The Case of the Hidden Owner
by Art Rouse
If you are a Contractor or Subcontractor, at some time or other you will be doing business with a tenant, or a Contractor working for a tenant. If something happens and you do not get paid, don’t think the NC Lien Laws are going to help you.
The idea of a mechanics lien is written into the Constitution of the State of North Carolina. The Constitution provides that state law provide adequate protection to suppliers of labor and materials. When Thomas Jefferson first envisioned the mechanics lien and wrote it into the Virginia Constitution, things were pretty simple. If a carpenter did work on a man’s house and did not get paid, he could claim a lien against the house to enforce payment. Things are more complicated now. Owners can be pretty nebulous. The owner may be a REIT or an insurance company or a pension fund. You may be dealing with an Agent or a Management Company and you may only know the Owner by an entity formed solely for a single project, something like ABC123, LP.
Under current NC Lien Law, as adjudicated in Pete Wall Plumbing Co. v Sandra Anderson Builders, Inc. (2011), the mechanics lien can only be enforced against the lease. Under the standard lease agreement used in North Carolina, if a tenant defaults on a lease or the owner terminates a lease for cause, all improvements and fixtures become the property of the owner. At that point, there is absolutely no value to the mechanics lien.
In his opinion in the Pete Wall case, judge Steelman wrote:
“I am concerned that the present state of our law does not provide adequate protection to suppliers of labor and materials as envisioned by Article X, section 3 of the North Carolina Constitution. In addition, the increasingly complex real estate arrangements now being used make it virtually impossible for a supplier of labor or materials to protect themselves under our lien laws.”
The legislature re-wrote the statutes to protect the Title companies against “hidden liens.” Now is the time for the legislature to correct the problem that affects the very people lien laws are supposed to protect.
The North Carolina Subcontractors Alliance has produced a position paper that will be presented to the legislative study committee that will meet on March 3, 2014. Hopefully, the law can be corrected and brought into compliance with the NC Constitution. The position paper can be read or downloaded from the NCSA’s website, http://ncsubcontractors.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/NCSA-Position-Paper-Leasehold-Liens-2-19-14.pdf