This blog is part of an ongoing series discussing the Pennsylvania Mechanics’ Lien Law. For more information on Mechanics’ Liens in Pennsylvania, click here.
For decades, Mechanics Lien Claims filed under the Pennsylvania Mechanics’ Lien Law of 1963 were reviewed scrupulously by the courts. Because Mechanics’ Lien Claims were considered “creatures of statute” in derogation of the common law, and constituting a special remedy for a unique and discrete class of creditors not granted to others, Lien Claims were construed strictly and absolute adherence to the requisites of the statute was required to withstand efforts to strike off the Lien Claim. If even relatively minor mistakes were made in preparing, giving the appropriate notices of, filing, and serving the Lien Claim, Courts were likely to strike off a Lien Claim in its entirety. This view was distilled in the Superior Court’s opinion in Sampson-Miller Associated Cos. V. Landmark Realty Co., 224 Pa.Super. 25 (1973). Rarely would preliminary objections or a motion be made to a Court seeking to strike off a lien claim that did not quote directly from the Sampson-Miller opinion, emphasizing that the Court was bound to “strictly construe” the statute and dismiss Lien Claims that did not comply with the Statute in any way. So ubiquitous was the language of Sampson-Miller that it constituted common knowledge even among attorneys who only casually practiced in the area of construction law and litigation.
In 2012, the Superior Court upended Sampson-Miller, and with it owners’ most common strategy to avoid filed Lien Claims. In Bricklayers of Western Pennsylvania Combined Funds v. Scott’s Development Co., 2012 Pa.Super. 4 (2012), the Superior Court expressly reversed its earlier holding in Sampson-Miller. In Bricklayers, the trustees of an employee benefit fund for a trade Union sought to file a Lien Claim as a “subcontractor” for unpaid contributions to employee benefit funds arising from work performed by the Union’s workers for a general contractor pursuant to collective bargaining agreements with the general contractor. The Union trustees argued that, contrary to the holding of Sampson-Miller, the Mechanics’ Lien Statute should be liberally construed, and that the Union by its trustees should not be denied standing to file a Lien Claim as a Subcontractor due to an overly technical and narrow construction of the law. The Union’s trustees argued that a liberal construction of the definition of “subcontractor” was warranted to ensure its prepayment of labor for the benefit of the property. The Superior Court agreed, stating that the Mechanics’ Lien Law, and the definition of “subcontractor” in particular must be “liberally construed to effect [its] objects and to promote justice.”
Although the Superior Court set forth a liberal construction standard, the Court cautioned that “a strict compliance standard may be used to determine certain issues of notice and/or service” when assessing the striking off of Lien Claims. Accordingly, some limited “strict compliance” grounds may remain to strike off a Lien Claim, but no specific reported cases have elaborated on this to date. It should be noted that the Superior Court’s Order and Opinion in Bricklayers has been appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the issue of whether liberal construction of the law is proper will be reviewed by Pennsylvania’s highest Court. Until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court renders its opinion, the law of Lien Claims will remain uncertain, but the liberal construction standard will be applied by trial courts in the meantime.