Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Determination that Mississippi "Stop Notice" Statute is Unconstitutional
On October 10, 2013, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court determination that Mississippi Code Annotation § 85-7-181 is unconstitutional. As prime contractors and owners know, an owner’s receipt of a stop-payment notice or "stop notice" could bring the flow of contract payments to a grinding halt. Miss. Code Ann. §85-7-181 required an owner to hold sufficient funds, otherwise due to a prime, to cover the amount alleged to be due and owing to a first-tier subcontractor who sent written notice that it was claiming the benefits of the "stop-payment" notice statute. Depending upon the amount of contract funds still remaining in the owner’s hands, if the owner paid the prime over the notice and thereby diminished sufficient funds available to pay the subcontractor, the stop-payment notice statute made the owner directly liable to the subcontractor. Owner-compliance, as intended by the statute, gave subcontractors (at least the first-tier) their only powerful tool to enforce payment rights on private, un-bonded projects.
The "stop-notice" statute has been in place for year, but on April 12, 2012, the Northern District of Mississippi ruled the statue unconstitutional on its face because it deprived prime contractors of property without due process. Noatex, an unlicensed California prime contractor, was hired by Auto Parts Manufacturing Mississippi ("APMM") to build an auto parts manufacturing facility. Noatex got into a billing dispute with its Mississippi subcontractor, King Construction of Houston, L.L.C. When King Construction sent a stop-payment notice to APMM asserting it was due over $260,000 from Noatex, that amount became bound in the hands of APMM. Noatex filed a declaratory judgment action, challenging the stop-payment notice statute as facially invalid and invalid as applied. The State of Mississippi, through the Attorney General’s Office, intervened in support of the stop-payment notice statute. Judge S. Allan Alexander agreed with Noatex, holding that simply by giving written notice of an alleged debt a contractor’s payment became bound in the hands of the owner—with no hearing before the money was bound—and thus the contractor was deprived of its property without due process.
The Fifth Circuit upheld Judge Alexander’s analysis. Among other things, the Fifth Circuit noted that the statute is "profound in its lack of procedural safeguards": no posting of a bond, no showing of exigent circumstances, and no sworn statement setting out the facts of the dispute. You can read the decision here.
Unless there are changes to the current stop payment law or the United States Supreme Court agrees to consider this issue, if appealed by the Mississippi Attorney General, there will be no "lien rights" for first-tier subcontractors. Only contractors with a direct contractual relationship with the owner will have lien rights. Subcontractors may want to seek legal counsel concerning how to address stop payment notices that were to be filed or have been filed and to determine other remedies that may be available if their prime has failed to make payment.