Construction Liens on Leased Commercial Premises

In general, a contractor or supplier is entitled to file a lien against a commercial property if they have performed work or provided materials pursuant to a written contract with the owner. These lien claims must be filed within 90 days of the last date of providing materials or services for the project.

On the other hand, if a contractor or supplier is providing materials or services for a tenant of a commercial property, the rules are different. The differences as to what the lien may attach to are discussed in detail below.

If the tenant of the property entered into a contract for the improvement of the property and the owner directly authorized the improvement in writing, the lien may attach to the real property. The proper way to ensure that a lien may attach to the real property is to have the owner of the property sign off on and approve any contract for the improvement of the real property.

As a contractor or supplier, it is suggested that you obtain the owner’s authorization which would thereby allow you to assert a lien claim against the property itself in the event of non-payment. This can become a very powerful tool on collecting an unpaid balance, as an action to foreclose upon the lien could be brought. This would place a great deal of pressure on the tenant to pay the outstanding balance.

Conversely, if the owner of the property does not sign off on or agree to the improvement to the real property, a lien claim would only attach to the lease hold interest of the tenant. Under these circumstances, the lien claim would not attach to the real property itself, but instead, solely to the lease hold interest held by the tenant.

The question then becomes what would be the value of the lease hold interest.

Depending upon the use of the property by the tenant, the lease hold interest could be quite valuable, or it may be close to worthless. Obviously, if the tenant is fully invested in the property the lien claim may carry substantial value, as it may force the tenant to satisfy the claim. Then again, if the lease hold interest is solely an office or two within a commercial property the lien claim may not possess significant value.

The above provides a general overview as to a lien claim on a commercial property which is occupied by a tenant. It is suggested, as a contractor or supplier, that you have the owner sign off for improvements. This gives you greater leverage when attempting to collect on a lien claim, and also, could force the sale of the property to satisfy same.

This post was written by Paul W. Norris of STARK & STARK.,COPYRIGHT © 2017
For more Construction & Real Estate legal analysis, go to The National Law Review

Soaring to New Heights With Drones: The Rise of UAVs in Construction Projects

The next time you visit a construction site, look up. You may see a drone in flight. The explosion of interest in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry is driven by their potential for data collection because of the ability to carry many different onboard sensors. In the construction industry, drones are used for inspections, security and surveillance, material delivery, securing investment, augmented reality, and to identify safety issues.

Drones can also be used to improve day-to-day operations by creating time lapses, job-site monitoring, and thermal imaging. Other examples of ways drones can be used in the construction industry include: design, engineering, planning, marketing, volumetrics, asbuilts, construction progress, and site logistics.

Prior to August 2016, there were many legal prohibitions that limited the use of commercial drones. However, 14 CFR § 107 (Part 107) revolutionized the operation of UAS weighing less than 55 pounds and operating for commercial purposes. This regulation affords commercial operators with the opportunity to fly UAS without prior case-by-case approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as long as they comply with certain restrictions. Some of the key operating restrictions include maintaining a visual-line-of-sight, operating only during the daytime or twilight hours, not flying over people not directly participating in the drone mission, and maximum speed and altitude limits. Transport Canada, which is responsible for transportation policies and programs in that country, has also recommended similar guidelines, including keeping the drone in visual line of sight and operating the drone during daylight hours. Additionally, there are extensive requirements for commercial operations under Special Flight Operating Certificate (SFOC), but Transport Canada is in the process of revisiting these rules.

Most of the restrictions under Part 107 are waivable, if granted permission from the FAA through an online application process. The Part 107 waiver process incorporates significant flexibility into the regulations. The waiver process is a tool that the construction industry can utilize to maximize the value and use of UAS. Possible areas to request a waiver include nighttime operations, simultaneous operation of multiple aircraft, operation over people, and operation in restricted airspace.

Use of UAVs in the United States is subject to the enforcement authority of the FAA. The FAA has broad enforcement authority and investigatory powers, which require it to regulate aircraft operations in the National Airspace System (NAS) in order to ensure the safety of persons, property, and manned aircraft. The FAA may take enforcement action against anyone who conducts an unauthorized UAS operation or operates a UAS in a way that endangers the safety of the NAS. The FAA works with local and state law enforcement to explain the legal framework surrounding UAS and to seek help in identifying unlawful UAS operators. Specifically, UAS must comply with safety requirements of Part 107. In addition, those who “endanger the safety of the national airspace system” may face penalties, including warning notices, letters of correction, and civil penalties. With regard to the FAA’s investigatory power, it needs only a “reasonable ground” to show a violation of a statute or regulation to initiate an investigation.

Transport Canada overall has conducted minimal enforcement of drone operations. In 2016, it undertook a large educational effort with regard to the safe operation of drones. It does have an online enforcement tool that provides information about “dos and don’ts” for flying drones, as well as details about regulations.

