Contractual Indemnity Clause May Apply to Direct Action in Bond Offering Snafu; No Joint-Work Copyright Protection for PPM – IL ND

The Plaintiff in UIRC-GSA Holdings, Inc. v. William Blair & Company, 2017 WL 3706625 (N.D.Ill. 2017), sued its investment banker for copyright infringement and professional negligence claiming the banker used the plaintiff’s protected intellectual property – private placement memoranda – to get business from other clients.  The parties previously executed an engagement agreement (“Agreement”) which required the banker to facilitate plaintiff’s purchase of real estate through bond issues.

The banker denied infringing plaintiff’s copyrights and counterclaimed for breach of contract, contractual indemnity and tortious interference with contract.  Plaintiff moved to dismiss all counterclaims.

In partially granting and denying the (12(b)(6)) motion to dismiss the counterclaims, the Northern District examined the pleading elements for joint-author copyright infringement and tortious interference claims and considered the reach of contractual indemnification provisions.

The counterclaiming banker first asserted that it was a joint owner of the private placement documents and sought an accounting of the plaintiff’s profits generated through use of the materials.  Rejecting this argument, the Court stated the Copyright’s definition of a ‘joint work’: “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that the authors’ work be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” 17 U.S.C. 101.

To establish co-authorship, the copyright plaintiff must establish (1) an intent to create a joint work, and (2) independently copyrightable contributions to the material.  The intent prong simply means the two (or more) parties intended to work together to create a single product; not that they specifically agreed to be legal co-copyright holders.

To meet the independently copyrightable element (the test’s second prong), the Court noted that “ideas, refinements, and suggestions” are not copyrightable.  Instead, the contributed work must possess a modicum of creativity vital to a work’s end product and commercial viability.

Here, while the counter-plaintiff alleged an intent to create a joint work, it failed to allege any specific contributions to the subject private placement documents.  Without specifying any copyrightable contributions to the documents, the investment firm failed to satisfy the pleading standards for a joint ownership copyright claim.

The court next considered the banker’s indemnification claim – premised on indemnity (one party promises to compensate another for any loss) language in the Agreement. The provision broadly applied to all claims against the counter-plaintiff arising from or relating to the Agreement.  The plaintiff argued that by definition, the indemnity language didn’t apply to direct actions between the parties and only covered third-party claims (claims brought by someone other than plaintiff or defendant).

The Court rejected this argument and found the indemnity language ambiguous.  The discrepancy between the Agreement’s expansive indemnification language in one section and other Agreement sections that spoke to notice requirements and duties to defend made it equally plausible the indemnity clause covered both third-party and first-party/direct actions.  Because of this textual conflict, the Court held it was premature to dismiss the claim without discovery on the parties’ intent.

The court also sustained the banker’s tortious interference counterclaim against plaintiff’s motion to dismiss.  The counter-plaintiff alleged the plaintiff sued and threatened to continue suing one of the counter-plaintiff’s clients (and a competitor of the plaintiff’s) to stop the client from competing with the plaintiff in the bond market.  While the act of filing a lawsuit normally won’t support a tortious interference claim, where a defendant threatens litigation to dissuade someone from doing business with a plaintiff can state a tortious interference claim.

Take-aways:

Contractual indemnity provisions are construed like any other contract.  If the text is clear, it will be enforced as written.  In drafting indemnity clauses, the parties should take pains to clarify whether it applies only to third-party claims or if it also covers direct actions between the parties.  Otherwise, the parties risk having to pay the opposing litigant’s defense fees.

Filing a lawsuit alone, isn’t enough for a tortious interference claim.  However, the threat of litigation to dissuade someone from doing business with another can be sufficient business interference to support such a claim.

Joint ownership in copyrighted materials requires both an intent for joint authorship and copyrightable contributions from each author to merit legal protection.

 

Plaintiff Shows Actual and Constructive Fraud in Fraudulent Transfer Suit – IL Court

The plaintiff mortgage lender in Summitbridge Credit Investments II, LLC v. Ahn, 2017 IL App (1st) 162480-U sued the husband and wife borrower defendants for breach of a mortgage loan on two commercial properties in Chicago

Two days after the plaintiff obtained a $360K-plus default judgment, the defendants deeded a third commercial property they owned to their adult children.

The plaintiff caught wind of the post-judgment transfer during citation proceedings and in 2015 filed a fraudulent transfer suit to undo the property transfer.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the lender and voided the defendants’ transfer of property. The defendants appealed.

Affirming, the First District recited and applied the governing standards for actual fraud (“fraud in fact”) and constructive fraud (“fraud in law”) under Illinois’s fraudulent transfer act, 740 ILCS 160/1 et seq. (the “Act”)

The Act allows claims for two species of fraud under the Act – actual fraud and constructive fraud, premised on Act Sections 5(a)(1) and 5(a)(2) and 6(a), respectively.  (Also, see http://paulporvaznik.com/uniform-fraudulent-transfer-act-actual-fraud-constructive-fraud-transfers-insufficient-value-il-law-basics/5646)

Actual Fraud and ‘Badges’ of Fraud

Actual fraud that impels a court to unwind a transfer of property requires clear and convincing evidence that a debtor made a transfer with actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud creditors.

Eleven badges or indicators of fraud are set forth in Section 5(b) of the Act.  The factor the Summitbridge Court particularly homed in on was whether there was an exchange of reasonably equivalent value.  That is, whether the defendants’ children gave anything in exchange for the transferred commercial property.

In analyzing this factor, courts consider four sub-factors including (1) whether the value of what was transferred is equal to the value of what was received, (2) the fair market value of what was transferred and what was received, (3) whether it was an arm’s length transaction, and (4) good faith of the transferee/recipient.  Reasonably equivalent value is measured at the time of transfer.

In opposing the plaintiff’s summary judgment motion, the defendants made only conclusory assertions they lacked fraudulent intent.  Moreover, they failed to come forward with any evidence showing they received consideration for the transfer.

In summary, because there were so many badges of actual fraud present, and the debtors offered no proof of consideration flowing to them in exchange for quitclaiming the property, the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s actual fraud finding.

Constructive Fraud

Unlike actual fraud, constructive fraud (i.e., fraud in law) does not require proof of an intent to defraud.  A transfer made for less than reasonably equivalent value of the thing transferred that leaves a debtor unable to meet its obligations are presumed fraudulent.  A fraudulent transfer plaintiff alleging constructive fraud must prove it by a preponderance of evidence – a lesser burden that the clear and convincing one governing an actual fraud or fraud in fact claim.

Constructive fraud under Act Section 5(a)(2) is shown where a debtor did not receive a reasonably equivalent value for the transfer and the debtor (a) was engaged or was about to engage in a business or transactions for which the debtor’s remaining assets were unreasonably small in relation to the business or transaction, or (b) intended to incur, or believed or reasonably should have believed he would incur, debts beyond his ability to pay as they came due.

Section 6(a) constructive fraud applies specifically to claims arising before a transfer where a debtor doesn’t receive reasonably equivalent value and was insolvent at the time of or resulting from a transfer.

The First District agreed with the lower court that the plaintiff sufficiently proved defendants’ constructive fraud.  It noted that the plaintiff’s money judgment pre-dated the transfer of the property to defendant’s children and there was no record evidence of the debtors receiving anything in exchange for the transfer.

Take-aways:

Summitbridge provides a useful summary of fraud in fact and fraud in law fraudulent transfer factors in the context of a dispositive motion.

Once again, summary judgment is the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up litigation moment: a party opposing summary judgment must do more than make conclusory assertions in an affidavit.  Instead, he/she must produce specific evidence that reveals a genuine factual dispute.

The defendants’ affidavit testimony that they lacked fraudulent intent and transferred property to their family members for value rang hollow in the face of a lack of tangible evidence in the record to support those statements.

 

 

 

Pontiac GTO Buyer Gets Only Paltry Damage Award Where He Can’t Prove Lost Profits Against Repair Shop – IL Court

Spagnoli v. Collision Centers of America, Inc., 2017 IL App (2d) 160606-U portrays a plaintiff’s Pyrrhic victory in a valuation dispute involving a 1966 Pontiac GTO.  

The plaintiff car enthusiast brought a flurry of tort claims against the repair shop defendant when it allegedly lost the car’s guts after plaintiff bought it on-line.

The trial court directed a verdict for the defendant on the bulk of plaintiff’s claims and awarded the plaintiff only $10,000 on its breach of contract claim – a mere fraction of what the plaintiff sought.

The Court first rejected plaintiff’s lost profits claim based on the amounts he expected to earn through the sale of car once it was repaired.

A plaintiff in a breach of contract action can recover lost profits where (1) it proves the loss with a reasonable degree of certainty; (2) the defendant’s wrongful act resulted in the loss, and (3) the profits were reasonably within the contemplation of the defendant at the time the contract was entered into.

Because lost profits are naturally prospective, they will always be uncertain to some extent and impossible to gauge with mathematical precision.  Still, a plaintiff’s damages evidence must afford a reasonable basis for the computation of damages and the defendant’s breach must be traceable to specific damages sustained by the plaintiff.  Where lost profits result from several causes, the plaintiff must show the defendant’s breach caused a specific (measurable) portion of the lost profits. [¶¶ 17-20]

Agreeing with the trial court, the appeals Court found the plaintiff failed to present sufficient proof of lost profits.  The court noted that the litigants’ competing experts both valued the GTO at $80,000 to $115,000 if fully restored to mint condition.  However, this required the VIN numbers on the vehicle motor and firewall to match and the engine to be intact.  Since the car in question lacked matching VIN numbers and its engine missing, the car could never be restored to a six-figures value range.

The Court also affirmed the directed verdict for defendant on plaintiff’s consumer fraud claim.  To make out  valid Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) claim under the Consumer Fraud Act a plaintiff must prove: (1) a deceptive act or unfair practice occurred, (2) the defendant intended for the plaintiff to rely on the deception, (3) the deception occurred in the course of conduct involving trade or commerce, (4) the plaintiff sustained actual damages, and (5) the damages were proximately cause by the defendant’s deceptive act or unfair conduct. A CFA violation can be based on an innocent or negligent misrepresentation.

Since the plaintiff presented no evidence that the repair shop made a misrepresentation or that defendant intended that plaintiff rely on any misrepresentation, plaintiff did not offer a viable CFA claim.

Bullet-points:

  • A plaintiff in a breach of contract case is the burdened party: it must show that it is more likely than not that the parties entered into an enforceable contract – one that contains an offer, acceptance and consideration – that plaintiff substantially performed its obligations, that defendant breached and that plaintiff suffered money damages flowing from the defendant’s breach.
  • In the context of lost profits damages, this case amply illustrates the evidentiary hurdles faced by a plaintiff.  Not only must the plaintiff prove that the lost profits were within the reasonable contemplation of the parties, he must also establish which profits he lost specifically attributable to the defendant’s conduct.
  • In consumer fraud litigation, the plaintiff typically must prove a defendant’s factual misstatement.  Without evidence of a defendant’s misrepresentation, the plaintiff likely won’t be able to meet its burden of proof on the CFA’s deceptive act or unfair practice element.

Truthful Information Can’t Support An Intentional Interference With Employment Suit – IL Court

 

 

The Illinois First District recently discussed the contours of pre-suit discovery requests in cases that implicate fee speech concerns and whether truthful information can ever support an intentional interference with employment claim.

After relocating from another state to take a compliance role with a large bank, the plaintiff in Calabro v. Northern Trust Corporation, 2017 IL App (1st) 163079-U, was fired after only two weeks on the job for failing to disclose his forced removal from a prior compliance position.

When the defendant refused to identify the person who informed it of plaintiff’s prior firing, plaintiff sued to unearth the informant’s identity.  Plaintiff planned to sue that person for intentional interference with plaintiff’s employment contract.

The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s petition for pre-suit discovery and the plaintiff appealed.

Affirming, the Court construed pre-suit discovery request under Supreme Court Rule 224 narrowly.  That rule allows a petitioner to discover the identity of someone who may be responsible in damages to petitioner.

To initiate a request for discovery under Rule 224, the petitioner files a verified petition that names as defendant the person(s) from whom discovery is sought and states why discovery (along with a description of the discovery sought) is necessary.  An order granting a Rule 224 petition is limited to allowing the plaintiff to learn the identity of the responsible party or to at least depose him/her.

To show that discovery is necessary, the petitioner must present sufficient allegations of actionable harm to survive a Section 2-615 motion to dismiss.  That is, the petition must state sufficient facts to state a recognized cause of action.

But Rule 224 limits discovery to the identity of someone who may be responsible to the petitioner.  A petitioner cannot use Rule 224 to engage in a “vague and speculative quest to determine whether a cause of action actually exists.”

Here, the petitioner didn’t know what was actually said by the third party who alerted defendant to petitioner’s prior compliance role ouster.  The Court viewed this as petitioner’s tacit admission he didn’t know whether he possessed a valid interference claim.

The Court then focused on the veracity of the third-party’s statement.  To be actionable, an intentional interference claim requires the supply of false data about a plaintiff.  Accurate and truthful information, no matter how harmful, cannot underlie an intentional interference action. This is because allowing someone to sue another for imparting truthful information would raise First Amendment problems and discourage dissemination of accurate facts.

Truthful statement immunity is also supported by Section 772 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts which makes clear that one who purposely causes another not to perform a contract or enter into a business relationship is not liable for improper interference where that person gives truthful information.  And while the Court pointed out that the Restatement hadn’t been formally adopted the Illinois Supreme Court, appeals courts still looked to the Restatement for guidance on tortious interference questions.  (¶¶ 18-19).

Afterwords:

This case portrays an interesting application of Rule 224 – a device often employed in the personal injury context instead of in the commercial or employment law arenas.  While the rule provides a valuable tool for plaintiffs trying to identify possible defendants, it doesn’t give a petitioner a blank check to engage in wide-ranging, “fishing expedition” requests.  The discovery petitioner must still state a colorable claim as a precondition to obtaining a pre-suit discovery order from the court.

Calabro also vaunts the importance of free speech in our society.  After all, the petitioner’s intentional interference claim was predicated on a true statement – the petitioner was fired from a former compliance role.  The Court makes clear that a valid interference action requires a false statement and that accurate information isn’t actionable interference.

Clearly, the Court viewed the potential for chilling truthful information as more concerning than an individual’s private contract rights with an employer.

 

 

Sole Proprietor’s Mechanics Lien OK Where Lien Recorded in His Own Name (Instead of Business Name) – IL Court

 

While the money damages involved in Gerlick v. Powroznik (2017 IL App (1st) 153424-U) is low, the unpublished case provides some useful bullet points governing construction disputes.  Chief among them include what constitutes substantial performance, the recovery of contractual “extras,” and the standards governing attorney fee awards under Illinois’s mechanics lien statute.

The plaintiff swimming pool installer sued the homeowner defendants when they failed to fully pay for the finished pool.  The homeowners claimed they were justified in short-paying the plaintiff due to drainage and other mechanical problems.

After a bench trial, the court entered judgment for the pool installer for just over $20K and denied his claim for attorneys’ fees under the Act.  Both parties appealed; the plaintiff appealed the denial of attorneys’ fees while the defendants appealed the underlying judgment.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

A breach of contract plaintiff in the construction setting must prove it performed in a reasonably workmanlike manner.  In finding the plaintiff sufficiently performed, the Court rejected the homeowners’ argument that plaintiff failed to install two drains.  The Court viewed drain installation as both ancillary to the main thrust of the contract and not feasible with the specific pool model (the King Shallow) furnished by the plaintiff.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s mechanic’s lien judgment for the contractor.  In Illinois, a mechanics lien claimant must establish (1) a valid contract between the lien claimant and property owner (or an agent of the owner), (2) to furnish labor, services or materials, and (3) the claimant performed or had a valid excuse of non-performance.  (¶ 37)

A contractor doesn’t have to perform flawlessly to avail itself of the mechanics’ lien remedy: all that’s required is he perform the main parts of a contract in a workmanlike manner.  Where a contractor substantially performs, he can enforce his lien up to the amount of work performed with a reduction for the cost of any corrections to his work.

The owners first challenged the plaintiff’s mechanics’ lien as facially defective.  The lien listed plaintiff (his first and last name) as the claimant while the underlying contract identified only the plaintiff’s business name (“Installation Services & Coolestpools.com”) as the contracting party.  The Court viewed this discrepancy as trivial since a sole proprietorship or d/b/a has no legal identity separate from its operating individual.  As a consequence, plaintiff’s use of a fictitious business name was not enough to invalidate the mechanic’s lien.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s denial of plaintiff’s claim for extra work in the amount of $4,200.  A contractor can recover “extras” to the contract where (1) the extra work performed or materials furnished were outside the scope of the contract, (2) the extras were furnished at owner’s request, (3) the owner, by words or conduct, agreed to compensate the contractor for the extra work, (4) the contractor did not perform the extra work voluntarily, and (5) the extra work was not necessary through the fault of the contractor.

The Court found there was no evidence that the owners asked the plaintiff to perform extra work – including cleaning the pool, inspecting equipment and fixing the pool cover.  As a result, the plaintiff did not meet his burden of proving his entitlement to extras recovery. (¶¶ 39-41).

Lastly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff.  A mechanics’ lien claimant must prove that an owner’s failure to pay is “without just cause or right;” a phrase meaning not “well-grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.” 770 ILCS 60/17(a).  Here, because there was evidence of a good faith dispute concerning the scope and quality of plaintiff’s pool installation, the Court upheld the trial court’s denial of plaintiff’s fee award attempt.

Afterwords:

1/ A contractor doesn’t have to perform perfectly in order to win a breach of contract or mechanics’ lien claim.  So long as he performs in a workmanlike manner and substantially completes the hired-for work, he can recover under both legal theories.

2/ A sole proprietor and his fictitious business entity are one and the same.  Because of this business owner – d/b/a identity, the sole proprietor can list himself as the contractor on a lien form even where the underlying contract lists only his business name.

 

 

Commercial Tenant Fails to Give Proper Notice of Intent to Extend Lease – IL Case Note

Although it’s an unpublished opinion, Sher-Jo, Inc. v. Town and Country Center, Inc., 2017 IL App (5th) 160095-U still serves as a cautionary tale for tenants that fail to hew to lease notice requirements.  The tenant plaintiff under the commercial lease was obligated to serve the defendant landlord with written notice by registered mail of the tenant’s exercise of its option to extend the lease for an additional five-year term.

Instead of mailing notice of its plans to extend the lease, the tenant faxed its notice and verbally told the landlord it was exercising its option to extend.  But the faxed notice didn’t specify the tenant was extending the lease.  It just said that the tenant’s sublessee – a restaurant – was going to extend its sublease for another five years.

The landlord rejected tenant’s attempt to renew the lease on the basis that it didn’t comport with the lease notice rules.  It (landlord) then entered into a lease directly with the restaurant subtenant.  The tenant filed suit for specific performance and a declaratory judgment that it properly and timely exercised the lease extension option.  After the trial court found the tenant successfully notified the landlord of its intention to extend the lease, the landlord appealed.

Held: Reversed.  Tenant’s failure to adhere to Lease notice requirement defeats its attempt to renew the lease.

Rules/Reasons:

A commercial lessee who seeks to exercise an option to extend a lease must strictly comply – not “substantially comply” – with the terms of the option.  And even though a failure to follow an option provision to the letter can have draconian results, rigid adherence to option requirements promotes commercial certainty.

Here, the tenant’s faxed notice only mentioned that it wished to extend the sublease with the restaurant.  The notice was silent about extending the master lease.

The Court rejected the tenant’s argument that a lease amendment modified the option notice provision in the main lease.  This was because while the amendment did reference the tenant’s option to extend the lease for an additional five-year term, it left untouched the master lease’s requirement that the tenant notify the landlord by certified mail of its intent to exercise the option.

Afterwords:

1/ In the commercial lease milieu, strict compliance with notice provisions is essential.  Although this case works a harsh result on the tenant/sub-lessor, the Court viewed fostering certainty in business transactions as more important than relieving a tenant who substantially, but not strictly, adhered to a lease notice requirement;

2/ Parties to a commercial lease should take pains to comply with notice provisions of a lease.  Otherwise, they run the risk of a court finding they failed to satisfy a precondition to extending a lease.

Fraudulent Transfer Action Can Be Brought In Post-Judgment Proceedings – No Separate Lawsuit Required – IL Court

Despite its vintage (over two decades), Kennedy v. Four Boys Labor Service, 664 N.E.2d 1088 (2nd Dist.  1996), is still relevant and instructional for its detailed discussion of Illinois’ fraudulent transfer statute and what post-judgment claims do and don’t fall within a supplementary proceeding to collect a judgment in Illinois.

The plaintiff won a $70K breach of contract judgment against his former employer and issued citations to discover assets to collect the judgment.

While plaintiff’s lawsuit was pending, the employer transferred its assets to another entity that had some of the same shareholders as the employer.  The “new” entity did business under the same name (Four Boys Labor Service) as the predecessor.

Plaintiff obtained an $82K judgment against the corporate officer who engineered the employer’s asset sale and the officer appealed.

Held: Judgment for plaintiff affirmed

Rules/reasons:

The Court applied several principles in rejecting the corporate officer’s main argument that a fraudulent transfer suit had to be filed in a separate action and couldn’t be brought within the context of the post-judgment proceeding.  Chief among them:

– Supplementary proceedings can only be initiated after a judgment has entered;

– The purpose of supplementary proceedings is to assist a creditor in discovering assets of the judgment debtor to apply to the judgment;

– Once a creditor discovers assets belonging to a judgment debtor in the hands of a third party, the court can order that third party to deliver up those assets to    satisfy the judgment;

– A court can authorize a creditor to maintain an action against any person or corporation that owes money to the judgment debtor, for recovery of the debt (See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(c)(6);

– A corporate director who dissolves a company without providing proper notice to known creditors can be held personally liable for corporate debts (805 ILCS 5/8.65, 12.75);

– An action to impose personal liability on a corporate director who fails to give notice of dissolution must be filed as a separate lawsuit and cannot be brought in a post-judgment/supplementary proceeding;

– Where a third party transfers assets of a corporate debtor for consideration and with full knowledge of a creditor’s claim, the creditor may treat the proceeds from the sale of the assets as debtor’s property and recover them under Code Section 2-1402;

– A transfer of assets from one entity to another generally does not make the transferee liable for the transferor’s debts;

– But where the transferee company is a “mere continuation” of the selling entity, the transferee can be held responsible for the seller’s debt.  The key inquiry in determining successor liability under the mere continuation framework is whether there is continuity of shareholder or directors from the first entity to the second one;

– An action brought under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (FTA), 740 ILCS 160/1, is considered one that directly concerns the assets of the judgment debtor and imposes liability on the recipient/transferee based on the value of the transferred assets;

– A transfer is not voidable against one who takes in good faith and provides reasonably equivalent value.  740 ILCS 160/9;

– A court has discretion to sanction a party that disobeys a court order including by entering a money judgment against the offending party;

(664 N.E.2d at 1091-1093)

Applying these rules, the Court found that plaintiff could properly pursue its FTA claim within the supplementary proceeding and didn’t have to file a separate lawsuit.  This is because an FTA claim does not affix personal liability for a corporate debt (like in a corporate veil piercing or alter ego setting) but instead tries to avoid or undo a transfer and claw back the assets actually transferred.

FTA Section 160/5 sets forth eleven (11) factors that can point to a debtor’s actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor.   Some of the factors or “badges” of fraud that applied here included the transfer was made to corporate insiders, the failure to inform the plaintiff creditor of the transfer of the defendant’s assets, the transfer occurred after plaintiff filed suit, the transfer rendered defendant insolvent, and all of the defendant’s assets were transferred.  Taken together, this was enough evidence to support the trial court’s summary judgment for the plaintiff on his FTA count.

Take-away: Kennedy’s value lies in its stark lesson that commercial litigators should leave no financial stones unturned when trying to collect judgments.  Kennedy also clarifies that fraudulent transfer actions – where the creditor is trying to undo a transfer to a third party and not hold an individual liable for a corporate debt can be brought within the confines of a supplementary proceeding.

 

Lender Lambasted for Loaning Funds to Judgment Debtor’s Related Business – IL Court

The issue on appeal in National Life Real Estate Holdings, LLC v. Scarlato, 2017 IL App (1st) 161943 was whether a judgment creditor could reach loan proceeds flowing from a lender to a judgment debtor’s associated business entity where the debtor himself lacked access to the proceeds.

Answering “yes,” the Court considered some of Illinois post-judgment law’s philosophical foundations and the scope and mechanics of third-party judgment enforcement practice.

The plaintiff obtained a 2012 money judgment of over $3.4M against the debtor and two LLC’s managed by the debtor.   During supplementary proceedings, the plaintiff learned that International Bank of Chicago (“IBC”) loaned $3.5M to two other LLC’s associated with the debtor after plaintiff served a third-party citation on IBC.  The purpose of the loan was to pay for construction improvements on debtor’s industrial property.  And while the debtor wasn’t a payee of the loan, he did sign the relevant loan documents and loan disbursement request.

Plaintiff moved for judgment against IBC in the unpaid judgment amount for violating the third-party citation.  The trial court denied the motion and sided with IBC; it held that since the loan funds were paid to entities other than the debtor, the loan moneys did not belong to the debtor under Code Section 2-1402(f)(1) – the section that prevents a third party from disposing of debtor property in its possession until further order of court.  735 ILCS 5/2-1402(f)(1).

The Plaintiff appealed.  It argued that the debtor sufficiently controlled IBC’s construction loan and the proceeds were effectively, debtor’s property and subject to Plaintiff’s third-party citation.

Reversing, the First District rejected IBC’s two key arguments: first, that the loan proceeds did not belong to the debtor and so were beyond the reach of the third-party citation and second, IBC had set-off rights to the loan proceeds (assuming the funds did belong to debtor) and could set-off the $3.5M loan against debtor’ outstanding, other loan debt.

On the question of whether the post-citation loan was debtor’s property, the Court wrote:

  • Once a citation is served, it becomes a lien for the judgment or balance due on the judgment. Section 2-1402(m);
  • A judgment creditor can have judgment entered against a third party who violates the citation restraining provision by dissipating debtor property or disposing of any moneys belonging to the debtor Section 2-1402(f)(1);
  • Section 2-1402’s purpose is to enable a judgment debtor or third party from frustrating a creditor before that creditor has a chance to reach assets in the debtor’s or third party’s possession. Courts apply supplemental proceedings rules broadly to prevent artful debtors from drafting loan documents in such a way that they elude a citation’s grasp.
  • The only relevant inquiries in supplementary proceedings are (1) whether the judgment debtor is in possession of assets that should be applied to satisfy the judgment, or (2) whether a third party is holding assets of the judgment debtor that should be applied to satisfy the judgment.
  • Section 2-1402 is construed liberally and is the product of a legislative intent to broadly define “property” and whether property “belong[s] to a judgment debtor or to which he or she may be entitled” is an “open-ended” inquiry. (¶¶ 35-36)

The ‘Badges’ of Debtors Control Over the Post-Citation Loan and Case Precedent

In finding the debtor exercised enough control over the IBC loan to subject it to the third-party citation, the Court focused on: (i) the debtor signed the main loan documents including the note, an assignment, the disbursement request and authorization, (ii) the loan funds passed through the bank accounts of two LLC’s of which debtor was a managing member, and (iii) the debtor had sole authority to request advances from IBC.

While conceding the loan funds did end up going to pay for completed construction work and not to the debtor, the Court still believed IBC tried to “game” plaintiff’s citation by making a multi-million dollar loan to businesses allied with the debtor even though the loans never funneled directly to the debtor.

Noting a dearth of Illinois state court case law on the subject, the Court cited with approval the Seventh Circuit’s holding in U.S. v. Kristofic, 847 F.2d 1295 (7th Cir. 1988), a criminal embezzlement case.  There, the appeals court squarely held that loan proceeds do not remain the lender’s property and that a borrower is not a lender’s trustee vis a vis the funds.  Applying the same logic here, the First District found that the loan proceeds were not IBC’s property but were instead, the debtor’s.  Because of this, the loan was subject to the plaintiff’s citation lien.

The Court bolstered its holding with policy arguments.  It opined that if judgment debtors could enter into loan agreements with third parties (like IBC) that restrict a debtor’s access to the loan yet still give a debtor power to direct the loan’s disbursement, it would allow industrious debtors to avoid a judgment. (¶ 39)

The Court also rejected IBC’s set-off argument – that set-off language in other loan documents allowed it to apply the challenged $3.5 loan amount against other loan indebtedness.  Noting that IBC didn’t try to set-off debtor’s other loan obligations with the loan under attack until after it was served with the citation and after the plaintiff filed its motion for judgment, the Court found that IBC forfeited its set-off rights.

In dissent, Judge Mikva wrote that since IBC’s loan was earmarked for a specific purpose and to specific payees, the debtor didn’t have enough control over the loan for it to belong to the debtor within the meaning of Section 2-1402.

The dissent also applied Illinois’s collection law axiom that a judgment creditor has no greater rights in an asset than does the judgment debtor.  Since the debtor here could not access the IBC loan proceeds (again, they were earmarked for specific purpose and payable to business entities – not the debtor individually), the plaintiff creditor couldn’t either.  And since the debtor lacked legal access rights to the loan proceeds, they were not property belonging to him under Section 2-1402 and IBC’s loan distribution did not violate the citation. (¶¶ 55-56)

Afterwords

A big victory for creditor’s counsel.   The Court broadly construes “property under a debtor’s control” in the context of a third-party citation under Section 2-1402 and harshly scrutinized a lender’s artful attempts to dodge a citation.

The case reaffirms that loan proceeds don’t remain the lender’s property and that a borrower doesn’t hold loan proceeds in trust for the lender.

The case also makes clear that where loan proceeds are paid to someone other than the debtor, the Court may still find the debtor has enough dominion over funds to subject them to the citation restraining provisions if there are enough earmarks of debtor control over the funds

Finally, in the context of lender set-off rights, Scarlato cautions a lender to timely assert its set-off rights against a defaulting borrower or else it runs the risk of forfeiting its set-off rights against a competing judgment creditor.

 

Promissory Fraud: Sporting Goods Maker Pleads Seller’s Scheme to Defraud – IL ND

Maurice Sporting Goods, Inc. v. BB Holdings, Inc., 2017 WL 2692124, ponders the reach of the promissory fraud rule (a broken promise normally doesn’t equal fraud), how to plead around it, and the law of the case doctrine.

After a multi-year business relationship for the sale of sporting goods imploded, the plaintiff distributor sued the defendant manufacturer for breach of a 2015 buy-back agreement that required the manufacturer to “buy back” unsold inventory.

The manufacturer counterclaimed; it claimed the distributor defrauded it and tampered with the manufacturer’s relationship with a key customer.  Partially granting the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims, the Northern District discussed the factual specificity required of a plaintiff to circumvent the general rule that promissory fraud isn’t actionable.

The Court first addressed the distributor’s law of the case argument – the manufacturer was trying to relitigate its earlier failed estoppel defense (that the distributor’s fraud barred it from recovering damages from the manufacturer).  The court previously nixed the manufacturer’s estoppel defense because it failed to link the plaintiff’s fraud to the buy-back agreement.

The law of the case doctrine (LOC) prevents a court from reopening issues it previously decided in the same case.  LOC is a flexible doctrine, though.  A court will refuse to apply LOC if there is a change in the law, new evidence or compelling circumstances.

The court declined to apply the LOC doctrine here because the manufacturer’s stricken estoppel defense was premised on fraud by the plaintiff distributor related to a separate transaction – the original distributor agreement – that differed from the buy-back agreement that underlay plaintiff’s suit.

Next, the court examined whether defendant sufficiently alleged an exception to promissory fraud under Federal pleading rules.  Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires heightened factual specificity in fraud claims as the Rule tries to discourage litigants from bootstrapping simple breach of contract claims into tort actions with wide-ranging damages.

Promissory fraud is a false representation of intent concerning future conduct where there is no actual intent to do so.  While promissory fraud is generally not actionable, a plaintiff can plead around it by alleging egregious conduct or a pattern of deception or enticements that reasonably induce reliance.  A fraudulent scheme exists where a party alleges a specific and objective pattern of deception including the who, what, where, and when of the misstatements.

