Fiber Optic Networks: Can I File a Mechanic’s Lien?

Fiber Optic Networks: Can I File a Mechanic’s Lien?

Lienability. One of the many questions we are asked is “Can I file a mechanic’s lien on that?” Or, if we must relay the unfortunate news that an improvement isn’t lienable, we are then asked, “Why can’t I lien that?” Determining what is or isn’t lienable might be the only task that can be just as confusing as the lien laws themselves.

In early 2017 we discussed an Illinois case that left a subcontractor unpaid to the tune of $3M and without the remedy of a mechanic’s lien. In that case it was the construction of a wind turbine, which the court deemed as a trade fixture. and declared mechanic’s liens filed on the property as invalid.

Wind and solar farms are often questionable when it comes to rights under mechanic’s lien statutes, but they aren’t alone. Some electrical work, excavation for pipelines, and even installation of fiber optic technology, also face a questionable fate under mechanic’s lien statutes.

Fiber Optic Technology and Mechanic’s Liens (in Ohio)

Technology shows no sign of slowing down, in fact it will likely increase at the speed of fiber optic technology…

[Do you hear the echoes, see the lightning strikes, and me sporting dark sunglasses in a snappy black suit?!]

OK, so my humor is a bit lame, but, it’s an entertaining way to segue to whether the installation of fiber optic networks is lienable.

First, what do we know about the typical fiber optics network? They can be massive. Much like wind farms, solar farms, and pipelines, fiber optic networks cover multiple parcels – sometimes within multiple counties or even states.

“An optical network—a data communication network built with fiber optic technology—uses a series of optical fiber cables, placed on properties typically owned by someone other than the network provider and spread out over a large geographic area. An operator connects and operates this network from real property known as an exchange, which the provider typically owns or leases.” Nick Pieczonka, author of Mechanics’ Lien Law and Work Performed on Optical Networks

In his article, Pieczonka goes on to answer two critical questions: “Can a lien attach to the property owned or leased by the network provider, even though the contractor performed no physical labor at the property?” and “How are work orders treated and what impact does that have?” The second question is interesting, but I want to focus on the first: can a lien attach to the property.

According to Pieczonka, the answer is yes. Yes, a lien can attach to the property, because the work benefits the entire network. Here’s his answer:

“The end user, not the optical network provider, generally performs work on optical networks on property it owns. So can a lien attach to the optical network provider’s real property—which houses the network’s exchange—even though no work took place on that property? The answer appears to be yes. For example, Ohio’s Revised Code §1311.08 provides, in pertinent part:

[W]here work or labor has been performed or material has been furnished for improvements which are located on separate tracts or parcels of land but operated as an entire plant or concern, and erected under one general contract, the lien for the labor or work performed or material furnished attaches to all such improvements, together with the land upon, around, or in front of which such labor or work is performed or material is furnished…

As a result, because the contractor’s work benefits the entire network and the provider operates the network at an exchange it owns or leases, the lien may attach to the entire improvement, including the exchange itself…  Indeed, the network provider’s lease, ownership documents, or master contract with the contractor may describe the network and the land being improved (i.e., the entire network or the exchange), which would also support the proposition that the lien can attach to the network provider’s exchange…”

It’s important to note, Pieczonka is referring to Ohio statute – as we know, each state’s law is different. But wow – this is huge!

Fiber Optic? Take Note!

There are a few things to keep in mind, if you are providing services similar to those described above:

  • Be prepared for expensive title work (you may have to identify each parcel & the owner of each parcel)
  • Multiple liens may be required
  • You may encounter easements, which could lead to a question of lien priority
  • The lien may be limited to the leasehold interest (depending on the state statute)

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