Equitable Lien Designed to Prevent Unjust Enrichment

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates

There are instances where a party does not have construction lien rights but, nevertheless, feels the need to pursue an equitable lien against the real property.

No different than a construction lien, an action to enforce an equitable lien has a one-year limitations period if it arises from the “furnishing of labor, services, or material for the improvement of real property.”  Fla. Stat. s. 95.11(5)(b).  In other words, an equitable lien–not nearly as powerful as a construction lien because a construction lien is recorded in the official public records whereas an equitable lien is not–is tied to an analogous one-year limitations period for those liening for construction improvements.  (Notably, if the equitable lien arises outside of the construction improvement context, the one-year statute of limitations would not apply.  See Gabriji, LLC v. Hollywood East, LLC, 45 Fla. L. Weekly D2251a (Fla. 4th DCA 2020) (one-year statute of limitations period does not apply to all equitable liens such as those that do not arise from furnishing labor, services, or material for the improvement of real property)).

An equitable lien is designed to prevent unjust enrichment when there is no adequate remedy at law although it is a completely separate cause of action than a cause of action for unjust enrichment.  Gabriji, supra.   An equitable lien:

[I]s “ ‘a right granted by a court of equity, arising by reason of the conduct of the parties affected which would entitle one party as a matter of equity to proceed against’ certain property.”  “Such a lien ‘may be declared by a court of equity out of general considerations of right and justice as applied to the relations of the parties and the circumstances of their dealings.’ ” 

Gabriji, supra (internal citations omitted).

However, importantly, there is also law that supports that a claim for an equitable lien must be supported by “evidence of fraud, misrepresentation, or other affirmative deception.”  Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Ewell Industries, Inc., 694 So.2d  756, 757 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997); Gordon v. Flamingo Holding Partnership, 624 So.2d 294, 297 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993).  Such evidence will likely be needed to support an equitable lien in a construction context which is pursued because a party did not properly perfect construction lien or payment bond rights.  An equitable lien may be an appropriate cause of action in certain instances as an argument to pursue recourse for non-payment where the cause of action is designed to foreclose a lien based 0n equity–not a statute or written instrument.

Circumstances in Which Design Professional has Construction Lien Rights

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates

If you are a design professional (architect, landscape architect, interior designer, engineer, surveyor, or mapper) you have construction lien rights in the event you are not paid.   This does not mean your lien rights are absolute so it is important to understand the circumstances which allow you to record a construction lien on a project.  These circumstances are contained in Florida Statute s. 713.03:

(1) Any person who performs services as architect, landscape architect, interior designer, engineer, or surveyor and mapper, subject to compliance with and the limitations imposed by this part, has a lien on the real property improved for any money that is owing to him or her for his or her services used in connection with improving the real property or for his or her services in supervising any portion of the work of improving the real property, rendered in accordance with his or her contract and with the direct contract.

(2) Any architect, landscape architect, interior designer, engineer, or surveyor and mapper who has a direct contract and who in the practice of his or her profession shall perform services, by himself or herself or others, in connection with a specific parcel of real property and subject to said compliances and limitations, shall have a lien upon such real property for the money owing to him or her for his or her professional services, regardless of whether such real property is actually improved.

The first circumstance pertains to design professionals that do NOT have a direct contract with the owner of the property.  In this circumstance, you have lien rights for your services “used in connection with improving the real property” or your services “in supervising any portion of the work of improving the real property” that you perform under your contract and with the direct contract, presumably between the owner and your client.  The important, operative word in this circumstance involves improving the real property.

The second circumstance pertains to design professionals hired directly by the owner.  In this circumstance, you have broader lien rights as you have lien rights for your services “regardless of whether such real property is actually improved.”  Hence, improving the real property is of no moment.

A design professional does not need to serve any preliminary notice (such as a notice to owner) in order to preserve their lien rights.  However, a design professional still needs to record a construction lien within 90 days from their final furnishing date.

A construction lien from a design professional is less common than a lien from a contractor, subcontractor, or supplier. Nonetheless, design professionals do have construction lien rights that an owner should be cognizant of and a design professional should understand in furtherance of best ensuring payment.