Sill v. Hart, 20060106.

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Writing for the CourtDurham
Citation2007 UT 45,162 P.3d 1099
PartiesJoel SILL, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Bill HART dba Hart Construction, Defendant and Petitioner.
Docket NumberNo. 20060208.,No. 20060106.,20060106.,20060208.
Decision Date08 June 2007
162 P.3d 1099
2007 UT 45
Joel SILL, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Bill HART dba Hart Construction, Defendant and Petitioner.
No. 20060106.
No. 20060208.
Supreme Court of Utah.
June 8, 2007.

[162 P.3d 1101]

David B. Thompson, Christina Inge Miller, Park City, David L. Arrington, Salt Lake City, for plaintiff.

Robert J. Dale, P. Bruce Badger, Bradley L. Tilt, Salt Lake City, for defendant.

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

DURHAM, Chief Justice:


¶ 1 This case involves a dispute between a property owner and a contractor in the construction of a private residence. Joel Sill, a residential property owner, entered into an agreement with Bill Hart, a general contractor, to construct a custom home in Summit County. Construction of the residence began in June 1999 and continued until December 2001 when the parties had a falling-out regarding completion of the residence. Hart stopped work on Sill's property, leaving the residence unfinished. In response, Sill filed this suit alleging various claims including breach of contract. Hart counterclaimed alleging breach of contract and unjust enrichment and seeking to foreclose a mechanics' lien for work for which Hart had yet to be paid. More than two and a half years after the suit was initiated, Sill challenged the enforceability of Hart's mechanics' lien for failing to meet the notice requirements of section 38-1-11(4)(a) of the Mechanics' Lien Act.1 The parties stipulated that all issues concerning the enforceability of the lien would be preserved until after the jury reached a verdict at trial. Following the trial, the jury awarded Hart $314,500 for his unjust enrichment and mechanics' lien claims

162 P.3d 1102

and included an award for prejudgment interest, attorney fees, and costs.

¶ 2 When Hart sought to reduce the jury verdict to a judgment, the court considered Sill's challenge to the validity of the mechanics' lien. Hart admitted that he did not serve Sill with any of the required forms or instructions informing the owner of his LRFA rights as required by section 38-1-11(4)(a) (2001). He argued, however, that the notice requirements did not apply to this case because (1) Sill, the owner, not Hart, the contractor, commenced the action; (2) Sill had no rights under LRFA because Hart was not a subcontractor; and (3) Hart, the general contractor, had not been paid in full. Sill argued that Hart's failure to serve him with the notice requirements of section 38-1-11(4)(a) created a complete jurisdictional bar to the enforcement of the lien.

¶ 3 The trial court concluded that Hart was not required to comply with the notice requirements of section 38-1-11(4)(a) because he filed a counterclaim, not a complaint. Accordingly, the court enforced his mechanics' lien. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that the notice requirements of section 38-1-11(4)(a) are triggered whenever an action is filed seeking to enforce a lien on a residence, regardless of whether the lien claimant files a complaint or a counterclaim. Sill v. Hart, 2005 UT App 537, ¶ 9, 128 P.3d 1215. The court of appeals rejected Sill's assertion that failure of a lien claimant to comply with section 38-1-11(4)(a) is a jurisdictional bar and concluded instead that the failure constitutes an affirmative defense. Id. ¶¶ 14-15.

¶ 4 We granted certiorari to determine whether the requirements of Utah Code section 38-1-11(4)(a) apply to counterclaims, whether those requirements apply regardless of the remedies available to a property owner under LRFA, and whether a failure to comply with section 38-1-11(4)(a) creates a jurisdictional bar to adjudication of an action to enforce a lien. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78-2-2(3)(a), (5) (2002).


¶ 5 "On certiorari, we review the decision of the court of appeals, not the trial court." Fla. Asset Fin. Corp. v. Utah Labor Comm'n, 2006 UT 58, ¶ 8, 147 P.3d 1189 (internal quotation marks omitted). This case presents an issue of statutory interpretation, a question of law that we review for correctness. Id.


