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COA finds mechanic's lien statute requires only substantial compliance

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The Michigan City attorney representing a homeowner in a dispute over a mechanic’s lien has filed a petition for rehearing, arguing the Indiana Court of Appeals’ interpretation that “close enough is good enough” does not apply when two separate companies with similar names file lien notices on the same property.

John Lake, attorney for Margaret Lynn West, wants the Court of Appeals to take another look at Von Tobel Corporation, Individually and d/b/a/ Von Tobel Lumber & Hardware; and Von Tobel Lumber & Home Center, Inc. v. Chi-Tec Construction & Remodeling, Inc., John F. Ziola, Jr., and Margaret Lynn West, as Trustee for the Margaret Lynn West Trust, 46A03-1301-MI-18.

lake-michigan-house-front-15col.jpg The owner of this home built on Lake Michigan, Margaret Lynn West, is battling a mechanic’s lien filed by a construction supplier, arguing the lien is invalid. (Submitted photo)

The particular issues raised in this case, Lake said, have never before been presented. Similar cases have been heard, but not one where a corporation that filed for the mechanic’s lien was different from the corporation that filed for the pre-lien.

However, construction law attorneys say the court reached the proper conclusion.

“Our courts have a long history of not construing the state’s mechanic’s lien statute in a hyper-technical manner,” said Brian Falcon, attorney at Frost Brown Todd LLC in Indianapolis. “As long as the homeowner is not unfairly prejudiced by an error, the court is not going to take form over substance.”

lake Lake

West had contracted with Chi-Tec Construction to build a house on property owned by the Margaret Lynn West Trust and fronting Lake Michigan. The contractor then turned to Von Tobel Corp. for building supplies and materials to be used in the construction of the house.

On Jan. 17, 2007, Von Tobel Lumber & Home Center issued a pre-lien notice that was sent to West, according to a brief filed with the Court of Appeals by Von Tobel Corp.’s attorney. She then issued payments directly to Chi-Tec to satisfy the bills for the supplies.

When Von Tobel Corp. did not receive the funds for the materials and supplies delivered to the West property, Von Tobel Corp. filed the mechanic’s lien against the property.

Lake contended Von Tobel Home Center is a distinct and separate entity from Von Tobel Corp. The mechanic’s lien is therefore invalid, he argued, because Von Tobel Corp. did not file for the pre-lien notice so it could not acquire the mechanic’s lien.

“Von Tobel seeks to have its corporate form disregarded to overcome its failure to strictly comply with the requirement to provide pre-lien notice,” Lake wrote in his appellate brief. “The Court should deny Von Tobel’s request. If the Court does not allow Von Tobel to disregard the corporate form, then Home Center’s pre-lien notice cannot satisfy the condition precedent to the right of acquiring a lien for Von Tobel, as Von Tobel and Home Center remain separate and distinct entities.”

Tim Krsak, attorney at Douglas Koeppen & Hurley in Valparaiso, said his client, Von Tobel Corp., includes the Lumber & Home Center and is a single entity. Therefore, Von Tobel substantially complied with the statute governing mechanic’s liens.

The pre-lien provision in statute does not specifically delineate that the claimant be named, Krsak said. When the mechanic’s lien is filed, the claimant has to be identified as required by state law and as was done in this instance.

leone Leone

Von Tobel Lumber & Home Center’s pre-lien notice fulfilled the purpose of the law by giving notice to the property owner, Krsak said. The idea behind the statute is to inform the owner that the contractor is using a subcontractor who could file a lien if full payment is not made.

Joe Leone, partner at Drewry Simmons Vornehm LLP, made that same point. The purpose of the pre-lien notice is to let the homeowner know subcontractors and suppliers hired by the contractor could file liens if they are not paid. Then the homeowner should take steps to make sure the contractor is paying all the subcontractors and suppliers.

Drewry Simmons Vornehm and Frost Brown Todd are not representing any party in the Von Tobel case.

In this instance, Leone said, the homeowner knew “somebody named Von Tobel” had to be compensated for building supplies and materials.

The LaPorte Superior Court issued a summary judgment for West. The court agreed with Lake that Von Tobel Corp. was a separate company and had failed to file a pre-lien notice.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions to enter summary judgment in favor of Von Tobel Corp. Citing Beneficial Financial Co. v. Wegmiller Bender Lumber Co., Inc., 402 N.E.2d 41, 45 (Ind. Ct. App. 1980), the court stated it had previously rejected the idea that the mechanic’s lien statute must be “strictly construed with such hypertechnicality so as to frustrate the remedial purpose of the legislation.”

In finding the non-compliance with the statute was minimal in this case, the Court of Appeals noted the Margaret Lynn West Trust did not contend it was misled or confused by the differing names on the pre-lien and mechanic’s lien notices.

Very broadly, Leone said, the central issue in this case is how the statute should be interpreted. Here, the COA said the proper standard is substantial compliance, not strict compliance.

If the trial court’s ruling had been affirmed, compliance would have been difficult, Leone said. Then the name on the pre-lien would have to exactly match the name on the mechanic’s lien for the claimant to get the rights.

Lake said he did not expect a reversal and now believes the factual issues involved in the dispute created some confusion for the Court of Appeals. Since Von Tobel Corp. and Home Center are separate entities, Home Center could not transfer its pre-lien notice to Von Tobel Corp. because it had not been perfected by Home Center.

If the petition for rehearing is denied, Lake said he will file for transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court.

For West, “it’s a nightmare,” Lake said. She will likely lose her house if the rehearing and transfer are denied. “The client didn’t do anything wrong. It was the contractor.”•

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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