As we first reported back in January of 2012, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a decision in Bricklayers of Western Pennsylvania Combined Funds v. Scott’s Development Co. that significantly changed the meaning of the Pennsylvania Mechanics’ Lien Law. In its decision, the Superior Court expanded the Lien Law’s definition of “subcontractor” to include union members, giving the union trustee the ability to assert lien claims on behalf of its members for unpaid contributions to the union trust funds. This decision exposed contractors and owners to liability for a subcontractor’s failure to make benefit contributions, and we provided insight on strategies to avoid or limit such exposure.
From a legal perspective, the Superior Court’s liberal construction of the Lien Law overturned decades of precedential case law that required contractors and subcontractors to comply strictly with the Lien Law requirements.
However, on April 17, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Superior Court’s decision and held that union workers are not “subcontractors” under the definition in the Lien Law and that the union Trustees are not entitled to file a lien claim for unpaid benefit contributions.
It is worth noting that the Supreme Court did not weigh in on whether the Lien Law should be strictly interpreted and applied as it was prior to the subject case. Instead, the Court stated that the clear and unambiguous portions of the Lien Law should reflect the intent of the Legislature, while ambiguous provisions should be reviewed further.
What does this mean going forward? It is clear that union members do not have mechanics’ lien rights under the Lien Law and have thus lost a collection tool. With regard to the strict versus liberal interpretation of the Lien Law, we will have to wait for the Court to take another case raising that issue. However, given the reversal of the Superior Court’s ruling here, it can certainly be argued that the Supreme Court rejects liberal interpretations of the Lien Law. On the other hand, this ruling likely eliminates concerns that owners and general contractors had as a result of the Superior Court ruling. As always, we will continue to monitor any new developments.
Jason A. Copley is the Managing Partner at Cohen Seglias and a Partner in the Construction Group. His practice is focused on representing contractors, subcontractors and owners in the areas of construction and commercial litigation.
Lori Wisniewski Azzara is an Associate at Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC. Lori practices in the areas of construction and commercial litigation and has experience in contract negotiation, claims for delay and inefficiency, mechanics’ liens, and all types of contractual disputes.