Exaggeration of Lien Rights Can Lead to a Counter-Claim for Attorney Fees in Tennessee

The ability to record a lien on a debtor’s property is one of the strongest tools in the creditor’s arsenal. I mean, I am always talking about judgment liens. Liens get creditors paid.

That’s part of the reason why materialman/mechanic’s liens are such a great tool for contractors supplying labor and materials to real property.

But, there’s one note of caution in Tennessee: Don’t be so eager to claim lien rights that you exaggerate or overstate your rights.

I’m talking about Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-11-139, which provides the following remedy to a property owner who is facing a defective and/or fraudulent lien claim. That statute says:

If, in any action to enforce the lien provided by this chapter, the court finds that any lienor has willfully and grossly exaggerated the amount for which that person claims a lien, as stated in that person’s notice of lien or pleading filed, in the discretion of the court, no recovery may be allowed thereon, and the lienor may be liable for any actual expenses incurred by the injured party, including attorneys’ fees, as a result of the lienor’s exaggeration.

Some courts will remove all lien rights–even the portions that are valid–where a contractor overstates its lien rights.  Although Tennessee Courts haven’t yet considered it, other jurisdictions with similar statutes have allowed recovery of fees where the lienor knowingly asserts lien claims on property that is not lienable. The statute certainly appears to provide recovery where a lien claimant asserts a lien that is invalid, such as an untimely claim.

Tennessee Courts follow the “American Rule,” meaning that a party can’t recover attorney fees unless they are provided for in a contract between the parties. If you are fighting with a lien claimant over an exaggerated or defective lien in Tennessee, consider turning the tables on them–ask for an award of attorneys fees.

Mechanic’s Lien Statutes are to be Liberally Construed: New Tennessee Court of Appeals Opinion Allows Valid Lien Claim in the Face of “Non-Prejudicial” Defects

Once upon a time, a mechanic’s and materialmen’s lien lawsuit was akin to walking a tight-rope. In order to have a valid lien claim, you had to comply with each and every deadline, notice, and other requirement of the statute. Just one mistake rendered the lien claim ineffective.

The Tennessee lien statutes (Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-11-101 et. seq.) were revised in 2007. A notable change was that, under Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-11-148, the statutes were to be “liberally construed” in the lien claimant’s favor and that “[s]ubstantial compliance” with the lien laws is “sufficient for the validity” of lien claims.

The recent case of Tri Am Construction, Inc. v. J & V Development, Inc. (Aug. 30, 2011) is the first case to discuss this new statute on liberal construction. In that case, the claimant: failed to file its Complaint under oath; didn’t add claims against the Deed of Trust trustee; didn’t have an attachment issued; and used a defective notary acknowledgment.  All of these would have been fatal errors under the old statutes.

Under the new statute, however, the Court overlooked all of these defects, finding that the errors were “nonprejudicial” and fell within the scope of the liberal construction of the statutes.

I ask the obvious question: If a court is to overlook these defects, exactly what defects would be considered “prejudicial” and would prevent a valid lien claim?

I don’t know. Here, the exceptions appear to eliminate the rule. Surely, a court would dismiss a late-filed lien claim. Right?