Here, the manufacturer was able to point to three different agents of the distributor who made misstatements in three different phone calls in the same month to support the fraud counterclaim.  These allegations that three distributor employees made false promises in order to sabotage defendant’s relationship with a major retailer were definite enough to meet Rule 9’s pleading requirements for fraud.

Afterwords:

While there is some elemental overlap between an estoppel defense and a promissory fraud counterclaim, the defeat of one won’t always cancel out the other where they relate to different transactions and different underlying facts.

To allege actionable fraud based on a broken promise, a plaintiff must plead a scheme to defraud that equates to a measurable pattern of deception or factual misrepresentations.

LinkedIn Connection Requests Don’t Violate Insurance Salesman’s Noncompete – IL Court

The First District recently considered whether an insurance salesman’s generic LinkedIn invites to some former co-workers violated non-compete provisions in his employment contract.

The plaintiff in Bankers Life v. American Senior Benefits employed the defendant for over a decade as a sales manager.  During his employment, plaintiff signed an employment agreement that contained a 24-month noncompete term that covered a specific geographic area (Rhode Island).  Plaintiff sued when it learned the defendant sent some LinkedIn connection requests to some former colleagues.

The court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion on the basis that the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence that the defendant breached the noncompete by trying to induce three of plaintiff’s employees to join defendant’s new agency.  Plaintiff appealed.

Plaintiff argued that the LinkedIn requests were veiled, if not blatant, attempts to circumvent the noncompete by inviting former co-workers to join a competitor.

The First District affirmed summary judgment for the defendant.  For support, it looked to cases in other jurisdictions that considered if social media overtures can violate employee restrictive covenants.  The Court noted that a majority of these cases hold that passive social media postings (LinkedIn and Facebook, mainly) don’t go far enough to violate a noncompete.

The cases that have found that social media breached noncompete obligations involve clear statements of solicitation by the departed employee where he directly tries to sign up a former client or colleague. Since all the defendant did in this case was send generic LinkedIn messages, they didn’t rise to the level of an actionable solicitation.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that summary judgment was premature and that the plaintiff should have the opportunity to take more discovery on this issue.  Illinois Rule 191 allows a summary judgment opponent to stave off judgment while it takes written and oral discovery to assemble evidence to oppose the motion.  But the plaintiff must show a “minimum level of information” showing a defendant is possibly liable before initiating a lawsuit or making a defendant submit to discovery requests.

Since the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence the defendant solicited any of plaintiff’s employees in the prohibited Rhode Island area, summary judgment for the defendant was proper.

Afterwords:

LinkedIn generic invites that don’t specifically ask someone to sever his/her relationship with current employer don’t go far enough to constitute improper solicitation;

Summary judgment is “put up or shut up moment;” the party opposing summary judgment must offer evidence that raises a question of material fact that can only be decided after a trial on the merits.

 

Florida Series III: Parent Company’s Merger Doesn’t Impact Subsidiary’s Noncompete with M.D.

Collier HMA v. Menichello a medical noncompete dispute, considers whether a third party can enforce a noncompete after a merger.  Jettisoning the “changed corporate culture and mode of operation” test, the Florida appeals court applied basic principles of corporate law to determine whether a parent company’s merger necessarily meant its subsidiary merged too and couldn’t enforce a noncompete involving one of its staff doctors.

Halfway through a three-year employment contract between the plaintiff and doctor defendant, the plaintiff’s corporate parent was acquired by another entity.  The plaintiff-doctor employment contract contained a 12-month noncompete and specifically said it was not enforceable by third parties, successors or assignees of the parties.

After the acquisition, the doctor defendant quit and went to work for one of plaintiff’s competitors.  The plaintiff sued the doctor for violating the 12-month noncompete. The doctor defended by stating that the parent company’s merger with another entity made the plaintiff a successor under the law that could not enforce the restrictive covenant.  The trial court agreed and entered summary judgment for the doctor.  The employer appealed.

Held: Reversed.  Plaintiff employer can enforce the doctor’s noncompete.

Reasons:

Under Florida law, S. 542.335(1)(f), Florida Statutes (2012),  an employment contractual provision that authorizes a third-party beneficiary, assignee or successor to enforce a restrictive covenant is valid.

The statute is silent on the meaning of “successor” but case law defines it to mean “a corporation that, through amalgamation, consolidation or other assumption of interests, is vested with the rights and duties of an earlier corporation.”

Here, the plaintiff employer’s status did not change after its parent company’s merger.  Under the law, a parent corporation is a separate and distinct legal entity from its wholly-owned subsidiary.  As a corollary, a parent company cannot exercise rights of its subsidiary.

The subsidiary plaintiff here continued its existence after the merger as the same single member LLC and didn’t sell or transfer its assets to another entity.  Any change in company ownership several tiers up the corporate chain simply didn’t impact the doctor’s employment contract since plaintiff continued to operate and to employ the doctor.  As the lone signer of the employment contract that contained the noncompete, plaintiff could enforce it.

Afterwords:

The Court refused to apply the nebulous “culture and mode of operation” test which looks to the parties’ post-merger conduct (i.e., did the parties act as though the acquiring company was dictating the acquired company subsidiary’s actions?) to decide whether a third-party can enforce a noncompete.  Instead, the Court considered whether the plaintiff continued its operations (it did) in the wake of the parent company’s merger.

Under black-letter corporate law principles, the Court found that the plaintiff’s parent company’s merger had no impact on the plaintiff as “no other entity emerged from the transaction as a successor to [plaintiff].”  Summary judgment for the plaintiff reversed.

 

Florida Series II: RE Broker Can Assert Ownership Interest in Retained Deposits in Priority Dispute with Condo Developer’s Lenders

Plaza Tower v. 300 South Duval Associates, LLC considers whether a real estate broker or a lender has “first dibs” on earnest money deposits held by a property developer.  After nearly 80% of planned condominium units failed to close (no doubt a casualty of the 2008 crash), the developer was left holding $2.4M of nonrefundable earnest money deposits.  The exclusive listing agreement (“Listing Agreement”) between the developer and the broker plaintiff provided the broker was entitled to 1/3 of retained deposits in the event the units failed to close.

After the developer transferred the deposits to the lender, the broker sued the lender (but not the developer for some reason) asserting claims for conversion and unjust enrichment.

The trial court granted the lenders’ summary judgment motion.  It found that the lenders had a prior security interest in the retained deposits and the broker was at most, a general unsecured creditor of the developer.  The broker appealed.

The issue on appeal was whether the broker could assert an ownership interest in the retained deposits such that it could state a conversion claim against the lenders.

The Court’s key holding was that the developer’s retained deposits comprised an identifiable fund that could underlie a conversion claim.  Two contract sections combined to inform the Court’s ruling.

One contract section provided that the broker’s commission would be “equal to one-third of the amount of the retained deposits.”  The Court viewed this as too non-specific since it didn’t earmark a particular fund.

But another contract section did identify a particular fund; it stated that commission advances to the broker would be offset against commissions paid from the retained deposits.  As a result, the retained deposits were particular enough to sustain a conversion action.  Summary judgment for the developer reversed.

Afterwords: Where a contract provides that a nonbreaching party has rights in a specific, identifiable fund, that party can assert ownership rights to the fund.  Absent a particular fund and resulting ownership rights in them, a plaintiff’s conversion claim for theft or dissipation of the fund will fail.

 

Florida Series: Charging Order that Gives Receiver Management Control over LLC Finances Too Broad – Fla Appeals Court

A creditor’s exclusive remedy against a debtor who is a member or manager of a limited liability company (LLC) is a charging order on the debtor’s distributional interest.

McClandon v. Dakem & Associates, LLC, (see here), a recent Florida appellate case, illustrates that while the charging order remedy is flexible enough to allow for some creative lawyering, it still has limits.

McClandon’s facts are straightforward: the plaintiff obtained a money judgment against an individual who had an interest in several limited liability companies.   In post-judgment proceedings, the plaintiff sought a charging order against the debtor’s LLC interests.  The court granted the charging order and appointed a receiver to take control of the LLCs’ finances.

The debtor appealed.

Partially reversing the charging order’s terms, the appeals court found the trial court exceeded its authority and encroached on the legislature by giving the receiver managerial control over the LLCs.

Section 605.0503 of the Florida LLC statute permits a court to enter a charging order as a creditor’s exclusive remedy to attach a debtor’s interest in a multi-member LLC.  The statute further provides that a court can apply broad equitable principles (i.e., alter ego, equitable lien, constructive trust, etc.) when it fashions a charging order.  Florida’s LLC act is based on the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act of 2006 which specifically provides that a court can appoint a receiver to assist in collection of a debtor’s LLC distributions.  See RULLCA Section 503(b)(1).

The court had discretion to appoint a receiver to help the creditor foreclose on the charging order against the debtor’s LLC interests.  But the court exceeded its boundaries by giving the Receiver expansive management authority over the LLC’s finances.

Since there was no statutory predicate for the court to allow the Receiver to exert managerial control over the LLCs, the trial court’s charging order was overly broad.

Afterwords:

The charging order remedy lends itself to flexibility and creative lawyering.  While a creditor can have a receiver appointed to assist in collecting LLC distributions, the receiver cannot – at least in Florida and other states following the Uniform LLC Act – exert control over the LLC’s financial inner workings.  When petitioning for a receiver, creditor’s counsel should make sure the receiver does not engage in the management of the LLC’s business operations.

 

Paul Versus the Rapper: How YouTube Tutorials and Creative Lawyering Played Key Roles in Recovering Judgment Against Elusive Defendant

In almost two decades of practicing in the post-judgment arena, My clients and I have run the emotional gamut from near-intoxicating highs (the “unicorn” fact patterns where the debtor pays up immediately or, even better, the debtor forgets to empty his bank account and when we freeze it, there’s more than enough funds to satisfy the judgment) to disappointment (when the debtor files bankruptcy and there is a long line of prior creditors) to abject frustration (the debtor appears to have no physical ties anywhere yet profusely broadcasts his life of luxury on all social media channels – think Instagram selfie in tropical locale) to the unnerving (a debtor or two have threatened bodily harm).

But occasionally, I’m faced with a fact pattern that requires both tenacity (they all do) and creative collection efforts. Here’s an example of a recent case that fell into this category. The facts are simple: the debtor – a well-known rapper – failed to show for a scheduled concert in another state and gave no notice. The club promoter filed suit in that state and ultimately got a money judgment for his deposit along with some incidental expenses and attorneys fees.

After I registered the judgment here in Illinois, I began hitting snags in rapid succession. I quickly realized this debtor didn’t fit the normal template: meaning, he didn’t have an official job from which he received regularly scheduled payments, had no bank account and owned no real estate. While the debtor’s social media pages were replete with concert videos and robust YouTube channel offerings, the debtor seemed a ghost.

Add to that, the debtor and his record company used UPS stores as its corporate registered office and the debtor’s entourage ran interference and covered for him at every turn.

Here’s what I did:

(1) Source of Funds: Concerts and Merchandise

I looked at the debtor’s website and social media pages to determine where he would be performing over the next several weeks. Then, I researched the business entities that owned the concert venues and prepared subpoenas to them. For the out-of-state venues, I lined up attorneys there to (1) register the Illinois registration of the foreign judgment, and (2) subpoena the venue owners for contracts with the debtor so I could see what percentage of the “gate” would flow to debtor. My plan was to eventually seek the turnover of funds funneling from venue – to management company – to debtor.

On another front, I tried to identify who was in charge of the debtor’s T-shirt and merchandise sales. Since the website was vague on this, I requested this information from the debtor’s management company through an omnibus citation Rider.

(2) Creating Buzz and a Discovery Dragnet: Getting Others Involved

I then served citations to discover assets on debtor’s management company and booking agent. (I was able to locate these companies through the debtor’s social media pages.) This allowed me to cast a wide net and involve third parties whom I surmised the debtor wasn’t keen on getting dragged into this.

From the management company and booking agent, I sought documents showing payments to the debtor including licensing and royalty fees, tax returns, pay stubs, bank records and any other documents reflecting company-to-debtor payments over the past 12 months.

(3) Licensing and Royalties: Zeroing In On Industry Behemoths

In reviewing the management company’s subpoena response, I noted the debtor was receiving regular royalty payments from ASCAP – the national clearinghouse that distributes public performance royalties to songwriters. Based in New York, ASCAP likely wasn’t going to respond to an Illinois subpoena. So I would have to register the judgment in New York. I lined up a New York attorney to do this and notified debtor’s counsel (by this time, debtor, management company and booking agent hired a lawyer) of my plans to register the judgment in NY and subpoena ASCAP for royalty data. They didn’t like that.

Sensing I may be onto something with the ASCAP angle, I dove deep into the byzantine (to me, at least) world of music licensing law. I learned that while ASCAP (BMI is another public performance royalty conduit) handles performance rights licensing, the pre-eminent agent for “mechanical” licenses (licenses that allow you to put music in CD, record, cassette and digital formats) is the Harry Fox Agency, Inc. or HFA – also based in New York. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this but I found YouTube a treasure trove of music licensing law building blocks.

Armed with my published and video licensing law research, I alerted debtor’s counsel of my plans to subpoena HFA for mechanical royalties in lockstep with my ASCAP subpoena once I registered the judgment in New York.

(4) Settlement: Persistence Pays Off

The combined threat of liening the debtor’s concert and merchandise monies and subpoenaing his public performance and mechanical license royalties was enough to motivate debtor to finally – after months of fighting – come to the table with an acceptable settlement offer. While another creditor beat me to the punch and got to the concert venue owners first, our aggressive actions planted enough of a psychological seed in the debtor that his royalties might be imperiled. This proved critical in getting the debtor’s management company (again, without their involvement, this never would settle) to pay almost the whole judgment amount.

Afterwords: My Younger Self May Have Given Up

This case cemented the lesson I’ve learned repeatedly through the years that as a judgment creditor, you have to be persistent, aggressive and creative – particularly with judgment debtors that don’t neatly fit the 9-to-5-salaried-employee paradigm.

Through persistence, out-of-the-box thinking, internet research and wide use of social media, my client got almost all of its judgment under circumstances where the “old me” (i.e. my less experienced self) may have folded.

 

 

British Firm’s Multi-Million Dollar Trade Secrets Verdict Upheld Against Illinois Construction Equipment Juggernaut – IL Fed Court

Refusing to set aside a $73-plus million jury verdict for a small British equipment manufacturer against construction giant Caterpillar, Inc., a Federal court recently examined the contours of the Illinois trade secrets statute and the scope of damages for trade secrets violations.

The plaintiff in Miller UK, Ltd. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 2017 WL 1196963 (N.D.Ill. 2017) manufactured a coupler device that streamlined the earthmoving and excavation process.  Plaintiff’s predecessor and Caterpillar entered into a 1999 supply contract where plaintiff furnished the coupler to Caterpillar who would, in turn, sell it under its own name through a network of dealers.

The plaintiff sued when Caterpillar terminated the agreement and began marketing its own coupler – the Center-Lock – which bore an uncanny resemblance to plaintiff’s coupler design.

After a multi-week trial, the jury found for the plaintiff on its trade secrets claim and for Caterpillar’s on its defamation counterclaim for $1 million – a paltry sum dwarfed by the plaintiff’s outsized damages verdict.

The Court first assessed whether the plaintiff’s three-dimensional computerized drawings deserved trade secrets protection.

The Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1, defines a trade secret as encompassing information, technical or non-technical data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers that (1) is sufficiently secret to derive economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (2) is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy or confidentiality.

Misappropriation means “disclosure” or “use” of a trade secret by someone who lacks express or implied consent to do so and where he/she knows or should know that knowledge of the trade secret was acquired under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain its secrecy or limit its use.  Intentional conduct, howver, isn’t required: misappropriation can result from a defendant’s negligent or unintentional conduct.

Recoverable trade secret damages include actual loss caused by the misappropriation and unjust enrichment enjoyed by the misappropriator.  Where willful and malicious conduct is shown, the plaintiff can also recover punitive damages.  765 ILCS 1065/4.

In agreeing that the plaintiff’s coupler drawings were trade secrets, the Court noted plaintiff’s expansive use of confidentiality agreements when they furnished the drawings to Caterpillar and credited plaintiff’s trial testimony that the parties’ expectation was for the drawings to be kept secret.

The Court also upheld its trial rulings excluding certain evidence offered by Caterpillar.  One item of evidence rejected by the court as hearsay was a slide presentation prepared by Caterpillar to show how its coupler differed from plaintiff’s and didn’t utilize plaintiff’s confidential data.

Hearsay prevents a litigant from using out-of-court statements to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  An exception to the hearsay rule applies where an out-of-court statement (1) is consistent with a declarant’s trial testimony, (2) the party offering the statement did so to rebut an express or implied charge of recent fabrication or improper motive against the declarant, (3) the statement was made before the declarant had a motive for fabrication, and (4) the declarant testifies at trial and is subject to cross-examination.

Since the slide show was made as a direct response to plaintiff’s claim that Caterpillar used plaintiff’s confidential information, the statement (the slide show) was made after Caterpillar had a motive to fabricate the slide show.

The Court then affirmed the jury’s $1M verdict on Caterpillar’s defamation counter-claim based on plaintiff’s falsely implying that Caterpillar’s coupler failed standard safety tests in written and video submissions sent to Caterpillar’s equipment dealers.  The plaintiff’s letter and enclosed DVD showed a Caterpillar coupler bucket breaking apart and decapitating a life-size dummy. (Ouch!)  The obvious implication being that Caterpillar’s coupler is unsafe.

The Court agreed with the jury that the plaintiff’s conduct was actionable as per se defamation.  A quintessential defamation per se action is one alleging a plaintiff’s lack of ability or integrity in one’s business.  With per se defamation, damages are presumed – meaning, the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove mathematical (actual) monetary loss.

Instead, all that’s required is the damages assessed “not be considered substantial.”  Looking to an earlier case where the court awarded $1M for defamatory statements in tobacco litigation, the Court found that the jury’s verdict against the plaintiff coupler maker here was proper.

Afterwords:

The wide use of confidentiality agreements and evidence of oral pledges of secrecy can serve as sufficient evidence of an item’s confidential nature for purposes of trade secrets liability.  Trade secrets damages can include actual profits lost by a plaintiff, the amount the defendant (the party misappropriating the trade secrets) was unjustly enriched through the use of plaintiff’s trade secrets and, in some egregious cases, punitive damages.

The case also shows that a jury has wide latitude to fashion general damage awards in per se defamation suits.  This is especially so in cases involving deep-pocketed defendants.

 

Random Florida-to-Illinois Texts, Emails and Phone Calls Not Enough to Subject Fla. LLC to IL Jurisdiction

In McGlasson v. BYB Extreme Fighting Series, LLC, 2017 WL 2193235 (C.D.Ill. 2017), the plaintiff sued a Florida LLC and two Florida residents for pilfering the plaintiff’s idea to host MMA fights on cruise ships off the coast of Florida.

Plaintiff claimed that after he sent a rough video of the concept to them, the defendants hijacked the concept and then formed their own MMA-at-sea event, causing the plaintiff monetary damages.

All defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims on the basis that they weren’t subject to Illinois jurisdiction.

The Court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and in doing so, discussed the requisite contacts for an Illinois court to exercise jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant who commits an intentional tort.

In breach of contract actions, personal jurisdiction turns on whether a defendant purposefully avails itself or the privilege of doing business in the forum state. With an intentional tort defendant, by contrast, the court looks at whether a defendant “purposefully directed” his conduct at the forum state.

Purposely directing activity at a state requires a finding of (1) intentional conduct, (2) expressly aimed at the forum state, with (3) defendant’s knowledge the effects would be felt in the forum state.  If plaintiff makes all three showings, he establishes that a defendant purposefully directed its activity at the forum state.

A plaintiff in an intentional tort case cannot, however, rely on his own unilateral activity to support jurisdiction over a defendant.  Similarly, a defendant’s contact with a third party with no connection to a forum state isn’t relevant to the jurisdictional analysis.

Here, the lone Illinois contacts alleged of defendants were a handful of emails, phone calls and text messages sent to the Illinois resident plaintiff.  To strengthen his case for jurisdiction over the Florida defendants, plaintiff alleged he suffered an economic injury in Illinois.

Rejecting plaintiff’s argument, the court viewed e-mail as not existing “in any location at all:”  instead, it bounces from server to server and the connection between where an e-mail is opened and where a lawsuit is filed is too weak a link to subject an out-of-state sender to jurisdiction in a foreign state.

The Court also noted that (a plaintiff’s) suffering economic injury in Illinois isn’t enough, standing alone, to confer personal jurisdiction over a foreign resident.  The focus is instead whether the defendant’s conduct “connects him to [Illinois] in a meaningful way.”

Since plaintiff’s MMA-at-sea idea had no connection to Illinois and the defendant’s sporadic phone calls, emails and texts weren’t enough to tie him to Illinois, the Court lacked personal jurisdiction over the Florida defendants.

Take-aways:

1/ In intentional tort setting, a foreign defendant’s conduct must be purposefully directed at a forum state for that state to exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant;

2/ plaintiff’s unilateral actions vis a vis an out-of-state defendant don’t factor into the jurisdictional calculus;

3/ A defendant’s episodic emails, texts and phone calls to an Illinois resident likely won’t be enough to subject the defendant to personal jurisdiction in Illinois.

 

Corporate Officer Can Owe Fiduciary Duty to Company Creditors – IL Court in ‘Deep Cut’* Case

Five years in, Workforce Solutions v. Urban Services of America, Inc., 2012 IL App (1st) 111410 is still a go-to authority for its penetrating analysis of the scope of post-judgment proceedings, the nature of fraudulent transfer claims and the legal relationship between corporate officers and creditors.

Here are some key questions and answers from the case:

Q1: Is a judgment creditor seeking a turnover order from a third party on theory of fraudulent transfer (from debtor to third party) entitled to an evidentiary hearing?

A1: YES

Q2: Does the denial of a turnover motion preclude that creditor from filing a direct action against the same turnover defendants?

A2: NO.

Q3: Can officer of a debtor corporation owe fiduciary duty to creditor of that corporation?

Q3: YES.

The plaintiff supplier of contract employees sued the defendant in 2006 for breach of contract.  After securing a $1M default judgment in 2008, the plaintiff instituted supplementary proceedings to collect on the judgment.  Through post-judgment discovery, plaintiff learned that the defendant and its officers were operating through a labyrinthine network of related business entities.  In 2010, plaintiff sought a turnover order from several third parties based on a 2008 transfer of assets and a 2005 loan from the debtor to third parties.

That same year (2010), plaintiff filed a new lawsuit against some of the entities that were targets of the motion for turnover order in the 2006 case.

In the 2006 case, the court denied the turnover motion on the basis that the plaintiff failed to establish that the turnover defendants received fraudulent transfers from the judgment debtor and that the fraudulent transfer claims were time-barred.  740 ILCS 160/10 (UFTA claims are subject to four-year limitations period.)

The court in the 2010 case dismissed plaintiff’s claims based on the denial of plaintiff’s turnover motion in the 2006 case.  Plaintiff appealed from both lawsuits.

Section 2-1402 of the Code permits a judgment creditor to initiate supplementary proceedings against a judgment debtor to discover assets of the debtor and apply those assets to satisfy an unpaid judgment

A court has broad powers to compel the application of discovered assets to satisfy a judgment and it can compel a third party to turn over assets belonging to the judgment debtor.

The only relevant inquiries in a supplementary proceeding are (1) whether the judgment debtor is holding assets that should be applied to the judgment; and (2) whether a third-party citation respondent is holding assets of the judgment debtor that should be applied to the judgment. .  If the facts are right, an UFTA claim can be brought in supplementary proceedings

But where there are competing claimants to the same asset pool, they are entitled to a trial on the merits (e.g. an evidentiary hearing) unless they waive the trial and stipulate to have the turnover motion decided on the written papers.

Here, the court disposed of the turnover motion on the bare arguments of counsel.  It didn’t conduct the necessary evidentiary hearing and therefore committed reversible error when it denied the motion.

The defendants moved to dismiss the 2010 case – which alleged breach of fiduciary duty, among other things – on the basis of collateral estoppel.  They argued that the denial of the plaintiff’s motion for turnover order in the 2006 precluded them from pursuing the same claims in the 2010 case.  Collateral estoppel or “issue preclusion” applies where: (1) an issue previously adjudicated is identical to the one in a pending action; (2) a final judgment on the merits exists in the prior case; and (3) the prior action involved the same parties or their privies.

The appeals court found that there was no final judgment on the merits in the 2006 case.  Since the trial court failed to conduct an evidentiary hearing, the denial of the turnover order wasn’t final.  Since there was no final judgment in the 2006 suit, the plaintiff was not barred from filing its breach of fiduciary duty and alter ego claims in 2010.

The Court also reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claims against the corporate debtor’s promoters.  To state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owes him a fiduciary duty; that the defendant breached that duty; and that he was injured as a proximate result of that breach.

The promoter defendants argued plaintiff lacked standing to sue since Illinois doesn’t saddle corporate officers with fiduciary duties to a corporation’s creditors. The Court allowed that as a general rule, corporate officers only owe fiduciary duties to the corporation and shareholders.  “However, under certain circumstances, an officer may owe a fiduciary duty to the corporation’s creditors….specifically, once a corporation becomes insolvent, an officer’s fiduciary duty extends to the creditors of the corporation because, from the moment insolvency arises, the corporation’s assets are deemed to be held in trust for the benefit of its creditors.

Since plaintiff alleged the corporate defendant was insolvent, that the individual defendants owed plaintiff a duty to manage the corporate assets, and a breach of that duty by making fraudulent transfers to various third parties, this was enough to sustain its breach of fiduciary duty claim against defendants’ motion to dismiss. (¶¶ 83-84).

Afterwords:

1/ A motion for turnover order, if contested, merits a full trial with live witnesses and exhibits.

2/ A denial of a motion for a turnover order won’t have preclusive collateral estoppel effect on a later fraudulent transfer action where there was no evidentiary hearing to decide the turnover motion

3/ Once a corporation becomes insolvent, an officer’s fiduciary duty extends to creditors of the corporation.  This is because once insolvency occurs, corporate assets are deemed held in trust for the benefit of creditors.


* In the rock radio realm, a deep cut denotes an obscure song – a “B-side” – from a popular recording artist or album.  Examples: “Walter’s Walk” (Zeppelin); “Children of the Sea” (Sabbath); “By-Tor And the Snow Dog” (Rush).

Discovery Rule Can’t Save Trustee’s Fraud Suit – No ‘Continuing’ Violation Where Insurance Rep Misstates Premium Amount – IL Court

Gensberg v. Guardian, 2017 IL App (1st) 153443-U, examines the discovery rule in the context of common law and consumer fraud as well as when the “continuing wrong” doctrine can extend a statute of limitations.

Plaintiffs bought life insurance from agent in 1991 based in part on the agent’s representation that premiums would “vanish” in 2003 (for a description of vanishing premiums scenario, see here).  When the premium bills didn’t stop in 2003, plaintiff complained and the agent informed it that premiums would cease in 2006.

Plaintiff complained again in 2006 when it continued receiving premium bills.  This time, the agent informed plaintiff the premium end date would be 2013. It was also in this 2006 conversation that the agent, for the first time, informed plaintiff that whether premiums would vanish is dependent on the policy dividend interest rate remaining constant.

When the premiums still hadn’t stopped by 2013, plaintiff had seen (or heard enough) and sued the next year.  In its common law and consumer fraud counts, plaintiff alleged it was defrauded by the insurance agent and lured into paying premiums for multiple years as a result of the agent’s misstatements.

The Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit on the grounds that plaintiff’s fraud claims were time barred under the five-year and three-year statutes of limitation for common law and statutory fraud.

Held: Dismissal Affirmed.

Rules/reasons:

The statute of limitations for common law fraud and consumer fraud is five years and three years, respectively. 735 ILCS 5/13-205, 805 ILCS 505/10a(e). Here, plaintiff sued in 2014.  So normally, its fraud claims had to have accrued in 2009 (common law fraud) and 2011 (consumer fraud) at the earliest for the claims to be timely.  But the plaintiff claimed it didn’t learn it was injured until 2013 under the discovery rule.

The discovery rule, which can forestall the start of the limitations period, posits that the statute doesn’t begin to run until a party knows or reasonably should know (1) of an injury and that (2) the injury was wrongfully caused. ‘Wrongfully caused’ under the discovery rule means there is enough facts for a reasonable person would be put on inquiry notice that he/she may have a cause of action. The party relying on the discovery rule to file suit after a statute of limitations runs has the burden of proving the date of discovery. (¶ 23)

The plaintiff alleged that it wasn’t until 2013 that it first learned that defendant misrepresented the vanishing date for the insurance premiums.
The Court rejected this argument based on the allegations of the plaintiff’s complaint. It held that the plaintiff knew or should have known it was injured no later than 2006 when the agent failed to adhere to his second promised deadline (the first was in 2003 – the original premium end date) for premiums to cease.

Plaintiff stated it complained to the insurance agent in 2003 and again in 2006 that it shouldn’t be continuing to get billed.  The court found that the agent’s failure to comply with multiple promised deadlines for premiums to stop should have put plaintiff on notice that he was injured in 2003 at the earliest and 2006 at the latest. Since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2014 – eight years later – both fraud claims were filed too late.

Grasping at a proverbial straw, the plaintiff argued its suit was saved by the “continuing violation” rule.  This rule can revive a time-barred claim where a tort involves repeated harmful behavior.  In such a case, the statute of limitations doesn’t run until (1) the date of the last injury or (2) when the harmful acts stop. But, where there is a single overt act which happens to spawn repetitive damages, the limitations period is measured from the date of the overt act. (¶ 26).

The court in this case found there was but a single harmful event – the agent’s failure to disclose, until 2006, that whether premiums would ultimately vanish was contingent on dividend interest rates remaining static. As a result, plaintiff knew or should have known it was harmed in 2006 and could not take advantage of the continuing violation rule to lengthen its time to sue.

Take-aways:

1/ Fraud claims are subject to a five-year (common law fraud) and three-year (consumer fraud) limitations period;

2/ The discovery rule can extend the time to sue but will not apply where a reasonable person is put on inquiry notice that he may have suffered an actionable wrong;

3/  “Continuing wrong” doctrine doesn’t govern where there is a single harmful event that has ongoing ramifications. The plaintiff’s time to sue will be measured from the date of the tortious occurrence and not from when damages happen to end.

Defendant Doesn’t Abandon Counterclaim By Failing to Replead It In Response to Amended Complaint – Ohio Fed. Court

I recently faced this procedural quandary: Plaintiff (that’s us) filed a complaint.  Defendant responded by filing an answer and counterclaim.  After receiving court leave, and before responding to the counterclaim, we amended the complaint.  Defendant answered the amended complaint and filed affirmative defenses but did not replead its counterclaim.

Defendant later threatened to default us if we didn’t answer its prior counterclaim.  I argued that the earlier counterclaim was extinguished by the amended complaint since the defendant didn’t file a counterclaim to it.  The defendant thought otherwise.  Ultimately, to avoid spending time and money on a collateral issue, I answered the counterclaim – even though I don’t think I had to.

My research revealed a definite split of authority on the issue.  Some courts hold that an amended pleading supersedes not only the original complaint (that’s obvious) but also an earlier counterclaim to the superseded complaint.  Others take the opposite tack and find that a counterclaim is separate from the answer and that even where a complaint is withdrawn and amended, the prior counterclaim still remains and must be answered.

Mathews v. Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, 2014 WL 4748472 reflects a court weighing the facts of a given case in deciding whether a defendant must replead its counterclaim or can stand on the one it previously filed.

The plaintiffs sued alleging their disability retirement benefits were wrongly denied.  The pension fund defendant filed an answer and counterclaim to recover overpaid benefits. The plaintiff later filed an Amended Complaint to which the defendant answered but did not re-assert a counterclaim.  Plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings based on the absence of a counterclaim with defendant’s answer to the amended pleading.  The defendant then moved for leave to file a counterclaim to the Amended Complaint.  Plaintiff opposed the motion.

