A contractor client of White and Williams recently found itself in a prickly situation. They had default terminated a subcontractor on a major commercial project and withheld payment to that subcontractor on an outstanding invoice as permitted under the terms of the subcontract until the project was completed. Clearly irate over being terminated, the subcontractor walked-off of the project with thousands of dollars’ worth of project materials and equipment that had been paid for by the owner. While on some projects this may amount to nothing more than an annoyance or inconvenience, in this case it was a significant problem because some of the wrongfully removed materials were custom manufactured overseas and not easily replaceable. The client therefore needed to take immediate action to retrieve the stolen materials so that the project would not be delayed. Specifically, it needed to file a replevin action against the subcontractor.
A replevin action is a little known but powerful area of the law. In its simplest terms, replevin is a procedure whereby seized goods may be provisionally restored to their owner pending the outcome of an action to determine the rights of the parties concerned. The requirements of a replevin action differ by jurisdiction. For example, in Pennsylvania, the Rules of Civil Procedure devote an entire section to replevin actions and spell out in precise detail the steps that must be taken. While you should be sure to strictly comply with the rules in your jurisdiction, here are a few general points to keep in mind:
In the case of our contractor client, the replevin action was a complete success. Following an evidentiary hearing, the judge entered an order granting our Emergency Motion for the Issuance of a Writ of Seizure and directing the prothonotary (Pennsylvania’s name for the court clerk) to issue a Writ of Seizure to the sheriff’s office commanding him to take possession of the project materials upon the posting of a bond. After complying with the necessary procedural requirements, we were accompanied by several uniformed police officers to retrieve the wrongfully removed project materials from the subcontractor’s warehouse. The materials were then transported to the project and immediately put into use. The whole process took weeks rather than the months (or more) it may have taken for the client to obtain suitable replacement materials.
If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of needing to retrieve wrongfully removed project materials or equipment from a terminated contractor or subcontractor, the replevin action is a very useful tool to keep in mind. Be sure to strictly follow the procedural requirements in your jurisdiction and you may end up retrieving your wrongfully removed items in relatively short order.