The increased prevalence of UAVs has prompted the courts to review the unsettled area of airspace law. One issue is the private versus public control of airspace. On one hand is the common law principle of property ownership that states that one controls the airspace above their privately owned land. On the other hand are FAA regulations, which claim jurisdiction over all U.S. airspace. Additionally, increased state legislation aimed at drone regulation has created preemption concerns, particularly when the state laws are in conflict with federal laws.

Another risk is that liability arising from drones is not covered in typical commercial liability insurance policies. However, it can be added to both property and liability coverage, which generally protects the insured against damage done by or to its drone. Some regulators propose requiring certain drone users to purchase liability insurance.

In order to keep up with the growth and changing needs of drone use, rulemaking for drone usage will likely continue and expand over the coming months.

Read more legal analysis here.

This post was written by Kenneth D. Suzan of  Barnes & Thornburg LLP.

California Supreme Court Rules Homeowners Forfeited Right to Challenge Coastal Development Permit Conditions By Undertaking Work Authorized By Permit

The California Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in Lynch v. California Coastal Commission that two homeowners who obtained a coastal development permit (CDP) from the California Coastal Commission (Commission) to construct a new seawall forfeited their right to challenge mitigation conditions attached to the permit because they accepted the benefits conferred by the permit by undertaking the work authorized.

Key procedural takeaway: With exceptions noted below, if a permit applicant accepts a proffered CDP and acts on that permit – even while expressly reserving its asserted right to challenge the legality of the permit – the permittee has forfeited its right to subsequently challenge the permit in court.

Key takeaway on the merits of the claim: None. Since the Supreme Court ruled that the permittees had forfeited their right to challenge the CDP by undertaking the authorized construction, it found no need to address the underlying merits of the permittee’s challenge. In particular, the Court left unaddressed the contention that the mitigation conditions were unconstitutional, including the condition that limited the life of the seawall to 20 years unless reauthorized at the end of the term.

Homeowners Challenge CDP Conditions

The homeowners, Barbara Lynch and Thomas Frick, sought a CDP (more precisely, an amendment to the 1989 CDP authorizing construction of the existing seawall) to authorize demolition of an existing seawall, construction of a replacement seawall and rebuilding of a lower stairway providing access from the bluff to the beach. The Commission granted the CDP allowing seawall demolition and reconstruction but imposed several permit conditions.

The homeowners filed an administrative writ petition in superior court challenging the following three permit conditions: (1) a prohibition on reconstruction of the lower stairway; (2) a 20-year expiration period on the seawall permit and a prohibition on relying on the seawall as a source of geologic stability or protection for future blufftop redevelopment; and (3) a requirement that prior to expiration of the 20-year period, the homeowners must apply for a new permit to remove the seawall, change its size or configuration, or extend the authorization period.

Around the same time, the homeowners recorded deed restrictions on their property stating that the CDP conditions were covenants, conditions and restrictions on the use and enjoyment of their properties, satisfied all other permits conditions, obtained the permit and demolished and reconstructed the seawall.

Lower Court Rulings

The trial court issued a writ directing the Commission to remove the three challenged conditions from the CDP and found that the conditions prohibiting reconstruction of the stairway and imposing a 20-year expiration period were not valid. The appellate court reversed the trial court, determining that plaintiffs had waived their claims and, in any event, both conditions were valid.

California Supreme Court Ruling

Though the Court affirmed the appellate court’s reversal of the trial court decision, it did so on a different basis. The appellate court’s ruling rested on the concept of waiver while the Court found that the homeowners forfeited their right to challenge by accepting the benefits of the permit. The Court explained that forfeiture differs from waiver in that forfeiture results from a failure to invoke a right and waiver denotes an express relinquishment of a known right. The Court identified the crucial point as being that the homeowners “went forward with construction before obtaining a judicial determination of their objections.” By accepting the benefits of the CDP and undertaking the permitted project, the homeowners effectively forfeited the right to maintain their otherwise timely objections.

The Court rejected the homeowners’ argument that because the challenged permit conditions did not affect the design or construction of the seawall, it was possible to challenge the conditions while the project was being built. Such a rule, the Court said, would effectively expand the Mitigation Fee Act (Gov. Code, §§ 66000 et seq.), which establishes a procedure for developers to proceed with a project and still protest the imposition of “fees, dedications, reservations, or other exactions.” Not included in this list, however, are land use restrictions. The Court stated that only the Legislature has the power to declare that permits may be accepted and acted upon, even while the underlying land use restrictions imposed as a condition of that permit are being challenged in court.

