Mechanic’s Liens: Perfection Is Nine-Tenths of the Law

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In Massachusetts a mechanic’s lien is a statutorily created lien against real property which secures the right to payment for services rendered by contractors, laborers, and suppliers regarding the construction, repair, or improvement to real estate. In existence in Massachusetts since the 1800’s, a mechanic’s lien is a powerful tool for creditors which allows them to put a cloud on the title of real estate where their work, material, or services were provided, and ultimately to recover payment through a foreclosure sale. As such, courts mandate strict compliance with the procedural rules for the creation and on-going enforcement of a mechanic’s lien.

How to Acquire a Mechanic’s Lien in Massachusetts?

An initial and essential requirement to obtain a mechanic’s lien is the existence of a written contract signed by the party to be charged. The statute requires the lien claimant to record a notice of contract together with an affidavit giving an account of the amounts due within specified time deadlines and to serve such notice and account on the claimed debtor.  Finally, the statute requires the lien claimant to file a civil action within 90 days of filing the statement of account and record the complaint in the registry of deeds in the county where the land is located. The statute also provides a summary court procedure to discharge a lien based on enumerated grounds, including that a lien is invalid by reason of the failure to comply with statutory provisions, such as untimely or improper recording. However, “summary discharge of the lien can only be obtained for defects that will customarily appear of record or be readily ascertainable by reference to undisputed documents.”

Mechanic’s Lien in an MA Real Estate Case

Highlighting the need for strict compliance with the statute, in one recent case, a Superior Court judge summarily discharged a mechanic’s lien where the lien claimant submitted a revised contract at the hearing that was $2500 less than the one he had originally filed as a basis for the lien. The judge noted that the mechanic’s lien statute and the case law interpreting it demonstrate that the notice of contract must be supported by the actual written contract identified in the notice. The judge found that, under the undisputed facts, the lien claimant could maintain the lien only if the court permitted a loose reading of the statute and allowed a different contract to be substituted after the fact for the defective contract identified in the notice. The judge concluded that although the two contracts were identical except for the inclusion of an additional deposit of $2500 in the unsigned contract filed with the notice, such a substitution does not conform to the text of the statute “and does not satisfy the requirement of strict compliance with the mechanic’s lien statute.”

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