Court Order Extending Deadlines Due to COVID Did Not Apply to Mechanic’s Liens

After the onset of COVID-19, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court extended court deadlines in a series of four orders. Any deadline “set forth in statutes or court rules” falling between March 17 and June 20, 2020 was tolled, or extended, to July 1, 2020.

The Massachusetts lien law requires a series of three steps, all for documents to be recorded at the pertinent Registry of Deeds, to establish and enforce a mechanic’s lien: (a) a “notice of contract’ recorded within 90 days after last performance of work; (b) a “statement of account” recorded within 120 days after last performance of work; and (c) a lawsuit filed in the pertinent court within 90 days of the recording of the Statement of Account (which must then be recorded).

Graycor ceased work on the project on March 4, 2020 (the large theater project was never completed, and the project owner’s parent company went into bankruptcy). It was owed $3,527,956.10. Graycor recorded a notice of contract and statement of account on April 27, 2020, but improperly identified the project and the property owner. On June 19, 2020, Graycor recorded an amended notice of contract and statement of account, “once again improperly identifying the property” and failing to name the proper owner entities. Graycor filed suit on July 23, 2020. Not until September 9, 2020 did Graycor filed a second amended notice of contract and statement of account, this time correctly identifying the property and the owner entities.

The parties agreed that the initial lien filings were improper, and also agreed that the September filings would be timely if the court’s COVID orders applied to lien filings.

The trial court sided with Graycor, and held that the SJC COVID orders effectively extended the deadline for the mechanic’s lien filings. But the SJC has held otherwise.

The Massachusetts high court noted that “The topics of the court's four orders were narrow in scope.” They concerned interaction of the public and the court system, and expressly noted that they were issued to address “court operations under the exigent circumstances created by the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.” The crux of the matter was this:

Given the narrow focus of the orders on court operations, it is clear that the provision in each order that tolled statutory deadlines was designed to encompass only those statutory deadlines that affect court operations, i.e., deadlines in cases pending in court or to be filed in a court.

Graycor’s argument based on the phrase “set forth in statutes” missed the larger picture, per the SJC, which was any deadline set forth in statutes AND pertaining to court proceedings. Since the mechanic’s lien law concerns records at the Registry of Deeds, which is not overseen by the courts, the deadlines in the lien law were not extended by the court orders. The Graycor lien filings were thus untimely.

The case is Graycor Construction Company, Inc. v. Pacific Theatres Exhibition Corp., et al, Mass. SJC-13142 (Sept. 12, 2022).