As it has done in the past, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has interpreted the requirements for enforcement of a mechanic’s lien in broad fashion to protect a lien that otherwise might have been dissolved. In NES Rentals, Inc. v. Maine Drilling & Blasting, Inc., the SJC addressed whether an equipment supplier’s amendment of its original complaint to enforce a mechanic’s lien constituted timely commencement of its action to enforce a lien bond pursuant to G.L. c. 254, §14.
Section 14 dictates how a perfected mechanic’s lien may be dissolved by posting a bond, and what a claimant must do to maintain his security:
Any person in interest may dissolve a lien … by recording … a bond in a penal sum equal to the amount of the lien sought to be dissolved,” and a claimant “may enforce the bond by a civil action commenced within ninety days after the later of the filing of the statement required by section 8 or receipt of notice of recording of the bond.
NES Rentals, Inc. (NES) alleged it was owed money under a contract for rental equipment, and it perfected a mechanic’s lien by recording a notice of contract and a sworn statement of account. NES also timely filed and recorded its complaint to enforce the lien against the land owner, in accordance with the statutory process set forth in the Massachusetts mechanic’s lien law, G.L. c. 254, §1 et seq. A year later, NES received notice that another contractor had recorded a lien bond. Just prior to the expiration of the ninety-day period to file suit to enforce the bond, NES served a motion to amend its complaint to enforce the bond. NES eventually filed the amended complaint outside the ninety-day period.
Despite the fact that the claim was filed outside the statutory period, the SJC nevertheless allowed NES to proceed with its claim to enforce the bond. The SJC noted that the purpose of the mechanic’s lien law is to provide security to contractors, subcontractors, laborers, and suppliers for the value of their services and goods provided for improving the owner’s property. The SJC analyzed the statutory language and the relevant rules of procedure, and concluded that the amended complaint “related back” under the Rules of Civil Procedure to the date of the original complaint and was therefore timely. In doing so, the SJC also referenced the long-standing practice of Massachusetts courts to liberally permit amendments adding or substituting defendants.
The SJC’s decision creates uncertainty surrounding the enforcement of the requirement in G.L. c. 254, §14 that a claimant must file its civil action against a lien dissolution bond within ninety-days of receipt of notice of the bond. As noted in the dissent by Justice Lenk, the ninety-day deadline to enforce the bond will now apply only when a bond is filed in the period after the filing of a lien and before the commencement of an original civil action to enforce it. On the other hand, if the bond is filed after the original civil action, the ninety-day deadline is effectively unenforceable since the date will “relate back” to the original complaint.
Massachusetts courts will undoubtedly continue to view the mechanic’s lien law as a creature of statute, and claimants are well-advised to strictly adhere to the filing, recording, and notice requirements contained in the statute. That said, the takeaway from NES Rentals is that Massachusetts continues to be a jurisdiction that is friendly for lien claimants and, in the right circumstance, the courts will often attempt to find a way to enforce a lien that would (or should?) otherwise be dissolved.