On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.
Approved for Publication November 21, 1997.
Before Judges Stern, Kleiner and Kimmelman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kimmelman, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kimmelman
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Defendants Ashok R. Bapat and Shaila A. Bapat appeal from a summary judgment entered December 6, 1996, enforcing against them a lien claim filed by plaintiff Mansion Supply Company, Inc. pursuant to the Construction Lien Law, N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-1 to -38.
Defendants had entered into a construction contract with Page Properties, Inc. (Page) to construct a one-family residence on a parcel of land owned by them. During construction, Page ordered windows and other related materials from plaintiff. The last of these materials was delivered to the construction site on May 24, 1995. The total invoice price was $30,810.89. Work on defendants' residence ceased on August 17, 1995, when Page went out of business. On August 21, 1995, eighty-nine days after the last of plaintiff's materials were delivered to the site, plaintiff, in accordance with its understanding of the Construction Lien Law, filed a Notice of Unpaid Balance and Right to File Lien (NUB), a demand for arbitration, and a form of lien claim, all pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-6, -20, -21b(1), (3).
The issues on this appeal involve the construction, operation, and effect of the Construction Lien Law as it applies to lien claims affecting residential real estate.
In construing a statute, our function is to first consider its plain language in the context of the entire legislative scheme of which it is a part. Kimmelman v. Henkels & McCoy, Inc., 108 N.J. 123, 127-28, 527 A.2d 1368 (1987); State v. Wright, 107 N.J. 488, 497, 527 A.2d 379 (1987). When the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, we will enforce the statute as written, "'absent any specific indication of legislative intent to the contrary.'" Chase Manhattan Bank v. Josephson, 135 N.J. 209, 225, 638 A.2d 1301 (1994) (quoting Town of Morristown v. Woman's Club, 124 N.J. 605, 592 A.2d 216 (1991)) (emphasis deleted); State v. Bigham, 119 N.J. 646, 650-51, 575 A.2d 868 (1990).
Initially, we recognize that the Construction Lien Law was enacted, and became effective, on April 22, 1994. It replaced the long-standing Mechanics' Lien Law, N.J.S.A. 2A:44-64 to -124 (repealed, L. 1993, c. 318). Under the Mechanics' Lien Law, a supplier of labor and/or materials, as a condition precedent to the establishment of a lien claim, was obliged to file a mechanic's notice of intention prior to the performance of labor or the furnishing of materials, irrespective of whether the construction project was commercial or residential. N.J.S.A. 2A:44-71 (repealed); Apex Roofing Supply Co. v. Howell, 59 N.J. Super. 462, 467-68, 158 A.2d 49 (App. Div. 1960); Belmont Coal & Lumber Co. v. James F. Wood Builders, 125 N.J.L. 315, 316, 15 A.2d 625 (Sup. Ct. 1940). Thereafter, the unpaid supplier of labor and/or materials was obliged to commence an action to enforce the lien within four months from the date that the last labor was performed or materials were furnished. See N.J.S.A. 2A:44-98 (repealed). In the absence of a settlement between the parties, litigation to enforce a lien on residential real estate could be rather protracted, because the validity of the encumbrance created by the filing of the mechanic's notice of intention remained in doubt until a Conclusion was reached.
The Construction Lien Law (hereafter, the "Act"), eliminated in all instances the requirement that a contractor planning to supply labor and materials must prefile a notice of intention before a lien could attach to the property involved. This prefiling process had a tendency to create distrust and friction between contractors and owners. Robert S. Peckar, et al., New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education, New Jersey's Lien Laws: A Second Look, 6 (1997). In the case of residential construction contracts (as defined in the Act), the Legislature intended the provisions of the Act to provide for an expeditious determination of an owner's liability for lien claims. In the text of the Act, the Legislature asserted its finding that the ability to sell and purchase residential housing is essential for the economy of the State, and that such ability would be enhanced by treating contractors and suppliers of construction materials for residential real estate projects differently from contractors and suppliers involved in commercial projects. N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-21a. Accordingly, the Legislature established separate provisions concerning the placement of liens on residential real estate. The expressed intent was to establish a uniform system for the resolution of lien claims affecting residential real estate without delay and uncertainty. N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-21a.
Under the Act, an unpaid supplier of work, services, material, or equipment (hereafter "material" or "materials") is obliged to file a lien claim "with the county clerk not later than 90 days following the date the last . . . material . . . was provided for which payment is claimed." (Sometimes hereafter, "the ninety-day window.") N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-6. Specific to this case, N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-6 further provides that:
No lien shall attach, or be enforceable under the provisions of this act and, in the case of a residential construction contract, compliance with sections 20 and 21 of this act, unless the lien claim is filed ...