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Mechanics liens are an extraordinary and unique remedy for contractors to get paid what they’ve earned. Given how powerful this remedy is, there are strict notices and deadline requirements that must be met to benefit from these rights. Failure to meet one of these deadlines is typically fatal to a claimant’s lien rights.

However, calculating the filing deadline can get tricky — particularly when it comes to remedial or warranty work. A recent Court of Appeals case out of Washington has brought some welcome clarity to this calculation by confirming that warranty work does not extend the filing deadline.

Washington mechanics lien filing deadline

Missing a lien filing deadline can be devastating for a contractor trying to get paid for a project. There are other legal remedies to recover those unpaid amounts, but these alternatives are time-consuming and costly. Which is why it’s always better to err on the side of caution and exercise your lien rights before it’s too late.

In the state of Washington, the deadline to file a claim can be found under RCW §60.04.091:

“Every person claiming a lien… shall file for recording… a notice of claim of lien not later than ninety days after the person ceased to furnish labor, professional services, materials, or equipment…”

However, determining the “last date of furnishing” isn’t always as concrete as it seems. Many contractors who return to the job to repair some non-conforming work assume that this will extend their lien deadlines.

This is a common problem that many contractors have; see: “Does corrective/warranty/punchlist work in WA affect a lien deadline?” The answer to that question is typically is dependent on a few different factors. Yet, with this recent Washington Court of Appeals decision, the answer is a little clearer.

Warranty work isn’t covered under WA lien laws

The case in question: Brashear Electric, Inc. v. Norcal Properties, LLC

Project Snapshot(s):

Norcal and Blue Bridge are owners of two separate but adjacent properties. Vandervert was hired by each under separate contracts for the construction of commercial retail buildings on each. Both contracts were essentially identical, containing a call back warranty period of one year to repair any non-conforming work. Brashear was hired as a sub for both projects, and both subcontracts contained similar warranty provisions.

Brashear completed work on the Norcal project in June of 2017, and the Blue Bridge project three months later. Each of the owners paid Vandervert in full, but Brashear’s final invoices still went unpaid.

Subcontractor called back to do minor repair work

In January of the following year, a tenant at the Norcal building complained of a leak that was allegedly caused by Bashear’s improper installation of an A/C unit.

So, Vandervert brought Brashear back to the property to repair the leak. Ultimately, the leak was not caused by any of Brashear’s work, but they caulked the leak until a roofer could be hired. While on the Norcal property, Vandervert had also directed Brashear to repaid a loose lighting fixtures connection at the Blue Bridge property — which Brashear promptly fixed.

A few weeks later (January 30, 2018), Brashear filed a lien against the Norcal property for the $12,830 owed on the project. The next day, Brashear also filed a lien against the Blue Bridge property for an unpaid balance of $36,278. Then in June 2018, Brashear filed enforcement actions on both claims.

The owners challenged the validity as being untimely filed, which the court granted. Brashear appealed.

Appeals court analyzed the lien statute under multiple theories of interpretation

The main issue on appeal was whether or not the warranty work was protected under lien laws, and could therefore extend the 90-day lien filing deadline. When a statutory term is undefined or challenged as ambiguous the court will use multiple approaches to determine the meaning of the provisions. In the case at hand, the court used three different approaches to interpret the statute. Each of which reached the same conclusion; no.

Plain meaning approach

The Court started by looking to the plain meaning of the RCW §60.04.091. The phrase “furnishing labor, professional services, materials, or equipment” is defined to include “any labor..for the improvement of real property.” So they moved on to the terms “improvement” which includes “constructing, altering, repairing, demolishing, etc…”

However, the term “repairing” isn’t defined in the statute or case law, so they looked to the dictionary definition which defines it as “to restore by replacing a part or putting together what is torn or broken.”

The Appeals Court reasoned that the term “restore” strongly implies that the broken thing once worked properly. “Non-conforming work” suggests otherwise. Thus, the term “repairing” supports the conclusion that warranty work isn’t covered by the lien statutes. Strike one!

Contextual approach

The next approach used by the Court was a contextual approach, also referred to as the principle of noscitur a sociis (which is Latin for “it is known from its associates”). This approach essentially looks to the meaning of a word based on the associated words and references in the statute, to determine the meaning that “best harmonizes with the context.”

The statute uses the words “constructing, altering, repairing, remodeling, demolishing, clearing, grading, or filling in.” These terms can be harmonized by recognizing that these are all tasks that a contractor would be hired and paid to do. Contractors aren’t hired and paid to correct their own non-conforming work. Rather, they’re contractually obligated to correct the work under the warranty provisions at no cost to the owner.  Strike two!

Legislative purpose approach

Lastly, the court looked to the overall legislative intent or purpose of the statute. A mechanics lien is a legal mechanism for contractors to secure payment for money owed.

Yet, as determined in the previous approach, contractors aren’t paid to correct their own defective work. Therefore, warranty work isn’t “lienable work,” and the Court concluded that it was unlikely that the legislature intended for non-lienable work to be able to extend the time to record a claim of lien. Strike three!

Warranty work isn’t lienable work

With this decision, the Washington courts have taken a firm stance that warranty work is not lienable work. So, accordingly, will not operate to extend the lien filing deadline.

Washington contractors who are experiencing payment problems need to be proactive when it comes to securing their lien rights. When in doubt, don’t hesitate or wait too long. The lien filing fee is small in comparison to potentially losing out on getting paid what you’ve earned on a project.