Time and time again on this blog, I’ve said that if there is one lien law rule consistent from state to state, it’s that in order to qualify for a mechanics lien claim, the materials or labor you furnish must actually be incorporated into the jobsite’s property (click here to see mentions of “incorporation” on blog).
Sometimes, however, there’s an exception that applies to certain parties who manufacture or supply specially fabricated materials. According to these exceptions, a mechanics lien can be filed for materials created, but not ever incorporated into the property, under certain conditions. This post discusses what specially fabricated materials are, which states have the exception, and under what circumstances the exception applies.
Specially Fabricated Materials Defined
What exactly is a “specially fabricated material?” Generally speaking, most states who define this term as “materials not generally suited for or readily adaptable to use” in a structure. As you can see, however, this leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
[pullquote style="right" quote="dark"]Specially Fabricated Materials are defined as materials not generally suited for or readily adaptable to use.[/pullquote] As a result, you can think about building materials as being part of a spectrum, with some materials absolutely, positively being specially fabricated for a specific project, and others obviously being your run-of-the-mill standard building material that is not specially fabricated. Then, in the middle, there is some gray area.
Most courts will apply a simple test to decide whether a material is specially fabricated, weighing these two factors: (1) Were the materials specially ordered and specially fabricated for that specific project?; and (2) Can the produced materials be easily used in another structure?
Survey of State Laws Giving Specially Fabricated Materials Special Treatment
There are a handful of states that specifically discuss specially fabricated materials in their mechanic lien laws. These states typically allow a materialman to file a mechanics lien if they produce the materials, and after production, the materials are not incorporated into the property because the order is cancelled or interfered with by the property owner or general contractor. Some of these states require a special “specially fabricated materials” notice be sent at the time an order is placed.
Here is a survey of the states with special rules on the books about specially fabricated materials.
In Florida, there isn’t a statute that excuses specially fabricated materials from the state’s general requirement that materials must be incorporated into the property to qualify for mechanic liens. However, the courts ahve carved out an equity exception to the general rules for specially fabricated materials, providing they are lienable even if they never arrive at the job site, so long as the materials were manufactured to order and the non-incorporation is the fault (either direct, or by direction) of the property owner.
The jurisprudence was established in Lehigh Structural Steel Co. v. Joseph Langner, Inc. by the 1949 Florida Supreme Court, when the court explained as follows:
We are cognizant of the rule that the Mechanics’ Lien Law should be construed so as to afford to mechanics and laborers the greatest protection compatible with justice and equity…And we have previously noted and approved the rule, followed in many jurisdictions, that the real property to be improved is subject to a lien for materials specially fabricated for such improvement under a contract directly with the owner of the realty when such materials are not used or delivered by the act or direction of the owner. There are strong equitable reasons for holding the owner’s property subject to a materialman’s lien in such cases.
Hawaii presents an interesting case, as the statutes do not clearly provide that a party may file a mechanics lien for specially fabricated materials not actually incorporated into the property’s improvement. However, the statutes do mention specially fabricated materials, and therefore, it can be reasonably interpreted to allow a lien in the event these materials are created and never used.
Nevertheless, the statute is not clear on this point, and there doesn’t appear to be any case law interpreting the same. Here is what the statute says, within H.R.S. 507-41:
“Furnishing of materials” includes supplying of: materials incorporated in the improvement or substantially consumed in construction operations or specially fabricated for incorporation in the improvement; building materials used during construction but not remaining in the improvement, diminished by the salvage value of the materials…
Massachusetts ALM GL ch. 149, § 29 has a special requirement for those supplying specially fabricated materials, and while the statute doesn’t clearly indicate a mechanics lien could be placed even if the materials were not incorporated into the property, this statute infers the same.
The statute requires that those providing specially fabricated materials must deliver a notice to the property owner within 20 days of when the order for materials is placed. Presumably, if the materials are produced and never incorporated, lien rights would still exist, as the need for the notice doesn’t apply once the specially fabricated materials are built and incorporated. Lawrence Plate and Window Glass Co. v. Varrasso Bros., Inc. At that point, the materialmen is treated like an ordinary material supplier without the notice requirement.