Siding with the defendant, the Ohio Federal court looked to the interplay between Federal Rules 13 and 15 and noted that “courts are divided” on whether a party must replead a counterclaim in response to an amended complaint.

Federal Rule 13 requires a pleading to state compulsory counterclaims and allows it to allege permissive counterclaims.

Federal Rule 15(a)(3) provides that, “[u]nless the court orders otherwise, any required response to an amended pleading must be made within the time remaining to respond to the original pleading or within 14 days after service of the amended pleading, whichever is later.”

Some courts interpret this to mean that a defendant must replead a counterclaim in response to an amended complaint or it abandons or waives the right to pursue the counterclaim* while others do not require a defendant to replead a counterclaim with its response to an amended complaint.**

Still, a third line of cases decides the question on a case-by-case basis: it considers whether plaintiff received notice of the counterclaim, whether the defendant pursued the counterclaim and whether plaintiff will suffer unfair prejudice if the prior counterclaim proceeds.

The Court ultimately followed the latter case authorities; it weighed the equities to decide whether the defendant abandoned its counterclaim.  In allowing the defendant to file a counterclaim to the plaintiff’s Amended Complaint, the Court noted that Plaintiff had been on notice for several months that defendant intended to pursue its counterclaim and even replied to the counterclaim.

The Court also cited Plaintiff’s failure to establish prejudice if the Defendant was allowed to file a counterclaim. The Court rejected plaintiff’s judicial economy argument by noting that discovery was already closed when plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings and the proposed amended answer and counterclaim injected no new facts to the previously filed counterclaim.

Afterwords: When a complaint is amended it is treated as abandoned.  However, if a defendant filed a counterclaim along with its answer to the abandoned complaint, there is case authority (not just in Ohio but in other states, too) for the proposition that the counterclaim is not extinguished and the plaintiff still must answer it.

Mathews and cases like it demonstrate that the safe procedural play is for a defendant to replead its counterclaim with its answer to an amended pleading.  Otherwise, the defendant may have to defend against a claim that it waived its counterclaim by not refiling it in response to the amended pleading.

 

 


Gen. Mills, Inc. v. Kraft Foods Global, Inc., 487 F.3d 1368, 1376–77 (Fed.Cir.2007)Bremer Bank, Nat’l Ass’n, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21055, at *40–41, 2009 WL 702009   Nat’l Mut. Cas. Ins. Co. v. Snider, 996 F.Supp.2d 1173, 1180 n. 8 (M.D.Ala.2014)

** Performance Sales & Mktg. LLC v. Lowe’s Cos., No. 5:07–cv–00140, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117835, at *9 n. 2, 2013 WL 4494687 (W.D.N.C. Aug. 20, 2013)Ground Zero Museum Workshop v. Wilson, 813 F.Supp.2d 678, 705–06 (D.Md. Aug.24, 2011)

*** Davis v. Beard, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30461, at *12–13, 2014 WL 916947 (E.D.Mo. Mar. 10, 2014) Hitachi Med. Sys. Am., Inc. v. Horizon Med. Grp., 2008 WL 5723531 (N.D.Ohio 2008) ; AVKO Educ. Research Found. v. Morrow, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49463, at *30, 2013 WL 1395824 (E.D.Mich. Apr. 5, 2013); Cairo Marine Serv. v. Homeland Ins. Co., No. 4:09CV1492, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117365, at *3–4, 2010 WL 4614693 (E.D.Mo. Nov. 4, 2010)

 

‘Lifetime’ Verbal Agreement To Share in Real Estate Profits Barred by Statute of Frauds – IL 1st Dist.

I previously summarized an Illinois case illustrating the Statute of Frauds’ (SOF) “one-year rule” which posits that a contract that can’t possibly be performed within one year from formation must be in writing.

Church Yard Commons Limited Partnership v. Podmajersky, 2017 IL App (1st) 161152, stands as a recent example of a court applying the one-year rule with harsh results in an intrafamily dispute over a Chicago real estate business.

The plaintiff (a family member of the original business owners) sued the defendant (the owners’ successor and son) for breach of fiduciary duties in connection with the operation of family-owned real estate in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.  The defendant filed counterclaims to enforce a 2003 oral agreement to manage his parents’ realty portfolio in exchange for a partnership interest in the various entities that owned the real estate.   The trial court dismissed the counterclaim on the basis that the oral agreement equated to a “lifetime employment contract” and violated the SOF’s one-year rule.  Defendant appealed.

Result: Counterclaim’s dismissal affirmed.

Reasons:

The SOF’s purpose is to serve as an evidentiary safeguard: in theory, the Statute protects defendants and courts from proof problems associated with oral contracts since “with the passage of time evidence becomes stale and memories fade.”  (¶ 26; McInerney v. Charter Golf, Inc., 176 Ill.2d 482, 489 (1997).

An SOF defense is a basis for dismissal under Code Section 2-619(a)(7).

Section 1 of the SOF, 740 ILCS 80/1, provides: “No action shall be brought…upon any agreement that is not to be performed within the space of one year from the making thereof” unless the agreement is in writing.

Under this one-year rule, if an oral agreement can potentially be performed within the space of one year (from creation), regardless of whether the parties’ expected it to be performed within a year, it does not have be in writing.  As a result, contracts of uncertain duration normally don’t have to comply with the one-year rule – since they can conceivably be performed within a year.

What About Lifetime Employment Contracts?

Lifetime employment agreements, however, are the exception to this rule governing contracts of unclear duration.  Illinois courts view lifetime contracts as pacts that contemplate a permanent relationship.  And even though a party to a lifetime agreement could die within a year, the courts deem a lifetime agreement as equivalent to one that is not to be performed within a space of a year.  As a result, a lifetime employment contract must be in writing to be enforceable.

Here, the 2003 oral agreement involved the counterplaintiff’s promise to dedicate his life to furthering the family’s real estate business.  It was akin to a lifetime employment agreement.  Since the 2003 oral agreement was never reduced to writing, it was unenforceable by the counterclaim under the SOF one-year rule. (¶¶ 30-31)

What About the Partial Performance Exception?

The Court also rejected counter-plaintiff’s partial performance argument.  In some cases, a court will refuse to apply the SOF where a plaintiff has partially or fully performed under an oral contract and it would be unfair to deny him/her recovery.  Partial performance will only save the plaintiff where the court can’t restore the parties to the status quo or compensate the plaintiff for the work he/she did perform.

Here, the Counterplaintiff was fully compensated for the property management services he performed – it received management fees of nearly 20% of collected revenue.

Afterwords:

This case validates Illinois case precedent that holds lifetime employment contracts must be in writing to be enforceable under the SOF’s one-year rule.  It also makes clear that a party’s partial performance won’t take an oral contract outside the scope of the SOF where the party has been (or can be) compensated for the work he/she performed.  The partial performance exception will only defeat the SOF where the performing party can’t be compensated for the value of his/her services.

 

 

 

Veil Piercing Claim Triable By Jury; Consumer Fraud Act Applies to Failed Gas Station Sale – IL 3rd Dist.

An Illinois appeals court recently affirmed a $700K money judgment for a gas station buyer in a fraud case against the seller.

The plaintiff gas station buyer in Benzakry v. Patel, 2017 IL App(3d) 160162 sued the seller when the station closed only a few months after the sale.

The plaintiff alleged he relied on the seller’s misrepresenting the financial health and trustworthiness of the station tenant which led the plaintiff to go forward with the station purchase.  Plaintiff sued for common law and statutory fraud and sought to pierce the corporate veil of the LLC seller.

Affirming judgment for the plaintiff, the Third District discusses, among other things, the piercing the corporate veil remedy, the required evidentiary foundation for business records, the reliance element of fraud and the scope of the consumer fraud statute.

Piercing the Corporate Veil: Triable By Bench or Jury?

The jury pierced the seller LLC’s corporate veil and imposed liability on the lone LLC member.

The Court addressed this issue of first impression on appeal: whether a piercing the corporate veil claim is one for the court or jury.  The Court noted a split in Federal authority on the point.  In FMC v. Murphree, 632 F.2d 413 (5th Cir. 1980), the 5th Circuit held that a jury could hear a piercing claim while the  7th Circuit reached the opposite result (only a court can try a piercing action) in IFSC v. Chromas Technologies, 356 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2004).

The Court declined to follow either case since they applied only Federal procedural law (they were diversity cases).  The Court instead looked to Illinois state substantive law for guidance.

Generally, there is no right to a jury trial in equitable claims and piercing the corporate veil is considered an equitable remedy.  However, Code Section 2-1111 vests a court with discretion to direct any issue(s) involved in an equitable proceeding to be tried by a jury.  The appeals court found that the trial court acted within its discretion in deciding that the piercing claim should be decided by a jury. (¶¶ 29-30)

Consumer fraud – Advertisement on Web = ‘Public Injury’

The Third District reversed the trial court’s directed verdict for the defendants on the plaintiff’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) count.  Consumer fraud predicated on deceptive practices requires the plaintiff to prove (1) a deceptive act or practice by a defendant, (2) defendant’s intent that the plaintiff rely on the deception, (3) the occurrence of the deception during a course of conduct involving trade or commerce, (4) actual damage to the plaintiff, and (5) damage proximately caused by the deception.

The trial court sided with the defendant on this count since the plaintiff didn’t prove that defendants conduct resulted in injury to the public generally.  CFA Section 10a (815 ILCS 505/10a) used to require a plaintiff to prove that a misrepresentation involved trade practice that addressed the market generally.  However, a 1990 amendment to the Act changed that.  The current version of the Act doesn’t require a plaintiff to show public injury except under limited circumstances.

Even so, the Court still held that the defendant’s misstating the gas station’s annual fuel and convenience store sales on a generally accessible website constituted a public injury under the CFA.

Going further, the Court construed the CFA broadly by pointing to the statutory inclusion of the works “trade” and “commerce.”  This evinced the legislative intent to expand the CFA’s scope.  Since defendant’s misrepresentations concerning the tenant were transmitted to the public via advertisements and to the plaintiff through e-mails, the Court viewed this as deceptive conduct involving trade or commerce under the CFA.  (¶¶ 81-82)

Computer-Generated Business Records: Document Retention vs. Creation

While it ultimately didn’t matter (the business records were cumulative evidence that didn’t impact the judgment amount), the Court found that bank statements offered into evidence did not meet the test for admissibility under Illinois evidence rules.

The proponent of computer-generated business records must show (1) the equipment that created a document is recognized as standard, and (2) the computer entries were made in the regular course of business at or reasonably near the happening of the event recorded.

Showing “mere retention” of a document isn’t enough: the offering party must produce evidence of a document’s creation to satisfy the business records admissibility standard.  Here, the plaintiff failed to offer foundational testimony concerning the creation of the seller’s bank statements and those statements shouldn’t have been admitted into evidence.

Take-aways:

1/ The Court has discretion to order that an equitable piercing the corporate veil claim be tried to a jury;

2/ Inadequate capitalization, non-functioning shareholders and commingling of funds are badges of fraud or injustice sufficient to support a piercing the corporate veil remedy;

3/ Computer-generated business records proponent must offer foundational testimony of a document’s creation to get the records in over a hearsay objection;

4/ False advertising data on a public website can constitute a deceptive practice under the consumer fraud statute.

 

 

Family Trust Set Up in Good Faith Shields Family Member from Creditor – IL Case Note

In Hickory Point Bank & Trust v. Natual Concepts, Inc., 2017 IL App (3d) 160260, the appeals court affirmed a trial court’s denial of a judgment creditor’s motion to impose a judicial lien and order the turnover of trust assets.

The corporate defendant defaulted on the loan that was guaranteed by corporate principals.

Plaintiff entered confessed judgments against the corporate and individual defendants.

Through post-judgment proceedings, plaintiff learned one of the individual defendants was trustee of an irrevocable family trust whose sole asset was four pieces of real estate formerly owned by the defendant’s father.

The document provided that upon death of defendants’ parents, the trust assets would be distributed 85% to defendant with the rest (15%) going to defendant’s three sons.

To satisfy its default judgment against defendant, plaintiff alternately moved to liquidate and turnover the trust assets and to impress a judicial lien against the trust property.

The trial court held that the trust was protected from judgment creditors under Code section 2-1403 (735 ILCS 5/2-1403) and denied the plaintiff’s motion. Plaintiff appealed.

The central issue was whether or not the trust was self-settled.  A “self-settled” trust is “a trust in which the settlor is also the person who is to receive the benefits from the trust, usually set up in an attempt to protect the trust assets from creditors.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1518 (7th ed. 2002).

Like most states, Illinois follows the general rule that a self-settled trust created for the settlor’s own benefit will not protect trust assets from the settlor’s creditors. See Rush University Medical Center v. Sessions, 2012 IL 112906, ¶ 20.

Code Section 2-1403 codifies the rule that protects trusts that are not self-settled.  This statute states:

“No court, except as otherwise provided in this Section, shall order the satisfaction of a judgment out of any property held in trust for the judgment debtor if such trust has, in good faith, been created by, or the fund so held in trust has proceeded from, a person other than the judgment debtor.” 735 ILCS 5/2–1403 (West 2014).

Based on the plain statutory text, a creditor’s judgment cannot be satisfied by funds held in trust for a judgment debtor where (1) the trust was created in good faith and (2) a person other than the judgment debtor created the trust or the funds held in trust proceeded from someone other than the judgment debtor.

Here, there was evidence that the trust was formed in good faith.  It pre-dated by five years the date of the commercial loan and defendants’ default.  There was no evidence the trust was created to dodge creditors like the plaintiff.  The trust language stated it was designed for the care of Defendant’s elderly parents during their lifetimes.

The Court also deemed significant that Defendant was not the trust beneficiary. Again, the trust was set up to benefit Defendants’ parents and the trust was funded with the parents’ assets.  Because the trust assets originated from someone other than the defendant, the second prong of Section 2-1403 was satisfied.

Plaintiff’s alternative argument that the court should impress a judicial lien against defendant’s 85% trust interest also failed.  The law is clear that a creditor may not impose a lien on funds that are in the hands of a trustee.  But once those trust funds are distributed to a beneficiary, a creditor can access them. (¶¶ 26-27)

Since thse trust assets (the four real estate parcels) had not been distributed to defendants under the terms of the trust, defendant’s interest in the properties could not be liened by the plaintiff.

Afterwords:

A good example of a family trust shielding trust assets from the reach of a family member’s creditor.

Self-settled trusts (trusts where the settlor and beneficiary are the same person) are not exempt from creditor interference.  However, where the trust is created in good faith and funded with assets originating from someone other than a debtor, a creditor of that debtor will not be able to attach the trust assets until they “leave” the trust and are distributed to the debtor.

 

Technically Non-Final Default Judgment Still Final Enough to Support Post-Judgment Enforcement Action – IL Fed Court (From the Vault)

Dexia Credit Local v. Rogan, 629 F.3d 612 (7th Cir. 2011) reminds me of a recent case I handled in a sales commission dispute.  A Cook County Law Division Commercial Calendar arbitrator ruled for our client and against a corporate defendant and found for the individual defendant (an officer of the corporate defendant) against our client on a separate claim.  On the judgment on award (JOA) date, the corporate defendant moved to extend the seven-day rejection period.  The judge denied the motion and entered judgment on the arbitration award.

Inadvertently, the order recited only the plaintiff’s money award against the corporate defendant: it was silent on the “not liable” finding for the individual defendant.  To pre-empt the corporate defendant’s attempt to argue the judgment wasn’t a final order (and not enforceable), we moved to correct the order retroactively or, nunc pro tunc, to the JOA date so that it recited both the plaintiff’s award against the corporation and the corporate officer’s award versus the plaintiff.  This “backdated” clarification to the judgment order permitted us to immediately issue a Citation to Discover Assets to the corporate defendant without risking a motion to quash the Citation.

While our case didn’t involve Dexia’s big bucks or complicated facts, one commonality between our case and Dexia was the importance of clarifying whether an ostensibly final order is enforceable through post-judgment proceedings.

After getting a $124M default judgment against the debtor, the Dexia plaintiff filed a flurry of citations against the judgment debtor and three trusts the debtor created for his adult children’s’ benefit.

The trial court ordered the trustee to turnover almost all of the trust assets (save for some gifted monies) and the debtor’s children appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first discussed the importance of final vs. non-final orders.

The defendants argued that the default judgment wasn’t final since it was silent as to one of the judgment debtor’s co-defendants – a company that filed bankruptcy during the lawsuit.  The defendants asserted that since the judgment didn’t dispose of plaintiff’s claims against all defendants, the judgment wasn’t final and the creditor’s post-judgment citations were premature.

In Illinois, supplementary proceedings like Citations to Discover Assets are unavailable until after a creditor first obtains a judgment “capable of enforcement.”  735 ILCS 5/2-1402.  The debtor’s children argued that the default judgment that was the basis for the citations wasn’t enforceable since it did not resolve all pending claims.   As a result, according to debtor’s children, the citations were void from the start.

The Court rejected this argument as vaunting form over substance.  The only action taken by the court after the default judgment was dismissing nondiverse, dispensable parties – which it had discretion to do under Federal Rule 21.  Under the case law, a court’s dismissal of dispensable, non-diverse parties retroactively makes a pre-dismissal order final and enforceable.

Requiring the plaintiff to reissue post-judgment citations after the dismissal of the bankrupt co-defendant would waste court and party resources and serve no useful purpose.  Once the court dismissed the non-diverse defendants, it “finalized” the earlier default judgment.

Afterwords:

A final order is normally required for post-judgment enforcement proceedings.  However, where an order is technically not final since there are pending claims against dispensable parties, the order can retroactively become final (and therefore enforceable) after the court dismisses those parties and claims.

The case serves as a good example of a court looking at an order’s substance instead of its technical aspects to determine whether it is sufficiently final to underlie supplementary proceedings.

The case also makes clear that a creditor’s request for a third party to turn over assets to the creditor is not an action at law that would give the third party the right to a jury trial.  Instead, the turnover order is coercive or equitable in nature and there is no right to a jury trial in actions that seek equitable relief.

 

New York’s Public Policy On Construction Dispute Venue Trumps Illinois Forum-Selection Clause – IL 2d Dist.

Dancor Construction, Inc. v. FXR Construction, Inc., 2016 IL App (1st) 150839 offers a nuanced discussion of forum selection clauses and choice-of-law principles against the backdrop of a multi-jurisdictional construction dispute.

The plaintiff general contractor (GC) sued a subcontractor (Sub) in Illinois state court for breach of a construction contract involving New York (NY) real estate.  The contract had a forum selection clause that pegged Kane County Illinois (IL) as the forum for any litigation involving the project.  

The trial court agreed with the Sub’s argument that the forum-selection clause violated NY public policy (that NY construction litigation should be decided only in NY) and dismissed the GC’s suit.  Affirming, the Second District discusses the key enforceability factors for forum-selection clauses when two or more jurisdictions are arguably the proper venue for a lawsuit.

Public Policy – A Statutory Source

The Court first observed that IL’s and NY’s legislatures both addressed the proper forum for construction-related lawsuits.  Section 10 of Illinois’ Building and Construction Contract Act, 815 ILCS 665/10, voids any term of an IL construction contract that subjects the contract to the laws of another state or that requires any litigation concerning the contract to be filed in another state.

NY’s statute parallels that of Illinois.  NY Gen. Bus. Law Section 757(1) nullifies construction contract terms that provide for litigation in a non-New York forum or that applies (non-) NY law.

Since a state’s public policy is found in its published statute (among other places), NY clearly expressed its public policy on the location for construction litigation.

Forum Selection and Choice-of-Law Provisions

An IL court can void a forum-selection clause where it violates a fundamental IL policy.  A forum-selection clause is prima facie valid unless the opposing side shows that enforcement of the clause would be unreasonable.

A forum-selection clause reached by parties who stand at arms’ length should be honored unless there is a compelling and countervailing reason not to enforce it. (¶ 75)

A choice-of-law issue arises where there is an actual conflict between two states’ laws on a given issue and it isn’t clear which state’s law governs.  Here, IL and NY were the two states with ostensible interests in the lawsuit.  There was also a plain conflict between the states’ laws: the subject forum-selection clause was prima facie valid in IL while it plainly violated NY law.

Which Law Applies – NY or IL?

Illinois follows Section 187 of the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws (1971) which provides that the laws of a state chosen by contracting parties will apply unless (1) the chosen state has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction and there is no other reasonable basis for the parties’ choice, or (2) application of the law of the chosen state would violate a fundamental policy of a state that has a materially greater interest than the chosen state on a given issue.

The Court found the second exception satisfied and applied NY law.  

Section 757 of NY’s business statute clearly outlaws forum-selection clauses that provide for the litigation of NY construction disputes in foreign states.  As a result, the contract’s forum clause clearly violates NY’s public policy of having NY construction disputes decided in NY.

The question then became which state, NY or IL, had the greater interest in the forum-selection clause’s enforcement?  Since NY was the state where the subcontractor resided, where the building (and contract’s finished product) was erected and the contract ultimately performed, the Court viewed NY as having a stronger connection.  Since allowing the case to proceed in IL clearly violated NY’s public policy, the Court affirmed dismissal of the GC’s lawsuit.

Afterwords:

Forum selection clauses are prima facie valid but not inviolable.  Where a chosen forum conflicts with a public policy of another state, there is a conflict of laws problem.  

The Court will then analyze which state has a more compelling connection to the case.  Where the state with both a clear public policy on the issue also has a clearer nexus to the subject matter of the lawsuit, the Court will apply that state’s (the one with the public policy and closer connection) law on forum-selection clauses.

 

Contractor ‘Extras’ Claims Versus Quantum Meruit: A Fine-Line Distinction? (IL Case Summary)

Twin axioms of contract law include (1) a quasi-contract claim (i.e. quantum meruit) cannot co-exist with one for breach of express contract, and (2) to recover for contract “extras” or out-of-scope work, a plaintiff must show the extra work was necessary through no fault of its own.

Easily parroted, the two principles can prove difficult in their application.

Archon v. U.S. Shelter, 2017 IL App (1st) 153409 tries to reconcile the difference between work that gives rise to quantum meruit recovery and work that falls within an express contract’s general subject matter and defeats a quantum meruit claim.

The subcontractor plaintiff installed a sewer system for a general contractor hired by a city.  The subcontract gave the City final approval of the finished sewer system.  City approval was a condition to payment to the plaintiff.  The subcontract also provided that extra work caused by the plaintiff’s deficiencies had to be done at plaintiff’s expense.

The subcontractor sued the general contractor to recover about $250K worth of repair work required by the City.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the general contractor on both plaintiff’s quantum meruit and extras claim.  On remand from an earlier appeal, the plaintiff dropped its extras claim and went forward solely on its quantum meruit claim.  The trial court again found for the general and the sub appealed.

Result: Summary judgment for general contractor affirmed.  Plaintiff’s quantum meruit claim fails as a matter of law.

Reasons:

To recover for quantum meruit (sometimes referred to as quasi-contract or implied contract), the plaintiff must prove (1) it performed a service to benefit a defendant, (2) it did not perform the service gratuitously, (3) defendant accepted the benefits of plaintiff’s services, and (4) no contract existed to prescribe payment for the service.

A quantum meruit claim cannot co-exist with a breach of express contract one: they are mutually exclusive.

Parties to a contract assume certain risks.  Sometimes, when they realize their contractual expectations aren’t going to be realized, they resort to quantum meruit recovery as a desperation maneuver.  The law doesn’t allow this.  “Quasi-contract is not a means for shifting a risk one has assumed under the contract.” (¶ 34)(citing Industrial Lift Truck Service Corp. v. Mitsubishi International Corp., 104 Ill.App.3d 357).

A contractor’s claim for ‘extras’ requires the contractor to prove that (1) the work for which it seeks compensation was outside the scope of a contract, and (2) the extra work wasn’t caused by the contractor’s fault.  

In a prior appeal, the Court found that it wasn’t clear whether the extra work was the result of the plaintiff contractor’s mistake.  As a result, the contractor made a strategic decision to abandon its extras claim and instead proceeded on its quantum meruit suit.

At first blush, an extras claim mirrors quantum meruit’s requirement of work that’s not tied to any express contract term.

However, as the Court emphasized, there’s a definite legal difference between a claim for extra work and one for quantum meruit.  “A claim for quantum meruit lies when the work the plaintiff performed [is] wholly beyond the subject matter of the contract that existed between the parties.” [¶ 39]

The key question is whether an express contract covers the same general subject matter as the challenged work.  If it does, there can be no quantum meruit recovery as a matter of law.  [¶ 45]

Applying these principles, the Court found that the work for which plaintiff sought to recover in quantum meruit – sewer pipe repairs and replacement – involved the same sewer system involved in the underlying express contract.  As a result, plaintiff’s quantum meruit claim failed.

Take-aways:

This case provides an interesting illustration of the fine-line distinction between a contractor’s action to recover for extra, out-of-scope work and services that merit quantum meruit recovery.

Contractors should take pains to make it clear in the contract that if they do perform extra work, there is a mechanism in place (i.e. time and materials terms) that quantifies the extras.  Since the sewer repair work fell within the general subject matter of the underlying sewer installation contract, it was easy for the Court to find that the express contract encompassed the plaintiff’s work and reject the quantum meruit claim.

In hindsight, the plaintiff should have pressed forward with its breach of express contract claim premised on the extra work it claimed it performed.

As-Is Language In Sales Literature Defeats Fraud Claim Involving ’67 Corvette (Updated April 2017)

In late March 2017, a Federal court in Illinois granted summary judgment for a luxury car auctioneer in a disgruntled buyer’s lawsuit premised on a claimed fake Corvette.

The Corvette aficionado plaintiff in Pardo v. Mecum Auction, Inc., 2017 WL 1217198 alleged the auction company misrepresented that a cobbled-together 1964 Corvette was a new 1967 Corvette – the vehicle plaintiff thought he was buying.  Plaintiff’s suit sounded in common law fraud and breach of contract.  The Court previously dismissed the fraud suit and later granted summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.

The Court dismissed the fraud suit based on “non-reliance” and “as-is” language in the contract.  Since reliance is a required fraud element, the non-reliance clause preemptively gutted the plaintiff’s fraud count.

Denying the plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court noted that an Illinois fraud claimant cannot allege he relied on a false statement when the same writing provides he’s buying something in as-is condition.  The non-reliance/as-is disclaimer also neutralizes a fraud claim based on oral statements and defeats breach of express and implied warranty claims aimed at misstatements concerning a product.

By attaching the contract which contained the non-reliance language, the plaintiff couldn’t prove his reliance as a matter of law.

The Court found for the defendant on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.  The plaintiff’s operative Second Amended Complaint alleged the auction company breached a title processing section of the contract: that it failed to timely deliver title to the vehicle to the plaintiff.

The Court sided with the auction company based on basic contract interpretation rules.  All the contract required was that the defendant “process” the title within 14 business days of the sale.  It didn’t saddle the defendant with an obligation to deliver the title to a specific person.  Since the evidence in the record revealed that the defendant did process and transfer the title to a third party within the 14-day time frame, plaintiff could not prove that defendant breached the sales contract.

The plaintiff also couldn’t prove damages – another indispensable breach of contract element.  That is, even if the auction company failed to process the title, the plaintiff didn’t show that it suffered any damages.  The crux of the plaintiff’s lawsuit was that it was sold a car that differed from what was advertised.  Whether the defendant complied with the 14-day title processing requirement had nothing to do with plaintiff’s alleged damages.

Since the plaintiff could not offer evidence to support its breach and damages components of its breach of contract action, the Court granted summary judgment for the defendant.

Lastly, the Court rejected plaintiff’s rescission remedy argument – that the contract should be rescinded for defendant’s fraud and failure to perform.

The Court’s ruling that the defendant performed in accordance with the title processing language defeated plaintiff’s nonperformance argument.  In addition, the Court prior dismissal of the plaintiff’s fraud claim based on the contractual non-reliance language knocked out the rescission-based-on-fraud argument.

 

Afterwords:

Non-reliance or “as is” contract text will make it hard if not impossible to allege fraud in connection with the sale of personal property;

A breach of contract carries the burden of proof on both breach and damages elements.  The failure to prove either one is fatal to a breach of contract claim.

In hindsight, the plaintiff should have premised its breach of contract claim on the defendant’s failure to deliver a car different from what was promoted. This arguably would have given the plaintiff a “hook” to keep its breach of contract suit alive and survive summary judgment.

 

IL Supreme Court Expands on Shareholder Derivative Suits and Standing Doctrine in Att”y Malpractice Suit

Some minority shareholders in an LLC sued their former counsel for legal malpractice alleging the firm failed to file “obvious” breach of fiduciary claims against the LLC’s corporate counsel.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm in Stevens v. McGuirreWoods, LLP, 2015 IL 118652, the Illinois Supreme Court gives content to the quantum of proof needed to sustain a legal malpractice claim and discusses the type of legal interest that will confer legal standing for a corporate shareholder to sue in his individual capacity.

The plaintiffs’ central claim was that McGuirreWoods (MW) botched the underlying case by not timely suing Sidley Austin, LLP (Sidley) after the LLC’s majority shareholders allegedly looted the company.  Sidley got the underlying case tossed on statute of limitations grounds and because the plaintiffs lacked standing. minority shareholder plaintiffs lacked standing to individually sue Sidley since Sidley’s obligations ran squarely

The trial court in the legal malpractice suit granted summary judgment for MW due to plaintiffs’ lack of standing.  The court held that even if MW had timely sued Sidley, the claim still would have failed because they could not bring claims in their individual capacity when those claims belonged exclusively to the LLC. After the First District appeals court partially reversed on a procedural issue, MW appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Result: Plaintiffs’ lacked standing to assert individual claims against Sidley.  Judgment for MW.

Rules/Reasons:

Some cases describe the legal malpractice suit as a “case-within-a-case.”  This is because the thrust of a legal malpractice claim is that if it wasn’t for an attorney’s negligence in an underlying case, the plaintiff would have won that case and awarded damages.

The legal malpractice plaintiff must prove (1) defendant attorney owed the plaintiff a duty of care arising from the attorney-client relationship, (2) the defendant’s breached that duty, and (3) as a direct and proximate result of the breach, the plaintiff suffered injury.

Injury in the legal malpractice setting means the plaintiff suffered a loss which entitles him to money damages.  Without proof the plaintiff sustained a monetary loss as a result of the lawyer defendant’s negligence, the legal malpractice suit can’t succeed.

The plaintiff must establish that he would have prevailed in the underlying lawsuit had it not been for the lawyer’s negligence.  The plaintiff’s recoverable damages in the legal malpractice case are the damages plaintiff would have recovered in the underlying case. [¶ 12]

Here, the plaintiffs sued Sidley in their individual capacities.  Since Sidley’s obligations flowed strictly to the LLC, the plaintiff’s lacked standing to sue Sidley in their individual capacity.

Under the law, derivative claims belong solely to a corporation on whose behalf the derivative suit is brought.  A plaintiff must have been a shareholder at the time of the transaction of which he complains and must maintain his shareholder status throughout the entire lawsuit.  [¶ 23]

Illinois’ LLC Act codifies this common law derivative suit recovery rule by making clear that any derivative action recovery goes to the LLC.  By contrast, the nominal plaintiff can only recover his attorneys’ fees and expenses.  805 ILCS 180/40-15.

A nominal plaintiff in a derivative suit only benefits indirectly from a successful suit through an increase in share value. The Court held that the plaintiffs’ missing out on increased share value was not something they could sue for individually in a legal malpractice suit.  Had MW timely sued Sidley, any recovery would have gone to the LLC, not to the plaintiffs – even though they were the named plaintiffs.  Since the plaintiffs could not have recovered money damages against Sidley in the earlier lawsuit, they cannot now recover those same damages under the guise of a legal malpractice action.

An added basis for the Court’s decision was that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue by divesting themselves of their LLC interests.  Standing means one has a real interest in the outcome of a controversy and may suffer injury to a legally recognized interest.

Since plaintiffs relinquished their LLC membership interests before suing MW, they lacked standing to pursue derivative claims for the LLC.

Afterwords:

This case illustrates in vivid relief the harsh results flowing from statute of limitations and the standing doctrine as it applies to aggrieved shareholder suits.

