KIRKER GLASS v. YOSHINOYA WEST INC

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Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 2, California.

KIRKER GLASS, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. YOSHINOYA WEST, INC., Defendant and Respondent.

No. E013704.

Decided: May 16, 1994

Eric Mercer, Thousand Oaks, and Robert L. Ehrlich, Beverly Hills, for plaintiff and appellant. Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, Helen R. Frazer and Terry T. Tao, Cerritos, for defendant and respondent.

OPINION

Yoshinoya West, Inc. (Yoshinoya) has a leasehold interest in real property in Moreno Valley.   Yoshinoya hired Edwards Group as general contractor to construct a restaurant on the property.   Kirker Glass (Kirker) is a licensed glazing contractor.   As a subcontractor to Edwards Group, Kirker furnished and installed storefront glass at the restaurant.   Kirker was never paid for any of the material it furnished or for its labor, and Edwards Group went into bankruptcy.

On November 24, 1992, Kirker filed a complaint in the Riverside County Superior Court against defendants Edwards Group,1 Yoshinoya, and Beef Bowl Restaurant for damages and to foreclose a mechanics' lien.   The complaint sought damages of $12,963 plus interest and contractual attorney fees.   The complaint alleged that Kirker had timely filed and recorded a mechanic's lien on October 11, 1991.

Yoshinoya filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that:  (1) Kirker could assert no breach of contract action against Yoshinoya because of lack of privity, and (2) Kirker failed to perfect the mechanics' lien because Kirker did not timely file its action in a proper court within the meaning of Civil Code section 3144.   The superior court denied the motion and ordered the matter transferred to the municipal court.

After the transfer, Yoshinoya filed a new motion for summary judgment in the municipal court on the same grounds.   The municipal court granted summary judgment in favor of Yoshinoya.

Kirker appealed the judgment to the appellate department of the superior court.   The appellate department affirmed the judgment and certified the matter to this court under rule 63(a) of the California Rules of Court to settle the following question:  “Whether or not[ ] the filing of a less than $25,000.00 Mechanic's Lien Foreclosure Action in Superior Court (and not transferring the action to the Municipal Court for more than 90 days) bars the claim by application of [Civil Code] § 3144's ‘a proper court requirement.’ ”  (Original emphasis.)

DISCUSSION

The mechanics' lien remedy has constitutional protection in this state.   (Connolly Development, Inc. v. Superior Court (1976) 17 Cal.3d 803, 808, 132 Cal.Rptr. 477, 553 P.2d 637.)   The California Constitution provides for mechanics' liens, as follows:  “Mechanics, persons furnishing materials, artisans, and laborers of every class, shall have a lien upon the property upon which they have bestowed labor or furnished material for the value of such labor done and material furnished;  and the Legislature shall provide, by law, for the speedy and efficient enforcement of such liens.”  (Cal. Const., art. XIV, § 3.)   Pursuant to this constitutional directive, the Legislature has enacted the mechanics' lien law.  (Civil Code, § 3082 et seq.)

 Courts have long recognized that the mechanics' lien laws are “remedial legislation, to be liberally construed for the protection of laborers and materialmen.”  (Connolly, supra, 17 Cal.3d at pp. 826–827, 132 Cal.Rptr. 477, 553 P.2d 637.)   This does not mean, however, that lien laws are to be “applied blindly without regard to the rights of property owners.”  (Baker v. Hubbard (1980) 101 Cal.App.3d 226, 233, 161 Cal.Rptr. 551.)   Rather, courts have also recognized that the mechanics' lien laws are intended to protect both the owner whose title is clouded by a lien and the lien claimant.   Thus, courts must balance the interests of both parties.  (Borchers Bros. v. Buckeye Incubator Co. (1963) 59 Cal.2d 234, 238–239, 28 Cal.Rptr. 697, 379 P.2d 1.)

 “[T]he right to a mechanic's lien depends upon strict compliance with the mechanic's lien statutes.  [Citation.]”  (Halbert's Lumber, Inc. v. Burdett (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d Supp. 14, 17, 249 Cal.Rptr. 285.)   Under Civil Code section 3144, an action to foreclose a mechanic's lien must be commenced in a proper court within 90 days after the recordation of the claim of lien.2

Code of Civil Procedure sections 86 and 392 define the proper court for bringing a mechanic's lien action.  Code of Civil Procedure section 392 states, “(1) Subject to the power of the court to transfer actions and proceedings as provided in this title, the county in which the real property, which is the subject of the action, or some part thereof, is situated, is the proper county for the trial of the following actions:

“․

“(b) For the foreclosure of all liens and mortgages on real property.

