Mechanics lien rights are statutory rights, which means that you must comply with specific legal requirements in order to exercise these rights. And courts are typically unafraid to enforce those requirements strictly. Often, requirements include when and how to sending notices and other documents. Typically in Pennsylvania, improper service of notice can invalidate a mechanics lien. However, a court in Pennsylvania declared in 2019 that even though a subcontractor didn’t serve their notice by the proper means, their mechanics lien was still valid.
Pennsylvania’s service of Notice of Intent to Lien requirements
Under Pennsylvania mechanics lien laws, contractors and suppliers must send a Notice of Intent to Lien to the owner at least 30 days before filing a mechanics lien. These rules can be found under 49 P.S. §1501. As far as how the notice should be served is concerned, the statute says:
The notice provided by this section may be served by first-class, registered, or certified mail on the owner or his agent or by an adult in the same manner as a writ of summons in assumpsit, or if service cannot be so made, then by posting upon a conspicuous public part of the improvement.
So what about that second part? An adult in the same manner as a writ of summons in assumpsit? This is ultimately governed by 231 Pa. Code §400.1, and for the purpose of this case, specifically §400.1(a). This provision provides that for actions that are commenced in the First Judicial District, original process may be served:
- Within the county by the sheriff or a competent adult, or
- In any other county by deputized service as provided by Rule 400(d) or by a competent adult forwarding the process to the sheriff of the county where service may be made.
If that sounds insanely confusing, you’re not alone. For this case, we’ll just be looking at the requirement to deliver notice ‘by first-class, registered, or certified mail,’ or ‘by a competent adult.’ That was the issue in question in this case.
PA subcontractor’s improper service of notice of a mechanics lien
The case in question is American Interior Construction & Blinds v. Benjamin’s Desk, LLC.
Benjamin’s Desk, LLC, a shared office workspace, contracted with Brass Castle Building Co., LLC to do some remodeling and improvement work. Brass then hired American Interior Construction & Blinds, LLC as a subcontractor on the project. As the work progressed, AICB (the subcontractor) and Brass (the GC) got into a payment dispute. By the time the project was complete, AICB claimed that Brass owed them over $89,000.
- Property owner: Benjamin’s Desk (Desk)
- General contractor: Brass Castle Building Co (Brass)
- Subcontractor: American Interior Construction & Blinds (AICB)
Notice of Intent to Lien served through FedEx
AICB then began their mechanics lien process by preparing their Notice of Intent to Lien form. They sent their notice to Desk (the owner) by FedEx, a private courier/delivery service. Three months later, AICB filed their mechanics lien claim. Desk claimed that the lien was invalid because the notice wasn’t served by first-class, registered, or certified mail. In response, AICB argued that service was still done by a competent adult (i.e. the FedEx man) and should be considered valid.
The dispute wound up in court, and the trial court agreed with Desk, and invalidated the lien. AICB appealed the ruling.
Appeals court declares the mechanics lien valid
The Superior Court ended up reversing the trial court’s decision and ruled in favor of AICB, upholding their mechanics lien. The interesting thing to note here is that the court didn’t even go into whether the “service by a competent adult” rule applies or not. Instead, the court focused on a number of previous PA cases dealing with technical mistakes in serving legal notices.
The PA courts have long established that technical noncompliance with the service requirements may be excused unless there is some “intent to stall the judicial machinery” or actual prejudice. Since Desk actually received notice, and there was no evidence of prejudice or an intent to stall. In the court’s determination, the mechanics lien should still be valid.
Takeaway: Owners in PA can’t hide behind technical service errors
Even though the court allowed the mechanics lien to stand, that doesn’t mean that the notice was served properly. In fact, the judgment pretty much stated that service by FedEx was wrong under both rules. The court merely excused it; AICB was extremely lucky. You’d be surprised how often parties lose their lien rights due to some minor errors like this. The approach taken by Pennsylvania courts is a refreshing one. This shouldn’t be considered a free pass for subcontractors to serve notice however they want. But, it does mean that property owners won’t be able to invalidate a lien based solely on a service technicality.
See answers to other PA Notice of Intent to Lien questions in our Expert Center.