The Court did note that there are potential remedies available to permit applicants. Responding to the homeowners’ protest that imposing a forfeiture under the circumstances present here – where the seawall was in danger of collapsing into the sea thus allowing no time to delay repairs until resolution of the litigation – the Court offered two solutions. First, property owners can address imminent dangers by obtaining an emergency permit from the Commission under Public Resources Code section 30624. Second, property owners can try to reach an agreement with the permitting agency to allow construction to proceed while a challenge to permit conditions is resolved in court, which the court noted could prevent a finding of equitable forfeiture. Neither remedy appears to have been pursued in this case.

Insights

Developers and property owners should view the unanimous Court’s holding as applying beyond CDPs and should thus proceed with extreme caution when faced with objectionable permit conditions. By refusing to extend the Mitigation Fee Act’s “pay and protest” option beyond fees and exactions, this decision gives permitting agencies leverage to impose potentially controversial permit conditions, knowing that permit applicants are often constrained in terms of time and money when choosing between moving forward with objectionable permit conditions or going to court. Legislative action on this issue could provide some relief, but may not be likely for the foreseeable future.

This post was written by Courtney A. Davis and James T. Burroughs  Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis LLP.

Letters of Intent in Construction Project Negotiations–Pt 2

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In our last post, we began speaking about letters of intent and their use in negotiating the terms of construction projects. As we noted, letters of intent are not contracts, but courts do sometimes enforce them as binding, depending on what the parties intended by the document. In cases where it is evident that both parties intended to be bound, they may be enforced by a court. In cases where parties did not intend to be bound, they may not be enforced. It depends on the circumstances, though.

In some cases, a court may enforce some parts of a letter of intent, but not others. This can happen in cases where parties did not intend to be bound by specific provisions of the letter, but agreed to deal exclusively with the other party, not to disclose the negotiations, or to deal with the other party in good faith. Certain types of agreements such as these can spur parties to take steps in reliance on the letter of intent, including investing money or passing on other opportunities, and courts may choose to enforce them.

Courts may choose to enforce such agreements even in cases where the letter of intent is clear about its non-enforceability, particularly where the party objecting to enforcement led the other party into taking actions in reliance on the letter. In yet other cases, letters of intent may be unenforceable, but may still be used by a court to help interpret ambiguous terms of a later contract. Any of these outcomes are possible, depending on the case.

As can be seen, it is difficult to point to general rules regarding the enforceability of a letter of intent. In the context of negotiating construction projects and other transactions, then, it is beneficial for parties to work with an experienced attorney to ensure they understand state law on the issue and what exactly they may be getting themselves into. Knowing this information can help a party to limit the possibility of a later dispute over a letter of intent. Working with our firm, clients can be sure that we will provide solid legal advice and practical guidance on business negotiations with their rights and interests in mind.

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Letters of Intent in Construction Project Negotiations–Pt 1

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Anyone who works in the construction industry knows how important it is for everybody to have the same understanding about the terms of a project, including the materials needed, deadlines to be met, and the procedure for resolving disputes. Without a reasonable degree of certainty about these things, there is always the risk that something will go wrong and that money will be lost.

Before all of the details for a construction project are hammered out in a contract, though, there is the negotiation process. Oftentimes, parties begin to take action and invest in a project before a formal contract has been reached. One tool that is sometimes used to prevent financial loss before a contract has been reached is a letter of intent.

A letter of intent is a document that provides a general statement of an agreement that has yet to be finalized. Letters of intent are not contracts, though they may still be enforced in court, at least as to some provisions. Exactly how a letter of intent is treated by a court when disputes arise is not an easy question to answer, partly because the law differs from state to state and partly because it depends on the intention of the parties with respect to the letter of intent, whether they intended to be bound by the letter.

In determining whether parties intended to be bound by a letter of intent, courts don’t simply take parties’€™ word for it. Rather, they consider the specific language of the agreement and other signs that speak to each party’s intent. This can sometimes include actions taken by the parties after the letter of intent is signed.

In our next post, we wi€™ll continue this discussion on letters of intent and how they should be approached in the negotiation process.

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What You Need To Know: Boston and Cambridge Energy Use Disclosure Ordinances

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On July 28, 2014, Cambridge, Massachusetts enacted an energy use disclosure ordinance, joining Boston and several other cities.  The Cambridge ordinance is similar to its Boston counterpart, but contains several differences.  Property owners in each municipality should be familiar with these ordinances.

1.  Properties Covered By Each Ordinance

Cambridge:

  • Municipal buildings of 10,000 square feet or larger;
  • Non-residential buildings of 25,000 square feet or larger; and
  • Multi-family residential buildings with 50 or more units.

Boston:

  • City buildings (those the City owns or for which the City regularly pays energy bills);
  • Non-residential buildings (those located on a parcel of land with one or more buildings of at least 35,000 square feet and of which 50% or more is used for non-residential purposes, and which are not City buildings); and
  • Residential buildings (i) (a parcel with one or more buildings with 35 or more dwelling units that comprise more than 50% of the building, excluding parking, or (ii) any parcel with one or more buildings of at least 35,000 square feet and that is not a City building or a non-residential building, or (iii) any grouping of residential buildings designated by the Commission as an appropriate reporting unit).