Therefore, the notice requirement is only there to preserve mechanic lien rights in the circumstance that the materials are never installed.
Montana has a statute dedicated to material suppliers and setting forth the specific circumstances when a materialman has mechanic lien rights, and this statute specifically addresses specially fabricated materials. Mont. Code Anno., § 71-3-524 provides:
(1) A lien for furnishing materials arises only if:
(a) (i) the materials are supplied with the intent that they be used in the course of construction of or incorporated into the improvement in connection with which the lien arises; and
(ii) the intent described in subsection (1)(a)(i) may be shown by a contract of sale, by a delivery order, by delivery to the site by the lien claimant or at the lien claimant’s direction, or by other evidence; and
(b) the materials are:
(ii) specifically fabricated for incorporation into the improvement and not readily resalable in the ordinary course of the fabricator’s business, even though the materials are not actually incorporated into the improvement;
Therefore, the supplier of specially fabricated materials may file a lien if the materials are never incorporated, but only under certain circumstances. These circumstances in Montana, while statutorily provided, are really similar to the requirements elsewhere that are created by case law.
The rule in Nebraska is very similar to the rule in Montana, as both states specifically address specially fabricated materials in their statutes. Again, the statutory rule in Nebraska (like Montana) is very similar to the standard created by case law in other states.
Quoting from the Nebraska statute, to file a mechanics lien for non-incorporated specially fabricated materials, the following is required: “Specially fabricated for incorporation in the improvements and not readily resalable in the ordinary course of the fabricator’s business even though not actually incorporated in the improvement.” Neb. Rev. Stat. § 52-134(1)(a)
Similar to the situation in Nebraska and Montana, North Dakota statutes build-in a reference to specifically fabricated materials, suggesting that lien rights exist in the state for material specifically fabricated for a project, but never actually incorporated therein. The statute in North Dakota specifically provides as follows, in its definition of materials that materials include “custom or specially fabricated materials for incorporation in the improvement.”
Unlike the statutes in Nebraska and Montana, there is no specifying that the specially fabricated materials are worthy of a lien absent incorporation. However, since the statute specifically mentions specially fabricated materials and defines them as materials “for incorporation in the improvement,” it makes one wonder if there is an inference here that they are qualified for lien rights absent physical incorporation.
Tennessee Code Ann. §66-11-101(4)(A)(iii) includes in its definition of “furnish materials,” to “specially fabricate materials for incorporation in the improvement and, if not delivered to the site of the improvement, are not readily resalable by the lienor.” This definition, like the definitions in some of the others states listed herein, make it evident that there are lien rights if specially fabricated materials are ordered, but not physically incorporated into the building.
The Texas Property Code provides a specific exception for specially fabricated materials to the general requirement that to file a lien, a supplier’s materials must be used in or delivered to the construction project. Section 53.0231(b) provides – quite clearly – that “A person who specially fabricates material has a lien even if the material is not delivered.”
Such clarity is surprising for a state whose lien laws are among the most complex in the nation. Ah, but that is not all, of course. To protect this right to lien for non-incorporated specially fabricated materials, the supplier must send a “Notice of Specially Fabricated Items” to the property owner.
All Other States
In this survey of specially fabricated mechanic lien laws, I’ve focused on those states that have statutes or cases mentioning these types of materials, and even further, allowing liens for the same. Just because a state doesn’t have a statute or a case addressing specially fabricated materials, however, doesn’t mean lien rights for these materials don’t exist.
As you can see in the case referenced under the above Florida discussion, providing lien rights to specially fabricated material suppliers is an equity exception to the state’s general incorporation rule. Every state who has an incorporation rule may, if the circumstances warrant, provide for such an equity exception.
Of course, there are some states who forbid such liens. There are probably some other states that specifically allow these liens who have been overlooked in this post. (Readers? Lawyers?) However, this is a good survey of specific laws addressing this issue, and if you’re in a state not mentioned, you can probably apply the same equity principles to find a mechanics lien right.