Gem Plumbing & Heating Co., Inc. v. Rossi, No. 2003-386-Appeal.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Writing for the CourtWILLIAMS, Chief Justice.
Citation867 A.2d 796
PartiesGEM PLUMBING & HEATING CO., INC. v. Robert V. ROSSI et al.
Docket NumberNo. 2003-386-Appeal.
Decision Date22 February 2005

867 A.2d 796

GEM PLUMBING & HEATING CO., INC.
v.
Robert V. ROSSI et al

No. 2003-386-Appeal.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

February 22, 2005.


867 A.2d 799
Thomas M. Petronio, Greenville, for Plaintiff

867 A.2d 800
Patrick J. Dougherty, Providence, for Defendant

Present: WILLIAMS, C.J., GOLDBERG, FLAHERTY, SUTTELL, and ROBINSON, JJ.

OPINION

WILLIAMS, Chief Justice.

Referencing his own inability to forecast the actions of World War II Russia, Winston Churchill once quipped "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."1 Though we candidly admit the legal issues at play in this case do not come close to the terrorism of Stalinist Russia, the ensuing opinion answers the riddle wrapped in the mystery that is the Rhode Island Mechanics' Lien Law, found at G.L.1956 Chapter 28 of Title 34, as analyzed under the enigma that is the modern procedural due process jurisprudence growing out of both the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution.

This case came before the Supreme Court on January 19, 2005, on appeal from a Superior Court judgment in favor of the property owners,2 Robert V. Rossi and Linda A. Rossi (collectively Rossis), declaring that the Mechanics' Lien Law was so lean on due process protections that it rendered the statute unconstitutional. We wish to thank the Attorney General, the New England Legal Foundation, the American Subcontractors Association, Inc., the Rhode Island Subcontractors Association, and the Rhode Island Builders Association for their excellent amicus briefs. For the reasons stated herein, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

I

Facts and Travel

In October 2000, the Rossis contracted with claimant,3 Gem Plumbing & Heating Co., Inc. (Gem), to provide the materials and labor required for water and sewer lines in connection with an office building the Rossis were constructing in Smithfield, Rhode Island. On January 28, 2002, Gem mailed the Rossis a notice of intention to do work or furnish materials in connection with the building and recorded a copy of such notice in the land records in the Town of Smithfield, pursuant to § 34-28-4. As prescribed by statute, 120 days later, on May 28, 2002, Gem filed a petition to enforce the mechanic's lien in the Superior Court, claiming $35,500 in unpaid labor and materials. On the same day, Gem recorded a notice of lis pendens.

Subsequently, also in accordance with statutory procedure, the Rossis paid into the court registry $35,860, which equaled the total amount of Gem's claimed lien, plus costs. Thereafter the Rossis filed an ex parte motion to dissolve, release, and discharge the mechanic's lien and lis pendens, which the Superior Court granted on June 4, 2002, stating in its order that the amount deposited with the court registry

867 A.2d 801
was substituted forthwith for the mechanic's lien and lis pendens in the event that Gem eventually succeeded on the merits

On August 29, 2000, the Rossis filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that the Mechanics' Lien Law was unconstitutional because it deprived them of their property without due process of law.4 As required by Rule 24(d) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, the Rossis informed the Attorney General of the constitutional claim, but the State declined to intervene. On October 23, 2002, after a hearing, the motion justice entered an order inviting the Attorney General and any other party to file amicus briefs, and required that notice of such invitation be given to major building and construction trade associations. After the Attorney General and various amici curiae submitted briefs, the court heard arguments on the constitutionality of the Mechanics' Lien Law. The motion justice then issued a written decision declaring the then-statute unconstitutional. The statute, however, has been amended since that written decision, and it is the amended statute that we ultimately review today.

