[ar]y,’” Ott said.
The appeals court relied heavily on the reasoning of the trial court, with which it agreed. Its opinion quoted at length from the trial court, which had explained that the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure defines the words “claim” and “action” differently, with claim meaning the filing of a mechanic’s lien and action meaning a complaint filed to get a judgment on the lien. The filing of that complaint marks the beginning of an action, the court explained.
“‘Thus, it is the complaint or agreement for an amicable action that starts or begins the action. This language is inconsistent with the contention that the complaint is to be filed as part of the already existing claim. Filing the complaint as part of the claim proceeding would not be starting or beginning anything,’” Ott said, quoting from the trial court opinion.
“Moreover, Terra’s filing of the 17 identical mechanic’s liens on March 3, 2010, did not constitute ‘commencement’ of this action against River Station. Further, Terra’s subsequent filing of 17 identical complaints in civil action to obtain judgment on the mechanic’s liens on March 2, 2012, under the same filing numbers as the mechanic’s liens, also did not ‘commence’ the action. Accordingly, Terra did not comply with the procedural requirements of the Mechanic’s Lien Law, and, therefore, it has not commenced actions to obtain judgment upon the mechanic’s lien claims filed,” Ott said.
The court also dismissed Terra’s argument that Bricklayers would confer liberal interpretation of the mechanic’s lien statutory construction to such a degree that the company wouldn’t have to file a complaint separately from the lien in order to start the action.
“Terra’s argument that, based on Bricklayers, the Mechanic’s Lien Law may only be viewed through the lens of liberal construction is erroneous,” Ott said. “Furthermore, Bricklayers is distinguishable from the present matter as it applied a liberal construction to the substantive scope of the statute and did not expand such interpretation to the procedural requirements of the statute.”
David Davis of Davis Bucco & Ardizzi in Conshohocken, Pa., represented Terra and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Alfred Gollatz of MacElree Harvey in West Chester, Pa., represented River Station and couldn’t be reached for comment.
(Copies of the 21-page opinion in Terra Technical Services v. River Station, PICS No. 14-1311, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •