Construction Lawyers Rejoice! Tennessee Legislature Proposes Amendment to Fix the “Invalid” Lien Law

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108, a fairly new statute that I called the scariest statute I’ve seen in long time.

This statute imposes strict liability and double / triple / quadruple penalties upon lien claimants who lose a lien challenge. As enacted, the statute didn’t draw any distinctions between good faith lien claims and fraudulent claims.

In short, if you lose any lien challenge, you lose big.

My concern was that this would have a chilling effect on Tennessee lien claims. Honestly, I was going to be nervous every time I filed a future mechanic’s lien, no matter how good my factual and legal basis was. You just never know what can happen in Court.

So, it was no surprise when I saw that House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, introduced a bill this week that was drafted by the Tennessee Bar Association’s Construction Law Section to fix this.

This proposed legislation HB875/SB682 adds a “malice” requirement when imposing penalties. Specifically, the big change comes in subpart (a), which provides:

“…a real property owner who prevails in an action challenging the validity of a lien, and establishes, by clear and convincing evidence, that the person claiming the lien has acted with malice, including in a libel of title proceeding, may recover: …”

I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to use this statute on somebody, but it’s a small price to pay in order to avoid somebody using it on me.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108 is the Scariest Statute I’ve Seen in a While (and I can’t wait to use it)

On May 21, 2018, the Legislature enacted a law related to real property lien disputes with some real teeth. (Picture the movie poster for Jaws.)

That statute is Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-21-108.

The law provides that, if a real property owner prevails in challenging a lien, the owner “shall recover” all of the following:

  1. The owner’s reasonable attorney’s fees;
  2. Reasonable costs incurred by the owner to challenge the validity of the lien;
  3. Liquidated damages in an amount equal to ten percent (10%) of the fair market value of the property not to exceed one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000); and
  4. Any actual damages incurred by the owner.

What’s significant about this statute is all the punishments it creates for a party losing a lien dispute. It creates a statutory basis for attorneys fees (remember, Tennessee is an “American Rule” state) and also creates a statutory basis for pretty hefty liquidated damages (remember, Tennessee courts don’t favor liquidated damages provisions).

And, in case that’s not enough, don’t overlook that this statute appears to impose these double penalties on a “strict liability” basis, meaning that there needs to be no showing of bad faith. Instead, all that the property owner needs to do is: (1) prevail; and (2) that’s it.

So, if you’re the property owner, you’ll love this statute. If you’re a contractor or represent lien claimants, you’re probably going to think about this statute when you file any lien claim.