“(2) The proper court for the trial of any such action, in the county hereinabove designated as the proper county, shall be determined as follows:

“If there is a municipal or justice court, having jurisdiction of the subject matter of the action, established in the city and county or judicial district in which the real property which is the subject of the action, or some part thereof, is situated, such court is the proper court for the trial of such action;  otherwise any court in such county having jurisdiction of the subject matter of the action, is a proper court for the trial thereof.”

Code of Civil Procedure section 86 states, “(a) Each municipal and justice court has original jurisdiction of civil cases and proceedings as follows:

“․

“(6) In all actions to enforce and foreclose liens of mechanics, materialmen, artisans, laborers, and of all other persons to whom liens are given under the provisions of Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 3109) of Title 15 of Part 4 of Division 3 of the Civil Code, ․ where the amount of the liens is twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) or less.   However, where an action to enforce the lien is pending in a municipal or justice court, and affects property which is also affected by a similar action pending in a superior court, or where the total amount of the liens sought to be foreclosed against the same property by action or actions in a municipal or justice court aggregates an amount in excess of twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000), the municipal or justice court in which any such action, or actions, is, or are, pending, upon motion of any interested party, shall order the action or actions pending therein transferred to the proper superior court.   Upon the making of the order, the same proceedings shall be taken as are provided by Section 399 with respect to the change of place of trial.”

Under the statutory scheme, therefore, the action to foreclose a mechanic's lien in an amount less than $25,000 should have been brought in the municipal court instead of the superior court.  (Code Civ.Proc., §§ 86, 392.)

In L.A.M. Construction, Inc. v. Kriz (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th Supp. 1, 18 Cal.Rptr.2d 304, the court addressed a situation factually and legally on all fours with the present case.   In that case, the court ruled that so long as the court in which a mechanic's lien foreclosure was filed had territorial jurisdiction, it was a proper court for filing an action for foreclosure of a mechanic's lien, even though the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.   There, the plaintiff had timely recorded a mechanic's lien against the defendants' property in the amount of about $23,000.   The plaintiff then had filed a timely action in the superior court seeking recovery of the principal sum.   Nine months after the lien was recorded, the superior court transferred the matter to the municipal court because the plaintiff's claim was below the superior court's jurisdictional minimum.   The defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground the lien was void because the action had not been transferred to a proper court under Civil Code section 3144 within 90 days after the lien was recorded.   The L.A.M. court construed “a proper court” to include “all courts within the judicial district and the county in which the property is located.”  (L.A.M. Construction, Inc. v. Kriz, supra, 14 Cal.App.4th Supp. 1, 2, 18 Cal.Rptr.2d 304.)

In several other cases involving territorial jurisdiction rather than subject matter jurisdiction, courts had concluded that transfer after the 90–day period under Civil Code section 3144 had elapsed did not remedy the initial defect of filing an action in the incorrect county or judicial district.  (Automatic Sprinkler Corp. v. Southern Cal. Edison Co. (1989) 216 Cal.App.3d 627, 635, 266 Cal.Rptr. 662;  Halbert's Lumber, Inc. v. Burdett, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d Supp. at pp. 16, 18–19, 249 Cal.Rptr. 285;  Douglas v. Donner Pines, Inc. (1977) 73 Cal.App.3d 268, 271–272, 140 Cal.Rptr. 839;  States Shingle Co. v. Kaufman (1964) 227 Cal.App.2d 830, 39 Cal.Rptr. 196.)

In Automatic Sprinkler Corp., a subcontractor mistakenly recorded its mechanic's lien in Orange County rather than in San Diego County where the real property was located.   The subcontractor filed an action in Orange County Superior Court to foreclose the mechanic's lien.   Several months later, the subcontractor transferred its action to the San Diego County Superior Court.   That court then granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the ground foreclosure was barred under Civil Code section 3144, subdivision (a) because the action was not commenced in the proper court and was not transferred to the proper court within 90 days after the mechanic's lien was filed.  (Automatic Sprinkler Corp. v. Southern Cal. Edison Co., supra, 216 Cal.App.3d at pp. 634–635, 266 Cal.Rptr. 662;  accord, Douglas v. Donner Pines, Inc., supra, 73 Cal.App.3d at p. 272, 140 Cal.Rptr. 839 [holding that Civil Code section 3144 requires an action to foreclose a lien to be brought in a proper court within 90 days after recordation of the lien in the county where the real property is located, and later transfer to a proper court is unavailing];  States Shingle Co. v. Kaufman, supra, 227 Cal.App.2d 830, 39 Cal.Rptr. 196.)