In that written decision analyzing the pre-amendment statute, the motion justice relied heavily upon the United States Supreme Court's most recent procedural due process opinion addressing prejudgment remedies, Connecticut v. Doehr, 501 U.S. 1, 111 S.Ct. 2105, 115 L.Ed.2d 1 (1991). Similar to the attachment procedure in Doehr, the motion justice found that a mechanic's lien clouds title; impairs the ability to sell property; taints any credit rating; reduces the chance of obtaining a home equity loan; and can place an existing mortgage in technical default.5 The motion justice held that the "tremendous significance" of the property interest, when combined with his finding that the statutorily required sworn affidavit of the claimant was an inadequate safeguard to prevent the erroneous deprivation, significantly outweighed both a claimant's interest in a prejudgment remedy and the potential burden on the government if additional safeguards were to be required.

On May 30, 2003, the motion justice entered judgment in favor of the Rossis, dismissing the action and ordering that their funds be released from the court registry, with accrued interest. On the same day, the motion justice also issued an order staying the effect of the judgment

867 A.2d 802
for thirty days. On June 5, 2003, Gem filed its notice of appeal, as well as a motion to stay the judgment pending appellate review by this Court. Subsequently, the motion justice declined to make the stay indefinite, instead extending it to July 10, 2003. This Court later stayed the judgment pending further order. At present, the funds deposited by the Rossis remain in the court registry.

II

A

The Applicable Statute

After the motion justice declared the Mechanics' Lien Law unconstitutional, the Legislature amended the statute on July 17, 2003, by adding § 34-28-17.1.6 Before determining the constitutionality of the Rhode Island Mechanics' Lien Law, we first must determine whether the pre-amendment statute or the post-amendment statute controls our analysis in this case.

Generally, if the Legislature amends or adds a statute relevant to a case that is pending appeal, this Court will apply "the law in effect at the time of the appeal," even when the statute was not in effect when judgment was entered in the trial court. O'Reilly v. Town of Glocester, 621 A.2d 697, 704-05 (R.I.1993); accord Solas v. Emergency Hiring Council, 774 A.2d 820, 826 (R.I.2001); Dunbar v. Tammelleo, 673 A.2d 1063, 1067 (R.I.1996). "This is particularly true when the legislative intent is retrospective." Dunbar, 673 A.2d at 1067.

Statutes are given retroactive effect only when the Legislature clearly expresses such an application. Pion v. Bess Eaton Donuts Flour Co., 637 A.2d 367, 371 (R.I.1994). Section 34-28-17.1 applies, not only to all future mechanics' liens, but also to all pending "mechanics' liens, petitions or lien substitutions" as of July 17, 2003. P.L. 2003, ch. 269, § 2; P.L. 2003, ch. 299, § 2. This language clearly intends to apply § 34-28-17.1 both prospectively to future mechanics' liens and retrospectively to pending mechanics' liens.7 Based on the clear language of the statute and our caselaw, we are required to apply the Mechanics' Lien Law as amended by § 34-28-17.1 to this appeal.

B

The Mechanics of Mechanics' Liens

As we have said in the past, the Mechanics' Lien Law, having its roots in various predecessor statutes going back to 1847, has "never been a model of clarity." Faraone v. Faraone, 413 A.2d 90, 91 (R.I.1980). Indeed, almost seventy years ago, in Art Metal Construction Co. v. Knight, 56 R.I. 228, 235, 185 A. 136, 139 (1936), this Court noted that "there is and for many years has been great uncertainty among the members of the legal profession in this state, as to the interpretation and application of the statute." Abraham Lincoln once said "[l]et nothing discourage or baffle you."8 And so, "[d]onning our compass and machete, we venture into the thicket,"

867 A.2d 803
and attempt to navigate this difficult statute. McKinney v. State, 843 A.2d 463, 466 (R.I.2004).

The statute is in derogation of the common law, and, as such, strict compliance is required. Art Metal Construction Co., 56 R.I. at 246, 185 A. at 144. Nonetheless, the statute should be construed to carry out its intended purpose to "afford a liberal remedy to all who have contributed labor or material towards adding to the value of the property to which the lien attaches." Field & Slocomb v. Consolidated Mineral Water Co., 25 R.I. 319, 320, 55 A. 757, 758 (1903). The law was "designed to prevent unjust enrichment of one person at the expense of another." Art Metal Construction Co., 56 R.I. at 246, 185 A. at 145.

