On September 15, 2011, the Washington Supreme Court delivered a noteworthy victory for contractors when it unanimously overturned the Washington Court of Appeals' ruling in Williams v. Athletic Field. The Supreme Court's ruling confirmed that a construction lien using the statutory sample form is sufficient to receive the benefit of the lien statute. The lower court had ruled that a lien drafted using the sample included in RCW § 60.04.091(2) was invalid because it failed to contain a proper "acknowledgement" as required by the same statute. The Supreme Court found instead that the statute itself was ambiguous because it was subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, and that it wasn't the legislature's intent to place an excessive burden on contractors who attempt to follow the statute to protect their interests in getting paid for their work. Williams v. Athletic Field, 2011 Wash. Lexis 745 (2011).
At the same time, the Supreme Court resolved a conflict in the Washington appellate courts regarding whether the lien statute was subject to strict or liberal interpretation. The Supreme Court clarified that, once it is determined that parties (such as contractors or materialmen) come within protection of the construction lien statute, the statute's provisions will be liberally applied to them. Strict interpretation is limited to determining whether particular parties or construction services come within the scope of the lien statute in the first place.
It remains to be seen what effect this ruling will have on the future of the lien statute. Efforts at reforming the statute stalled in the legislature last year, when House Bill 1708 expired without a vote in the Senate after passing unanimously in the House. Because this case addressed one of the major concerns of that Bill, it is uncertain whether the legislature will take up the reforms again in the upcoming session. In the meantime, contractors in Washington should be able in most cases to confidently use and rely upon the sample lien form in RCW Chapter 60.04. However, contractors should timely refer any questions about filing liens to an experienced and qualified construction attorney to avoid the numerous potential pitfalls associated with perfecting lien rights.
Jan D. Sokol
Tyler J. Storti
Construction & Design