2.  Obligations of Owners and Tenants of Covered Properties

Both ordinances broadly defined “Owner” to include owners of record or a designated agent, and net lessees for a term of at least forty-nine years.

Cambridge:

No later than May 1st of each year, all covered properties must disclose energy consumed by such property during the prior year, together with other information required by an EPA Benchmarking Tool:  (i) address; (ii) primary use type; (iii) gross floor area; (iv) energy use intensity; (v) weather normalized source energy use intensity; (vi) annual greenhouse gas emissions; (vii) water use; (viii) energy performance score; and (ix) compliance or noncompliance with ordinance.

Tenants (those who lease, occupy, or hold possession) of a covered property must comply with an owner’s request for information within thirty days or risk a fine.

Boston:

No later than May 15th of each year, owner of each covered non-city building shall accurately report previous calendar year’s energy, water use, and any other building characteristics necessary to evaluate absolute and relative energy use intensity of each building through Energy Star Portfolio Manager.

Owners must request information from tenants separately metered by utility companies in January for the previous year, and tenant must report information to owner no later than end of February, though a tenant’s failure to respond does not relieve an owner’s duty to report.

Enforcement and Penalties

Cambridge:

Failure to comply with the ordinance or misrepresentation of any material fact may result in a written warning on the first violation, and a fine of up to $300 per day for any subsequent violation.

Boston:

The Air Pollution Control Commission may issue written notice of violation, including specific delinquencies, to those failing to comply, giving thirty days within which an owner may cure the violation or request a hearing.  The Commission also may seek injunctive relief requiring an owner or non-residential tenant to comply with the ordinance.

Boston provides a sliding scale fine schedule for failure to comply with a notice of violation, depending on the type of property, which ranges from $35 per violation up to $200 per violation.  Each day of noncompliance is a separate violation, but owners or non-residential tenants may not be liable for a fine of more than $3,000 per calendar year per building or tenancy.

Both cities are actively developing programs to address climate change and adaptation.  Property owners should monitor these efforts as well as similar initiatives by federal and state agencies.

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Cyber and Technology Risk Insurance for the Construction Sector

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The recent, well-publicized retail store data breach controversies have spawned a number of lawsuits and insurance claims. Not surprisingly, insurers have responded with attempts to fight claims for coverage for such losses. Insurance underwriters are carefully monitoring decisions being handed down by courts in these lawsuits. All of this activity has led to a new emphasis on cyber and technology risk and assessments, as well as on insurance-program strategies.

These developments have ramifications for the construction industry that include, and go well beyond, the data-breach context. Contractors, design professionals and owners may find that in addition to losses caused by data breaches, other types of losses occasioned by technology-related incidents may not be covered by their existing insurance programs.

Specifically, insureds may find themselves with substantial coverage gaps because:

  • data and technology exclusions have been added to general liability policies.

  • such losses typically involve economic losses (as opposed to property damages or personal-injury losses) that insurers argue are not covered by general liability policies.

  • data and technology losses may be the result of manufacturing glitches rather than professional negligence covered by professional liability policies.

Coverage for claims involving glitches, manufacturing errors and data breaches in technology-driven applications — such as Building Information Modeling (BIM), estimating and scheduling programs, and 3D printing — may be uncertain. A number of endorsements are currently available for data breach coverage, but insurers don’t necessarily have the construction industry in mind as they provide these initial products.

In addition, there is no such thing as a “standard” cyber liability policy, endorsement or exclusion. Insurers have their own forms with their own wording, and as seemingly minor differences in language may have a significant impact in coverage, such matters should be run past counsel.

Construction insurance brokers are telling us that insurers are in the process of determining how to respond to cyber and technology risk claims, what products to offer going forward, and how to underwrite and price these products. Keith W. Jurss, a senior vice president in Willis’s National Construction Practice warns:

“As the construction industry continues to identify the unique “cyber” risks that it faces we are identifying gaps in the current suite of “cyber” insurance coverages that are available.  In addition, new exclusionary language related to cyber risk under CGL and other policies adds to the gap.  The insurance industry is slowly beginning to respond with endorsements that give back coverage or new policies designed to address the specific risks of the construction industry.

“As we identify cyber insurance underwriters willing to evaluate the risks specific to the construction industry, we are seeing the development of unique solutions in the market. There is, however, more work required and as construction clients continue to demand solutions the industry will be forced to respond.”

Consequently, this is a time to stay in close touch with qualified construction insurance brokers who understand the sector and have their hands on the pulse of the latest available cyber and technology risk products. As these products become available, clients may also want to consider what cyber and technology risk coverage to require on projects and whether to include these requirements in downstream contracts.

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