In Halbert's Lumber, Inc. v. Burdett, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d Supp. 14, 249 Cal.Rptr. 285, the plaintiff filed an action to foreclose a mechanic's lien in the wrong judicial district within the county where the property was located.   The court held that a claim of lien becomes unenforceable if it is neither commenced in nor transferred to the district where the real property is located within 90 days after the recordation of the lien.   The court held that a subsequent transfer to the proper judicial district does not relate back to the initial filing.   Thus, the action was properly dismissed.  (Id. at pp. 18–19, 249 Cal.Rptr. 285.)

As the court in States Shingle explained, the purpose of Civil Code section 3144 was to free property subject to a lien after 90 days unless an action had been filed, and “[p]ersons dealing with the property are entitled to rely upon the record.”  (States Shingle Co. v. Kaufman, supra, 227 Cal.App.2d at p. 835, 39 Cal.Rptr. 196.)   The court further explained that persons interested in the liened property “should not face the burden of examining court filings in superior and municipal courts in 57 California counties other than that in which the construction work has occurred.”   (Ibid.)

The court in L.A.M. distinguished the preceding cases, as follows:  “The premise of the cited cases is that the location of real property does not, under any circumstances, change.   Persons interested in the property should be entitled to rely on the records of only the court or courts potentially having territorial jurisdiction.   Otherwise, persons interested in the status of the property would be required to check the court records of every judicial district and county in this state, since the location of misfiled complaint would be unpredictable.

“Subject matter jurisdiction, which gives rise to either municipal/justice court jurisdiction or superior court jurisdiction, is much more flexible.   While the property remains in the same district and county, the proper court for subject matter jurisdiction may vary even if the face amount of the lien suggests the proper court, because, for example, part of the lien has been paid, or a cause of action to foreclose a small lien is joined with a very substantial claim based on fraud, or for other reasons.”  (L.A.M. Construction, Inc. v. Kriz, supra, 14 Cal.App.4th Supp. at p. 5, 18 Cal.Rptr.2d 304.)

The court therefore concluded that “ ‘a proper court’ in the context of lien foreclosures against real property means either the superior court or the municipal/justice court which includes the location of the real property.”   (L.A.M. Construction, Inc. v. Kriz, supra, 14 Cal.App.4th Supp. at p. 5, 18 Cal.Rptr.2d 304.)

In our view, L.A.M. was wrongly decided.   To reach its result, the L.A.M. court relied on general policies underlying the mechanics' lien laws while ignoring the language of the governing statutes.  Code of Civil Procedure sections 86 and 392 which define a proper court are clear.

“A fundamental rule of statutory construction is that a court should ascertain the intent of the Legislature so as to effectuate the purpose of the law.  [Citations.]   In construing a statute, our first task is to look to the language of the statute itself.  [Citation.]   When the language is clear and there is no uncertainty as to the legislative intent, we look no further and simply enforce the statute according to its terms.  [Citations.]”   (DuBois v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1993) 5 Cal.4th 382, 387–388, 20 Cal.Rptr.2d 523, 853 P.2d 978.)

This is not a situation in which an ambiguous statute requires us to interpret the language to determine the legislative intent.  “Our first duty in interpreting a statute is to be guided by the words that appear on the face of the enactment.  [Citations.]”  (Howard v. Babcock (1993) 6 Cal.4th 409, 417, 25 Cal.Rptr.2d 80, 863 P.2d 150.)   We have no discretion to disregard the clear language used by the Legislature;  “․ we may apply the statute ‘according to its terms without further judicial construction.’  [Citation.]”   (Id. at p. 418, 25 Cal.Rptr.2d 80, 863 P.2d 150.)

Under Code of Civil Procedure sections 86 and 392, there is only one proper court for filing an action to foreclose a mechanics lien in an amount under $25,000 when the real property is located in Riverside County.   That proper court is the Riverside Municipal Court.   It is undisputed that the action was not transferred to that court until long after the 90–day period specified in Civil Code section 3144 had elapsed.   We conclude that the superior court was not “a proper court” within the meaning of Civil Code section 3144, and the action was properly dismissed.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed.

FOOTNOTES

1.   Edwards Group is not a party to this appeal.

2.   Civil Code section 3144 states, “(a) No lien provided for in this chapter binds any property for a longer period of time than 90 days after the recording of the claim of lien, unless within that time an action to foreclose the lien is commenced in a proper court․“(b) If the claimant fails to commence an action to foreclose the lien within the time limitation provided in this section, the lien automatically shall be null and void and of no further force and effect.”

DABNEY, Associate Justice.

RAMIREZ, P.J., McKINSTER, J., concur.