The case turned on the nature of the plaintiff’s claims.  Clearly, they were suing derivatively (as opposed to individually) to “champion” the LLC’s rights.  As a result, any recovery in the case against Sidley would flow to the LLC – the entity of which plaintiffs were no longer members.

And while the plaintiffs did maintain their shareholder status for the duration of the underlying Sidley case, their decision to terminate their LLC membership interests before suing MW proved fatal to their legal malpractice claims.

 

Pay-When-Paid Clause in Subcontract Not Condition Precedent to Sub’s Right to Payment – IL Court

Pay-if-paid and pay-when-paid clauses permeate large construction projects

In theory, the clauses protect a contractor from downstream liability where its upstream or hiring party (usually the owner) fails to pay.

Beal Bank Nevada v. Northshore Center THC, LLC, 2016 IL App (1st) 151697 examines the fine-line distinction between PIP and PWP contract terms. a lender sued to foreclose

The plaintiff lender sued to foreclose commercial property and named the general contractor (GC) and subcontractor (Sub) as defendants.  The Sub countersued to foreclose its nearly $800K lien and added a breach of contract claims against the GC.

In its affirmative defense to the Sub’s claim, the GC argued that payment from the owner to the GC was a condition precedent to the GC’s obligation to pay the Sub.  The trial court agreed with the GC and entered summary judgment for the GC.  The Sub appealed.

Result: Reversed.

Reasons:

The Subcontract provided the GC would pay the Sub upon certain events and arguably (it wasn’t clear) required the owner’s payment to the GC as a precondition to the GC paying the Sub.  The GC seized on this owner-to-GC payment language as grist for its condition precedent argument: that if the owner didn’t pay the GC, it (the GC) didn’t have to pay the Sub.

Under the law, a condition precedent is an event that must occur or an act that must be performed by one party to an existing contract before the other party is obligated to perform.  Where a  condition precedent is not satisfied, the parties’ contractual obligations cease.

But conditions precedent are not favored.  Courts will not construe contract language that’s arguably a condition precedent where to do so would result in a forfeiture (a complete denial of compensation to the performing party). (¶ 23)

The appeals court rejected the GC’s condition precedent argument and found the Subcontract had a PWP provision.  For support, the court looked to the contractual text and noted it attached two separate payment obligations to the GC – one was to pay the Sub upon “full, faithful and complete performance,”; the other, to make payment in accordance with Article 5 of the Subcontract which gave the GC a specific amount of time to pay the Sub after the GC received payment from the owner.

The Court reconciled these sections as addressing the amounts and timing of the GC’s payments; not whether the GC had to pay the Sub in the first place. (¶¶ 19-20)

Further support for the Court’s holding that there was no condition precedent to the GC’s obligation to pay the Sub lay in another Subcontract section that spoke to “amounts and times of payments.”  The presence of this language signaled that it wasn’t a question of if the GC had to pay the Sub but, instead, when it paid.

In the end, the Court applied the policy against declaring forfeitures: “[w]ithout clear language indicating the parties’ intent that the Subcontractor would assume the risk of non-payment by the owner, we will not construe the challenged language…..as a condition precedent.” (¶ 23)

Since the Subcontract was devoid of “plain and unambiguous” language sufficient to overcome the presumption against a wholesale denial of compensation, the Court found that the Subcontract contained pay-when-paid language and that there was no condition precedent to the Sub’s entitlement to payment from the GC.

Take-aways

Beal Bank provides a solid synopsis of pay-if-paid and pay-when-paid clauses.  PIPs address whether a general contractor has to pay a subcontractor at all while PWPs speak to the timing of a general’s payment to a sub.

The case also re-emphasizes that Section 21(e) of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act provides that the presence of a PIP or PWP contract term is no defense to a mechanics lien claim (as opposed to garden-variety breach of contract claim).

Secretary of State’s LLC File Detail Report Is Public Record – IL Court (A Deep Cut)

R&J Construction v. Javaras, 2011 WL 10069461, an unpublished and dated opinion, still holds practical value for its discussion of the judicial notice rule, breach of contract pleading requirements and a limited liability company member’s insulation from liability for corporate debts.

The plaintiff sold about $70K worth of construction materials to a concrete company associated with the individual defendant.  The concrete company’s legal name was WS Concrete, LLC, an Illinois limited liability company doing business under the assumed name, West Suburban Concrete.  Defendant was a member of the LLC and point-person who ordered supplies from the plaintiff.

The plaintiff sued the individual and did not name the LLC as a party defendant.

The trial court dismissed the complaint because the plaintiff failed to attach the written contract and there was no evidence the defendant assumed personal responsibility for the contract obligations.  The plaintiff appealed.

Result: Affirmed.

Reasons:

The Court first found the trial court correctly dismissed plaintiff’s suit for failure to attach the operative contract.

Code Section 2-606 requires a plaintiff to attach a written instrument (like a contract) to its pleading where the pleading is based on that instrument.  The exception is where the pleader can’t locate the instrument in which case it must file an affidavit stating the instrument is inaccessible.

Here, the plaintiff alleged a written contract but only attached a summary of various purchase orders and invoices to the complaint.  Since it failed to attach the contract, the appeals court found the complaint deficient and falling short of Section 2-606’s attached-instrument requirement.

The court next addressed whether the LLC File Detail Report (see above image), culled from the Illinois Secretary of State “cyberdrive” site was admissible on Defendant’s motion to dismiss.  In ruling the Report was admissible, the Court cited to case precedent finding that Secretary of State records are public records subject to judicial notice.  (Judicial notice applies to facts that are readily verifiable and not subject to reasonable dispute.)

Since the LLC Report plainly demonstrated the proper defendant was the LLC (as opposed to its member), and there was no evidence the individual defendant took on personal liability for plaintiff’s invoices, the trial court correctly dismissed the defendant.

Added support for the defendant’s dismissal came via the Illinois Limited Liability Company Act, 805 ILCS 180/1 et seq.  Section 10-10 of the LLC Act provides that an LLC’s contractual obligations belong solely to the LLC and that a member cannot be personally responsible for LLC contracts unless (1) the articles of organization provide for personal liability and (2) the member consents in writing.

The Court next addressed plaintiff’s agent of a disclosed principal argument.  The plaintiff asserted that since the individual defendant is the person who ordered plaintiff’s construction materials and it was unclear who the defendant represented, the defendant was responsible for plaintiff’s unpaid invoices.

The court rejected this argument.  It noted that under Illinois law, where an agent signs a contract by signing his own name and providing his own personal contact information (address, phone number, SS #, etc.) and fails to note his corporate affiliation, he (the agent) can be personally liable on a contract.  In this case, however, there was no documentation showing defendant ordering supplies in his own name.  All invoices attached to the plaintiff’s response brief (to the motion to dismiss) reflected the LLC’s assumed name – “West Suburban Concrete” – as the purchasing entity.

Afterwords:

(1) the case provides a useful analysis of common evidentiary issues that crop up in commercial litigation where a corporate agent enters into an agreement and the corporation is later dissolved;

(2) Both the LLC Act and agency law can insulate an individual LLC member from personal liability for corporate debts;

(3) Secretary of State corporate filings are public records subject to judicial notice.  This is good news for trial practitioners since it alleviates the logistical headache of having a Secretary of State agent give live or affidavit testimony on corporate records at trial.

 

 

No-Reliance Clauses and Fraud Pleading Requirements – IL Fed Court Weighs In

The Case: Walls v. VreChicago Eleven, LLC, 2016 WL 5477554 (N.D.Ill. 2016)

Issues:  1/ Viability of ‘no-reliance’ clauses and as-is clauses in commercial real estate contracts; and 2/ Fraud pleading requirements under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

Facts: Property purchaser plaintiffs claimed they were fraudulently induced to buy property by defendants who falsely claim the property was garnering annual rentals of $171K and the lease guarantor was a multi-million dollar business.

A few months after the purchase, the tenant (a KFC restaurant) fell behind in rent and informed plaintiff it could only pay $70K in annual rent.   Plaintiff evicted the KFC operator and re-leased it to a substitute tenant who paid less than the former (evicted) tenant.

Plaintiff sued the seller and its broker for fraud in the inducement and negligent misrepresentation. The defendants moved to dismiss.

Result: Motions to dismiss denied.

Reasons:

A standard no reliance provision is a type of contractual exculpatory clauses and provides that a purchaser is not relying on any representations of the seller that are not specifically spelled out in the purchase contract.

The purpose of a no reliance clause is to preemptively head off a fraud action by eliminating the reliance element that is a required component of a fraud claim.

No reliance clauses serve useful purpose as they insure that the transaction and any litigation stemming from it is based on the parties’ writings rather than unreliable memories and not subject to the risk of fabrication.

At the same time, exculpatory clauses are not favored under Illinois law and must be clear, explicit and unequivocal to be enforced.

Here, the court found the no reliance clause ambiguous.  First, the clause only spoke to representations or warranties of the seller; it said nothing about seller’s silence or omissions.  At least one Illinois court has held that a non-reliance clause only applies to affirmative fraud (e.g. representations, assertions of fact) and not to fraudulent concealment – defined as silence in the face of a duty to speak.  See, e.g. Benson v. Stafford, 941 N.E.2d 386, 410 (2010).

A second reason the court declined to dismiss the suit at the pleadings stage was because the no-reliance’s clause’s scope was unclear.  It found plausible plaintiff’s position that its claims that defendant misrepresented annual rent projections and the guarantor’s financial health exceeded the reach of the no-reliance clause.

A final reason the Court found the no-reliance clause ambiguous was because it was couched in the contract’s As-Is paragraph.  Because of this, it was reasonable  to conclude for the sake of argument that the no-reliance language only governed the condition of the property – not the tenant’s expected rents or the guarantor’s financial condition.

Textual ambiguity aside, the court turned to whether the no reliance clause was enforceable.  To determine the clause might be enforceable, the court considered (1) the clause’s ambiguity, (2) plaintiff allegations of seller’s misstatements contained in written offering and sales brochure documents (instead of in the purchase contract), (3) plaintiff’s claims that defendants impeded plaintiff’s pre-sale due diligence efforts, and (4) the assertion that defendants orchestrated a plan to deceive the plaintiffs and induce them to buy the property.

According to the court, there were too many disputed fact issues to decide that the no reliance clause was enforceable.  As a result, it was premature to dismiss plaintiff’s claims without the benefit of discovery.

Pleading Standards for Fraud – Rule 9(b)

The court also addressed the pleading standards for fraud in Federal court.

Rule 9(b) provides that a fraud plaintiff allege with particularity the circumstances that constitute fraud.  Specifically, the plaintiff must plead the who, what, where, when and how of the fraud.  The reason for elevated pleading rules for fraud is because of a fraud claim’s potential for severe harm to a business’s reputation.  The law requires a more thorough pre-complaint investigation than other causes of action so that fraud claims are factually supported and not extortionate or defamatory.

But when the details of a fraud are within the exclusive possession of a defendant, the fraud pleading rules are relaxed.  In such a case, the plaintiff must still allege the grounds for his/her suspicions of fraud.

Here, the plaintiff’s fraud allegations were premised on statements contained in the sales contract, the offering circular and sales brochure.  In addition, the plaintiff provided detailed facts supporting its claims that the defendants misled plaintiffs concerning the tenant, the annual rent and the guarantor’s fiscal status.  The Court found the plaintiff’s complaint adequately stated a fraud claim sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

Afterwords:

No reliance clauses are enforceable but they must be ambiguous and clearly encompass the subject matter of a lawsuit;

Fraud requires heightened pleading but when the critical fraud facts are solely in the defendant’s domain, the plaintiff is held to less pleading particularity.

 

General Contractor Insolvency, Not Owner Recourse, is Key Implied Warranty of Habitability Test – IL First Dist.

In Sienna Court Condominium Association v. Champion Aluminum Corporation, 2017 IL App (1st) 143364, the First District addressed two important issues of common law and statutory corporate law.  It first considered when a property owner could sue the subcontractor of a defunct general contractor where there was no contractual relationship between the owner and subcontractor and then examined when a defunct limited liability company (LLC) could file a lawsuit in the LLC’s name.

The plaintiff condo association sued the developer, general contractor (“GC”) and subcontractors for various building defects.  The subcontractors moved to dismiss the association’s claims on the ground that they couldn’t be liable for breaching the implied warranty of habitability if the plaintiff has possible recourse from the defunct GC’s insurer.

The trial court denied the subcontractors’ motion and they appealed.

Affirming denial of the subcontractors’ motions, the First District considered whether a homeowner’s implied warranty claim could proceed against the subcontractors of an insolvent GC where (1) the plaintiff had a potential source of recovery from the GC’s insurer or (2) the plaintiff had already recovered monies from a warranty fund specifically earmarked for warranty claims.

The court answered “yes” (plaintiff’s suit can go forward against the subs) on both counts. It held that when deciding whether a plaintiff can sue a subcontractor for breach of implied warranty of habitability, the focus is whether or not the GC is insolvent; not whether plaintiff can possibly recover (or even has recovered) from an alternate source (like a dissolved GC’s insurer).

For precedential support, the Court looked to 1324 W. Pratt Condominium Ass’n v. Platt Construction Group,   2013 IL App (1st) 130744 where the First District allowed a property buyer’s warranty claims versus a subcontractor where the general contractor was in good corporate standing and had some assets.  The court held that an innocent purchaser can sue a sub where the builder-seller is insolvent.

In the implied warranty of habitability context, insolvency means a party’s liabilities exceed its assets and the party has stopped paying debts in the ordinary course of its business. (¶¶ 89-90).  And under Pratt’s “emphatic language,” the relevant inquiry is GC’s insolvency, not plaintiff’s “recourse”.¶ 94

Sienna Court noted that assessing the viability of an owner’s implied warranty claim against a subcontractor under the “recourse” standard is difficult since there are conceivably numerous factual settings and arguments that could suggest plaintiff has “recourse.”  The court found the insolvency test more workable and more easily applied then the amorphous recourse standard. (¶ 96).

Next, the Court considered the chronological outer limit for a dissolved LLC to file a civil lawsuit.  The GC dissolved in 2010 and filed counterclaims in 2014.  The trial court ruled that the 2014 counterclaims were too late and time-barred them.

The appeals court affirmed.  It noted that Section 35-1 of the Illinois LLC Act (805 ILCS 180/1-1 et seq.) provides that an LLC which “is dissolved, and, unless continued pursuant to subsection (b) of Section 35-3, its business must be wound up,” upon the occurrence of certain events, including “Administrative dissolution under Section 35-25.” 805 ILCS 180/35-1

While Illinois’ Business Corporation Act of 1993 specifies that a dissolved corporation may pursue civil remedies only up to five years after the date of dissolution (805 ILCS 5/12.80 (West 2014)), the LLC Act is silent on when a dissolved LLC’s right to sue expires.  Section 35-4(c) only says “a person winding up a limited liability company’s business may preserve the company’s business or property as a going concern for a reasonable time”

The Court opted for a cramped reading of Section 35-4’s reasonable time language.  In viewing the LLC Act holistically, the Court found that the legislature contemplated LLC’s having a finite period of time to wind up its affairs including bringing any lawsuits.  Based on its restrictive interpretation of Section 35-4, the Court held the almost four-year gap between the GC’s dissolution (2010) and counterclaim filing (2014) did not constitute a reasonable time.

Afterwords:

Sienna Court emphasizes that a general contractor’s insolvency – not potential recourse – is the dominant inquiry in considering a property owner’s implied warranty of habitability claim against a subcontractor where the general contractor is out of business and there is no privity of contract between the owner and subcontractor.

The case also gives some definition to Section 35-4 of the LLC Act’s “reasonable time” standard for a dissolved LLC to sue on pre-dissolution claims.  In this case, the Court found that waiting four years after dissolution to file counterclaims was too long.

 

 

Snow Plower’s Quantum Meruit Claim Fails; Dissent Takes Rule 23 Publishing Standards to Task – IL 1st Dist.

In Snow & Ice, Inc. v. MPR Management, 2017 IL App (1st) 151706-U, a snow removal company brought breach of contract and quantum meruit claims against a property manager and several property owners for unpaid services.

The majority affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and in dissent, Judge Hyman gives a scathing critique of Rule 23, which provides standards for publishing (or not) opinions, including the rule’s penchant for quiet minority voices on an appeals court.

Plaintiff sued to recover about $90K for snow removal services it supplied to nine separate properties managed by the property manager defendant.  After nonsuiting the management company, the plaintiff proceeded against the property owners on breach of contract and quantum meruit claims.

The trial court granted the nine property owners’ motion to dismiss on the basis there was no privity of contract between plaintiff and the owners.  The court dismissed the quantum meruit suit because an express contract between the plaintiff and property manager governed the parties’ relationship and a quantum meruit claim can’t co-exist with a breach of express contract action.

Affirming the Section 2-615 dismissal of the breach of contract claims, the appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the management company contracted with plaintiff on behalf of the property owner defendants.  In Illinois, agency is a question of fact, but the plaintiff still must plead facts which, if proved, could establish an agency relationship.

A conclusory allegation of a principal-agent relationship between property manager and owners is not sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.  Since the plaintiff only alleged the bare conclusion that the property owners were responsible for the management company’s contract, the First District affirmed dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract claims.

The Court also affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s quantum meruit claims against the owners.  A quantum meruit plaintiff must plead (1) that it performed a service to defendant’s benefit, (2) it did not perform the service gratuitously, (3) defendant accepted the service, and (4) no contract existed to prescribe payment for the service.  Quantum meruit is based on an implied promise by a recipient of services or goods to pay for something of value which it received.  (¶¶ 17-18).

Since the properties involved in the lawsuit were commercial (meaning, either vacant or leased), the Court refused to infer that the owners wanted the property plowed.  It noted that if the property was vacant, plaintiff would have to plead facts to show that the owner wanted plaintiff to clear snow from his/her property.  If leased, the plaintiff needed facts tending to show that the owner/lessor (as opposed to the tenant) implicitly agreed to pay for the plaintiff’s plowing services.  As plaintiff’s complaint was bereft of facts sufficient to establish the owners knew of and impliedly agreed to pay plaintiff for its services, the quantum meruit claim failed.

If leased, the plaintiff needed facts tending to show that the owner/lessor (as opposed to the tenant) implicitly agreed to pay for the plaintiff’s plowing services.  As plaintiff’s complaint was bereft of facts sufficient to establish the owners knew of and impliedly agreed to pay plaintiff for its services, the quantum meruit claim failed.

In dissent, Judge Hyman agreed that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was properly dismissed but found that the plaintiff did plead enough facts to sustain a quantum meruit claim.  Hyman’s dissent’s true value, though, lies in its in-depth criticism of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23’s publication guidelines.

Rule 23 provides for an opinion’s publication only where a majority of the panel deems a decision one that “establishes a new rule of law or modifies, explains, or criticizes an existing rule of law” or “resolves, creates, or avoids an apparent conflict of authority within the Appellate Court.” Sup. Ct. R. 23(a).

Hyman’s thesis is that these standards are too arbitrary and the Rule should be changed so that just one justice, instead of a majority of the panel, is all that’s needed to have a decision published.  Hyman then espouses the benefits of dissents and special concurrences; they perform the valuable functions of clarifying, questioning and developing the law.

In its current configuration, Rule 23 arbitrarily allows a majority of judges to squelch lone dissenters and effectively silence criticism.  Judge Hyman advocates for Illinois to follow multiple other courts’ lead and adopt a “one justice” rule (a single judge’s request warrants publication).  By implementing the one justice rule, minority voices on an appeals panel won’t so easily be squelched and will foster legal discourse and allow the competing views to “hone legal theory,

By implementing the one justice rule, minority voices on an appeals panel won’t so easily be squelched and will foster legal discourse and allow the competing views to “hone legal theory, concept and rule.”

 

 

‘Inquiry Notice’ Element of Discovery Rule Dooms Plaintiff’s Fraud in Inducement Claim – IL First Dist.

The First District recently discussed the reach of the discovery rule in the course of dismissing a plaintiff’s fraud claims on statute of limitations grounds.

The plaintiff in Cox v. Jed Capital, LLC, 2016 IL App (1st) 153397-U, brought a slew of business tort claims when he claimed his former employer understated its value in an earlier buy-out of the plaintiff’s LLC interest.

Plaintiff’s 2007 lawsuit settled a year later and was the culmination of settlement discussions in which the defendants (the former employer’s owner and manager) produced conflicting financial statements.  The plaintiff went forward with the settlement anyway and released the defendants for a $15,000 payment.

In 2014, after reading a Wall Street Journal article that featured his former firm, plaintiff learned the company was possibly worth much more than was previously disclosed to him.  Plaintiff sued in 2015 for fraud in the inducement, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract.

The trial court dismissed the claims on the basis they were time-barred by the five-year limitations period and the plaintiff appealed.  He argued that the discovery rule tolled the limitations period and saved his claims since he didn’t learn the full extent of his injuries until he read the 2014 article.

Result: Dismissal of plaintiff’s claims affirmed.

Q: Why?

A: A fraud claim is subject to Illinois’ five-year statute of limitations codified at Section 13-205 of the Code of Civil Procedure.  Since the underlying financial documents were provided to the plaintiff in 2008 and plaintiff sued seven years later in 2015.  As a result, plaintiff’s claim was time-barred unless the discovery rule applies.

In Illinois, the discovery rule stops the limitations period from running until the injured party knows or reasonably should know he has been injured and that his injury was wrongfully caused.

A plaintiff who learns he has suffered from a wrongfully caused injury has a duty to investigate further concerning any cause of action he may have.  The limitations period starts running once a plaintiff is put on “inquiry notice” of his claim.  Inquiry notice means a party knows or reasonably should know both that (a) an injury has occurred and (b) it (the injury) was wrongfully caused.  (¶ 34)

Fraud in the inducement occurs where a defendant makes a false statement, with knowledge of or belief in its falsity, with the intent to induce the plaintiff to act or refrain from acting on the falsity of the statement, plaintiff reasonably relied on the false statement and plaintiff suffered damages from that reliance.

Plaintiff alleged the defendants furnished flawed financial statements to induce plaintiff’s consent to settle an earlier lawsuit for a fraction of what he would have demanded had he known his ex-employer’s true value.  The Court held that since the plaintiff received the conflicting financial reports from defendants in 2008 and waited seven years to sue, his fraud in the inducement claim was untimely and properly dismissed.

Afterwords:

This case paints a vivid portrait of the unforgiving nature of statutes of limitation.  A plaintiff has the burden of establishing that the discovery rule preserves otherwise stale claims.  If a plaintiff is put on inquiry notice that it may have been harmed (or lied to as the plaintiff said here), it has a duty to investigate and file suit as quickly as possible.  Otherwise, a plaintiff risks having the court reject its claims as too late.

‘Domicile’ vs. ‘Residence’ vs. ‘Citizenship’ in Federal Court Jurisdiction – More Semantic Hairsplitting?

Strabala v. Zhang, 318 F.R.D. 81 (Ill. N.D. 2016), featured here for its detailed discussion of e-mail evidence, provides an equally thorough analysis of the differences between residence and domicile in the Federal court jurisdiction calculus.

In the Federal litigation scheme, the party asserting Federal court jurisdiction bears the burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence.

The plaintiff here alleged that the Northern District had original jurisdiction based on 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(2) – the diversity of citizenship statute that vests Federal courts with jurisdiction over claims between “citizens of a State and citizens or subjects of a foreign state.”

The defendants were unquestionably Chinese citizens – a foreign state under Section 1332.  The plaintiff’s citizenship, though, was unclear.  While plaintiff claimed he was a citizen of Illinois, the defendants disputed this; they pointed to the plaintiff’s home in China as proof that he wasn’t really an Illinois citizen and so was stateless.  A “stateless” citizen can’t invoke Federal court diversity jurisdiction.

Though colloquially used interchangeably, under Federal law, the terms citizenship and residence have important differences.  Citizenship equals domicile, not residence.  The term residence denotes where a person lives while domicile carries both a physical and mental dimension.

Domicile is “the place where that individual has a true, fixed home and principal establishment” and the place where the person intends to eventually return.  A person can have multiple residences but only one domicile.

Objective factors a court considers to determine domicile include “current residence, voting registration and voting practices, location of personal and real property, location of financial accounts, membership in unions and other associations, place of employment, driver’s license and automobile registration, and tax payments.”  But no lone citizenship/domicile factor is conclusive; each case turns on its own facts.

Applying these factors, the Court noted that since plaintiff was based in Illinois from the late 1980s through 2006 (when plaintiff moved first to Houston, TX then to Shanghai), the Court required defendants to show that plaintiff not only currently lived outside of Illinois but also had no intention of returning to Illinois.

The Court credited the plaintiff’s declaration (sworn statement) of intent to keep an Illinois domicile.  Other factors weighing in favor of finding subject matter jurisdiction included (1) plaintiff and his wife never sold there Chicago condominium or removed furniture from it when they moved to Houston in 2006, (2) for several months they lived in corporate housing provided by plaintiff’s Houston employer (an architecture firm), (3) plaintiff’s wife divided her time equally between Chicago and Houston while plaintiff spent about 50% of his time in Shanghai, 40% in Houston and 10% in Chicago.

The plaintiff’s Texas drivers’ license and Houston condo purchase weren’t enough to tilt the citizenship question to the defendants (who, again, argued that the plaintiff wasn’t an Illinois citizen) since the plaintiff swore under oath that he intended to keep an Illinois domicile and defendant had no facts to refute this.

Rejecting the defendants’ argument that plaintiff’s domicile was Shanghai, the Court focused on the following facts: (1) plaintiff lived in a furnished hotel with a lease of one year or less and owned no real property or car in Shanghai, (2) plaintiff’s Chinese work permit had to be renewed annually; and (3) plaintiff’s wife spent six months out of the year in Chicago.

Other pro-Illinois domicile factors cited by the Court included the plaintiff’s testimony (via declaration) that he has had a landline telephone number with a Chicago area code for over two decades and plaintiff’s LinkedIn profile that listed his employment locations as Shanghai, Seoul, and Chicago.

Afterwords:

For Federal subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship to attach, the plaintiff must be a citizen of a State (as opposed to a foreign country).  This case provides an exhaustive application of the various factors a court considers when deciding the site of a Federal plaintiff’s domicile in a complex fact pattern and emphasizes the differences between residence and domicile.

 

 

Indirect Evidence of E-mail Authenticity Not Enough in Architect’s Defamation Suit – IL ND (Part I of II)

An Illinois Federal court recently expanded on the reach of some common business torts, the grounds to vacate a default judgment, and the evidentiary vagaries of e-mail.

Strabala v. Zhang, 318 F.R.D. 81 (Ill. N.D. 2016), pits an architect against his former partners in a defamation and tortious interference suit based on accusations of unethical conduct and the diversion of partnership assets to foreign businesses.

The plaintiff alleged that two of the defendants e-mailed different businesses and plaintiff’s professional associates and falsely accused him of forging signatures, illegally using copyrighted software and misrepresenting his accomplishments and “tax fraud.”

After a default judgment entered against them, the former partners moved to vacate the judgment and separately moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s suit for lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction and defective service of process.  The court vacated the default judgment and partially granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.  Some highlights of the court’s opinion:

Federal Rules 55 and 60 respectively allows a court to set aside a default order for good cause and a default judgment.  A judgment entered by a court that lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a case or personal jurisdiction over a defendant is void and must be set aside.  See FRCP 60(b)(4).  This furthers the law’s established policy of having cases decided on their merits instead of on technicalities.

A party seeking to vacate an entry of default prior to the entry of final judgment must show: (1) good cause for the default; (2) quick action to correct it; and (3) a meritorious defense to the complaint.  The court found that the defendants satisfied the three-prong standard to vacate the default.

E-mail Evidence: Foundational Rules

The defendants sought to offer two emails into evidence – one sent by the plaintiff, the other received by him.  To lay a foundation for documentary evidence, the proponent (here the defendants) must submit evidence “sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.”  FRE 901(a).  The foundational standard is lenient. The proponent must only make a prima facie showing of genuineness; it is up to the court or jury to decide whether the evidence is truly authentic.

Here, the defendants failed to lay a foundation for the e-mails.  First, the plaintiff – variously, author and recipient of the e-mails – testified that he believed the e-mails may have been altered and did not concede the e-mails’ authenticity.

Next, the Court rejected Defendants’ argument that the e-mails were self-authenticating under FRE 902(7) – the rule governing inscriptions, signs, tags, or labels that indicate business origin, ownership, or control.

The court found that plaintiff’s electronic e-mail signature and a company letterhead logo were not “trade inscriptions” within the meaning of Rule 902(7) citing to a Seventh Circuit case holding that a trade inscription on the cover of an owner’s manual does not authenticate the contents of the manual.

Plaintiff presented evidence in his affidavit (declaration) rebutting the presumptive authenticity of the e-mails by calling into question whether he signed one e-mail electronically and by stating that the e-mails were on his personal laptop’s hard drive, a device plaintiff claimed the defendants stole from him.  The court held that if the e-mails did originate from plaintiff’s stolen laptop, the evidence would be inadmissible.

Q: So what kind of evidence would have satisfied the court?

A: Direct proof of authenticity.

Q: What would qualify as “direct proof”?

A: Testimony by Plaintiff or the other sender or someone who witnessed the sending of the emails who could attest that the questioned e-mails are the actual, unchanged emails sent by the authors.

The court noted that indirect evidence of authenticity could also work.  Indirect evidence typically involves testimony from “someone who personally retrieved the e-mail from the computer to which the e-mail was allegedly sent” together with other circumstantial evidence such as the e-mail address in the header and the substance of the email itself.

Here, the court found the defendants’ indirect evidence was too flimsy. It noted that the defendants were interested parties and accused of theft (plaintiff claimed they stole his laptop).  The court also held that the defendants’ self-serving testimony that they didn’t alter the e-mails wasn’t enough to establish their authenticity especially in light of plaintiff’s claims that the defendants stole his laptop and that the e-mails appeared to have been changed.

In the end, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion to strike the two e-mail exhibits to the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Take-aways:

Given the rampantness of e-mail, this case is instructive for litigators since most cases will involve at least some e-mail evidence.  The case also underscores that while the standard for evidence authenticity is low, it still has some teeth.

Here, the plaintiff’s belief that the emails offered against him were doctored coupled with the fact that the e-mails’ source was stolen property (a laptop), was enough to create a question as to whether the e-mails were authentic.

The next post summarizes the Court’s exhaustive analysis of subject matter and personal jurisdiction under the Illinois long-arm statue and Federal due process standards.

Commercial Landlord Not Obligated to Accept Substitute Tenant Where No Sublease Offered – IL 1st Dist.

When a commercial tenant’s business is failing, it’s fairly common for the tenant to tender a sublessee to the landlord as a way to avoid a future damages lawsuit and judgment.

Gladstone Group I v. Hussain, 2016 IL App (1st) 141968-U, examines when a non-breaching landlord must accept a proposed sub- or new tenant from a defaulting lessee and what conduct satisfies the landlord’s duty to mitigate damages.

When the corporate tenant’s barbecue restaurant foundered, the landlord sued the lease guarantors to recover about $60K in unpaid rent.  At trial, the guarantors provided written and oral evidence that it offered three potential subtenants to the landlord – all of whom were refused by the landlord.

The trial court found that the landlord violated the lease provision prohibiting the landlord from unreasonably refusing consent to a sublease offered by the tenant.  Critical to the trial court’s ruling was the fact that the tenant proposed a subtenant who offered to pay $7,500 per month – only about $800 less than the monthly sum paid by the defaulting tenant.

The landlord appealed.  It argued that the lease did not require landlord to accept an offer that wasn’t an actual sublease or to agree to accept less rent than what a breaching tenant owed under a lease.

Held: Reversed

Reasons:

The critical fact was that no prospective tenant contacted by the defendant submitted a sublease to the landlord.  Instead, all that was given were “offers” to lease the premises. There was no evidence that any of the businesses that submitted offers were ready willing and able to step into defendant’s shoes.  While a landlord’s refusal of various subtenant offers is relevant to the landlord’s duty to mitigate, the burden is still on the defaulting tenant to prove that the proposed subtenant is ready willing and able to assume the tenant’s lease duties.