Under § 34-28-1(a),
"Whenever any building, canal, turnpike, railroad, or other improvement shall be constructed, erected, altered, or repaired by oral or written contract with or at the oral or written request of the owner, the owner being at the time the owner of the land on which the improvement is located, * * * the building, canal, turnpike, railroad, or other improvement, together with the land, is hereby made liable and shall stand subject to liens for all the work done by any person in the construction, erection, alteration, or reparation of such building, canal, turnpike, railroad, or other improvement, and for the materials used in the construction, erection, alteration, or reparation thereof, which have been furnished by any person."

As interpreted by this Court, § 34-28-1(a) creates a lien in favor of the claimant "when the work begins or the materials are furnished * * * `it accrues as the debt accrues, being incident to the improvement * * *.'" Art Metal Construction Co., 56 R.I. at 235, 185 A. at 140. The lien, however, is not self-executing. To perfect the lien, the claimant must comply with a two-part process set forth in the statute: first, the mailing of a "notice of intention" to the property owner before or within 120 days after doing work or...

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222 practice notes
  • Rossi v. Gemma, No. 06-2020.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • May 31, 2007
    ...accepted the Rossis' argument, this decision was vacated by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. See Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi, 867 A.2d 796, 800, 818 (R.I.2005). Undaunted, the Rossis pursued § 1983 actions in federal court, raising similar — but not necessarily identical — constituti......
  • State v. Germane, No. 2006-169-C.A.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • June 2, 2009
    ...that the challenged statute violates either the Rhode Island or the United States Constitution. See Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi 867 A.2d 796, 808 (R.I.2005); see also Cherenzia v. Lynch, 847 A.2d 818, 822 Furthermore, a "trial justice's findings on mixed questions of law and fact ar......
  • Devaney v. Kilmartin, C.A. No. 13–510L.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island
    • February 12, 2015
    ...every reasonable intendment in favor of ... constitutionality in order to preserve the statute.” Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi, 867 A.2d 796, 808 (R.I.2005) (internal quotation 88 F.Supp.3d 45marks omitted). In so interpreting an ordinance, courts should read it as a whole with indivi......
  • Williams v. Stoddard, C.A. No. PC 12-3664
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Rhode Island
    • February 11, 2015
    ...their plain and ordinary meaning."' Park v. Rizzo Ford, Inc., 893 A.2d 216, 221 (R.I. 2006) (quoting Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi, 867 A.2d 796, 811 (R.I. 2005)). The rationale behind this canon of statutory interpretation is that "[t]he plain meaning of the statute is the best indic......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
222 cases
  • Rossi v. Gemma, No. 06-2020.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • May 31, 2007
    ...accepted the Rossis' argument, this decision was vacated by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. See Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi, 867 A.2d 796, 800, 818 (R.I.2005). Undaunted, the Rossis pursued § 1983 actions in federal court, raising similar — but not necessarily identical — constituti......
  • State v. Germane, No. 2006-169-C.A.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • June 2, 2009
    ...that the challenged statute violates either the Rhode Island or the United States Constitution. See Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi 867 A.2d 796, 808 (R.I.2005); see also Cherenzia v. Lynch, 847 A.2d 818, 822 Furthermore, a "trial justice's findings on mixed questions of law and fact ar......
  • Devaney v. Kilmartin, C.A. No. 13–510L.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island
    • February 12, 2015
    ...every reasonable intendment in favor of ... constitutionality in order to preserve the statute.” Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi, 867 A.2d 796, 808 (R.I.2005) (internal quotation 88 F.Supp.3d 45marks omitted). In so interpreting an ordinance, courts should read it as a whole with indivi......
  • Williams v. Stoddard, C.A. No. PC 12-3664
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Rhode Island
    • February 11, 2015
    ...their plain and ordinary meaning."' Park v. Rizzo Ford, Inc., 893 A.2d 216, 221 (R.I. 2006) (quoting Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi, 867 A.2d 796, 811 (R.I. 2005)). The rationale behind this canon of statutory interpretation is that "[t]he plain meaning of the statute is the best indic......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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