Appeals court says contractor's attempt to collect on debt can proceed

By Karen Kidd | Jan 2, 2018

ST. LOUIS — The case of a general contractor trying to get paid for almost seven years of renovation work at a St. Louis property is on its way back to the trial court after an appeals court ruled the contractor met the statute of limitations after all.

ST. LOUIS — The case of a general contractor trying to get paid for almost seven years of renovation work at a St. Louis property is on its way back to the trial court after an appeals court ruled the contractor met the statute of limitations after all.

"It is undisputed Plaintiff's petition to enforce his mechanic’s lien, filed on Jan. 27, 2016, was filed within six months after Plaintiff filed his mechanics lien on July 27, 2015," said the decision handed down Dec. 5 by Missouri's Eastern District Court of Appeals and signed by Judge Robert M. Clayton. "Therefore, Plaintiff's action was commenced within the six-month statute of limitations set forth in section 429.170, and the trial court erred in dismissing Plaintiff's petition as to Wells Fargo on the grounds Plaintiff’s action was barred by the statute of limitations. Point granted."

Plaintiff Dustin Bray, a general contractor, appealed an earlier trial court judgment that granted Wells Fargo's motion to dismiss his petition to enforce a mechanic's lien, saying Bray didn't file his case soon enough and missed the six-month statute of limitations. The appeals court reversed and remanded the decision, finding that Bray did file his petition within the statute of limitations. It was the summons issued to Wells Fargo that didn't go out within that six-month period.

The case is about whether a mechanic’s lien for labor and materials, allegedly furnished by Bray, is enforceable. Bray claimed that on Dec. 1, 2008, he had a contract with the owners of 6169 Westminster Place in St. Louis to provide labor and materials to renovate the two-story Victorian house for $178,000 upon completion of his work. Bray claims in his lawsuit that he completed the renovation in April 2015; but when he demanded payment, the owners refused to pay.

Bray filed a mechanic's lien the following July.

On Jan. 27, 2016, exactly six months after filing his mechanic's lien, Bray filed a petition to enforce the lien in St. Louis Circuit Court against the property's owners and Wells Fargo Bank, which holds the deed of trust. After Bray paid the requisite fees, the circuit clerk issued summonses the following Feb. 4.

Wells Fargo filed its motion to dismiss, claiming Bray missed the statute of limitations. 

"In its motion to dismiss, Wells Fargo conceded (Bray's) petition was filed within the applicable six-month period but argued the action was not timely commenced because the summons for Wells Fargo was not issued within that timeframe," the appeals court decision said.

Bray argued he had met the statute of limitations because he'd actually filed his petition within the six-month timeframe.

The trial court granted the bank's motion to dismiss "because case law from this Court supported Wells Fargo's position that an action is commenced upon the filing of a petition and the issuance of a summons and because the summons for Wells Fargo was not issued within the six-month statute of limitations," the appeals court decision said.

Judge Julian L. Bush, one of the trial court judges, expressed doubts about the "soundness" of that case law because it ignored a 1972 court rule that sets the commencement of a civil action to the filing of a petition. Bush granted the Wells Fargo motion, however, saying it wasn't the trial court's place "to ignore appellate opinions," the appeals court decision said.

Bush had been right about his doubts, according to the appeals court decision. 

"The purpose of the 1972 amendment to Rule 53.01 and the elimination of the issuance of the summons requirement from the definition of commencement was 'to create certainty as to when a lawsuit is commenced' and to put the timing of commencement in the party's hands rather than it being subject to the hands of the circuit clerk." the appeals court decision said.

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Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District St. Louis Circuit Court Wells Fargo

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