While a landlord’s refusal of various subtenant offers is relevant to the landlord’s duty to mitigate, the burden is still on the defaulting tenant to prove that the proposed subtenant is ready willing and able to assume the tenant’s lease duties.

Since the tenant failed to carry its burden of proving the subtenant’s present ability to take over the lease, the Court found that the landlord was within its rights to refuse the different subtenant’s overtures.  The appeals court remanded the case so the trial court could decide whether the landlord satisfied its duty to mitigate since the evidence was conflicting as to the landlord’s post-abandonment efforts to re-let the premises. (¶¶ 23-25)

The dissenting judge found that the landlord failed to satisfy its duty to mitigate damages.  It noted trial testimony that for several months from the date tenant vacated the property, the landlord did nothing.  It didn’t start showing the property to prospective tenants until several months after the tenant’s abandonment.

The dissent also focused on the landlord’s refusal to meet with or follow-up with the three prospects brought to it by the defaulting tenant.  It cited a slew of Illinois cases spanning nearly five decades that found a non-breaching landlord met its duty to mitigate by actively vetting prospects and trying to sublease the property in question.  Here, the dissent felt that the landlord unreasonably refused to entertain a sublease or new lease with any of the three businesses introduced by the defendant.

Afterwords:

There is a legally significant difference between an offer to sublease and an actual sublease.  A defaulting tenant has the burden of proving that its subtenant is ready, willing and able to assume the tenancy.  If all the tenant brings to a landlord is an offer or a proposal, this won’t trigger the landlord’s obligation not to unreasonably refuse consent to a commercially viable subtenant.

A landlord who fails to promptly try to re-let empty property or who doesn’t take an offered subtenant seriously, risks a finding that it failed to meet its duty to mitigate its damages after a prime tenant defaults.

 

Procuring Cause Real Estate Broker Entitled to Quantum Meruit Commission – IL First Dist.

Halpern v. Titan Commercial, LLC, 2016 IL App (1st) 152129 examines commercial broker’s liens, the procuring cause doctrine and the quantum meruit remedy under Illinois law.

The Plaintiff property buyer sued to remove the defendant’s real estate broker’s lien after plaintiff bought Chicago commercial property from an owner introduced by the broker a few years prior.  Over a two-year span, the broker tried to facilitate plaintiff’s purchase the property by arranging multiple meetings and showings of the site.  The plaintiff ultimately bought the property through a consultant instead of the broker defendant. 

The plaintiff sued to stop the broker from foreclosing its broker’s lien and to quiet title to the parcel.  After the court entered a preliminary injunction for the plaintiff, the broker counterclaimed for breach of contract and quantum meruit.  After a bench trial, the broker was awarded $50,000 on its quantum meruit claim and Plaintiff appealed.

Result: Judgment for broker affirmed.

Rules/reasoning:

The court first upheld the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s claims for attorneys’ fees against the broker based on  Section 10(l) of the Commercial Broker’s Lien Act, 770 ILCS 15/1, et seq. (the “Act”).  This Act section provides that a prevailing party can recover its costs and attorneys’ fees.  A prevailing party is one who obtains “some sort of affirmative relief after [trial] on the merits.”

The appeals court held that the plaintiff wasn’t a prevailing party under the Act simply by obtaining a preliminary injunction.  Since the preliminary injunction is, by definition, a temporary (and preliminary) ruling, there was no final disposition of the validity of the defendant’s broker’s lien.

The court then focused on the procuring cause doctrine and related quantum meruit remedy.  Under the procuring cause rule, where a broker’s efforts ultimately result in a sale of property – even if consummated through a different broker – the first broker is the procuring cause and can recover a reasonable commission.

A broker is the procuring cause where he brings a buyer and seller together or is instrumental in the sale’s completion based on the broker’s negotiations or information it supplies. (¶ 18)

A procuring cause broker is entitled to a commission under a quantum meruit theory where a party receives a benefit from the broker’s services that is unjust for that party to retain – even where there’s no express contract between the parties.

Here, the plaintiff only knew of this off-market property based on defendant showing it to her and introducing her to the property owner.  Had it not been for defendant’s actions, plaintiff would have never known about the property.

What About Broker Abandonment?

A defense to a procuring cause claim is where a broker abandons a deal.  To demonstrate broker abandonment, a purchaser must offer evidence of the broker’s discontinuing its services but also the purchaser’s own abandonment of its intent to buy the property.

Here, neither the purchaser nor the broker exhibited an intention to abandon the deal.  The purchaser eventually bought the property and the broker continued trying to arrange plaintiff’s purchase for two-plus years.

The court credited the broker’s evidence as to a reasonable commission based on the property’s $4.2M sale price.  Two experts testified for the broker that a reasonable commission would be between 1% and 6%.  The trial court’s $50,000 award fell well within that range. (¶¶ 22-24)

Afterwords:

1/ Where a broker introduces a plaintiff to property she ultimately buys or the broker’s information is integral to the plaintiff’s eventual purchase, the broker can recover a reasonable commission even where plaintiff uses another broker (or buys it herself). 

2/ Quantum meruit provides a valuable fall-back remedy where there is no express contract between a broker and a buyer.  The broker can recover a reasonable commission (based on expert testimony, probably) so long as it proves the buyer derived a benefit from the broker’s pre-purchase services.

 

Business Lender States Fraud Claim Versus Corporation But Not Civil Conspiracy One in Loan Default Case – IL 1st Dist.

When a corporate defendant and its key officers allegedly made a slew of verbal and written misstatements concerning the corporation’s financial health to encourage a business loan, the plaintiff lender filed fraud and civil conspiracy claims against various defendants.  Ickert v. Cougar Package Designers, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 151975-U examines the level of specificity required of fraud and conspiracy plaintiffs under Illinois pleading rules.

The plaintiff alleged that corporate officers falsely inflated both the company’s current assets and others in the pipeline to induce plaintiff’s $200,000 loan to the company.  When the company failed to repay the loan, the plaintiff brought fraud and conspiracy claims – the latter based on the theory that the corporate agents conspired to lie about the company’s financial status to entice plaintiff’s loan.

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the fraud and conspiracy claims and the plaintiff appealed.

Partially reversing the trial court, the First District first focused on the pleading elements of common law fraud and the Illinois Code provision (735 ILCS 5/2-606) that requires operative papers to be attached to pleadings that are based on those papers.

Code Section 2-606 states that if a claim or defense is based on a written instrument, a copy of the writing must be attached to the pleading as an exhibit.  However, not every relevant document that a party seeks to introduce as an exhibit at trial must be attached to a pleading.

Here, while part of plaintiff’s fraud claim was predicated on a faulty written financial disclosure document, much of the claim centered on the defendants’ verbal misrepresentations.  As a consequence, the Court found that the plaintiff wasn’t required to attach the written financial disclosure to its complaint.

Sustaining the plaintiff’s fraud count against the corporate officer defendants (and reversing the trial court), the Court noted recited Illinois’ familiar fraud pleading elements: (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) knowledge or belief that the statement was false, (3) an intention to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) reasonable reliance on the truth of the challenged statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.

While silence normally won’t equal fraud, when silence is accompanied by deceptive conduct or suppression of a material fact, this is active concealment and the party concealing given facts is then under a duty to speak.

Fraud requires acute pleading specificity: the plaintiff must allege the who, what, where, and when of the misrepresentation.  Since the plaintiff pled the specific dates and content of various false statements, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged fraud against the corporate officers.

(¶¶ 22-26)

A valid civil conspiracy claim requires the plaintiff to allege (1) an agreement by two or more persons or entities to accomplish by concerted action either an unlawful purpose or a lawful purpose by unlawful means; (2) a tortious act committed in furtherance of that agreement; and (3) an injury caused by the defendant.  The agreement is the central conspiracy element.  The plaintiff must show more than a defendant had “mere knowledge” of fraudulent or illegal actions.  Without a specific agreement to take illegal actions, the conspiracy claim falls.

In the corporate context, a civil conspiracy claim cannot exist between a corporation’s own officers or employees.  This is because corporations can only act through their agents and any acts taken by a corporate employee is imputed to the corporation.

So, for example, if employees 1 and 2 agree to defraud plaintiff, there is no conspiracy since the employees are acting on behalf of the corporation – they are not “two or more persons.”  Since this case’s plaintiff pled the two conspiracy defendants were officers of the same corporate defendant, the trial court properly dismissed the conspiracy count. (¶¶ 29-30)

The appeals court also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint against the corporate defendant.  While the right to amend pleadings is liberally granted by Illinois courts, the right is not absolute.

In deciding whether to allow a plaintiff to amend pleadings, a court considers (1) whether the amendment would cure a defect in the pleadings, (2) whether the other party would be prejudiced or surprised by the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether there were previous opportunities to amend.

Here, since the plaintiff failed multiple opportunities to make his fraud and conspiracy claims stick, the First District held that the trial court properly denied the plaintiff’s fourth attempt to amend his complaint.

Afterwords:

This case provides a useful summary of fraud’s heightened pleading elements under Illinois law.  It also solidifies the proposition that a defendant can’t conspire with itself: a there can be no corporation-corporate officer conspiracy.  They are viewed as one and the same in the context of a civil conspiracy claim.

The case’s procedural lesson is that while parties normally are given wide latitude to amend their pleadings, a motion to amend will be denied where a litigant has had and failed multiple chances to state a viable claim.

 

Cancelled Checks Admitted Into Evidence As Computerized Business Records Over Defendant’s Hearsay Objection – IL 4th Dist.

People v. Doggett, 2014 IL App (4th) 120773-U, examines the business records hearsay exception through the lens of a criminal elder abuse case where copies of cancelled checks were integral to the State’s case.

In affirming the defendant’s conviction, the Court answered some important questions concerning the admissibility of computer-generated records and when documents generated by a third party – as opposed to the defendant – fall within the scope of the business records rule.

The state sued an assisted-living home operator for elder abuse.  The prosecution claimed the operator took advantage of a resident by gaining control of his bank account and using the those funds to pay the defendants’ personal expenses.

At trial, over defendant’s hearsay and foundation objections, the prosecution offered copies of the resident’s bank statements and cancelled checks images that bore the defendant’s signature.  A jury found defendant guilty of financial exploitation of the elderly and the court later sentenced defendant to eight years’ imprisonment.  Defendant appealed.

Result: Conviction upheld.

Rules/Reasons:

Section 115-5(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure tracks the language of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 236 – the analogous civil rule that governs admissibility of business records.

The rationale for the business records hearsay exception is two-fold: first, businesses generally are motivated to routinely keep accurate records and are unlikely to falsify them.  Second, a business’s credibility largely depends on “regular, prompt, and systematic nature of business records” and those records are relied on in the operation of a business.

To lay a foundation for a business record, the maker of the record doesn’t have to testify.  Nor does the records custodian have to testify.  A document created by a third party where that third party had authority to generate the document on the business’s behalf in the regular course of business is admissible under the business-record hearsay exception.

This is because a third-party’s record would useless to a business unless accurate and reliable.  Where a person receives an apparent business record then integrates and relies on it in day-to-day operations, the recipient can lay a foundation for the business record.

Computer-stored records, business records admission requires a showing that (1) the electronic computing equipment that stores the records is recognized as standard, (2) the data input into the system that generates the record is done in the regular course of business reasonably close in time to the happening of the recorded event, and (3) the foundation testimony establishes that the sources of information, method and time of preparation indicate its trustworthiness and justify its admission. (¶¶ 43-44)

Applying these rules, the court noted that banks routinely rely on information in checks to maintain customer accounts. (“If the information in checks were generally unreliable, then the entire banking system would fail.”)

Since UCC Section 4-406 requires banks to maintain copies of paid items for seven years, the court properly found that the cancelled check copies properly qualified as business records and were admissible over the defendant’s hearsay objection.

The appeals court also found that the cancelled checks satisfied the admissibility standards for computer-stored records.  It noted that the checks were routinely uploaded and kept in the bank’s “optical system” and done so close in time to the bank’s receipt of the check in question.

The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the checks offered into evidence were not relevant.  Relevant evidence is evidence that has a tendency to make the existence of a fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.  While a handwriting expert can be used to opine on whether a defendant did or didn’t sign a document, expert testimony not required to authenticate a defendant’s signature.  See 735 ILCS 5/8-1501.  Code Section 8-1501 allows a judge or jury to compare a defendant’s disputed signatures with his known (admitted) ones.

While a handwriting expert can opine on whether a defendant did or didn’t sign a document, expert testimony isn’t required to authenticate a defendant’s signature.  See 735 ILCS 5/8-1501.  Code Section 8-1501 allows a judge or jury to compare a defendant’s disputed signatures with known (undisputed) ones.

Here, the jury had enough admitted handwriting examples to compare against the disputed signature to find the defendant more likely than not signed the back of the resident’s rent checks used at trial.

Afterwords:

1/ Business records are inherently trustworthy and so fall in the class of hearsay documents that are routinely admitted in evidence;

2/ Computer-stored business records must pass additional admissibility hurdles that focus on the integrity of the computing equipment; and

3/ No expert testimony needed to authenticate handwriting on a disputed document.

 

Plaintiff’s Damage Expert Barred in Tortious Interference Case Where Only Offering ‘Simple Math’ – IL Case Note

An auto body shop plaintiff sued an insurance company for tortious interference and consumer fraud.

The plaintiff in Knebel Autobody Center, Inc. v. Country Mutual Insurance Co., 2017 IL App (4th) 160379-U, claimed the defendant insurer intentionally prepared low-ball estimates to drive its policy holders and plaintiff’s potential customers to lower cost (“cut-rate”) competing body shops.  As a result, plaintiff claimed it lost a sizeable chunk of business.  The trial court granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment and motion to bar plaintiff’s damages expert.

Result: Affirmed.

Reasons: The proverbial “put up or shut up” litigation moment,  summary judgment is a drastic means of disposing of a lawsuit.  The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of production and ultimate burden of persuasion.  A defendant moving for summary judgment can satisfy its burden of production either by (1) showing that some element of plaintiff’s cause of action must be resolved in defendant’s favor or (2) by demonstrating that plaintiff cannot produce evidence necessary to support plaintiff’s cause of action.  Once the defendant meets its burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff who must then present a factual basis that arguably entitles it to a favorable judgment.

Under Illinois law, a consumer fraud plaintiff must prove damages and a tortious interference plaintiff must show that it lost specific customers as a result of a defendant’s purposeful interference.

Here, since the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of lost customers stemming from the insurer’s acts, it failed to offer enough damages evidence to survive summary judgment on either its consumer fraud or tortious interference claims.

The court also affirmed the trial court’s barring the plaintiff’s damages expert.

In Illinois, expert testimony is admissible if the offered expert is qualified by knowledge, skill, training, or education and the testimony will assist the judge or jury in understanding the evidence.

Expert testimony is proper only where the subject matter is so arcane that only a person with skill or experience in a given area is able to form an opinion. However, “basic math” is common knowledge and does not require expert testimony. 

Illinois Evidence Rules 702 and 703 codify the expert witness admissibility standards.  Rule 702 provides that if “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.”

Rule 703 states that an expert’s opinion may be based on data perceived by or made known to the expert at or before the hearing. If the data is of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in a particular field, the underlying data supplied to the expert doesn’t have to be admissible in evidence.

Here, the plaintiff’s expert merely compared plaintiff’s loss of business from year to year and opined that the defendant’s conduct caused the drop in business.  Rejecting this testimony, the court noted that anyone, not just an expert, can calculate a plaintiff’s annual lost revenues.  Moreover, the plaintiff’s expert failed to account for other factors (i.e. demographic shifts, competing shops in the area, etc.) that may have contributed to plaintiff’s business losses.  As a result, the appeals court found the trial court properly barred plaintiff’s damages expert. (¶¶ 32-33)

Afterwords:

The case underscores the proposition that a tortious interference plaintiff must demonstrate a specific customer(s) stopped doing business with a plaintiff as a direct result of a defendant’s purposeful conduct.  A consumer fraud plaintiff also must prove actual damages resulting from a defendant’s deceptive act.

Another case lesson is that a trial court has wide discretion to allow or refuse expert testimony.  Expert testimony is not needed or allowed for simple math calculations.  If all a damages expert is going to do is compare a company’s earnings from one year to the next, the court will likely strike the expert’s testimony as unnecessary to assist the judge or jury in deciding a case.

 

Medical Device Maker Can Recover Lost Profits Against Double-Dipping Salesman – IL Fed. Court

A Federal court examines the pleading and proof elements of several business torts in a medical device company’s lawsuit against its former salesman and a rival firm.  The plaintiff sued when it learned its former employee was selling on the side for a competitor.

Granting summary judgment for most of the plaintiff’s claims, the Court in HSI v. Pappas, 2016 WL 5341804, dives deep into the various employer remedies where an employee surreptitiously works for a competing firm.

The Court upheld the plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claim against the former salesman as well as its aiding and abetting (the breach) claim against the competitor.  In Illinois, a breach of fiduciary duty plaintiff must show (1) existence of a fiduciary duty, (2) the fiduciary duty was breached, and (3) the breach proximately caused plaintiff’s injury.  An employee owes his employer a duty of loyalty.  (Foodcomm Int’l v. Barry, 328 F.3d 300 (7th Cir. 2003).

A third party who aids and abets another’s breach of fiduciary duty can also be liable where the third party (1) knowingly participates in or (2) knowingly accepts the benefits resulting from a breach of fiduciary duty.encourages or induces someone’s breach of duty to his employer.

Since the plaintiff proved that the ex-salesman breached his duty of loyalty by secretly selling for the medical supply rival, the plaintiff sufficiently made out a breach of fiduciary duty claim against the salesman.  The plaintiff also produced evidence that the competitor knew the salesman was employed by the plaintiff and still reaped the benefits of his dual services.  The competitor’s agent admitted in his deposition that he knew the salesman was employed by plaintiff yet continued to make several sales calls with the plaintiff to customers of the competitor.  The court found these admissions sufficient evidence that the competitor encouraged the salesman’s breach of his duties to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff also produced evidence that the competitor knew the salesman was employed by the plaintiff and still profited from his dual services.  The competitor’s representative admitted in his deposition knowing the salesman was employed by plaintiff yet still made several sales calls with the salesman to some of the competitor’s customers.  The court found this admission sufficient evidence that the competitor encouraged the salesman’s breach of his duties to the plaintiff.

With liability against the individual and corporate defendants established, the Court turned its attention to plaintiff’s damages.  Plaintiff sought over $400K in damages which included all amounts plaintiff paid to the defendant during his 10-month employment tenure, the amounts paid by the competitor to the defendant during his time with plaintiff as well as lost profits

An employee who breaches his fiduciary duties to an employer generally must forfeit compensation he receives from the employer.  The breaching employee must also disgorge any profits he gains that flow from the breach.

This is because under basic agency law, an agent is entitled to compensation only on the “due and faithful performance of all his duties to his principal.”  The forfeiture rule is equitable and based on public policy considerations.

Since the evidence was clear that the defendant failed to perform his employment duties in good faith, the Court allowed the plaintiff to recoup the nearly $180K in compensation it paid the defendant.

The plaintiff was not allowed to recover this amount from the competitor, however.  The Court held that since the payments to the salesman never came into the competitor’s possession, plaintiff would get a windfall if it could recover the same $180K from the competitor.

The Court also allowed the plaintiff to recover its lost profits from both the individual and corporate defendants.  In Illinois, lost profits are inherently speculative but are allowable where the evidence affords a reasonable basis for their computation, and the profits can be traced with reasonable certainty to the defendant’s wrongful conduct.

Since the corporate defendant didn’t challenge plaintiff’s projected profits proof, the Court credited this evidence and entered summary judgment for the plaintiff.

Take-aways:

This case serves as a vivid cautionary tale as to what lies ahead for double-dealing employees.  Not only can the employer claw back compensation paid to the employee but it can also impute lost profits damages to the new employer/competitor where it induces a breach or willingly accepts the financial fruits of the breach.

The case also cements proposition that lost profits are intrinsically speculative and that mathematical certainty isn’t required to prove them.

 

‘Original Writing’ Rule and Handwriting Evidence: Working Through the ‘Did Not!, Did So!’ Impasse

I once represented a commercial landlord in a case where the entire dispute hinged on whether a defendant signed a lease guaranty.  We said it did; the tenant said the opposite. Further complicating things was the fact that the lease was more than ten years old and no one saw the tenant sign the lease.  We ultimately settled on the day of trial so we never got to test whether the court would accept our circumstantial signature evidence.

Multiple legal authorities applied to the dispute.  The first admissibility hurdle we faced came via the best evidence or “original writing” rule.  This venerable doctrine adopts a preference that the original of a writing be produced when the contents of that writing are at issue.  Illinois Evidence Rule 1002; Jones v. Consolidation Coal Co., 174 Ill.App.3d 38 (1988).

To introduce secondary evidence of a writing, a party must first prove prior existence of the original, its loss, destruction or unavailability; authenticity of the substitute and his own diligence in attempting to procure the original.

The best evidence rule isn’t inviolable, though.  Illinois Evidence Rule 1003 provides that a duplicate is admissible to the same extent as an original unless (1) a genuine question is raised as to the authenticity of the original or (2) in the circumstances it would be unfair to admit the duplicate in lieu of the original.

Evidence Rule 1004 goes further and states that an original writing is not required and other evidence of a writing (or recording, or photograph) is admissible if (1) the original was lost or destroyed (but not in bad faith) (2) the original cannot be obtained via subpoena or other judicial process; (3) the original is in opponent’s possession and the opponent knew that the original would be needed at trial; or (4) the disputed document involves a collateral issue that is removed from the case’s controlling question.

Code Section 8-1501 also figured prominently in our lease guaranty dispute.  This statute (735 ILCS 5/8-1501) allows a court or jury to compare disputed signatures with known signatures and make a credibility determination as to whether a given defendant signed a contract.

While there is sparse case law interpreting this statute, 1601 South Michigan Partners v. Measuron, 271 Ill.App.3d 415 (1st Dist. 1995) stands as an interesting (though dated) case discussion of what evidence a court looks at when deciding whether a plaintiff met its burden of proving a defendant signed a contract.

In that case, also a lease dispute, the plaintiff attempted to offer the lease into evidence at trial over defendant/tenant’s objection.  The tenant claimed he never signed the lease and the plaintiff admitted not seeing the tenant sign it.  At trial, the landlord asked the court to compare the lease signature to the tenant’s admitted signature on a prior rent check.

The trial court directed a verdict for the tenant on the basis that the court was not a handwriting expert and not in a position to judge the genuineness of the lease.

Reversing, the appeals court held the plaintiff-landlord should have been allowed to introduce “lay” (non-expert) testimony that the tenant signed the lease.  Since there was evidence at trial that the tenant occupied the premises and plaintiff’s agent testified that he signed the lease and gave it to the tenant to sign, there was enough evidence to submit the signature authenticity question to the judge.

Since it was more likely than not that the tenant signed the lease based on the evidence at trial, the appeals court held that expert handwriting testimony wasn’t required and the trial court should have compared the disputed lease signature to the tenant’s signed rent check under Code Section 8-1501.

Take-aways:

In our case, we had offered multiple known signatures of the lease guarantors into evidence – including pleadings and discovery verifications filed in the case.  There was also no dispute that the defendant occupied the commercial space for several years.

Taken together, I believe this circumstantial proof of the guarantors’ signatures should have allowed the Court to compare the guaranty against defendants’ admitted signature samples and find in our favor.

 

Federal Court Gives Illinois Primer on Personal Property Torts

The plaintiff in Peco Pallet, Inc. v. Northwest Pallet Supply Co., 2016 WL 5405107 sued a recycling company under various theories after their once harmonious business relationship imploded.

The plaintiff, a wooden pallet manufacturer, instituted a program where it offered to pay pallet recyclers like defendant a specific amount per returned pallet.  When the plaintiff announced it was going to cut the per-pallet payment rate, the defendant recycler balked and refused to return several thousand of plaintiff’s pallets.  The plaintiff sued and the defendant filed counterclaims.

In partially dismissing and sustaining the parties’ various claims, the Court offers a useful refresher on both some common and uncommon legal theories that apply to personal property.

Replevin and Detinue

The Illinois replevin statute, 735 ILCS 5/19-101, allows a plaintiff to try to recover goods wrongfully detained by a defendant.  The statute employs a two-step process involving an initial hearing and a subsequent trial.

Once a replevin suit is filed, the court holds a hearing to determine whether to issue a replevin order.  If at the hearing the plaintiff shows he most likely has a superior right to possession of the disputed property and is likely to prevail at trial, the court enters an order of replevin which requires the defendant release the plaintiff’s property pending the trial.  If the plaintiff later wins at trial, he can recover money damages attributable to the defendant’s wrongful detention of the property.

Closely related to replevin, a detinue claim also seeks the recovery of personal property and damages for its wrongful detention.  Unlike replevin however, there is no preliminary hearing in a detinue case pending final judgment.  Possession remains with the defendant until final judgment.

Since the purpose of the replevin and detinue remedies is the return of personal property, where a defendant returns plaintiff its property, the claims are moot.  Here, since the defendant returned the 17,000 pallets that were subjects of the replevin suit, the Court found that the replevin and detinue claims pertaining to the returned pallets were moot.

The court did allow, however, plaintiff to go forward on its detinue claim for damages related to defendant’s failure to account for some 30,000 pallets.

Conversion

A conversion plaintiff must prove (1) a right to property at issue, (2) an absolute and unconditional right to immediate possession of the property, (3) a demand for possession, and (4) that defendant wrongfully and without authorization, assumed control, dominion or ownership over the property.

The essence of conversion is wrongful deprivation, not wrongful acquisition.  This means that even where a defendant initially possesses property lawfully, if that possession later becomes unauthorized, the plaintiff will have a conversion claim.

Here, the plaintiff alleged that it owned the pallets, that it demanded their return and defendant’s refusal to return them.  These allegations were sufficient to plead a cause of action for conversion.

 

Negligence

The Court also sustained the plaintiff’s negligence claim against the motion to dismiss.  In Illinois, a negligence action arising from a bailment requires allegations of (1) an express or implied agreement to create a bailment, (2) delivery of property to the bailee in good condition, (3) bailee’s acceptance of the property, and (4) bailee’s failure to return the property or its returning the property in damaged condition.

The plaintiff sufficiently alleged an implied bailment – that defendant accepted the pallets and failed to return some of the pallets while returning others in a compromised state.  These allegations were enough for the negligence count to survive.

Promissory Estoppel

The Court found that the defendant sufficiently pled an alternative promissory estoppel counterclaim.  Promissory estoppel applies where defendant makes a promise that the plaintiff relies on to its detriment.  The pleading elements of promissory estoppel are (1) an unambiguous promise, (2) plaintiff’s reliance on the promise, (3) plaintiff’s reliance was expected and foreseeable by defendant, (4) plaintiff relied on the promise to its detriment.

A promissory estoppel claim can’t co-exist with a breach of express contract claim: it only applies where there is no contractual consideration.  Here, the defendant/counter-plaintiff alleged there was no express contract.  Instead, it claimed that plaintiff’s promise to pay anyone who returned the pallets motivated defendant to return thousands of them.  The court viewed these allegations as factual enough for a colorable promissory estoppel claim.

Tortious Interference with Contract and Business Expectancy

The court dismissed the defendant’s tortious interference counterclaims.  Each tort requires a plaintiff to point to defendant’s conduct directed at a third party that results in a breach of a contract.  Here, the defendant’s counterclaim focused on plaintiff’s own actions in unilaterally raising prices and altering terms of its earlier pallet return program.  Since defendant didn’t allege any conduct by the plaintiff aimed at a third party (someone other than counter-claimant, e.g.), the tortious interference claims failed.

Take-aways:

1/ Conversion action can be based on defendant’s possession that was initially lawful but that later becomes wrongful;

2/ A Promissory estoppel claim can provide a viable fall-back remedy when there is no express contract;

3/ Tortious interference claim must allege defendant’s conduct directed toward a third party (someone other than plaintiff);

4/Where personal property is wrongfully detained and ultimately returned, the property owner can still have valid detinue claim for damages.

Food Maker’s Consumer Fraud Claim For Deficient Buttermilk Formula Tossed (IL ND Case Note)

The food company plaintiff in Kraft Foods v. SunOpta Ingredients, Inc., 2016 WL 5341809 sued a supplier of powdered buttermilk for consumer fraud when it learned that for over two decades the defendant had been selling plaintiff a buttermilk compound consisting of buttermilk powder mixed with other ingredients instead of “pure” buttermilk.

Granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the Northern District examines the “consumer nexus” requirement for consumer fraud liability and what conduct by a business entity can still implicate consumer concerns and be actionable under the Consumer Fraud Act, 815 ILCS 505/2 (the “CFA”).

The plaintiff believed it was receiving buttermilk product that wasn’t cut with other ingredients; it relied heavily on a 1996 product specification sheet prepared by defendant’s predecessor that claimed to use only pristine ingredients.

Upon learning that defendant’s buttermilk was not “pure” but was instead a hybrid product composed of buttermilk powder, whey powder, and dried milk, Plaintiff sued.

Dismissing the CFA claim, the Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the ersatz buttermilk implicated consumer concerns since consumers were the end-users of the product and because consumer health and safety was possibly compromised.

The CFA offers broader protection than common law fraud.  Unlike its common law counterpart, the CFA plaintiff does not have to prove it actually relied on an untrue statement.  Instead, the CFA plaintiff must allege (1) a deceptive or unfair act or practice by defendant, (2) defendant’s intent that plaintiff rely on the deception or unfair practice, (3) the unfair or deceptive practice occurred during a course of conduct involving trade or commerce.

As its name suggests, the CFA applies specifically to consumers which it defines as “any person who purchases or contracts for the purchase of merchandise not for resale in the ordinary course of his trade or business but for his use or that of a member of his household.” 815 ILCS 505/1.  Where a CFA plaintiff is a business entity – like in this case – the court applies the “consumer nexus” test.  Under this test, if the defendant’s conduct is addressed to the market generally or otherwise implicates consumer protection concerns, the corporate plaintiff can have standing to sue under the CFA.

A classic example of conduct aimed at a business that still implicates consumer protection concerns is a defendant disparaging a business plaintiff or misleading consumers about that plaintiff.  But the mere fact that consumers are end product users normally isn’t enough to satisfy the consumer nexus test.  Here, defendants’ actions were twice removed from the consumer: Defendant supplied plaintiff with product who, in turn, incorporated defendant’s buttermilk product into its food offerings.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that defendant’s product imperiled “public health, safety or welfare issues.”  Since the plaintiff failed to plead any facts to show that defendant’s conduct affected, much less harmed, consumers, there was no consumer nexus (or connection) and plaintiff’s CFA claim failed.

Take-aways:

Even under relaxed Federal notice pleading standards, a consumer fraud plaintiff must still provide factual specifics in its Complaint.  The case illustrates that the consumer nexus test has some teeth.  Where the plaintiff is a sophisticated commercial entity and isn’t using a product as a consumer would, it will be tough for the plaintiff to show consumer protection concerns are involved.

 

Is It a New Contract Or Modification of an Existing One? Illinois Case Discusses Why It Matters

In business relationships that contemplate a series of reciprocal services, it’s at times unclear if extra services are being offered as a modification to an existing contract or are done as part of a new agreement.  Landmark Engineering v. Holevoet, 2016 IL App (1st) 150723-U examines this sometimes fine-line difference and illustrates in stark relief the importance of honoring contractual provisions that require contract changes to be in writing and signed by the parties.

The defendant hired the plaintiff under a written contract to do some engineering work including a soil study on a parcel of land the defendant was going to sell.  The plaintiff’s work would then be submitted to the governing county officials who would then determine whether the sale could go through.

The contract, drafted by plaintiff, had a merger clause requiring that all contract modifications be in writing and signed by the parties.  When the plaintiff realized the contract’s original scope of work did not satisfy the county’s planning authorities, the plaintiff performed some $50,000 in additional services in order to get county approval.

The plaintiff argued the defendant verbally authorized plaintiff to perform work in a phone conversation that created a separate, binding oral contract.  For her part, the defendant asserted that the extra work modified the original written contract and a writing was required to support the plaintiff’s additional invoices.

