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Schell v. Murphy

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

December 23, 2016


         Appeal from the Order Entered April 11, 2016, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County, Civil Division at No(s): No. 50002 Mechanics 2016



          STRASSBURGER, J.

         Samuel Schell, trading and doing business as Quali-Te-Lawn Care Services (Schell), appeals from the order entered April 11, 2016, which granted preliminary objections filed by Richard V. Murphy (Murphy) in this mechanics' lien action, and dismissed Schell's complaint. Upon review, we reverse the order of the trial court and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         On January 15, 2016, Schell, through counsel, filed a mechanics' lien claim against Murphy, who was the title owner of residential property located in Bedford, Pennsylvania. Schell averred that on July 31, 2015, he was contracted by Murphy and his wife, Phyllis Murphy (Wife), "to install underground drainage lines and a sewage line to, from and about the residence, to erect and construct a stone masonry retaining wall, steps and walkways to and from the residence, and regrade the driveway serving the residence." Mechanics' Lien Claim, 1/15/2016, at ¶ 3. Schell began performing work pursuant to the contract on August 18, 2015, and was "told … to leave the premises" on November 20, 2015. Id. at ¶ 6. According to Schell, at the time he was "directed to leave the premises, substantially all of the [i]mprovements were complete." Id. at ¶ 7. Thus, Schell filed a claim for a mechanics' lien in the amount of $17, 484.23 plus interest and costs.

         On January 28, 2016, Murphy filed preliminary objections to the mechanics' lien claim. Specifically, Murphy argued that the mechanics' lien claim "must be dismissed for failure to join an indispensable party, to wit, [Wife], thus depriving the [trial court] of subject matter jurisdiction." Preliminary Objections to Mechanics' Lien Claim, 1/28/2016, at ¶ 3. According to Murphy, because Wife was a party to the underlying contract, but not an owner of the property, Schell cannot file a mechanics' lien claim against the property because Wife cannot be joined.[1]

         By order of court dated April 8, 2016, and entered on the docket on April 11, 2016, the trial court concluded that Wife "is an indispensable party under Pa.R.C.P. 1032, and inasmuch as [Schell] is, by law, unable to join [Wife] in a mechanics' lien claim, [Murphy's] preliminary objections are granted." Order, 4/11/2016, at ¶ 1. Thus, the trial court dismissed the complaint. Schell timely filed a notice of appeal. Both Schell and the trial court complied with Pa.R.A.P. 1925.

         Schell presents one question for our review. "Did the [trial] court commit an error of law in sustaining [Murphy's] preliminary objections to [Schell's mechanics'] lien claim, filed against [Murphy] as the sole record title owner, on the grounds that a non-owner spouse, listed as a party in the home improvement contract, was an indispensable party to the [mechanics'] lien?" Schell's Brief at 4 (unnecessary capitalization omitted).

         "[O]ur standard of review of an order of the trial court overruling or granting preliminary objections is to determine whether the trial court committed an error of law. When considering the appropriateness of a ruling on preliminary objections, the appellate court must apply the same standard as the trial court." Richmond v. McHale, 35 A.3d 779, 783 (Pa. Super. 2012).

         We provide the following background on the nature of mechanics' liens.

Mechanics' liens were unknown at common law and are entirely a creature of statute. Such liens are designed to protect persons who, before being paid (or fully paid), provide labor or material to improve a piece of property. See generally Matternas v. Stehman, [] 642 A.2d 1120, 1124 ([Pa. Super.] 1994) ("The Mechanics' Lien Law of 1963 was intended to protect the prepayment [of] labor and materials that a contractor invests in another's property[.]"). Mechanics' liens accomplish this goal by giving lienholders security for their payment independent of contractual remedies.

Bricklayers of W. Pennsylvania Combined Funds, Inc. v. Scott's Dev. Co., 90 A.3d 682, 690 (Pa. 2014) (some citations omitted; emphasis added). In addition, "[t]he right to a mechanic[s'] lien is purely a creature of statute and it is only available if the conditions of the legislature are strictly followed. Where the words of the statute are clear, the courts should not be requested to go beyond the requirements of the act." Brann & Stuart Co. v. Consol. Sun Ray, Inc., 253 A.2d 105, 106 (Pa. 1969).

         The statute governing mechanics' liens provides that the lien must ...

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