By the Kean Miller Construction Team

Louisiana’s Private Works Act [1] allows an unpaid contractor, subcontractor, or material supplier to file a “statement of claim or privilege” (i.e., lien) upon the property improved by their work or materials. A properly filed lien in the amount of the unpaid balance can then form the basis for a lawsuit against the owner or upstream contractor, where otherwise no such basis would exist under the law.

So what exact information must the claimant include in a Private Works Act lien, and in what form? The Act lists those requirements in subsection 9:4822(G)(1)-(4). Recent decisions from Louisiana appellate courts have clarified their meaning.

Before addressing those requirements, it is worth noting why they matter at all. A lawsuit seeking an unpaid amount for services rendered would normally style itself as an action for breach of contract. Such an action requires contractual privity, meaning the existence of a valid contract to which both plaintiff and defendant are parties. The lien system of the Private Works Act creates a large carve-out to this principle by allowing a subcontractor to sue a property owner directly for unpaid balances despite the fact that the two parties never contracted with one another.

Because this lien system is sui generis (i.e., an exception to general contract law), Louisiana courts have long followed the principle that the Private Works Act should be “strictly construed” against the lien claimant. Under this approach, a failure of the claimant to follow the Act’s technical requirements can result in an order from the district court that the lien be cancelled and removed from the mortgage records. A cancelled lien can then no longer sustain a lawsuit under the Private Works Act, which in all likelihood is the subcontractor’s sole remedy against an owner.

Following the Act’s form requirements is therefore critical to the lien claimant, who risks losing his entire claim if the lien is deemed improper by a reviewing court. Knowledge of these requirements is also important to the defending contractor or property owner, who can possibly avoid liability by identifying an impropriety in the lien that the court agrees is significant. Although courts can be hesitant to reject a lien on a purely technical basis,[2] the fact remains that a lien claimant must strictly adhere to the four form and content requirements set forth in La. R.S. § 9:4822(G), which states that a proper statement of claim:

(1) shall be in writing;

(2) shall be signed by the person asserting the same or his representative;

(3) shall reasonably identify the immovable with respect to which the work was performed or movables or services were supplied or rendered and the owner thereof;

(4) shall set forth the amount and nature of the obligation giving rise to the claim or privilege and reasonably itemize the elements comprising it including the person for whom or to whom the contract was performed, material supplied, or services rendered. The provisions of this Paragraph shall not require a claimant to attach copies of unpaid invoices unless the statement of claim or privilege specifically states that the invoices are attached.

The first two requirements—that the lien must be written and signed—are self-explanatory and have not been meaningfully litigated in the courts. The third and fourth requirements, however, are those which realistically can result in cancellation of the lien and therefore deserve special attention.

La. R.S. § 9:4822(G)(3): Lien Must “Reasonably Identify the Immovable”

A proper lien must “reasonably identify” the property upon which the claimant performed work and/or provided the building materials which form the basis for the lien.[3] The property description must be “sufficient to clearly and permanently identify the property.”[4] The purpose of this requirement is to accurately put on notice all third parties who may have an interest in the property subject to the privilege.

Liens often include “legal” property descriptions lifted from a filed deed or title policy. These legal descriptions are typically generated by a land surveyor and can include specific distances, boundary angles, and/or references to monuments. As to the required level of detail, the Act expressly states that a property description “which includes the lot and/or square and/or subdivision or township and range”[5] shall suffice. In a relatively recent decision interpreting that provision,[6] Louisiana’s Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found the following property description within a lien to be adequately detailed:

Lots 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, Square 53, Harlem Parkway Subdivision, Parish of Jefferson, State of Louisiana otherwise known as Pontchartrain Caye Condominiums, 3901 Ridgelake Drive, Metairie, Louisiana.

The specific references to lot number, square, and subdivision (which could be tied to plat maps on file with the parish) clearly satisfied the Fifth Circuit that the lien had “reasonably identified” the subject property. The Court even excused the fact that the lot numbers were not technically correct after a recent resubdivision of the property.

