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Subcontractors: Do You Really Know What You’ve Waived in Your Lien Waiver?

By Corey N. Giroux

     Many subcontractors treat lien waivers interchangeably:  that is, if you’ve seen one, you’ve them all.  More and more, treating lien waivers in this manner could lead to significant and costly consequences.  Increasingly, general contractors and construction managers are providing subcontractors and suppliers with a new breed of lien waiver.  Unlike traditional lien waivers that sought only to protect the owner from the prospect of unwanted labor and materials (mechanic’s) liens cropping up on their projects, many new “lien waivers” are crafted with the intent for the subcontractor to agree to far more than a simple waiver of its lien.

      In New Hampshire, and other jurisdictions, it’s well-settled law that contractors and subcontractors may waive their right to assert or perfect a mechanic’s lien by contract.  Savvy owners, developers and general contractors have long drafted contracts with this in mind.  As more and more subcontractors rejected provisions that limited or restrained their right to assert mechanic’s liens, owners, developers and general contractors have started to shift additional waiver language from subcontracts into lien waivers.  As an illustration, consider the following, taken in part from a lien waiver recently reviewed by the author:

 “In consideration of receipt of payment, the undersigned irrevocably and unconditionally releases and waives any and all mechanic’s liens or other liens or right to claim any and all mechanic’s liens or other liens against [the property].  Additionally, the undersigned waives and releases any and all other claims against the Owner, the property or the Contractor, or any other claims of any kind whatsoever in connection with the Subcontract and the property.  The undersigned shall defend, indemnify and hold harmless the Owner and Contractor against any lien, bond, claims or suits in connection with the materials, labor and everything else in connection with the subcontract.

In this instance, the subcontractor waived not only its right to assert a mechanic’s lien or any other lien upon accepting payment, but the subcontractor also waived its right to assert ANY claim related to the contract or the property.  Furthermore, the subcontractor has affirmatively agreed to indemnify the owner and contractor for any claims connected to the materials, labor or “anything else in connection with the subcontract.”  Among other things, this means that contractor has agreed to pay the general contractor and the owner for any costs they might incur in dissolving a lien on the project arising from the subcontractor’s sub-subcontractors or suppliers or in resolving any other claim or lawsuit connected with the sub-subcontractor or material supplier’s involvement in the project.  This so-called “waiver,” contains substantially more than a waiver of the subcontractor’s right to claim a lien in consideration of its partial payment on the subcontract.  

             Some lien waivers go a step further.  Consider the following language, taken in part, from another lien waiver recently reviewed by the author:

 “In consideration of the receipt of the payment above, the receipt and sufficiency of which are hereby acknowledged, [the subcontractor] releases and forever discharges [the contractor and owner] of and from any and all claims, causes of action, liabilities and other obligations respecting payment for, upon or by reason of work, labor and/or materials furnished through the date shown below to the construction project.”

At first blush, this provision appears ordinary enough.  A more thorough consideration of the highlighted language, however, reveals that the provision is carefully calculated to insure that each month the subcontractor waives its right to pursue payment for all work performed before the date the lien waiver is signed. 

      So why is this a problem?  To the extent that the subcontractor signing such a lien waiver performed extra work, change order work or has disputed work that occurred prior to signing the lien waiver, and the subcontractor accepts the payment referenced in the lien waiver without carving an exception for the added, changed or disputed work, the subcontractor has agreed to relinquish its right to any further payment, a lien or a claim for payment for that work.  In other words, the subcontractor has agreed not to be paid anything further for work performed through the date the lien waiver is signed, regardless of whether the subcontractor is otherwise entitled to payment.  In tying the subcontractor’s waiver to a particular date in time, rather than to an agreed upon amount to be paid, this waiver extinguishes any claim for payment for any work performed that wasn’t included in the subcontractor’s payment for which the lien waiver was signed.  This subtle, but very important distinction, can prove costly when the subcontractor fails to appreciate its impact on its right to payment.

      Other lien waivers seek to make the subcontractor a trustee, converting the funds paid to the subcontractor into trust funds for the benefit of its subcontractors and suppliers, by agreement.  Take the following example:

 “The undersigned [subcontractor] acknowledges and agrees that it is receiving the funds paid in consideration of this payment application as a trustee, and said funds will be held in trust for the benefit of all subcontractors, materialmen, suppliers and laborers who supplied work for which the beneficiaries or their property might be liable, and that the [subcontractor] shall have no interest in such funds until all these obligations have been satisfied in full.”

In this instance, rather than taking payment as the rightful owner of the funds paid, the subcontractor accepts payment as a trustee for its sub-subcontractors and materials suppliers, installing affirmative obligations and fiduciary duties on the subcontractor to its sub-subcontractors and suppliers, which otherwise do not exist.  By virtue of the language in this provision, the subcontractor has agreed to restrict its discretion and ability to use the funds paid to it for its work as it deems necessary, replacing its discretion with the affirmative obligation to hold and distribute the funds paid to its subcontractors and suppliers on behalf of the owner and general contractor.  In a perfect world, every subcontractor would pay each of its sub-subcontractors and suppliers in full out of each payment it received on a project.  In the real world, there are often good business reasons for subcontractors to withhold some or all of the payments claimed due by its sub-subcontractors and suppliers, or to apply certain portions of the payments it receives elsewhere.  This language removes the subcontractor’s discretion to do so.

      With increasing frequency, developers, owners and general contractors employ “lien waivers” intended to do much more than insure that mechanic’s liens aren’t perfected against a property after payment has been made.  Instead, this new breed of “lien waivers” is intended to create “knowing” waivers of subcontractors’ affirmative rights after they have signed their subcontract.  These “lien waivers” are intended to rewrite the bargain to which the parties agreed in their subcontract by downshifting the owner’s and general contractor’s desired contractual terms into a lien waiver when it might otherwise have been rejected in the subcontract.  It’s no longer sufficient for subcontractor’s to review only the proposed subcontract and scope of work.  Subcontractors must review proposed lien waivers carefully to insure that the lien waivers aren’t an agreement not to be paid.  If you have any questions or concerns regarding the provisions of your lien waivers, consult your construction attorney for a thorough assessment of the risks and exposures.

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