¶ 6 Hart argues that the court of appeals' determination that the notice requirements of section 38-1-11(4)(a) extend to counterclaims should be reversed. He also argues that the notice requirements do not apply and therefore do not need to be complied with when an owner has no available rights under LRFA. Additionally, Hart argues that failure to comply with section 38-1-11(4)(a) creates an affirmative defense, not a jurisdictional bar. We agree with each of his arguments.

¶ 7 "Under our rules of statutory construction, we look first to the statute's plain language to determine its meaning." Sindt v. Ret. Bd., 2007 UT 16, ¶ 8, 157 P.3d 797 (internal quotation marks omitted). We read "[t]he plain language of a statute ... as a whole" and interpret its provisions "in harmony with other provisions in the same statute and with other statutes under the same and related chapters." State v. Schofield, 2002 UT 132, ¶ 8, 63 P.3d 667 (internal quotation marks omitted). We do so because "`[a] statute is passed as a whole and not in parts or sections and is animated by one general purpose and intent. Consequently, each part or section should be construed in connection with every other part or section so as to produce a harmonious whole.'" State v. Maestas, 2002 UT 123, ¶ 54, 63 P.3d 621 (quoting Norman J. Singer, 2A Sutherland Statutory Construction § 96:05 (4th ed.1984)).

¶ 8 The purpose and intent of Utah's Mechanics' Lien Act, Utah Code Ann. §§ 38-1-1 to -29 (2001), "`manifestly has been to protect, at all hazards, those who perform the labor and furnish the materials which enter into the construction of a building

162 P.3d 1103

or other improvement.'" John Wagner Assocs. v. Hercules, Inc., 797 P.2d 1123, 1125 (Utah Ct.App.1990) (quoting Rio Grande Lumber Co. v. Darke, 50 Utah 114, 167 P. 241, 244 (1917)). Lien statutes should be broadly construed "to effectuate that purpose." Interiors Contracting v. Navalco, 648 P.2d 1382, 1386 (Utah 1982). The broad remedial powers of the Mechanics' Lien Act, however, have been tempered by enactment of LRFA and the legislature's recognition of the competing interest of owners of residential property to keep their credit and title to the property clear of unwarranted encumbrances.

¶ 9 Thus, the Mechanics' Lien Act requires certain acts by lien claimants in order to protect owners of residential property. Section 38-1-11(4) (2001) provides:

(a) If a lien claimant files an action to enforce a lien filed under this chapter involving a residence . . . the lien claimant shall include with the service of the complaint on the owner of the residence:

(i) instructions to the owner of the residence relating to the owner's rights under Title 38, Chapter 11, [LRFA]; and

(ii) a form affidavit and motion for summary judgment to enable the owner of the residence to specify the grounds upon which the owner may exercise available rights under Title 38, Chapter 11, [LRFA].

. . .

(e) If a lien claimant fails to provide to the owner of the residence the instructions and form affidavit required by Subsection (4)(a), the lien claimant shall be barred from maintaining or enforcing the lien upon the residence.2

¶ 10 The first issue we must resolve is whether the notice requirements of section 38-1-11(4)(a) apply to counterclaims. We conclude that they do not. It has long been established that the purpose of the Mechanics' Lien Act is "to provide protection to those who enhance the value of a property by supplying labor or materials." AAA Fencing Co. v. Raintree Dev. & Energy Co., 714 P.2d 289, 291 (Utah 1986). We have also recognized the "modern trend" in mechanics' lien cases "to dispense with arbitrary rules which have no demonstrable value in a particular fact situation." Projects Unlimited, Inc. v. Copper State Thrift & Loan Co., 798 P.2d 738, 744 (Utah 1990) (upholding lien against attack where deficiencies were technical and did not prejudice the defendant). It is against this backdrop that we consider the notice requirements of...

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