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Can I be sued by a laborer hired by an unlicensed contractor for unpaid wages?

CaliforniaConstruction ContractLawsuitMechanics LienPayment DisputesRecovery OptionsRight to Lien

A few years ago I hired a property manager, who was a friend of my son. Fast forward to last August and the long time tenants moved out. I tell the property manager I'm interested in repainting the house and some general upkeep to get the property ready for market. Time goes by and he doesn't deliver, so I press him on it. He finally provides a quote from a contractor he knows. I don't approve of the quote and negotiate the price - seeing that it's drastically over other quotes I received. I follow up with my property manager to see the status of the negotiation and he replies, the work will be completed soon. Things don't add up, so I go to the property and see that they've started the job and already painted the interior and exterior of the house along with other things I never approved. The property manager and "contractor" is there and I explain to them that I never agreed to start the job, but since it has already started and the job is done so poorly to have the contractor fix issues that I've pointed out. Might I add, I was never asked what color paint I'd prefer, because I never approved of the job. When I get there, the interior and exterior is white... They tell me not to worry and it will be fixed since it's still being worked on. They tell me, the job will be done in the next 1.5 weeks. It doesn't feel right, so my son and I check on the house as much as we can during that 1.5 week time frame and tell the laborer and contractor to fix the issues. They don't finish in 1.5 weeks, instead they finish in 2 weeks. We gave them more time because they said the issues would be fixed and they needed extra days to fix the issues. During the 2 week time, the property manager then confronts my son and tells him that his duties as a property manager are only valid when the property is occupied by a tenant, so he is not responsible for anything. My son then finds out there were more issues with the work done than we had initially inspected. The contractor gives us the invoice and my son finds out : A. the contractor is unlicensed and B. the property manager acting as an independent property manager and never documented his broker on the agreement. My son confronts the unlicensed contractor multiple times and asks who told him to start, the unlicensed contractor said it was the property manager. We decide not to pay because he the workmanship was horrible and he was unlicensed (cost was in excess of $500). The property manager denies his involvement and tells my son I was the one who hired the contractor. This never happened - the property manager has always told me not to worry and it would all be taken care of. Now comes the fun part - we receive a mechanics lien in the mail from someone we have never met claiming to be a laborer furnished by the unlicensed contractor to recover labor and material costs. We talked to the laborer who worked on the property and the unlicensed contractor even said he only has one person working on the job. The person who filed the lien is not the same laborer we met. The mechanics lien was filed 90 days after the job was deemed completed by the contractor and the laborer who filed never acted on the lien within the 90 days after filing. I send this unknown laborer a letter certified mail to explain the situation and he should remove the lien. No response. I have now received a summons to show up to small claims court by this unknown laborer in the amount filed on the lien to recover his labor charges ($4000). Am I responsible for this? I don't feel that I should have to pay for something that was not done right from the beginning and held accountable. I also feel that the laborer should be suing the unlicensed contractor. I have never met this laborer and do not have an agreement or contract with him. He was "furnished at the request of the [name of unlicensed contractor]" - this was the exact sentence he wrote on the lien document.

1 reply

Jun 24, 2019
I'm really sorry to hear about that - it sounds like an absolute nightmare. First, it's worth noting that while California bars unlicensed contractors from filing liens or taking legal action to recover payment, those who are hired by an unlicensed contractor might not face that same restriction.

As I think you may be hinting at above, this could potentially be a situation where a contractor knows they can't file a lien, but opts to have a "laborer" file a lien to recover payment under the assumption that the laborer's lien could still be valid. However, if that "laborer" did not actually provide any work to the property improvement, then the laborer would not be entitled to make a lien claim.

Regardless, as you mentioned above, lien claims have strict deadlines - and if a claimant filed a lien but failed to enforce it in the timeframe required, the lien will be rendered invalid and unenforceable. Though, that doesn't mean the lien will automatically disappear. It's common for a lien claimant to resist removing a filed lien that's unenforceable, but by informing that claimant of the potential legal liability that would be present for failure to remove an invalid lien, it might be possible to speak some sense into them and have them remove the filed lien.

As for filing suit in small claims court - a suit could certainly be filed and even heard, regardless of whether the underlying claim itself is appropriate. While some breach of contract or unjust enrichment claim might be brought, or some other claim under some other legal theory, a California mechanics lien can't be enforced in small claims court. Further, a small claims proceeding would provide an opportunity to show why payment isn't actually owed and could even help expedite the removal of the lien claim from the property if it's used to show cause why the lien should be removed. If the claim is truly improper, that can be proved in court by showing the claimant has no basis for their claim.

While not always necessary in small claims court, consulting an attorney to advise you could help ensure everything is done by the book and lessen the potential that a judgment could be won in small claims court. Your attorney will be able to sort through the documentation and communications (or lack thereof) as well as any other important details and provide a plan of attack. Regardless, it's important to gather and organize all relevant information and documentation that could be applicable to the small claims case.
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