Ohio real estate brokerage law: Liens for Realtors in commercial transactions

How do I obtain an Ohio commercial real estate broker lien?

Attorney Casey Taylor

First, let’s be clear: There is no lien right for real estate brokers for property consisting solely of between one and four residential units. (O.R.C §§1311.85 and .86).

However, licensed real estate brokers do have lien rights in transactions involving commercial properties, i.e., anything other than between one and four residential units.  (O.R.C §§1311.86).

The lien rights extend to brokerage contracts for the provision of services for selling, purchasing, and leasing.  (O.R.C §§1311..86(A) and (B)).  They do not appear to cover the provision of property management services.

What is a lien?

In one sense, a lien does not get you anything more than the contract rights you already have: You have a signed listing agreement, you have earned your commission, you can sue in a court of competent jurisdiction, and you can thus get paid the amount of money you are owed.

But as a practical matter, lien rights are tremendously powerful in “turning the tables” on a property owner, giving quick, inexpensive and powerful leverage to the Realtor to resolve a commission dispute.

Why is a lien important?

Leverage often is the “whole ballgame.”  So often, (a) debtors will avoid debts they clearly owe just because they can, for purposes of the time-value of money (by delaying the payment, they can use your money in the interim) and (b) the reality is that most creditors will not go to the trouble and expense of hiring and paying an attorney to collect the sums owed to them.

Litigation can cost as little as $20,000 per case, up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a vigorously-contested action.  So, the question for a Realtor claiming a commission is: Can I “check” or “checkmate” a property owner (seller or landlord) into recognizing, dealing with and paying my claim without the two years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees needed to vindicate that right?

A lien is a powerful tool — it encumbers real property

A lien is an encumbrance on real property.  In most cases, real property encumbrances have the same priority of the order of filing, i.e., the first-filed is paid first from the sale proceeds, the second, second and so forth.  (Ohio mechanics liens are the major exception to this rule, dating back to the date of first work on a project.)

This gives the lien holder two distinct advantages, many times powerful advantages: (a) their claim is secured against the real estate (i.e., the owner cannot further squander the equity in the property by a sale or mortgage) (b) the claimant has placed a cloud on the title with what may still be a disputed claim, effectively preventing the owner from selling or mortgaging the asset until the earlier of (i) the statutory expiration of the lien or (ii) the judicial disposition of the claim and the lien rights.

Thus, as a practical matter if the property owner wants to sell his property or take out a new mortgage or refinance an existing mortgage, he will have to “deal with” the Realtor’s claims before doing so.

A broker’s lien is unilateral — it does not require the owner’s signature or consent

Contrary to what many clients ask of us in a simple contract or tort claim (“please lien their property”), in most circumstances a lien cannot be placed against real property until either (a) the owner signs a voluntary instrument such as a mortgage or (b) the conclusion of litigation, which usually takes years.  In the meantime, a defendant can sell and mortgage the property, or otherwise encumber it, and then squander the asset without concern for the plaintiff’s claims.  (This is constrained by concerns about fraudulent conveyance issues that will be discussed in another blog entry later.)

The right to place a unilateral lien against real estate is very narrow, being limited to government liens (such as tax liens, assessments, environmental liens, etc.) and mechanics liens (for work done on real property and materials delivered to real property for incorporation therein).

Commercial brokerage lien rights

O.R.C. §1311.86 provides such unilateral lien rights for the collection of a commission in commercial transactions in specific circumstances set forth in the statute.  Being a unilateral filing, means that the Realtor claiming the lien simply signs and files a piece of paper in the Hamilton County Recorder’s office.  It does not require a signature (on the lien filing) of the property owner.

