Construction Law History Lesson No. 1: What Do Thomas Jefferson and Mechanics Liens Have in Common?
National Association of Surety Bond Producers
Construction law is NOT boring, at least that’s what I tell my daughters. In these series of posts, I will explore some of the VERY interesting historical facts about construction law that can be used at your next motion hearing, family gathering, social event or fellow lawyer meeting. While these anecdotes may not keep your kids or significant others from rolling their eyes, hopefully they can provide a small respite from your (yes, I admit) sometimes boring life in construction law.
Fact: if there is anything state court judges hate more than discovery disputes, it’s dealing with mechanic’s liens. You see their judicial eyes roll up. How many times has an owner uttered sheer astonishment when their lawyer says that they may have to pay twice for materials or labor on a project? How is that even possible in the good old U.S. of A? No matter what side you are on, to spice up a brief or oral argument when lien statutes are at issue, make a note to “get patriotic” by mentioning one of our founding fathers: our third president, Thomas Jefferson. Why? Because TJ, as he is affectionally called, actually is the founding father of United States lien law.
To encourage construction in the new capital city of Washington, the federal government, as well as the new state of Maryland, were trying to convince mechanics (back then that meant “laborers”) to do work and provide “credit” to get the new capital built. The history books show that TJ worked with the Maryland General Assembly to establish the United States’ (and the world’s) first set of unique construction lien laws.
However, don’t go too far out on a lien limb because TJ, despite his many attributes, did not conceive the basic idea of a lien. There were already lien-like privileges in some civil law countries such as France (which TJ loved) and Spain, and some historians trace their roots to the mighty Roman Empire (please do not buy a lien history book for your favorite construction lawyer…if they even exist). Also, remember that despite the Louisiana purchase, since Louisiana had been controlled by both Spain and France, the French Napoleonic Code had been adopted. With knowledge about some of these civil law concepts, what then occurred was the encouragement and colonial arm twisting of landowners (“thou must be joking…”) to pass legislation to provide to builders and suppliers rights against the land itself, along with their basic breach of contract rights against the entity that hired them to do the work. Pretty much all states eventually followed Maryland’s lead, and in Texas and California, mechanic’s liens are a constitutional right.
The result was the “builders” that built our great capital and our country know they have statutory legal rights even if the entity that hires them “takes the money and runs.” While these days debtors prisons are out, when payments for work do not properly “flow down,” like ants at a picnic, there are many claims and little opportunity to recover spent money and materials. These rights have become even more important in these modern days when many commercial (and residential) prime contractors do not self-perform and subcontract out 100% of the actual work. As the great philosopher Tom Cruise famously said, “Show me the money!”
Of course, since liens are against common law, most case law and judges agree that lien laws have to be strictly interpreted: 100% compliance is generally the rule versus the exception. While many states have attempted to update and modernize lien laws, the next time you pull out your state’s lien statutes, take a look at the legislative history of a few specific statutes and you will see references to the 1800s and case law from the early 1900s. It also goes without saying that lien laws differ in every state, so be very, very careful if you represent a client in a lien law issue in an unfamiliar state. Local counsel who knows the nuances and ins and outs of sometimes ambiguous lien laws is many times a must.
So, what’s the bottom line and why refer to Thomas Jefferson in your next brief, at the dinner table, or in front of a state court judge who may just want to move on and handle a discovery versus lien law dispute? You can, first of all, liven things up. When have you been able to—no matter what side of the lien table you are on—stand up and talk about the founding of our country and the laws that began in the early 1800s by one of the most revered presidents in United States history? If you represent a lien claimant, how dare the owner try to get out of paying a laborer/supplier? How unpatriotic and ashamed TJ would be. If you represent the owner, you can cite the common law and state that even TJ, also a renowned lawyer and landowner, made sure that the “t’s” and “i’s” of this purely unique statutory scheme must be enforced and followed. Either way, sometimes even judges need some entertainment in the middle of a long, tedious, and sometimes boring motion docket, and fathers need to know that sometimes their kids do not think that they are the most boring lawyers in the world.
Republished with permission. This article, "Construction Law History Lesson No. 1: What Do Thomas Jefferson and Mechanics Liens Have in Common?," was originally published on Bradley's BuildSmart blog and republished by NASBP.