Importantly, the Private Works Act explicitly states that a property is not “reasonably identified” where the lien identifies the property location only by municipal address or mailing address.[7] Numerous courts have enforced this requirement to invalidate liens that list only the municipal address of the subject property with nothing more.[8]

La. R.S. § 9:4822(G)(4): Lien Must Describe The “Amount and Nature of the Obligation”

A proper lien under the Private Works Act must include both the specific amount outstanding and a “reasonable itemiz[ation] of the elements comprising” that amount.[9]

As to the level of detail that is required, in recent years the Third and Fourth Circuit Courts of Appeal have agreed with their district courts in that the following general descriptions of the debt included in the lien were not sufficiently itemized:

  • $180,762.59 for “Materials Supplied”[10]
  • “an unpaid balance” of $195,280.14 “for services rendered.”[11]
  • “certain materials consisting of but not limited to trim, millwork, etc.” in the amount of $37,623.98[12]

However, in a 2013 decision, the Fifth Circuit held that a series of separate subcontractors’ liens were each sufficiently itemized where the individual liens merely stated the basic nature of each subcontractor’s scope of work.[13] For example, the painter subcontractor’s lien was deemed valid where it described the nature of the debt as only for “wall preparation and general painting work,” and the HVAC subcontractor’s lien was deemed valid where it described the nature of the debt as only for “air conditioning and ventilation work.”

Although the Simms Hardin decision suggests that a brief description of scope of work may be acceptable, a cautious lien claimant should provide more detail as to the components of the amount outstanding. To that end, liens often attach and reference a series of unpaid itemized invoices representing the debt. The Act specifically states that this is not a requirement unless the lien specifically states that the invoices are attached. The State Legislature added that particular clause to the Private Works Act in 2013 in response to the Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Jefferson Door.[14]

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The author thanks Trippe Hawthorne for his research and guidance in the writing of this article.

[1] La. R.S. §9:4801 et seq.

[2] See, e.g. Authement’s Ornamental Iron Works, Inc. v. Reisfeld, 376 So. 2d 1061, 1064 (La. Ct. App. 1979) writ denied, 378 So. 2d 1390 (La. 1980) (“strict construction cannot be so interpreted as to permit purely technical objections to defeat the real intent of the statute,” which is “to protect materialmen, laborers and subcontractors who engage in construction and repair projects.”)

[3] La. R.S. §9:4822(G)(3).

[4] La. R.S. §9:4831(C).

[5] La. R.S. §9:4831(C).

[6] Simms Hardin Co., LLC v. 3901 Ridgelake Drive, L.L.C., 12-469 (La. App. 5 Cir. 5/16/13), 119 So. 3d 58, 67, writ denied, 2013-1423 (La. 9/27/13), 123 So. 3d 726.

[7] La. R.S. §9:4831(C)(“Naming the street or mailing address without more shall not be sufficient to meet the requirements of this Subsection”).

[8] Tee It Up Golf, Inc. v. Bayou State Const., L.L.C., 2009-855 (La. App. 3 Cir. 2/10/10), 30 So. 3d 1159, 1162; Norman H. Voelkel Construction, Inc. v. Recorder of Mortgages for East Baton Rouge Parish, 2002–1153, (La.App. 1 Cir. 6/27/03), 859 So.2d 9, 11, writ denied, 2003–1962 (La.10/31/03), 857 So.2d 486; see also Boes Iron–Works v. Spartan Building Corp., 1994–519 (La.App. 4 Cir. 12/15/94), 648 So.2d 24, 25, writ denied, 95–103 (La.3/10/95), 650 So.2d 1184.

[9] La. R.S. §9:4822(G)(4).

[10] Tee It Up Golf, Inc. v. Bayou State Const., L.L.C., 2009-855 (La. App. 3 Cir. 2/10/10), 30 So. 3d 1159, 1162. In addition to rejecting the short debt description itself, the Third Circuit also faulted the claimant for listing the same lump sum ($180,762.59) on two separate liens filed against two of the owners’ separate immovable properties.

[11] Bradley Elec. Servs., Inc. v. 2601, L.L.C., 2011-0627 (La. App. 4 Cir. 12/14/11), 82 So. 3d 1242, 1244. Notably, the Fourth Circuit also found that the owner’s actual knowledge of the basis for the lien was irrelevant.

[12] Jefferson Door Co. v. Cragmar Const., L.L.C., 2011-1122 (La. App. 4 Cir. 1/25/12), 81 So. 3d 1001, 1005, writ denied, 2012-0454 (La. 4/13/12), 85 So. 3d 1250.

[13] Simms Hardin Co., LLC v. 3901 Ridgelake Drive, L.L.C., 12-469 (La. App. 5 Cir. 5/16/13), 119 So. 3d 58, 68, writ denied, 2013-1423 (La. 9/27/13), 123 So. 3d 726.

[14] Act 277 of 2013, amending La. R.S. 4822(G)(4); Jefferson Door Co. v. Cragmar Const., L.L.C., 2011-1122 (La. App. 4 Cir. 1/25/12), 81 So. 3d 1001, 1005, writ denied, 2012-0454 (La. 4/13/12), 85 So. 3d 1250 (lien failed “itemization” requirement in part because of failure to attach invoices despite stating that invoices were attached).