The defendant refused to pay plaintiff’s invoices on the basis that the extra work and accompanying invoice far exceeded the agreed-upon contract price.  Plaintiff sued and won a $52,000 money judgment at trial.

Reversing, the appeals court examines not only the reach of a contractual merger clause but also what constitutes a separate or “new” contract as opposed to only a modification of a pre-existing one.

In Illinois, a breach of oral contract claim requires the contract’s terms to be proven with sufficient specificity.  Where parties agree that a future written document will be prepared only to memorialize the agreement, that oral agreement is still binding even though the later document is never prepared or signed.

However, where it’s clear that the parties’ intent is that neither will be legally bound until a formal agreement is signed, no contract comes into existence until the execution and delivery of the written agreement.

Illinois law defines a  contractual “modification” as a change in one or more aspects of a contract that either injects new elements into the contract or cancels others out.  But with a modification, the contract’s essential purpose and effect remains static.  (¶¶ 35-36)

In this case, since the plaintiff submitted a written contract addendum (by definition, a modification of an existing agreement) to the defendant after their telephone conversation (the phone call plaintiff claimed was a new contract), and defendant never signed the addendum, am ambiguity existed concerning the parties intent.  And since plaintiff drafted both the original contract and the unsigned addendum, the ambiguity had to be construed in defendant’s favor under Illinois contract interpretation rules.

Since the unsigned addendum contained the same project name and number as the original contract, the appeals court found that the record evidence supported a finding that the addendum sought to modify the original contract and was not a separate, new undertaking.  And since defendant never signed the addendum, she wasn’t bound by it.

Afterwords:

The case serves as a cautionary tale concerning the perils of not getting the party to be charged to sign a contract.  Where one party fails to get the other to sign it yet still does work anyway, it does so at its peril.

Here, since both the original and unsigned addendum each referenced the same project name, description and number, the court found plaintiff’s extra work was done in furtherance of (and as a modification to) the original contract.  As the contract’s integration clause required all changes to be in writing, the failure of defendant to sign off on the addendum’s extra work doomed the plaintiff’s damage claims.

 

 

 

Non-Parties Can Enforce Franchise Agreement’s Arbitration Clause – IL Court

In a franchise dispute involving a sushi restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, the First District in Kim v. Kim, 2016 IL App (1st) 153296-U examines the scope of contractual arbitration clauses and when arbitration can be insisted on by non-parties to a contract.

The franchisee plaintiff sued the two principals of the franchisor for fraud.  He alleged the defendants tricked him into entering the franchise by grossly inflating the daily sales of the restaurant.  The plaintiff sued for rescission and fraud when the restaurant’s actual sales didn’t match the defendants’ pre-contract projections.  

The court dismissed the suit based on an arbitration clause contained in the franchise agreement and the plaintiff appealed.  He argued that since the defendants were not parties to the franchise agreement (the agreement was between plaintiff and the corporate franchisor), the defendants couldn’t use the arbitration clause as a “sword” and require the plaintiff to arbitrate his claims.

Affirming the case’s dismissal, the appeals court first discussed the burden-shifting machinery of a Section 2-619 motion to dismiss.  With such a motion, the movant must offer affirmative matter appearing on the face of the complaint or that is supported by affidavits.  Once the defendant meets this initial burden, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff who must establish that the affirmative matter is unfounded or requires the resolution of a material fact.  If the plaintiff fails to carry his burden, the motion to dismiss can be granted.  (¶ 23)

The court then zeroed in on whether the defendants – non-parties to the franchise agreement – could enforce the agreement’s arbitration clause against the plaintiff.  Generally, only parties to a contract can enforce its terms.  By contrast, non-parties cannot.  An exception to this rule is equitable estoppel: where a party is estopped or prevented from avoiding a written contract term because the party trying to enforce it isn’t technically a party to it.

For equitable estoppel to apply and subject a contracting party to arbitration against a non-party, (1) the signatory must rely on terms of a contract to make its claims (or presumes the existence a written agreement that contains an arbitration provision) against the nonsignatory, (2) the signatory must allege concerted misconduct by the nonparty and one or more contracting parties, and (3) where there is a close nexus between the alleged wrong and the claims against the non-party and where plaintiff’s claims against a defendant are factually intertwined with or based on written contract terms.  (¶¶ 44-45)

Here, the crux of plaintiff’s lawsuit was that the defendants induced him into signing the franchise agreement and related restaurant lease.  Since the plaintiff’s claims were premised on and presumed the franchise agreement’s existence, and the franchise agreement contained a broad arbitration clause, the court held that the plaintiff was subject to the arbitration clause and the defendants could enforce the clause.

Afterwords:

A third party generally cannot enforce contract provisions since the third party, by definition, is not a signatory to the contract.

But where a plaintiff’s claim against a non-party relates to or is factually intertwined with a written contract, the terms of that contract can govern and be enforced by the non-party.

 

‘Bankruptcy Planning,’ Alone, Doesn’t Equal Fraudulent Intent to Evade Creditors – IL ND

A Northern District of Illinois bankruptcy judge recently rejected a creditor’s attempt to nix a debtor’s discharge for fraud.  The creditor alleged the debtor tried to escape his creditors by shedding assets before his bankruptcy filing and by not disclosing estate assets in his papers.  Finding for the debtor after a bench trial, the Court in Monty Titling Trust I v. Granrath, 15 AP 00826 illustrates the heavy burden a creditor must meet to successfully challenge a debtor’s discharge based on fraud.

The Court specifically examines the contours of the fraudulent conduct exception to discharge under Code Section 727(a)(2) and Code Section 727(a)(4)’s discharge exception for false statements under oath.

Vehicle Trade-In and Lease

The court found that the debtor’s conduct in trading in his old vehicle and leasing two new ones in his wife’s name in the weeks leading up to the bankruptcy filing was permissible bankruptcy planning (and not fraud).  Since bankruptcy aims to provide a fresh start to a debtor, a challenge to a discharge is construed strictly against the creditor opposing the discharge.  Under the Code, a court should grant a debtor’s discharge unless the debtor “with intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor” transfers, hides or destroys estate property.

Under the Code, a court should grant a debtor’s discharge unless the debtor “with intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor” transfers, hides or destroys property of the debtor within one year of its bankruptcy filing. 11 U.S.C. s. 727(a)(2)(A).  Another basis for the court to deny a discharge is Code Section 727(a)(4) which prevents a discharge where a debtor knowingly and fraudulently makes a false oath or account.

To defeat a discharge under Code Section 727(a)(2), a creditor must show (1) debtor transferred property belonging to the estate, (2) within one year of the filing of the petition, and (3) did so with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor of the estate.  A debtor’s intent is a question of fact and when deciding if a debtor had the requisite intent to defraud a creditor, the court should consider the debtor’s whole pattern of conduct.

To win on a discharge denial under Code Section 727(a)(4)’s false statement rule, the creditor must show (1) the debtor made a false statement under oath, (2) that debtor knew the statement was false, (3) the statement was made with fraudulent intent, and (4) the statement materially related to the bankruptcy case.

Rejecting the creditor’s arguments, the Court found that the debtor and his wife testified in a forthright manner and were credible witnesses.  The court also credited the debtor’s contributing his 401(k) funds in efforts to save his business as further evidence of his good faith conduct.  Looking to Seventh Circuit precedent for support, the Court found that “bankruptcy planning does not alone” satisfy Section 727’s requirement of intent.  As a result, the creditor failed to meet its burden of showing fraudulent conduct by a preponderance of the evidence.

Opening Bank Account Pre-Petition

The Court also rejected the creditor’s assertion that the debtor engaged in fraudulent conduct by opening a bank account in his wife’s name and then transferring his paychecks to that account in violation of a state court citation to discover assets.  

The court noted that the total amount of the challenged transfers was less than $2,000 (since the most that can be attached is 15% gross wages under Illinois’ wage deduction statute) and the debtor’s scheduled assets exceeded $4 million.  Such a disparity between the amount transferred and the estate assets coupled with the debtor’s plausible explanation for why he opened a new bank account in his wife’s name led the Court to find there was no fraudulent intent.

Lastly, the court found that the debtor’s omission of the bank account from his bankruptcy schedules didn’t rise to the level of fraudulent intent.  Where a debtor fails to include a possible asset (here, a bank account) in his bankruptcy papers, the creditor must show the debtor acted with specific intent to harm the bankruptcy estate.  Here, the debtor testified that his purpose in opening the bank account was at the suggestion of his bankruptcy lawyer and not done to thwart creditors.  The court found these bankruptcy planning efforts did not equal fraud.

Afterwords:

1/ Bankruptcy planning does not equate to fraudulent intent to avoid creditors.

2/ Where the amount of debtor’s challenged transfers is dwarfed by scheduled assets and liabilities, the Court is more likely to find that a debtor did not have a devious intent in pre-bankruptcy efforts to insulate debtor assets.

 

Amending Pleadings In Illinois: The Four-Factored Test – A Case Note

Illinois follows a policy of expansively allowing amendments to pleadings so cases can be decided on their merits instead of technicalities.  And while parties are generally given a lot of latitude to amend, the right to do so is not absolute.  The Court still has broad discretion to permit or disallow a request to amend.

Zweig v. Bozorgi Limited Partnership, 2016 IL App (1st) 152628-U, a business dispute lawsuit, provides a useful synopsis of Illinois’s governing pleading amendment factors and gives clues as to when a court exceeds its bounds in refusing an attempt to amend.

The Zweig plaintiff filed breach of contract, fiduciary duty and fraud counts against various defendants stemming from a failed partnership.  The plaintiff alleged he was tricked into investing $2M into a failed ambulatory surgical partnership.  The trial court first denied the plaintiff’s request to amend its complaint and then dismissed the complaint with prejudice.  Plaintiff appealed.

Reversing, the appeals court first stated the well-settled principles that govern pleading amendments in Illinois.  At any time before final judgment, a party can amend its pleading to change the parties, facts or causes of action.

The four factors a court considers when deciding whether to allow an amended pleading are: (1) whether the proposed amendment cures the defective pleading; (2) whether other parties would sustain prejudice or surprise by virtue of the proposed amendment; (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely; and (4) whether previous opportunities to amend could be identified.

The most important factor is the second one – whether there is prejudice or surprise to the opponent if the pleading is amended.  Prejudice is shown where a delay in seeking to amend leaves a defendant unprepared to defend a new theory at trial.  Where a defendant still has time to take discovery and prepare a defense, there will be no prejudice.

(¶¶ 12-13, 18-19)

In finding the trial court overreached in denying the plaintiff’s attempt to amend, the appeals court noted that in the early pleading stage, a plaintiff should be allowed to amend his complaint where the proposed amendment cures any defects in the current (prior) complaint.  The court also held there was no prejudice to the defendant since in the amended pleading, plaintiff was proceeding on the same legal claims he previously filed – he just amplified some of the key facts.

Addressing the third and fourth amendment to pleading factors, the Court found the proposed amended complaint timely since it was brought within one month of the filing date of the defendants’ motion to dismiss the prior Complaint.  In addition, this was only the plaintiff’s second request to amend and the first request was done only to preserve its appeal rights on an unrelated count.  Taken together, the four factors weighed in favor of allowing the plaintiff to amend its complaint.

Take-aways:

This case serves as a recent and relevant illustration of the pleading amendment guideposts in Illinois.  While a court has broad discretion to grant or deny a request to amend, that discretion still has some checks on it.

The case also teaches that if the denial of a motion to amend prevents a party from fully presenting its claim and if the opposing party has time to discover and defend against the amended pleading’s salient facts, there is likely no danger of prejudice or unfair surprise and the court should err on the side of allowing the proposed amendment.

 

Property Subject to Turnover Order Where Buyer Is ‘Continuation’ of Twice-Removed Seller – Corporate Successor Liability in Illinois

Advocate Financial Group, LLC v. 5434 North Winthrop, 2015 IL App (2d) 150144 focuses on the “mere continuation” and fraud exceptions to the general rule of no successor liability – a successor corporation isn’t responsible for debts of predecessor – in a creditor’s efforts to collect a judgment from a business entity that is twice removed from the original judgment debtor.

The plaintiff obtained a breach of contract judgment against the developer defendant (Company 1) who transferred the building twice after the judgment date. The second building transfer was to a third-party (Company 3) who ostensibly had no relation to Company 1. The sale from Company 1 went through another entity – Company 2 – that was unrelated to Company 1.

Plaintiff alleged that Company 1 and Company 3 combined to thwart plaintiff’s collection efforts and sought the turnover of the building so plaintiff could sell it and use the proceeds to pay down the judgment. The trial court granted the turnover motion on the basis that Company 3 was the “continuation” of Company 1 in light of the common personnel between the companies.  The appeals court reversed though.  It found that further evidence was needed on the continuation exception but hinted that the fraud exception might apply instead to wipe out the Company 1-to Company 2- to Company 3 property transfer.

On remand, the trial court found that the fraud exception (successor can be liable for predecessor debts where they fraudulently collude to avoid predecessor’s debts) indeed applied and found the transfer of the building to Company 3 was a sham transfer and again ordered Company 3 to turn the building over to the plaintiff. Company 3 appealed.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment and in doing so, provided a useful summary of the principles that govern when one business entity can be held responsible for another entity’s debts.

In Illinois, a corporation that purchases the assets of another corporation is generally not liable for the debts or liabilities of the transferor corporation. The rule’s purpose is to protect good faith purchasers from unassumed liability and seeks to foster the fluidity of corporate assets.

The “fraudulent purpose” exception to the rule of no successor liability applies where a transaction is consummated for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s obligations.

The “mere continuation” exception to the nonsuccessor liability rule requires a showing that the successor entity “maintains the same or similar management and ownership, but merely wears different clothes.”  The test is not whether the seller’s business operation continues in the purchaser, but whether the seller’s corporate entity continues in the purchaser.

The key continuation question is always identity of ownership: does the “before” company and “after” company have the same officers, directors, and stockholders?

In Advocate Financial, the factual oddity here concerned Company 2 – the intermediary.  It was unclear whether Company 2 abetted Company 1 in its efforts to shake the plaintiff creditor.  The court affirmed the trial court’s factual finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser from Company 1.

The court focused on the abbreviated time span between the two transfers – Company 2 sold to Company 3 within days of buying the building from Company 1 – in finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser. The court also pointed to evidence at trial that Company 1 was negotiating the ultimate transfer to Company 3 before the sale to Company 2 was even complete.

Taken together, the court agreed with the trial court that the two transfers (Company 1 to Company 2; Company 2 to Company 3) constituted an integrated, “pre-arranged” attempt to wipe out Company 1’s judgment debt to plaintiff.

Afterwords:  This case illustrates that a court will scrutinize property transfers that utilize middle-men that only hold the property for a short period of times (read: for only a few days).

Where successive property transfers occur within a compressed time window and the ultimate corporate buyer has substantial overlap (in terms of management personnel) with the first corporate seller, a court can void the transaction and deem it as part of a fraudulent effort to evade one of the first seller’s creditors.

Neighbors’ Constant Hoops Shooting Not ‘Objectively Offensive’ Enough to Merit Nuisance Liability – IL 4th Dist.

The Illinois 4th District recently bounced two homeowners’ lawsuit against their next-door neighbors for installing a basketball court on the neighbors’ property.  Fed up with the neighbor kids’ incessant basketball playing, the plaintiffs in Bedows v. Hoffman, 2016 IL App (4th) 160146-U sued for injunctive relief and damages.

The plaintiffs’ complaint alleged the basketball court violated written restrictive covenants that governed all homes in the neighborhood and that the defendants’ all-day (and much of the night) use of the court created a common law nuisance.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims and the plaintiffs appealed.

Affirming dismissal, the appeals court examines the key interpretative rules for residential restrictive covenants and the applicable standard of pleadings and proof for a nuisance claim.

In Illinois, restrictive covenants are construed and enforced according to their plain and unambiguous language;

The court’s goal in construing a restrictive covenant is to honor the parties’ intent at the time the covenant was made;

Covenants affecting real property are strictly construed so they don’t extend beyond their express language: all doubts as to whether a restriction applies is decided in favor of a landowner’s free use of property without restrictions

(¶¶ 56-57)

The court was tasked with deciding if a basketball court was a “building” – the property covenants barred any building (other than a single-family residence) within 10 feet of a property line.

Finding that the defendants’ basketball court was not a “building,” the Court looked to both Black’s and Webster’s dictionaries for guidance.  Each dictionary stated that walls, roof and an enclosed space were essential building components.  And since the basketball court had none of these elements, it didn’t meet the restrictions’ “building” definition.

A nuisance is a “substantial invasion of another’s interest in the use and enjoyment of his or her land.”  The invasion must be substantial (either intentional or negligent) and objectively (not subjectively) unreasonable.  To be actionable, the claimed nuisance must be physically offensive to the senses.  But “hypersensitive” individuals are not protected by nuisance law.

In addition, when a claim involves an activity deemed an accepted part of everyday life in a given community, it is especially hard to make out a nuisance case unless the plaintiff pleads unique facts that show how the challenged activity goes above and beyond what is commonplace.

Excessive noise can serve as the basis for a nuisance claim but it must be on the order of several dogs barking at all hours of the night.  A neighbor’s subjective annoyance at noise emanating from adjoining property isn’t extreme enough to merit nuisance relief under the law. (¶¶ 84-87)

In dismissing the plaintiffs’ nuisance claim, the Court first found that playing basketball didn’t qualify as “noxious or offensive” conduct under the covenants.  (The covenants outlawed noxious or offensive resident conduct.)  The Court also held that the plaintiffs failed to allege how the defendants’ use of the basketball court was any different from basketball playing by other neighborhood kids as the plaintiffs could document only a single instance of the defendants’ playing basketball after 10 p.m.

The Court noted that the plaintiffs failed to allege how the defendants’ use of the basketball court was any different from other kids’ court use as plaintiffs documented only a single instance where defendants’ played basketball after 10 p.m.

The Court then rejected the plaintiffs’ other covenant-based claim based on the “Allowable Structure” covenant that allowed property owners to erect single-family dwellings only on their lots.  Since a basketball court didn’t fit the dictionary definition of a structure (“a construction, production or piece of work”, i.e.), the Allowable Structure stricture didn’t apply.

Afterwords

This case illustrates how courts generally don’t like to meddle in private landowner disputes.  While the court does give some clues as to what is actionable nuisance under the law, the challenged conduct must go beyond everyday activity like playing basketball in a residential subdivision.

 

 

Evidence Rules Interplay – Authenticating Facebook Posts and YouTube Videos

Evidence Rules 901, 803 and 902 respectively govern authentication generally, the foundation rules for business records, and “self-authenticating” documents at trial.

The Fourth Circuit recently examined the interplay between these rules in the context of a Federal conspiracy trial.  In  United States v. Hassan, 742 F.3d 104 (4th Cir. Feb. 4, 2014), the Fourth Circuit affirmed a jury’s conviction of two defendants based in part on inflammatory, jihad-inspired Facebook posts and YouTube training videos attributed to them.

The Court first held that the threshold showing for authenticity under Rule 901 is low.  All that’s required is the offering party must make a prima facie showing that the evidence is what the party claims it is.  FRE 901(a).  In the context of business records, Rule 902(11) self-authenticates these records where they satisfy the strictures of Rule 803(6) based on a custodian’s certification.  Rule 803(6), in turn, requires the offering party to establish that (a) the records were made at or near the time (of the recorded activity) by – or from information transmitted by  – someone with knowledge, (b) that the records were “kept in the course of a regularly conducted activity or business”; and (c) that making the records was a regular practice of the business. FRE 803(6)(a)-(c).

Applying these rules, the Court held that certifications from Google’s and Facebook’s records custodians established the foundation for the Facebook “wall” posts and YouTube terror training videos.  In addition, the Court found that the prosecution sufficiently connected the two conspiracy defendants to the Facebook posts and YouTube videos by tracing them to internet protocol addresses that linked both defendants to the particular Facebook and YouTube accounts that generated the posts.

Notes: For a more detailed discussion of Hassan as well as an excellent resource on social media evidence developments, see the Federal Evidence Review (http://federalevidence.com/blog/2014/february/authenticating-facebook-and-google-records)

 

Sole Proprietor d/b/a Auto Dealership Held Liable For Floor Plan Loan Default- IL 2d Dist.

The Illinois Second District brings into focus the perils of a business owner failing to incorporate in a car loan dispute in Baird v. Ogden Lincoln Mercury, Inc., 2016 IL App (2d) 160073-U.  Affirming judgment on the pleadings for the plaintiff lender in the case, the Court answers some important questions on the difference between corporate and personal liability and how judicial admissions in pleadings can come back to haunt you.

The plaintiff sued the individual defendant and two affiliated corporations for breach of contract and quantum meruit respectively, in the wake of a “floor plan” loan default.  The individual defendant previously signed the governing loan documents as “President” of Ogden Auto Group, an entity not registered in Illinois.  The corporate defendants consented to a judgment against them on the quantum meruit claim and the case continued on the lender’s contract claim versus the individual defendant.

The Court first rejected the individual defendant’s argument that the breach of contract claim “merged” into the quantum meruit confessed judgment against the corporate defendant.  While a breach of express contract claim normally cannot co-exist with an implied-in-law or quantum meruit claim, the plaintiff’s quantum meruit claim lay against different defendants than the breach of contract action: the breach of contract suit targeted only the individual defendant.  In addition, Illinois law permits multiple judgments in the same case and so the earlier quantum meruit judgment didn’t preclude a later money judgment.  See 735 ILCS 5/2-1301(a).

The Court then granting the plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings based on the defendant’s judicial admissions in his verified answer to the Complaint.

Judicial admissions conclusively bind a party and include formal admissions in the pleadings that have the effect of withdrawing a fact from issue and dispensing wholly with the need for proof of the fact.”

– Judicial admissions are defined as “deliberate, clear, unequivocal statements by a party about a concrete fact within that party’s knowledge” and will conclusively bind the party making the admission.

– A statement is not a judicial admission if it is a matter of opinion, estimate, appearance, inference, or uncertain summary.

– An admission in a verified pleading, not the product of mistake or inadvertence, is a binding, judicial admission.

– An unincorporated business has no legal identity separate from its owner and is deemed an asset of the responsible individual.  A sole proprietorship’s liabilities are imputed to the individual owner.  One who operates a business as a sole proprietor under several names remains one “person,” and is personally liable for all business obligations.

(¶¶ 31-32)

Here, the individual defendant admitted signing both floor plan loans on behalf of Ogden Auto Group, which is not a legally recognized entity.  Since Ogden Auto Group wasn’t incorporated, it was legally a non-entity and the individual defendant was properly found liable for the unpaid loan balances.

Afterwords:

1/ A business owner’s failure to incorporate can have dire consequences.  By not setting up a separate legal entity to run a business through, the sole proprietor remains personally liable for all debts regardless of what name he does business under;

2/ Verified admissions in pleadings are hard to erase.  Unless a party can show pure mistake or inadvertence, a verified pleading admission will bind the litigant and prevent him from later contradicting the admission.

 

Statute of Frauds’ ‘Goods Over $500’ Section Dooms Car Buyer’s Oral Contract Claim (IL First Dist.)

I’ve written here before on the Statute of Frauds (SOF) and how it requires certain contracts to be in writing to be enforceable.  I’ve also championed “MYLEGS” as a useful mnemonic device for dissecting a SOF issue.

M stands for ‘Marriage’ (contracts in consideration of marriage), Y for ‘Year’ (contracts that can’t be performed within the space of a year must be in writing), L for ‘Land’ (contracts for sale of interest in land), E for ‘Executorship’ (promises by a executor to pay a decedent’s creditor have to be in writing), G is for ‘Goods’ (contracts to sell goods over $500) and S for ‘Surety’ (a promise to pay another’s debt requires a writing).

The First District recently affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a breach of contract based on the Uniform Commercial Code’s (UCC) SOF provision governing the sale of goods for over $500 (the “G” in the above MYLEGS scheme).

The plaintiff in Isenbergh v. South Chicago Nissan, 2016 IL App(1st) 153510 went to a car dealer defendant to buy a new Nissan Versa (Versa 1) with specific features (manual transmission, anti-lock brakes, etc.).  When told the requested car wasn’t in stock, the plaintiff opted to rent a used car temporarily until the requested car was available.  But instead of renting a used car, the Plaintiff alleged the dealership convinced him to enter into a verbal “Return Agreement” for a substitute Versa (Versa 2). 

Under the Return Agreement, the dealership promised to sell the plaintiff Versa 2 – which didn’t have plaintiff’s desired features – and then buy it back from Plaintiff when Versa 1 was in stock.  According to Plaintiff, the Return Agreement contemplated Plaintiff’s total payments on Versa 2 would equal only two months of sales contract installment payments.

Plaintiff claimed the dealership refused to honor the Return Agreement and Plaintiff was stuck making monthly payments on Versa 2 (a car he never wanted to begin with) that will eventually eclipse $28,000.  The trial court granted defendant’s Section 2-619 motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s breach of contract action based on the SOF.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

The SOF requires that a contract for the sale of goods for the price of $500 or more be in writing to be enforceable. 810 ILCS 5/2-201.  A “contract for sale” includes both a present sale of goods as well as a contract to sell goods in the future.  A “sale” is the passing of title from seller to buyer for a price. 810 ILCS 5/2-106, 103.  “Goods” under the UCC are all things “movable” at the time of identification to the contract for sale. 810 ILCS 5/2-105.

The Return Agreement’s subject matter, a car, clearly met the UCC’s definitions of “goods” and the substance of the Return Agreement was a transaction for the sale of goods.  (The dealership promised to buy back Versa 2 from the Plaintiff once Versa 1 (the car Plaintiff wanted all along) became available.

Since Versa 2’s sale price was over $26,000 and plaintiff’s two payments under the Versa 2 purchase contract exceeded $1,100, Versa 2 easily met the SOF’s $500 threshold. Because of this, the Court found that the SOF defeated plaintiff’s claim for breach of an oral agreement to buy and sell a car selling for well over $500.

Afterwords:

This case presents a straightforward application of the SOF section governing the sale of goods that retail for at least $500.  Clearly, a motor vehicle is a movable “good” under the UCC and will almost always meet the $500 threshold by definition.

The case also makes clear that even if the contract contemplates a future sale and purchase (as opposed to a present one), the UCC still governs since the statute’s definition of sales contract explicitly speaks to contracts to sell goods in the future.

Finally, the case is a cautionary tale for car buyers and sellers alike as it shows that oral promises likely will not be enforced unless reduced to writing.

Massive Wind Turbine Tower A Trade Fixture, Not Lienable Property Improvement – IL Second Dist.

Q: Does a massive wind turbine tower that can be removed only by detonating several bombs at a cost of over half a million dollars qualify as a lienable property improvement under Illinois law?

A: Not if it’s a “trade fixture” that remains the property of its manufacturer.

Source: AUI Construction Group, LLC v. Vaessen, 2016 IL App (2d) 160009, a recent Second District case that examines the property improvement vs. trade fixture dichotomy and just how impractical removal (of a structure) must be to fall outside mechanics lien protection.

Facts: The property owner and turbine seller signed an easement agreement for the seller to install a turbine on defendant’s land for an annual fee.  The easement provided the turbine would remain the seller’s property and that the seller must remove the structure on 90 days’ notice.  The seller also had to remove the turbine when the easement ended.  The turbine seller then contracted with a general contractor to install the turbine who, in turn, subcontracted out various aspects of the installation.

The owner-general contractor agreement and the downstream subcontracts referenced the easement and stated the turbine system remained the seller’s property.

When the plaintiff sub-subcontractor didn’t get paid, he sued its subcontractor, ultimately getting an arbitration award of over $3M.  When that proved uncollectable after the subcontractor’s bankruptcy, the plaintiff sued the property owner to foreclose a mechanics lien it previously recorded to recover the unpaid judgment.

Trial Court Result: The trial court dismissed the suit on the basis that the turbine was a removable trade fixture that was non-lienable as a matter of law.

Appellate Result: Affirmed

Reasons: The Mechanics Lien Act (770 ILCS 60/0.01 et seq.) protects those who furnish material or labor for the improvement of real property.  The Act allows a lien where a benefit has been received by the owner and the property’s value has increased by the labor or materials’ presence. In Illinois, real estate improvements are lienable; trade fixtures are not.

The factors considered in determining whether equipment is lienable includes (1) the nature of attachment to the realty, (2) the equipment’s adaptation to and necessity for the purpose to which the premises are devoted, and (3) whether it was intended that the item in question should be considered part of the realty.  Crane Erectors & Riggers, Inc. v. LaSalle National Bank, 125 Ill.App.3d 658 (1984).

Intent (factor (3)) is paramount.  Even where an item can be removed from land without injuring it, doesn’t mean the item isn’t lienable.  As long as the parties manifest an intent to improve the realty, a removable item can still be lienable.

Parties are also free to contract that title to equipment furnished to property does not pass to the land owner until fully paid for.  Such an agreement will be enforceable so long as no rights of third parties are unfairly affected.

Applying the three-factored fixture test, the court found the  nature of attachment, and necessity of the item for production of wind energy weighed in favor of finding the turbine lienable.   However, the all-important intent factor suggested the opposite.

The easement agreement specified the turbine seller retained its ownership interest in the turbine and could (and had to) remove it at the easement’s end.  The court wrote: “the easement agreement establishes that the tower was a trade fixture.”  (¶ 20)

The Court also found that plaintiff’s “third party” rights were not impacted since plaintiff’s sub-subcontract specifically referenced the easement and prime contract – both of which stated the turbine would remain seller’s property. (¶ 23)

The Court examined additional factors to decide whether the turbine was lienable.  From a patchwork of Illinois cases through the decades, the Court looked at (1) whether the turbine provided a benefit or enhancement to the property, (2) whether the turbine was removable without material damage to the property, (3) whether it was impractical to remove the item, (4) whether the item (turbine) was used to convert the premises from one use to another, and (5) the agreement and relationship between the parties.

The sole factor tilting (no pun intended) in favor of lienability was factor 4 – that the turbine was essential to converting the defendant’s land from farmland to harnessing of wind energy.  All other factors pointed to the turbine being a nonlienable trade fixture.

The Court noted the property owner didn’t derive a benefit from the turbine other than an annual rent payment and rent is usually not a lienable benefit under the law.  Then the Court pointed out that the tower could be removed even though doing so was an expensive and cumbersome exercise.  Lastly, and most importantly, the parties’ intent was that the turbine was to remain seller’s personal property and for it not to be a permanent property improvement. (¶¶ 38-39)

The Court also rejected the subcontractor’s remaining arguments that (1) the Illinois Property Tax Code evinced a legislative intent to view wind turbines as lienable improvements and (2) it’s unfair to disallow the plaintiff’s lien claim since it could not have a security interest in the turbine under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).

On the tax issue, the Court held that Illinois taxes turbines to ensure that wind turbines do not escape taxation and is purely a revenue-generating device.  Taxation of a structure is not a proxy for lienability. (¶¶ 43-44)

The Court agreed with plaintiff that under UCC Section 9-334, security interests do not attach to “ordinary building materials incorporated into an improvement on land.”  And since the turbine was replete with building materials (e.g. concrete, rebar, electrical conduit), the UCC didn’t give the plaintiff a remedy.  The Court allowed that this was a harsh result but the parties’ clear intent that the turbine remain the seller’s personal property trumped the policy arguments.

Afterwords:

This case strikes a blow to contractors who install large structures on real estate. Even something as immense as a multi-piece turbine system, which seemingly has a “death grip”- level attachment to land, can be nonlienable if that’s what the parties intended.

Another case lesson is for contractors to be extra diligent and insist on copies of all agreements referenced in their contracts to ensure their rights are protected in other agreements to which they’re not a party.

The case also portrays some creative lawyering.  The court’s discussion of the taxability of wind turbines, UCC Article 9 and the difference between a lease (which can be lienable) and an easement (which cannot) and how it impacts the lienability question makes for interesting reading.

