Maintaining and repairing the common elements is one of the primary obligations of a condominium corporation. Condominium corporations generally retain independent contractors for this work. Unfortunately, a contractual relationship sometimes leads to a dispute. For example, the contractor may feel that the corporation is improperly holding back payment.
If such a dispute arises, one of the contractor’s collection powers is to register a lien against the property. A lien for common element work can be registered against all the condominium units. This is because all units have a shared interest in the common elements.
There are only a few court decisions that illustrate unit owners’ shared responsibility for the amount of a construction lien. One such decision is Associated Mechanical Trades Inc. v. Kurzbauer, a 2008 Ontario Superior Court decision. In this case, a condominium corporation hired a contractor to carry out work on the common elements. As a result of a contractual dispute, the contractor registered a lien against the condominium units.
Under the Construction Lien Act, in order to discharge the lien, the condominium corporation can pay into Court the amount of the lien as security, pending the Court’s decision on whether the contractor is entitled to that amount.
In Kurzbauer, the unit owner sought to pay her unit’s proportionate interest toward the security. The contractor required that the entire amount of the security be paid before the construction lien would be discharged against any individual unit. The owner brought a motion against the contractor.
The Court examined the following issue:
- Can an individual unit owner pay his or her proportionate interest in the lien, and require the contractor to discharge the construction lien as against his or her unit only?
The contractor argued that the entire security should be paid, because the owners have an “undivided interest” in the common elements, and therefore the security could also not be divided.
The Court ultimately found in favour of the owner, relying on section 14 of the Condominium Act, 1998. Pursuant to this section, a unit owner can discharge the portion of a lien that is registered against her unit (equivalent to the proportionate interest, not the proportionate contribution) of the unit, as set out in the Corporation’s Declaration.
The Court stated that if each unit owner paid the unit’s proportionate interest toward the security, then the lien claimant would be in no different position than if the lands were not registered as a condominium.
According to the Court, the contractor has “nothing to lose” by vacating the lien against one unit, where the unit owner pays for the unit’s share of the lien. Moreover, it is unreasonable to expect that a single owner can pay the full amount of the lien in a large condominium complex.
I note that section 14 of the Act specifically applies to encumbrances that are registered prior to the Declaration of a condominium corporation. The Court seems to suggest in the Kurzbauer decision that the “policy” underlying section 14 applies more generally, including to liens registered by contractors after declaration.
Of course, the condominium corporation may arrange to pay for the entire amount of the security, on behalf of the ownership. If the lien is substantial, the Corporation may need to consider funding options such as: a special assessment, borrowing, or depleting the reserve fund. The best approach will depend on the facts of each case.
If the corporation is ultimately successful in defending the contractor’s claim, the amount paid for the security would be returned to the Corporation.