Statutory requirements

Because the lien arises from the statute, strict compliance with the statutory mandates will be required.  F. W. Winstel Co. v. Johnston, 103 Ohio App. 525, Paragraph 1 of the Syllabus (1st Dist. 1957).         These are set forth in O.R.C. §1311.86:

  • It is for written brokerage contracts only (O.R.C. §1311.86(A) and (B)).
  • It is for “for services related to selling, leasing, or conveying any interest in commercial real estate” (O.R.C. §1311.86(A)) and “for services related to purchasing any interest in commercial real estate.” (O.R.C. §1311.86(B)).
  • “The lien is effective only if the contract for services is in writing and is signed by the broker or the broker’s agent and the owner of the lien property or the owner’s agent.”   (O.R.C. §1311.86(A) and (B)).
  • The lien is for the broker only, not his salespersons.  (O.R.C. §1311.86(C)(1).
  • The lien amount is either the brokerage commission due, or if due in installments only that portion due on conveyance.  (O.R.C. §1311.86(C)(2) but in the case of commercial leasing, (O.R.C. §1311.86(C)(3).
  • Only the property subject to the brokerage agreement can be liened.  ((O.R.C §§86(C)(5)).
Lien contents

To perfect a lien, the following steps must be followed:

  • The claimant must prepare, sign and have acknowledged (notarized) an affidavit containing each of the following: (a) name of the broker who has the lien, (b) the name of the owner of the lien property, (c) a legal description of the lien property, (d) the amount for which the lien is claimed, (e) the date and a summary of the written contract on which the lien is based, and the real estate license number of the broker. R.C. 1311.87(B)(2).
  • Additionally, the lien affidavit must state that the information contained in the affidavit is true and accurate to the knowledge of the broker. Id.
Lien deadlines

The timeframes within which a commercial broker’s lien must be filed are:

  • For a sale of liened, the Affidavit must be recorded prior to the conveyance of the property. R.C. 1311.86 (B)(3).
  • For a purchase of liened property the Affidavit must be recorded within ninety days after the conveyance of the property. R.C. 1311.86 (B)(4).
  • For liens based upon a leasing commission, the Affidavit must be recorded within ninety days after a default by the owner in payment. R.C. 1311.86 (B)(5).
Notice to property owner

One other requirement not to overlook:  “On the day the lien affidavit is recorded, the broker shall provide a copy of the lien affidavit to the owner of the lien property and, where a contract for the sale or other conveyance of the lien property has been entered into, to the prospective transferee, where known, either by personal delivery or by certified mail, return receipt requested. O.R.C. 1311.86 (B)(6).

Be careful — “Slander of title” claims can be nasty

If one files a lien against real property that is later determine to have been in bad faith, the lien claimant can find himself the target of a suit for a cause of action known as “slander of title.”  Slander of title is the tort of impairing title to someone’s real estate without a reasonable basis therefor. McClure v. Fischer Attached Homes, 2007-Ohio-7259, ¶ 21, 882 N.E.2d 61 (Clermont Co. C.P. 2007), citing Green v. Lemarr, 139 Ohio App. 3d 414, 433 (2d Dist. 2000).

The really bad part of a slander of title claim is that it can include an award to the property owner of an award of his attorneys fees and a punitive damages amount. Additionally, the commercial brokerage lien statute specifically allows for the prevailing party to recover its attorney’s fees. O.R.C. 1311.88(C) (“[A] court may assess the nonprevailing parties with costs and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred by the prevailing parties.”). However, in cases involving general slander of title claims (i.e., outside of the commercial brokerage lien context), the attorney’s fees have been limited to the those “necessary to counteract a disparaging publication,” and did not include those incurred in prosecuting the slander of title. Cuspide Props. v. Earl Mech. Servs., 2015-Ohio-5019, ¶ 40 (6th Dist. 2015).

Thus, we recommend moving forward with the filing of an affidavit for a commercial broker’s lien cautiously, only where the broker is certain of the merits of his position and even then still willing to withstand the possible claim for slander of title from an owner.

Conclusion

The Finney Law Firm is privileged to have many real estate brokerage clients, including commercial Realtors.  The commercial lien right is a very powerful one, and one that we think is under-utilized in commission disputes.

Consider one of our attorneys to assist you in such a dispute, including the use of the right to a commercial lien.

Attorney | ‭513-943-5673 | casey@finneylawfirm.com | + posts

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