 

‘Integration’ Versus ‘Non-Reliance’ Clause: A ‘Distinction Without a Difference?’ (Hardly)

Two staples of sophisticated commercial contracts are integration (aka “merger” or “entire agreement”) clauses and non-reliance (aka “no-reliance” or “anti-reliance”) clauses. While sometimes used interchangeably in casual conversation, and while having some functional similarities, there are important differences between the two clauses.

An integration clause prevents parties from asserting or challenging a contract based on statements or agreements reached during the negotiation stage that were never reduced to writing.

A typical integration clause reads:

This Agreement , encompasses the entire agreement of the parties, and supersedes all previous understandings and agreements between the parties, whether oral or written. The parties hereby acknowledge and represent that they have not relied on any representation, assertion, guarantee, or other assurance, except those set out in this Agreement, made by or on behalf of any other party prior to the execution of this Agreement. 

Integration clauses protect against attempts to alter a contract based on oral statements or earlier drafts that supposedly change the final contract product’s substance.  In litigation, integration/merger clauses streamline issues for trial and avoid distracting courts with arguments over ancillary verbal statements or earlier contract drafts.here integration clauses predominate in contract disputes,

Where integration clauses predominate in contract disputes, non-reliance clauses typically govern in the tort setting.  In fact, an important distinction between integration and non-reliance clauses lies in the fact that an integration clause does not bar a fraud (a quintessential tort) claim when the alleged fraud is based on statements not contained in the contract (i.e,. extra-contractual statements). *1, 2

A typical non-reliance clause reads:

Seller shall not be deemed to make to Buyer any representation or warranty other than as expressly made in this agreement and Seller makes no representation or warranty to Buyer with respect to any projections, estimates or budgets delivered to or made available to Buyer or its counsel, accountants or advisors of future revenues, expenses or expenditures or future financial results of operations of Seller.  The parties to the contract warrant they are not relying on any oral or written representations not specifically incorporated into the contract.”  

No-reliance language precludes a party from claiming he/she was duped into signing a contract by another party’s fraudulent misrepresentation.  Unlike an integration clause, a non-reliance clause can defeat a fraud claim since “reliance” is one of the elements a fraud plaintiff must show: that he relied on a defendant’s misstatement to the plaintiff’s detriment.  To allege fraud after you sign a non-reliance clause is a contradiction in terms.

Afterwords:

Lawyers and non-lawyers alike should be leery of integration clauses and non-reliance clauses in commercial contracts.  The former prevents a party from relying on agreements reached during negotiations that aren’t reduced to writing while the latter (non-reliance clauses) will defeat one side’s effort to assert fraud against the other.

An integration clause will not, however, prevent a plaintiff from suing for fraud.  If a plaintiff can prove he was fraudulently induced into signing a contract, an integration clause will not automatically defeat such a claim.

Sources:

  1. Vigortone Ag Prods. v. AG Prods, 316 F.3d 641 (7th Cir. 2002).
  2. W.W. Vincent & Co. v. First Colony Life Ins. Co., 351 Ill.App.3d 752 (1st Dist. 2004)

 

Retailers’ Sales Forecasts Not Factual Enough to Buttress Fraud In Inducement Claim (IL ND)

The Northern District of Illinois provides a useful synopsis of Federal court summary judgment standards and the scope of some Illinois business torts in a dispute over a canceled advertising contract to sell hand tools.

The plaintiff in Loggerhead Tools, LLC v. Sears Holding Corp., 2016 WL 5111573 (N.D.Ill. 2016) sued Sears when it canceled an agreement to promote the plaintiff’s Bionic Wrench product and instead bought from plaintiff’s competitor.   The plaintiff claimed that after Sears terminated their contract, it was too late for the plaintiff to supply product to competing retailers.  Plaintiff filed a flurry of fraud claims alleging the department store giant made inflated sales forecasts and failed to disclose it was working with  plaintiff’s competitor.  Sears successfully moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims.

Summary Judgment Guideposts

Summary judgment is appropriate where the movant shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Courts deciding summary judgment must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a “genuine” dispute as to those facts.  A genuine fact dispute exists where a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. 

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is important and could potentially affect the outcome of a case.

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is important and could potentially affect the outcome of a case.

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is important and could potentially affect the outcome of a case.

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is so important that it could alter the case’s outcome.

Fraud Analysis:

The crux of Plaintiff’s fraud suit was that Sears strung Plaintiff along by creating the false impression that Sears would market Plaintiff’s products.  Plaintiff alleged that Sears concealed its master plan to work with Plaintiff’s competitor and only feigned interest in Plaintiff until Sears struck a deal with a competing vendor.

An Illinois fraud plaintiff must show:  (1) defendant made a false statement of material fact, (2) defendant knew the statement was false, (3) the defendant intended the statement to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) the plaintiff justifiably relied on the statement’s truth, and (5) plaintiff suffered damages as a result of relying on the statement.

A bare broken promise doesn’t equal fraud.  An exception to this “promissory fraud” rule is where the defendant’s actions are part of a “scheme to defraud:” that is, the defendant’s actions are part of a pattern of deception.  The scheme exception also applies where the plaintiff can show the defendant did not intend to fulfill his promise at the time it was made (not in hindsight).

In determining whether a plaintiff’s reliance on a defendant’s misstatement is reasonable, the court looks at all facts that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of as well as facts the plaintiff may have learned through ordinary prudence.

Here, Sears’ sales forecasts were forward-looking, “promissory” statements of hoped-for sales results.  Sears’ profuse contractual disclaimers that sales forecasts were just “estimates” to be used “for planning purposes” only and “not commitments” prevented the Plaintiff from establishing reasonable reliance on the projections.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s fraudulent concealment claim.  To prevail on a fraud claim premised on concealment of material facts, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty to disclose the material fact.  Such a duty will arise where the parties have a special or fiduciary relationship that gives rise to a duty to speak.  

Parties to a contract are generally not fiduciaries.  Relevant factors to determine whether a fiduciary relationship exists include (1) degree of kinship of the parties, and (2) disparity in age, health, mental condition, education and business experience between the parties.

Here, there was no disparity between the parties.  They were both sophisticated businesses who operated at arms’ length from one another.

Afterwords: This case provides a good distillation of summary judgment rules, promissory fraud and the scheme to defraud exception to promissory fraud not being actionable.  It echoes how difficult it is for a plaintiff to plead and prove fraud – especially in the business-to-business setting where there is equal bargaining power between litigants.

This case provides a good distillation of summary judgment rules, promissory fraud and the scheme to defraud exception to the promissory fraud rule.  The case further illustrates the difficulty of proving fraud – especially in the business-to-business setting where there is equal bargaining power between the parties.

 

 

 

One Man’s ‘Outrage’ Is Another’s Petty Annoyance: Federal Court Tackles Promissory Fraud and Intentional Infliction Tort in Law Firm-Associate Spat

img_2052-3An Illinois Federal court expands on the contours of the IWPCA, promissory fraud, the employee vs. independent contractor dichotomy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) tort in Lane Legal Services v. Le Brocq, 2016 WL 5955536,

The plaintiff law firm (“Firm”) sued a former associate (“Associate”) when he left to open his own law shop.  The Firm claimed the Associate stole firm business records, hacked into Firm computers and breached a written employment agreement.  The Associate fired back with multiple counterclaims against the Firm including ones for unpaid compensation under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 et seq., fraud, and IIED.

IWPCA Claim

The Court denied the Firm’s motion to dismiss the Associate’s IWPCA count.  The IWPCA requires an employer to pay final compensation to a separated employee no later than the next regularly scheduled payday.  Independent contractors, in contrast to employees, aren’t covered by the IWPCA.

The key question when deciding whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor is the level of control exerted over the plaintiff.  The more autonomy a plaintiff has in performing his job functions, the more likely he is deemed an independent contractor and not subject to the IWPCA.

Associate attorneys are generally considered employees under the IWPCA.  While the Associate here had a unique relationship with the Firm in the sense he was entitled to a share of the Firm’s fees, the Court ultimately found the Associate was an employee under the statute as the Firm could still dictate the details of the Associate’s legal work. 

‘Promissory’ Fraud

The Court found the Associate alleged enough facts for his fraud counterclaim to survive the Firm’s motion to dismiss.  In Illinois, a common law plaintiff must plead (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) knowledge or belief by the speaker that a statement is false, (3) intent to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) action by the plaintiff in reliance on the statement, and (5) damages.

Where fraud is predicated on forward-looking/future statements, the claim is a non-actionable “promissory fraud.”  An exception to this rule lies where the fraudulent conduct is part of a scheme to defraud – an exception that governs where there is a pattern of deceptive conduct by a defendant.  As few as two broken promises can amount to a scheme of defraud although that is not the norm. (**6-7).

The court found that the Associate’s allegations that the firm falsely stated it supported him “leaving the nest” and starting his own firm knowing it would later retaliate against him for doing so was factual enough to beat the Firm’s motion to dismiss.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

The Court dismissed the associate’s intentional infliction claims finding that the Firm’s conduct, while possibly vindictive, still wasn’t objectively extreme and outrageous enough to sustain an IIED action.

An IIED plaintiff must show: (1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) the defendant’s intent to inflict severe emotional distress or knowledge that there was a high probability his conduct would inflict such distress, and (3) the conduct caused severe emotional distress.  Whether conduct rises to the level of extreme and outrageous is judged on an objective standard based on the facts of a given case and must be more than insults, threats, indignities, annoyances or petty trivialities.  To be actionable, the conduct must be “unendurable by a reasonable person.”

Illinois courts especially disfavor applying the IIED tort to employment settings since nearly every employee could conceivably have a claim based on everyday work stressors.

The Court found that the Firm’s challenged actions – filing a frivolous suit and bad-mouthing the associate to regulatory bodies – while inappropriate and bothersome, didn’t amount to extreme and outrageous conduct that would be unbearable to a reasonable person.  As a result, the Court dismissed the associate’s IIED claim.

Take-aways:

(1) A plaintiff can qualify as an employee under the IWPCA even where he shares in company profits and performs some management functions.  If the employer sufficiently controls the manner and method of plaintiff’s work, he likely meets the employee test;

(2) While promissory fraud normally is not actionable, if the alleged fraud is part of a pattern of misstatements, a plaintiff may have a viable fraud claim – even where there is as few as two broken promises;

(3) A colorable intentional infliction claim requires a showing of extreme and outrageous conduct that go beyond harsh business tactics or retaliatory conduct.  If the conduct doesn’t demonstrate an overt intention to cause mental anguish, it won’t meet the objective outrage standard.

 

Uber and Lyft Users Unite! City of Chicago Beats Back Cab Drivers’ Constitutional Challenge to City Ridesharing Ordinance

An association representing Chicago taxicab drivers recently lost their attempt to invalidate a City of Chicago ridesharing ordinance as unconstitutional.

The crux of the cab drivers claim in Illinois Transportation Trade Ass’n v. City of Chicago, was that a City ordinance governing Transportation Network Providers (TNPs) like Uber and Lyft was too mild and didn’t subject TNPs to the same level of government oversight as Chicago cab drivers; especially in the areas of licensing and fair rates. (For example, TNPs are free to set their own rates by private contracts; something taxicabs can’t do.)

The cab drivers argued the Ordinance’s less onerous TNP strictures made it hard if not impossible for the City cabs to compete with TNPs for consumer business.

The Seventh Circuit struck down all of the plaintiffs claims and in doing so, discussed the nature of constitutional challenges to statutes in the modern, ridesharing context.

Deprivation of Property Right Without Compensation

The Court rejected the plaintiffs’ first argument that allowing TNPs to enter the Chicago taxicab market deprived plaintiffs of a property interest without compensation.

Finding that a protected property right does not include the right to be free from competition, the Court noted the City wasn’t depriving the plaintiffs of tangible or intangible property.  All the Ordinance did was codify Chicago cab drivers’ exposure to a new form of competition – competition from ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.

And since the right to be free from competition is not a legally valid property right, the plaintiffs’ misappropriation of property theory failed.  The Court wrote that to indulge the plaintiffs’ argument that it had a property right in eliminating transportation service competition would give taxi drivers an unfair monopoly on all commercial transportation.

Equal Protection Claim: Cab Drivers and TNPs Should Be Subject to the Same Regulations

Striking down the plaintiffs’ equal protection claims, the Court framed the issue as whether “regulatory differences between Chicago taxicabs and Chicago TNPs are arbitrary or defensible.”  It found the regulatory variations were indeed defensible.  In reaching this holding the Court focused on the salient differences between taxicabs and TNPs including their distinct business models and levels of driver oversight and screening, as well as stark differences in consumer accessibility: where riders can hail a cab on any street, TNP users must first sign up with the TNP and install an app on their smartphone to hire TNP drivers.

A Dog Differs From a Cat and a Taxi Differs from a TNP Like Uber

In the end, it was the blatant qualitative differences between cab service and TNPs that carried the day and sealed the fate of plaintiffs’ constitutional challenge to the Ordinance.  The Court found there were measurable differences between taxis and TNPs in the areas of business model, driver screening and rate-setting, among others, that justified the City’s different regulatory schemes.

The Court found that the watered-down (according to Plaintiffs, anyway) TNP Ordinance rightly recognized the glaring differences between taxis and TNPs and was rationally related to the City’s interest in fostering competition in commercial transportation business.

Afterwords:

This case presents an interesting application of established constitutional equal protection principles to a progressive electronic commerce context.

In the end the case turned on whether leveling the competitive playing field to the cab drivers’ liking by striking down the Ordinance resulted in stifled competition.  Since the Court said the answer to the question was “yes,” the taxi drivers’ constitutional challenge failed.

 

 

Non-shareholder Liable For Chinese Restaurant’s Lease Obligations Where No Apparent Corporate Connection – IL Case Note

fortune-cookiePink Fox v. Kwok, 2016 IL App (1st) 150868-U, examines the corporate versus personal liability dichotomy through the lens of a commercial lease dispute.  There, a nonshareholder signed a lease for a corporate tenant (a Chinese restaurant) but failed to mention the tenant’s business name next to his signature.  This had predictable bad results for him as the lease signer was hit with a money judgment of almost $200K in past-due rent and nearly $20K in attorneys’ fees and court costs.

The restaurant lease had a ten-year term and required the tenant to pay over $13K in monthly rent along with real estate taxes and maintenance costs.  The lease was signed by a non-shareholder of the corporate tenant who was friends with the tenant’s officers.

The non-shareholder and other lease guarantors appealed a bench trial judgment holding them personally responsible for the defunct tenant’s lease obligations.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

The first procedural question was whether the trial court erred when it refused to deem the defendants’ affirmative defenses admitted based on the plaintiff’s failure to respond to the defenses.

Code Section 2-602 requires a plaintiff to reply to an affirmative defense within 21 days.  The failure to reply to an affirmative defense is an admission of the facts pled in the defense.  But the failure to reply only admits the truth of factual matter; not legal conclusions. 

A failure to reply doesn’t admit the validity of the unanswered defense.  The court has wide discretion to allow late replies to affirmative defenses in keeping with Illinois’ stated policy of having cases decided on their merits instead of technicalities.  (¶ 55)

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s allowing the plaintiff’s late reply.  The court noted the defendants had several months to seek a judgment for the plaintiff’s failure to reply to the defenses yet waited until the day of trial to “spring” a motion on the plaintiff.  Since the Illinois Code is to be construed liberally and not in a draconian fashion, the Court found there was no prejudice to the defendants in allowing the plaintiff’s late reply.

The court next considered whether the trial court properly entertained extrinsic evidence to interpret the commercial lease.  The body of the lease stated that the tenant was a corporation yet the signature page indicated that an individual was the tenant.  This textual clash created a lease ambiguity that merited hearing evidence of the parties’ intent at trial.

Generally, when an agent signs a contract in his own name and fails to mention the identity of his corporate principal, the agent remains liable on the contract he signs.  But where an agent signs a document and does note his corporate affiliation, he usually is not personally responsible on the contract.  Where an agent lacks authority to sign on behalf of his corporate employer, the agent will be personally liable.  (¶¶ 76-77)

Since the person signing the lease testified at trial that he did so “out of friendship,” the trial court properly found he was personally responsible for the defunct Chinese restaurant’s lease obligations.

The court also affirmed the money judgment against the lease guarantors and rejected their claim that there was no consideration to support the guarantees.

Under black letter lease guarantee rules, where a guarantee is signed at the same time as the lease, the consideration supporting the lease will also support the guarantee.  In such a case, the guarantor does not need to receive separate or additional consideration from the underlying tenant to be bound by the guarantee.

So long as the primary obligor – here the corporate tenant – receives consideration, the law deems the same consideration as flowing to the guarantor.

Afterwords:

1/ Signing a lease on behalf of a corporate entity without denoting corporate connection is risky business;

2/ If you sign something out of friendship, like the defendant here, you should make sure you are indemnified by the friend/person (individual or corporation) you’re signing for;

3/ Where a guaranty is signed at the same time as the underlying lease, no additional consideration to the guarantor is required.  The consideration flowing to the tenant is sufficient to also bind the guarantor.

 

 

Italian Lawsuit Filed Against Auto Repair Giant Dooms Later Illinois Lawsuit Under ‘Same Parties/Same Cause’ Rule

Where two lawsuits are pending simultaneously and involve the same parties and issues, the later filed case is generally subject to dismissal.  Illinois Code Section 2-619(a)(3) allows for dismissal where “there is another action pending between the same parties for the same cause.”

Midas Intern. Corp. v. Mesa, S.p.A., 2013 IL App (1st) 122048, while dated, gives a useful summary of the same-cause dismissal guideposts in the context of an international franchise dispute.

Midas, the well-known car repair company entered into a written contract with Mesa, an Italian car repairer, to license Midas’s business “System” and related trademarks.  In exchange for licensing Midas’s business model and marks, Mesa paid a multi-million dollar license fee and made monthly royalty payments.  The contract had a mandatory arbitration clause and a separate license agreement incorporated into it that fixed Milan, Italy or Chicago, Illinois as the venues for license agreement litigation.

Mesa sued Midas in an Italian court claiming Midas violated the license agreement by not making capital investments in some of Mesa’s projects.  A month or so later, Midas sued Mesa in Illinois state court for breach of contract and a declaratory judgment that Midas was in compliance with the license agreement and was owed royalties.  The trial court dismissed Midas’ suit based on the pending Italian lawsuit filed by Mesa.  Midas appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

The case turned on whether Mesa’s lawsuit stemmed from the same cause as Midas’s Illinois action.  Dismissal of an action under Code Section 2-619(a)(3) is a “procedural tool designed to avoid duplicative litigation.”  Under this section, actions involve the same cause when the relief sought in two cases rest on substantially the same set of facts.  The test is whether the two actions stem from the same underlying transaction or occurrence; not whether the pled causes of action or legal theories in the two cases are the same or different.

Two cases don’t have to be identical for Section 2-619(a)(3) to apply.  All that’s required is the cases feature a “substantial similarity of issues.”  (¶ 13)

If the same cause and same party requirements are met, the Court can still refuse dismissal if the prejudice to the party whose case is dismissed outweighs the policy against duplicative litigation.  In assessing prejudice caused by dismissal, the court considers issues of comity, prevention of multiplicity of lawsuits, vexation, harassment, likelihood of obtaining complete relief in the foreign forum, and the res judicata effect of a foreign judgment in the local forum (here, Illinois).

Courts also look to which case was filed first; although order of case filing isn’t by itself a dispositive factor.

Rejecting Midas’ argument that the Italian lawsuit was separated in time and topics from the Illinois lawsuit, the Court noted that Mesa’s lawsuit objective was to preemptively defend against Midas’s royalty claims.  Midas Illinois lawsuit, filed only weeks after Mesa’s action, sought damages under a breach of contract theory – that Mesa breached the license agreement by not paying royalties.

Since the outcome in the Mesa (Italian) case will determine the Midas (Illinois) case, the Court found the Illinois case was barred because Mesa’s action involved the same parties and same cause: both cases originated from the same license agreement.

The Court also found that Midas wouldn’t be prejudiced due to the dismissal of the Illinois action. Midas has the resources to file a counterclaim in the Italy case and the license agreement provides that either Milan or Chicago are possible lawsuit venues.  Since Illinois and Italy each had similar interests in and a connection to the dispute (the royalty payments were sent from Italy and received in Illinois), the trial court had discretion to dismiss Midas’ Illinois lawsuit. (¶ 25).

Afterwords:

1/ This case lays out the different factors a court considers when determining whether to dismiss an action under the same cause/same parties Code section;

2/ The timing of the filing of two lawsuits along with each forum’s connection to the dispute are key factors considered by the court when deciding whether avoiding redundancy in litigation trumps a party’s right to have its case heard on the merits.

Avvo’s ‘Sponsored Listings’ Not Commercial Enough to Escape First Amendment Protection in Lawyer’s Publicity Suit – IL ND


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In its decade old existence, Avvo, Inc., an “on line legal services marketplace,” has been no stranger to controversy.  Private attorneys and bar associations alike have objected to Avvo’s business model and practices – some filing defamation lawsuits against the company while others have demanded in regulatory venues that Avvo stop its unconsented “scraping” of attorney data.

Vrdolyak v. Avvo, Inc. is the latest installment of a lawyer suing Avvo; this time challenging Avvo-pro, the on-line directory’s pay-to-play service.

For about $50 a month, Avvo-pro users can ensure that no rival attorney ads appear on their profile page.  But if the attorney chooses not to participate in Avvo-pro, he will likely see competitor ads on his Avvo page.

The plaintiff, a non-Avvo-pro participant, sued Avvo under Illinois’ Right to Publicity Act.  He argued that by selling competitor ads on his profile page, Avvo usurped plaintiff’s right to monetize his identity.

In effect, according to plaintiff, Avvo was capitalizing on plaintiff’s brand and using it as a platform for rival lawyers to peddle their services to anyone who visited plaintiff’s Avvo page.

The Court granted Avvo’s motion to dismiss on the basis that Avvo’s ads were protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The key inquiry was whether Avvo’s site constitutes commercial or non-commercial speech.  If speech is non-commercial, it is entitled to expansive First Amendment protection that can only be restricted in extraordinary circumstances.

Commercial speech, by contrast, receives less First Amendment protection.  It can be more easily scrutinized and vulnerable to defamation or publicity statute claims.

The court cited daily newspapers and telephone directory “yellow pages” as prototypical examples of non-commercial speech.

While both sell advertising, a newspaper’s and yellow pages’ main purpose is to provide information.  Any ad revenue derived by the paper or phone directory is ancillary to their primary function as information distributor.

Commercial speech proposes a commercial transaction, including through the use of a trademark or a company’s brand awareness.  If speech has both commercial and non-commercial elements (e.g. where a commercial transaction is offered at the same time a matter of social importance is discussed), the court tries to divine the main purpose of the speech by considering if (1) the speech is an advertisement, (2) it refers to a specific product and (3) the speaker’s economic motivation.

The Court agreed with Avvo that its site was akin to a computerized yellow pages; That the core of Avvo was non-commercial speech: it provides attorney information culled from various sources.

The court distinguished basketball legend Michael Jordan’s recent lawsuit against Jewel food stores for taking out an ad in Sports Illustrated, ostensibly for commending Jordan on his recent basketball hall of fame induction.

The Seventh Circuit there found that Jewel’s conduct clearly aimed to associate Jordan with Jewel’s brand and in the process promote Jewel’s supermarkets.  As a result, Jewel’s actions were deemed commercial speech and subject to a higher level of court scrutiny. Jordan v. Jewel Food Stores, Inc., 743 F.3d 509, 515 (7th Cir. 2014).

In the end, the Avvo case turned on this binary question: was Avvo a non-commercial attorney directory with incidental advertising, or was each Avvo attorney profile an advertisement for the competitors’ “Sponsored Listings” (the name ascribed to competing attorneys who paid for ads to be placed on plaintiff’s profile page).

Since not every attorney profile contained advertisements and none of the challenged ads used plaintiff’s name, the Court found Avvo was like a newspaper or yellow pages directory entitled to free speech protection.

The Court likened Avvo to Sports Illustrated – a publication that features ads but whose main purpose is non-commercial (i.e. Providing sports news).  Like SI, Avvo publishes non-commercial information – attorney stats – and within that information, places advertisements.

To hold otherwise and allow plaintiff’s publicity suit to go forward, “any entity that publishes truthful newsworthy information about….professionals, such as a newspaper or yellow page directory, would risk civil liability simply because it generated ad revenue” from competing vendors.

Afterword:  This case presents an interesting application of venerable First Amendment principles to the post-modern, computerized context.

A case lesson is that even if speech has some obvious money-making byproducts, it still  can garner constitutional protection where its main purpose is to impart information rather than to attract paying customers.

 

 

 

 

Non-reliance Clause Defeats Fraud In Inducement Claim In Employment Agreement Dispute – IL Court

Colagrossi v. Bank of Scotland, 2016 IL (App) 1st 142216 examines fraud in the inducement in an employment dispute involving parent and subsidiary companies and their respective successors.

The key question was whether a non-reliance clause in an employment contract barred a fraud in the inducement claim based on pre-contract statements by a party?  The answer:  “Yes.”

The case features a tortured procedural history and this tedious litigation timeline:

2005 – Plaintiff receives offer letter from Company 1 for plaintiff to perform futures trading services.  The offer letter contains a non-reliance clause that subsumes all oral representations concerning the offer letter’s subject matter.

2006 – Plaintiff enters into employment agreement with Company 2 – Company 1’s successor.  This agreement also has a non-reliance clause.

2006-2007 – Plaintiff contends that while negotiating the offer letter specifics, Company 1’s officer fails to disclose to Plaintiff that Company 1 is about to be sold to Company 2 and had plaintiff known this, he wouldn’t have accepted Company 1’s offer.

2008 – Plaintiff files two lawsuits.  He sues Company 1 for fraud in the inducement and then sues Company 2 under the same legal theories.  Company 2 removes that case to Federal Court (based on diversity of citizenship).

2011 – Plaintiff files a third lawsuit; this time naming Company 3 – Company 1’s parent – and Company 4, the entity that purchased Company 3.

2013 – Summary judgment for Company 1 is entered in the 2008 fraud in inducement case based on non-reliance language of offer letter.

2014 – Federal court grants summary judgment for Company 2 in removed Federal case (the removed 2008 case) based on same non-reliance clause

2014 – Plaintiff’s 2011 lawsuit against Companies 3 and 4 dismissed based on res judicata in that the same issues were already litigated in the 2008 fraud in inducement case against Company 1

Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of the 2011 lawsuit.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

Fraud in the inducement  requires a plaintiff to plead and prove (1) a false representation of material fact, (2) made with knowledge or belief in the representation’s falsity, (3) made with the purpose of inducing a plaintiff to act or refrain from acting, and (iv) the plaintiff reasonably relied on the defendant’s representation (or non-representation) to plaintiff’s detriment. (¶¶ 44-45)

Fraud normally is no defense to the enforceability of a written agreement where the party claiming fraud had ample opportunity to discover the fraud by reading the document.

Here, the plaintiff admitted that he read the 2005 offer letter and 2006 employment contract and signed them after reviewing with his attorney.  In addition, the two agreements each spelled out that plaintiff had not relied on any oral or written representations of the parties in signing the agreements. 

The Court held that the clear non-reliance language prevented plaintiff from establishing justifiable reliance on any oral statements made by Company 1 to induce plaintiff to sign the offer letter or on Company 2 statements before signing the employment agreement. (¶ 47)

The next question for the Court was whether summary judgment for Company 1 in the 2008 case was res judicata to the 2011 case against Companies 3 and 4.  Again, Company 3 was Company 1’s corporate parent and Company 4 purchased Company 3’s assets.

In Illinois, res judicata applies where (1) there is an identity of parties or their privies, (2) identity of causes of action, and (3) final judgment on the merits.

For the first, identity of parties prong, to apply, the parties don’t have to identical.  All that’s required is their interest must be sufficiently similar.  Under Illinois law, a corporate parent and its subsidiaries can be deemed sufficiently similar for res judicata purposes as can successor and predecessor companies.  When the only difference between a predecessor and a successor (like between Company 2 and 3 here) is a name change, “obvious privity” is present.  (¶¶ 53-54)

Since the two 2008 cases and the 2011 case all stemmed from the same underlying facts, involved the same employment contract and same corporate principals, summary judgment for Company 1 and 2 in the 2008 cases barred plaintiff from repackaging the same facts and claims against Companies 3 and 4 in the 2011 case.

Afterwords:

This case and others like it make clear that for a fraud in the inducement plaintiff to establish reliance in the breach of written contract setting, he should show he was deprived of a chance to read the contract.  Otherwise, the rule against allowing fraud claims by one who fails to read a document will defeat the claim.

Another important case holding is that the ‘same parties’ res judicata element applies where parent and subsidiary (or predecessor and successor) companies are sufficiently connected so they sufficiently represents the other’s legal interests in two separate lawsuits.

‘Helpful’ Client List Not Secret Enough to Merit Trade Secret Injunction – IL Court

Customer lists are common topics of trade secrets litigation.  A typical fact pattern: Company A sues Ex-employee B who joined or started a competitor and is contacting company A’s clients.  Company A argues that its customer list is secret and only known by Ex-employee B through his prior association with Company A.

Whether such a claim has legal legs depends mainly on whether A’s customer list qualifies for trade secret protection and secondarily on whether the sued employee signed a noncompete or nondisclosure contract. (In my experience, that’s usually the case.)  If the court deems the list secret enough, the claim may win.  If the court says the opposite, the trade secrets claim loses.

Novamed v. Universal Quality Solutions, 2016 IL App (1st) 152673-U, is a recent Illinois case addressing the quality and quantity of proof a trade secrets plaintiff must offer at an injunction hearing to prevent a former employee from using his ex-employer’s customer data to compete with the employer.

The plaintiff pipette (a syringe used in medical labs) company sued to stop two former sales agents who joined one of plaintiff’s rivals.  Both salesmen signed restrictive covenants that prevented them from competing with plaintiff or contacting plaintiff’s customers for a 2.5 year period and that geographically spanned much of the Midwest.  The trial court denied plaintiff’s application for injunctive relief on the basis that the plaintiff failed to establish a protectable interest in its clients.

Result: Trial court’s judgment affirmed.  While plaintiff’s customer list is “helpful” in marketing plaintiff’s services, it does not rise to the level of a protectable trade secret.

Rules/Reasoning:

Despite offering testimony that its customer list was the culmination of over two-decades of arduous development, the court still decided in the ex-sales employees’ favor.  For a court to issue a preliminary injunction, Illinois requires the plaintiff to show: (1) it possesses a clear right or interest that needs protection; (2) no adequate remedy at law exists, (3) irreparable harm will result if the injunction is not granted, and (4) there is a likelihood of success on the merits of the case (plaintiff is likely to win, i.e.)

A restrictive covenant – be it a noncompete, nondisclosure or nonsolicitation clause – will be upheld if is a “reasonable restraint” and is supported by consideration.  To determine whether a restrictive covenant is enforceable, it must (1) be no greater than is required to protect a legitimate business interest of the employer, (2) not impose undue hardship on the employee, and (3) not be injurious to the public.  (¶ 35)

The legitimate business interest question (element (1) above) distills to a fact-based inquiry where the court looks at (a) whether the employee tried to use confidential information for his own benefit and (b) whether the employer has near-permanent relationships with its customers.

Here, there was no near-permanent relationship between the plaintiff and its clients.  Both defendants testified that many of plaintiff’s customers simultaneously use competing pipette vendors.  The court also noted that plaintiff did not have any contracts with its customers and had to continually solicit clients to do business with it.

The court then pointed out that a customer list generally is not considered confidential where it can be duplicated or pieced together by cross-referencing telephone directories, the Internet, where the customers use competitors at the same time and customer names are generally known in a given industry.  According to the Court, “[i]f the information can be [obtained] by calling the company and asking, it is not protectable confidential information.” (¶ 40)

Since the injunction hearing evidence showed that plaintiff’s pipettes were typically used by universities, hospitals and research labs, the universe of plaintiff’s existing and prospective customers was well-defined and known to competitors.

Next, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it had a protectable interest because of the training it invested into the defendants; making them highly skilled workers. The court credited evidence at the hearing that it only takes a few days to teach someone how to clean a pipette and all pipette businesses use the same servicing method.  These factors weighed against trade secret protection attaching to the plaintiff’s customers.

