Discharging a Mechanic’s Lien: Substance Over Form

When a subcontractor files a mechanic’s lien against a property, pursuant to Lien Law Section 19(6), the owner or any other party in interest (i.e., a general contractor), may apply for an order summarily discharging of record the alleged lien. In conjunction with the Lien Law, CPLR 402 states that a petition must comply with the requirements of a complaint. Typically, owners or general contractors attempt to discharge a subcontractor’s mechanic’s lien by commencing a special proceeding and filing a petition to discharge the lien with the court in the county in which the lien was filed. But what if the party seeking to discharge the mechanic’s lien files a complaint instead of a petition?

The Supreme Court of Kings County recently found, in G-Builders/F-Int. LLC v. Reliable Plumbing NYC Corp., 79 Misc. 3d 1242(A) (Sup. Ct. Kings Co. 2023) that the procedural requirements to discharge a mechanic’s lien, pursuant to Lien Law Section 19 and CPLR Section 402, are met even if a party brings the action in the form of a complaint rather than a petition.

In G-Builders, a subcontractor and general contractor entered into an agreement in which the subcontractor was to perform plumbing and sprinkler work for a project. After being paid for a portion of its work, the subcontractor abandoned the project and later filed a notice of mechanic’s lien against the property. The general contractor filed a bond to satisfy the lien and subsequently commenced a proceeding by the filing of a summons and complaint against the lienor-subcontractor. The subcontractor argued that the matter be dismissed because the general contractor failed to bring a special proceeding in accordance with CPLR 402 because it did not file a verified petition to discharge the lien.

The King County Supreme Court disagreed with the subcontractor, reasoning that “the fact that a pleading is called a ‘complaint’ rather than a ‘petition’ is hardly a procedural defect that warrants the dismissal of an action.”

The Court continued that even if the matter was not classified as a “special proceeding” when the complaint was e-filed, a petition in a special proceeding is analogous to the complaint in an action because the complaint, like a petition, notified the opponent of the nature of the claim and framed the specific issues. The Court cited CPLR 103, stating that “procedure in special proceedings shall be the same as in actions…If a court has obtained jurisdiction over the parties, a [] proceeding shall not be dismissed solely because it is not brought in the proper form.”

The key takeaway that G-Builders offers parties of a construction agreement is as long as the complaint seeking to discharge a mechanic’s lien complies with the substantive requirements of the Lien Law and the CPLR, a court will make whatever order is required for the proper prosecution of the matter.

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