Lastly, the court found that regardless of whether defendants were highly skilled workers, preventing defendants from working would be an undue hardship in that they would have to move out of the Midwest to earn a livelihood in their chosen field.

Afterwords:

This case provides a useful summary of what a plaintiff must show to establish a protectable business interest in its clients.  If the plaintiff cannot show that the customer identities are near-permanent, that they invested time and money in highly skilled workers or that customer names are not discoverable through basic research efforts (phone directories, Google search, etc.), a trade secrets claim based on ex-employee’s use of plaintiff’s customer list will fail.

Filing Lawsuit Doesn’t Meet Conversion Suit ‘Demand for Possession’ Requirement – 7th Cir. (applying IL law)

Conversion, or civil theft, requires a plaintiff to make a demand for possession of the converted property before suing for its return.  This pre-suit demand’s purpose is to give a defendant the opportunity to return plaintiff’s property and avoid unnecessary litigation.

What constitutes a demand though?  The easiest case is where a plaintiff serves a written demand for return of property and the defendant refuses.  But what if the plaintiff doesn’t send a demand but instead files a lawsuit.  Is the act of filing the lawsuit equivalent to sending a demand?

The Seventh Circuit recently answered “no” to the question in Stevens v. Interactive Financial Advisors, Inc., 2016 WL 4056401 (N.D.Ill. 2016)

That case’s plaintiff sued his former brokerage firm for tortious interference and with contract and conversion based when the firm blocked plaintiff’s access to investment client data after the firm fired the plaintiff.  The District Court granted summary judgment on the plaintiff’s tortious interference claim and a jury entered judgment for the defendant on the conversion count.

At trial on the conversion count, the jury submitted this question to the trial judge: “Can we consider [filing] the lawsuit a demand for property?”  The trial judge answered no – under Illinois law, filing a lawsuit does not qualify as a demand for possession.  The jury then found for the defendant and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the jury verdict, the Seventh Circuit addressed if and when impeding access to financial data can give rise to a conversion action in light of Illinois law’s pre-suit demand requirement and various applicable Federal securities laws.

To prove conversion under Illinois law, a plaintiff must show (1) he has a right to personal property, (2) he has an absolute and unconditional right to immediate possession of the property, (3) he made a demand for possession, and (4) defendant wrongfully and without authorization assumed control, dominion, or ownership over the property.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendant investment firm on the plaintiff’s conversion count that sought access to client information for clients plaintiff brought to the firm.

The Court held that since the firm was bound by Federal securities laws prohibiting it from disclosing nonpublic client information to third parties, and the plaintiff had been fired, the plaintiff could not show a right to immediate possession of the client financial information.  The plaintiff did possibly have a right to insurance client information (as opposed to securities clients) and the Court denied summary judgment as to plaintiff’s insurance clients.

The Seventh Circuit upheld the jury verdict on the insurance clients conversion suit based on the plaintiff’s failure to make a demand for possession.  The Court stated the demand requirement’s purpose as trying to motivate the return of property “before a plaintiff is required to submit to unnecessary litigation.”

The plaintiff did not make a demand for return of his insurance client’s data before he filing suit.  And since Illinois courts have never held that the act of suing was tantamount to a demand for possession, the Seventh Circuit found that the District Court correctly instructed the jury that the failure to make a demand for possession before suing defeats a conversion claim.

The Court also nixed the plaintiff’s “demand futility” argument: that a demand for possession would have been pointless given the circumstances of the given case. (Demand futility typically applies where the property has been sold or fundamentally damaged.)

The Seventh Circuit found that the jury properly considered the demand futility question and ruled against the plaintiff and there was no basis to reverse that finding.

Afterwords:

1/ A conversion plaintiff’s right to client data will not trump a Federal securities law that protects the data.  In addition, a pre-suit demand for possession is required to make out a conversion action unless the plaintiff can show that the demand is pointless or futile;

2/ The act of filing a lawsuit will not serve as a proxy for a demand for possession.

3/Conversion plaintiffs should take great care to make a demand for possession before suing.

3-a/ This is true even where the demand is likely to meet resistance.  Otherwise, like the plaintiff experienced here, the risk is too great that the lack of a demand will defeat the conversion claim.

 

Of Styx, Starbucks and A Drink Is Not A Beverage (??)

I remember being frantic one weeknight in the Fall of 1978. In a good way. My dad had picked me up from school (St. Thomas Aquinas – East Wichita, KS) in his Ice Blue Monte Carlo and together we trekked to David’s, the long shuttered department store in Wichita’s Parklane shopping mall. (I still recall the store’s ultra-catchy “D! A-V-I-D! Apostrophe S! – Come on into David’s!” ad jingle saturating local radio and television at the time.)

Nearing David’s and nearly hyperventilating with excitement, I was on the verge of buying my very first record album. Over the next few decades, I would accumulate well over a thousand records, cassettes, CDs and .mp3 singles. But Styx’s Pieces of Eight – the “Blue Collar Man” album, was my first record buy. And I do remember the event (to me it was an event given my life-long love of rock music and its history) like it was yesterday: the album’s plastic packaging, its glossy texture, the lemony smells of the store. All of it.

I had been on a mission to buy PoE ever since I heard “Renegade” on a Fourth Grade classmate’s K-Tel 8-track tape (showing my age alert!) a few weeks prior. The song was sandwiched between Amy Stewart’s “Knock on Wood” cover and Kansas’ “Point of No Return.” (That’s how much I listened to “Renegade” on my friend’s 8-track machine – I still remember – almost forty years later – the songs that both preceded and followed it with the same vividness as the song itself.)

PoE did not disappoint. Besides the mighty “Renegade,” some other choice PoE cuts include “Queen of Spades”, “Great White Hope,” and the title track. The aforementioned “Blue Collar Man,” still a rock radio staple and one of the most prominent in the Styx catalog, is yet another of PoE’s high-octane offerings. And so Styx became my favorite band. And I wore PoE out; listening to it on all days and at all hours.

Fast forward to the early 1980s and I was introduced to heavier fare like Maiden, Priest and Dio. My interest in Styx waned. I suspected, and peer pressure confirmed, that the band just wasn’t metal enough. Jump ahead a year or two when another classmate’s older brother played Into the Void‘s menacing and atonal intro and Black Sabbath (or “Sab” as metal aficianados are want to call them) quickly became (and would later become) my all-time favorite music group regardless of genre. Styx and bands like it were relegated to afterthought status.

But not before 1981’s Paradise Theater and one of its top tracks, “Too Much Time on My Hands” burst into the pop music consciousness. An FM stalwart and iconic Early MTV offering, TMTOMH’s vaguely disco-tinged beat and catchy hand claps still trigger nostalgia pangs. I remember roller skating (!!) to the song at Skate East and Traxx – two venerable Wichita roller skating venues that long ago succumbed to the wrecking ball and internal detonations.

In the song, Tommy Shaw, the diminutive lead guitarist and Alabaman (I think), laments the perils of idle time and fair-weather compadres (“I got! dozens of friends and the fun never ends, that is as long as I’m buying…”) and even sprinkles in an incongruous Commander-in-Chief aspiration. (“Is it any wonder I’m not the President?“) So memorable is TMTOMH’s video that even Jimmy Fallon, erstwhile SNL castmember and current Tonight Show host, gushed over it and did a verbatim sendup of the song with actor Paul “I Love You Man” Rudd.

I mention all this because today’s featured case – Forouzesh v. Starbucks Corp., (unfairly or not) reminds me of someone who clearly had…..tick tick tick (you guessed it)…. too much time on his hands.

The plaintiff, on his own and on behalf of all California residents who purchased a Starbucks cold drink in the past decade, sued the Seattle coffee titan for systemic fraud. He claimed Starbucks misrepresented the amount of fluid ounces in its cold drink offerings. Specifically, he claimed the coffee giant lied on its on-line menu about the amount of liquid in its drinks by underfilling its cups and adding ice to make the cups appear full. The plaintiff brought various common law and statutory fraud and breach of warranty claims in his lawsuit.

The California District Court dismissed the suit on Starbucks’ Rule 12(b)(6) motion. The Court noted that under Rule 8(a), a complaint must give a defendant fair notice of what a claim is and its basis. The complaint must meet a “plausibility standard” in which a complaint’s factual allegations are enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. A plaintiff must do more than simply allege labels, conclusions and a “formulaic recitation” of the elements of a given cause of action.

An action for fraud is subject to a more exacting pleading standard. Rule 9(b) requires a fraud plaintiff to allege underlying fraud facts with sharper specificity, including the time, place, persons involved, and content of the false statement.

Rejecting the plaintiff’s statutory consumer fraud and unfair competition claims, the Court found that a “reasonable consumer” would not likely be deceived by Starbucks’ website description of its cold drink measurements. Indeed, the Court held “but as young children learn, they can increase the amount of beverage they receive if they order “no ice.” Ouch?

And since young children could figure out that more ice means less liquid, the Court concluded that a reasonable consumer would not be deceived by Starbucks’ stated fluid ounce stats. Added support for the Court’s holding lay in the fact that Starbucks’ cold drink containers are clear. A consumer can clearly see that a given drink consists of both ice and liquid. If a consumer wants more liquid, he can simply order with “no ice.”

The Court’s finding of no deception also doomed the plaintiff’s common law fraud claims. It held that since a reasonable consumer would comprehend that Starbucks’ cold drinks contain both ice and liquid, the plaintiff could not establish either a misrepresentation by Starbucks or plaintiff’s justifiable reliance on it – two required fraud elements.

Lastly, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s state law breach of warranty claims. The Court found that Starbucks did not specifically state that its cold drinks contained a specific amount of liquid. All the coffee maker said – via its web page – was that it offered cold drinks for sale in various cup sizes (12 oz – Tall; 16 oz. – Grande, 24 oz. – Venti). Absent any specific allegations that Starbucks expressly or impliedly warranted that its cold drinks contained a specific amount of liquid, the plaintiff couldn’t make out a valid breach of warranty claim.

Afterwords: The plaintiffs’ failed fraud suit against Starbucks illustrates that while Federal pleading standards normally more relaxed than their State court counterparts, this isn’t so with fraud claims.

The plaintiff’s failure to pin a specific misstatement concerning Starbucks’ cold drink contents doomed his claims. The court also gives teeth to the reasonable consumer standard that applies to state law consumer protection statutes. Since the plaintiff was unable to show a reasonable consumer would have been deceived by Starbucks’ published cold drink measurements, the plaintiff’s unfair competition and consumer fraud actions failed.

Oh, and to bring things full-circle, I suppose I should report that neither Renegade norBlue Collar Man nor Too Much Time on My Hands is my favorite Styx tune. That honor goes to “Castle Walls” – the second or third song on Side 2 of 1977’s Grand Illusion album. Give it a listen. It’ll definitely cure what ails ya.

Tacking Unsigned Change Orders On To Contractors’ Lien Not Enough For Constructive Fraud – IL Court

Constructive mechanics lien fraud and slander of title are two central topics the appeals court grapples with in Roy Zenere Trucking & Excavating, Inc. v. Build Tech, Inc., 2016 IL App (3d) 140946.  There, a commercial properly developer appealed bench trial judgments for two subcontractor plaintiffs – a paving contractor and an excavating firm – on the basis that the plaintiffs’ mechanics liens were inflated and fraudulent.

The developer argued that since the subcontractors tried to augment the lien by adding unsigned change order work to it – and the contracts required all change orders to be in writing – this equaled that voided the liens.  The trial court disagreed and entered judgment for the plaintiff subcontractors.

Affirming the trial court’s judgment, the appeals court provides a useful summary of the type of proof needed to sustain constructive fraud and slander of title claims in the construction lien setting and when attorneys’ fees can be awarded to prevailing parties under Illinois’ mechanics lien statute, 770 ILCS 60/1 (the Act).

Section 7(a) of the Act provides that no lien shall be defeated to the proper amount due to an error of overcharging unless it is shown that the error or overcharge was made with an “intent to defraud.”  Constructive fraud (i.e., fraud that can’t be proven to be purposeful) can also invalidate a lien but there must be more than a simple overcharge in the lien claim.  The overage must be coupled with other evidence of fraud.

Slander of title applies where (1) a defendant makes a false and malicious publication, (2) the publication disparages the plaintiff’s title to property, and (3) damages.  “Malicious” in the slander of title context means knowingly false or that statements were made with a reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.  If a party has reasonable grounds to believe it has a legal or equitable claim to property, even if it’s later proven to be false, this won’t amount to a slander of title.

Here, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that there was no evidence to support a constructive fraud or slander of title claim.  The defendant property owner admitted that the subcontractor plaintiffs performed the contract as well as the extra change order work.

While the Court excluded the unsigned change order work from the lien amount, there was still insufficient constructive fraud or slander of title evidence to sustain the owner’s counterclaims.  Though unsuccessful in adding the change orders to the lien, the Court found the plaintiffs had a reasonable basis to recover the extra work in their lien foreclosure actions based on the parties’ contracting conduct where the owner routinely paid extras without signed change orders.

The Court then examined whether the subcontractors could add their attorneys’ fees to the judgment.  Section 17(b) of the Act allows a court to assess attorneys’ fees against a property owner who fails to pay “without just cause or right.”  This equates to an owner raising a defense not “well grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.”  770 ILCS 60/17(b), (d).

The evidence at trial that the subcontractors substantially performed the paving and excavation work cut in favor of awarding fees to the plaintiffs.  There was no evidence to support the owner defendant’s failure to pay the subcontract amounts.  The Court held that this lack of a colorable basis not to pay the subcontractors was “without just cause or right” under the Act.

Afterwords:

1/ Constructive fraud requires more than a computational error in the lien amount.  There must be other “plus-factor” evidence that combines with the overcharge;

2/ Where a contractor has reasonable basis for lien claim, it will be impossible for plaintiff to meet the malicious publication requirement of a slander of title claim;

3/ This case is pro-contractor as it gives teeth to the Mechanics’ Lien Statute’s fee-shifting section.

 

 

Indy Skyline Photo Spat At Heart Of 7th Circuit’s Gloss on Affirmative Defenses, Res Judicata and Fed. Pleading Amendments – Bell v. Taylor (Part I)

Litigation over pictures of the Indianapolis skyline form the backdrop for the Seventh Circuit’s recent examination of the elements of a proper affirmative defense under Federal pleading rules and the concept of ‘finality’ for res judicata purposes in Bell v. Taylor.

There, several small businesses infringed plaintiff’s copyrights in two photographs of downtown Indianapolis: one taken at night, the other in daytime.  The defendants – an insurance company, a realtor, and a computer repair firm – all used at least one the plaintiff’s photos on company websites.  When the plaintiff couldn’t prove damages, the District Court granted summary judgment for the defendants and later dismissed a second lawsuit filed by the plaintiff against one of the defendants based on the same facts.  The plaintiff appealed.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment of the first lawsuit and dismissal of the second action on both procedural and substantive grounds.

Turning to the claims against the computer company defendant, the court noted that the defendant denied using the plaintiff’s daytime photo.  The defendant used only the nighttime photo.  The plaintiff argued that the defendant failed to comply with Rule 8(b) by not asserting facts to support its denial that it used plaintiff’s daytime photo.

Rejecting this argument, the court noted that a proper affirmative defense limits or excuses a defendant’s liability even where the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case.  If the facts that underlie an affirmative defense are proven true, they will defeat the plaintiff’s claim even if all of the complaint allegations are true.  A defendant’s contesting a plaintiff’s factual allegation is not an affirmative defense.  It is instead a simple denial.  Since the computer defendant denied it used the daytime photo, there was no affirmative matter involved and the defendant didn’t have to comply with Rule 8’s pleading requirements.

The Seventh Circuit also affirmed the denial of the plaintiff’s attempt to amend his complaint several months after pleadings closed.  In Federal court, the right to amend pleadings is broad but not absolute.  Where allowing an amendment would result in undue delay or prejudice to the opposing party, a court has discretion to refuse a request to amend a complaint.  FRCP 15(a)(2).  Here, the Court agreed with the lower court that the plaintiff showed a lack of diligence by waiting until well after the amending pleadings deadline passed.  The plaintiff’s failure to timely seek leave to amend its complaint supported the court’s denial of its motion.

The Court also affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s second lawsuit on res judicata grounds.  When the District Court entered summary judgment for defendants on plaintiff’s copyright and state law claims (conversion, unfair competition), plaintiff’s equitable relief claims (declaratory judgment and injunctive relief) were pending.  Because of this, the summary judgment order wasn’t final for purposes of appeal.  (Plaintiff could only appeal final orders – and until the court disposed of the equitable claims, the summary judgment order wasn’t final and appealable.)

Still, finality for res judicata purposes is different from appellate finality.  An order can be final and have preclusive effect under res judicata or collateral estoppel even where other claims remain.  This was the case here as plaintiff’s sole claim against the computer company defendant was for copyright infringement.  The pending equitable claims were directed to other defendants.  So the District Court’s summary judgment order on plaintiff’s copyright infringement claims was final as to the computer defendant.  This finality triggered res judicata and barred the plaintiff’s second lawsuit on the same facts.

Afterwords:

The case’s academic value lies in its thorough summary of the pleading requirements for affirmative defenses and the factors guiding a court when determining whether to permit amendments to pleadings.  The case also stresses that finality for appeal purposes is not the same as for res judicata or collateral estoppel.  If an order disposes of a plaintiff’s claims against one but not all defendants, the order is still final as to that defendant and the plaintiff will be precluded from later filing a second lawsuit against that earlier victorious defendant.

Three-Year Limitations Period Governs Bank Customer’s Suit for Misapplied Deposits – IL First Dist.

Now we can add PSI Resources, LLC v. MB Financial Bank (2016 IL App (1st) 152204) to the case canon of decisions that harmonize conflicting statutes of limitations and show how hard it is for a corporate account holder to successfully sue its bank.

The plaintiff, an assignee of three related companies**, sued the companies’ bank for misapplying nearly $400K in client payments over a several-year period.  The bank moved to dismiss, arguing that plaintiff’s suit was time-barred by the three-year limitations period that governs actions based on negotiable instruments.***  The court dismissed the complaint and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

The key question was whether the Uniform Commercial Code’s three-year limitations period for negotiable instrument claims or the general ten-year period for breach of written contract actions applied to the plaintiff’s negligence suit against the bank.  The issue was outcome-determinative since the plaintiff didn’t file suit until more than three years passed from the most recent misapplied check.

Illinois applies a ten-year limitations period for actions based on breach of written contract.  735 ILCS 5/13-206.  By contrast, an action based on a negotiable instrument is subject to the shorter three-year period.  810 ILCS 5/4-111.

If the subject of a lawsuit is a negotiable instrument, the UCC’s three-year time period applies since UCC Article 4 actions based on conversion and Article 3 suits for improper payment both involve negotiable instruments.  810 ILCS 5/3-118(g)(conversion); 810 ILCS 5/4-111 (improper payment).

Rejecting plaintiff’s argument that this was a garden-variety breach of contract action to which the ten-year period attached, the court held that since plaintiff’s claims were essentially based on banking transactions, the three-year limitations period for negotiable instruments governed. (¶¶ 36-38)

Where two statutes of limitations arguably apply to the same cause of action, the statute that more specifically relates to the claim applies over the more general statute.  While the ten-year statute for breach of written contracts is a general, “catch-all” limitations period, section 4-111’s three-year rule more specifically relates to a bank’s duties and obligations to its customers.

And since the three-year rule was more specific as it pertained to the plaintiff’s improper deposit and payment claims, the shorter limitations period controlled and plaintiff’s suit was untimely.

The court also sided with the bank on policy grounds.  It stressed that the UCC aims to foster fluidity and efficiency in commercial transactions.  If the ten-year period applied to every breach of contract action against a bank (as plaintiff argued), the UCC’s goal of promoting commercial finality and certainty would be frustrated and possibly bog down financial deals.

The other plaintiff’s argument rejected by the court was that the discovery rule saved the plaintiff’s lawsuit.  The discovery rule protects plaintiffs who don’t know they are injured.  It suspends (tolls) the limitations period until a plaintiff knows or should know he’s been hurt.  The discovery rule standard is not subjective certainty (“I now realize I have been harmed,” e.g.).  Instead, the rule is triggered where “the injured person becomes possessed of sufficient information concerning his injury and its cause to put a reasonable person on inquiry to determine whether actionable conduct is involved.” (¶ 47)

Here, the evidence was clear that plaintiff’s assigning companies received deposit statements on a monthly basis for a several-year period.  And the monthly statements contained enough information to put the companies on notice that the bank may have misapplied deposits.  According to the court, these red flags should have motivated the plaintiff to dig deeper into the statements’ discrepancies.

Take-aways:

This case suggests that an abbreviated three-year limitations period applies to claims based on banking transactions; even if a written contract – like an account agreement – is the foundation for a plaintiff’s action against a bank.  A plaintiff with a possible breach of contract suit against his bank should take great care to sue within the three-year period when negotiable instruments are involved.

Another case lesson is that the discovery rule has limits.  If facts exist to put a reasonable person on notice that he may have suffered financial harm, he will be held to a shortened limitations period; regardless of whether he has actual knowledge of harm.

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**  The court took judicial notice of the Illinois Secretary of State’s corporate registration database which established that the three assigned companies shared the same registered agent and business address.

*** 810 ILCS 5/3-104 (“negotiable instrument” means an unconditional promise or order to pay a fixed amount of money, with or without interest or other charges described in the promise or order, if it: (1) is payable to bearer or to order at the time it is issued or first comes into possession of a holder (2) is payable on demand or at a definite time; and (3) does not state any other undertaking or instruction by the person promising or ordering payment to do any act in addition to the payment of money, but the promise or order may contain (i) an undertaking or power to give, maintain, or protect collateral to secure payment, (ii) an authorization or power to the holder to confess judgment or realize on or dispose of collateral, or (iii) a waiver of the benefit of any law intended for the advantage or protection of an obligor.)

 

Six-year Delay in Asking For Earnest Money Back Too Long – IL Court Applies Laches Defense

Earlier this year, an Illinois appeal court examined the equitable defense of laches in an earnest money dispute between two contracting parties and former friends.  Derived from an archaic French word – laschesse – meaning “dilatory,” laches applies where a plaintiff sits on his legal rights to the point where it’s unfair to make a defendant mount a defense to the delayed claim.

The 2005 real estate contract at issue in Gardner v. Dolak, 2016 IL App (3d) 140848-U fell through and at different points in 2009 and 2011, the plaintiff buyer asked for her $55,000 deposit back.  The seller’s exclusive remedy for a buyer breach was retention of the buyer’s earnest money.

The contract also set specific deadlines for the plaintiff to complete a flood plain study and topographical survey.  When the plaintiff failed to meet the deadlines, the sale fell through.  Plaintiff sued when the Defendant refused to refund the earnest money deposit.

After a bench trial, the trial court entered judgment for the seller defendant on the basis that the plaintiff waited too long to sue and the delay in suing prejudiced the defendant.

The appeals court affirmed and sketched the contours of the laches doctrine:

  • Laches is an equitable doctrine that prevents a party from asserting a claim where he unreasonably delayed pursuing the claim and the delay misled or prejudiced his opponent;
  • Laches is based on the principle that courts will not aid a party who has knowingly sat on his rights that could have been asserted earlier;
  • To win a laches defense, the defendant must show (1) plaintiff lacked diligence in presenting his claim, and (2) the plaintiff’s delay resulted in prejudice;
  • The mere passage of time is not enough though; the defendant must show prejudice or hardship on top of the chronological delay;
  • In the context of real estate, wide property value fluctuations that harm the party claiming laches is evidence of prejudice that will support a finding of laches;
  • A party can successfully assert laches where the plaintiff remains passive and the defendant incurs risk, enters into obligations, or makes monetary expenditures.

Agreeing that the evidence supported the laches finding, the appeals court pointed out that plaintiff didn’t notify the defendant she wasn’t going through with the purchase until 6 years after the contract was signed.  During this six years, the value of the property declined markedly and the seller defendant spent considerable funds to maintain the property.

Taken together, the passage of time between contract execution (2005) and plaintiff’s lawsuit (2011) and measurable prejudice (based on the property’s drop in value) to the seller defendant was enough to support the trial court’s laches judgment.

Afterwords:

This case presents a straightforward summary of laches in the real estate context.  The party claiming laches must show more than mere passage of time between the claimed injury and the lawsuit filing date.  He must also demonstrate changed financial position as a result of the lapse of time.

Here, the property’s precipitous drop in value in the six years between contract’s execution and termination was a key factor cementing the court’s laches finding.  The question I had after reading this was what if the value of the property doubled or tripled in the interim 5 years?  Would the defendant still be able to prove laches?  Maybe so but that would be a harder sell.  The defendant would need to show the amount he spent maintaining the property over the six years exceeded the increase in property value.

 

Zero Dollars Settlement Still in ‘Good Faith’ In Corporate Embezzlement Case – IL 1st Dist.

Upon learning that its former CEO stole nearly a million dollars from it, the plaintiff marketing firm in Adgooroo, LLC v. Hechtman, 2016 IL App (1st) 142531-U, sued its accounting firm for failing to discover the multi-year embezzlement scheme.

The accounting firm in turn brought a third-party action against the plaintiff’s bank for not properly monitoring the corporate account and alerting the plaintiff to the ex-CEO’s dubious conduct.

When the bank and plaintiff agreed to settle for zero dollars, the court granted the bank’s motion for a good-faith finding and dismissed the accounting firm’s third-party complaint.  The accounting firm appealed.  It argued that the bank’s settlement with the plaintiff deprived it (the accounting firm) of its contribution rights against the bank and that the settlement was void on the basis of fraud and collusion.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court and discussed the factors a court considers in deciding whether a settlement is made in good faith and releases a settling defendant from further liability in a lawsuit.

The Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (740 ILCS 100/1 et seq.) tries to promote two policies: (1) encouraging settlements, and (2) ensuring that damages are assigned equitably among joint wrongdoers.  The right of contribution exists where 2 or more persons are liable arising from the same injury to person or property.  A tortfeasor who settles in good faith with the injured plaintiff is discharged from contribution liability to a non-settling defendant.  740 ILCS 100/2(c).

Here, the underlying torts alleged by the plaintiff were negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and civil conspiracy.

A settlement is deemed not in good faith if there is wrongful conduct, collusion or fraud between the settling parties.  However, the mere disparity between a settlement amount and the damages sought in a lawsuit is not an accurate measure of a settlement’s good faith.

Illinois courts note that a small settlement amount won’t necessarily equal bad faith since trial results are inherently speculative and unpredictable.  The law is also clear that settlements are designed to benefit non-settling parties.  If a non-settling party’s position is worsened by another party’s settlement, then so be it: this is viewed as “the consequence of a refusal to settle.”  (¶¶ 22-24).

A settling party bears the initial burden of making a preliminary showing of good faith.  Once this showing is made, the burden shifts to the objecting party to show by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e. more likely than not), the absence of good faith.  The court applies a fact-based totality of circumstances approach in deciding whether a settlement meets the good faith standard.

For a settlement to meet the good faith test, money doesn’t have to change hands.  This is because a promise to compromise a disputed claim or not to sue is sufficient consideration for a settlement agreement.

Here, the fact that plaintiff’s corporate resolutions required it to indemnify the bank against any third-party claims, subjected the plaintiff to liability for the third-party bank’s defense costs.  The bank’s possible exposure was a judgment against it for the accounting firm.  As a result, the marketing company and bank both benefited from the settlement and there was sufficient consideration supporting their mutual walk-away.

Take-aways:

This case sharply illustrates the harsh results that can flow from piecemeal settlement.  On its face, the settlement seems unfair to the accounting firm defendant: the plaintiff settled with the third-party defendant who then gets dismissed from the lawsuit for no money.  However, under the law, a promise for a promise not to sue is valid consideration in light of the inherent uncertainty connected with litigation.

The case also spotlights broad disclaimer language in account agreements between banks and corporate customers as well as indemnification language in corporate resolutions.  It’s clear here that the liability limiting language in the deposit agreement and resolutions doubly protected the bank, giving plaintiff extra impetus to settle.

 

Condo Buyer’s Illness Not Enough to Make Closing ‘Impossible’ – IL First District

An Illinois appeals court recently followed case precedent and narrowly construed the impossibility of performance and commercial frustration defenses in a failed real estate deal.

The parties in Ury v. DiBari, 2016 IL App (1st) 150277-U contracted for the sale and purchase of a (Chicago) Gold Coast condominium.  The contract called for a $55K earnest money payment and provided that the seller’s sole remedy in the event of buyer breach was retention of the buyer’s earnest money.

The seller sued when the buyer failed to close.  The buyer filed defenses saying it was impossible and commercially impractical for him to consummate the purchase due to a sudden serious illness he suffered right before the scheduled closing.  The Court rejected the defenses and entered summary judgment for the seller.  In doing so, the Court provides guidance on the nature and scope of the impossibility of performance and commercial frustration doctrines.

In the context of contract enforcement, parties generally must adhere to the negotiated contract terms.  Subsequent events – especially ones that are foreseeable – not provided for do not invalidate a contract.  The legal impossibility doctrine operates as an exception to the rule that holds parties to their contract obligations.

Legal impossibility applies where the continued existence of a particular person or thing is so necessary to the performance of the contract, it is viewed as an implied condition of the contract.  Death (of the person) or destruction (of the thing) excuses the other party’s performance.

The impossibility defense is applied sparingly and requires that a party’s performance be objectively impossible; not a subjective inconvenience or hardship.  Objective impossibility equates to “this can’t be done” while subjective impossibility is personal (“I cannot do this”) to the promisor.  A successful impossibility defense also requires the party to show it ” tried all practical alternatives available to permit performance.” (¶¶ 21-24, 29)

The defendant’s illness failed the law’s stringent test for objective impossibility.  His sickness was unique to him and therefore made closing only subjectively impossible.  The court pointed out that the condominium property was not destroyed and was still capable of being sold.

Another factor the court considered in rejecting the impossibility defense was that the defendant never tried to extend the closing date or sought accommodation for his illness.

The Court also discarded the defendant’s commercial frustration defense.  A party asserting commercial frustration must show that its performance under a contract is rendered meaningless due to an unforeseen change in circumstances.  Specifically, the commercially frustrated party has to demonstrate (1) the frustrating event was not reasonably foreseeable, and (2) the value of the party’s performance is totally destroyed by the frustrating cause.

Like with the failed impossibility defense, the claimed frustrating event – the buyer’s sickness – was foreseeable and did not destroy the subject matter of the contract.  Since the defendant’s weakened condition did not make the property worthless, there was no unforeseen frustrating event to give color to the buyer’s defense.

Afterwords:

1/ Impossibility of performance and commercial frustration are valid defenses but only in limited circumstances;

2/ Objective impossibility (“this can’t be done”) can relieve a party from contractual performance while subjective impossibility (“I can’t do this”) will not;

3/ Commercial frustration generally requires the contract’s subject matter be destroyed or rendered financially valueless to excuse a party from performance.

 

Judgment Creditor Can Recover Attorneys’ Fees Spent Pursuing Successful Veil Piercing Suit Versus Corporate Officers

Q:           Can a judgment creditor recover attorneys’ fees incurred in both its post-judgment discovery efforts after a default judgment against a defunct corporation and a subsequent piercing the corporate veil action to enforce the prior judgment where the contract with the defunct entity contains an attorneys’ fees provision?

A:            Yes.

That’s the salient and nuanced holding from Steiner Electric Company v. Maniscalco, 2016 IL App (1st) 132023, a case that’s a boon to creditor’s rights attorneys and corporate litigators.

There, the First District held in a matter of first impression that a plaintiff could recover fees in a later piercing the corporate veil suit where the underlying contract litigated to judgment in an earlier case against a corporation has an attorneys’ fees provision.

The plaintiff supplied electrical and generator components on credit over several years to a company owned by the defendant.  The governing document between the parties was a credit agreement that had a broad attorneys’ fees provision.

When the company defaulted by failing to pay for ordered and delivered equipment, the plaintiff sued and won a default judgment against the company for about $230K. After its post-judgment efforts came up empty, the plaintiff filed a new action to pierce the corporate veil hold the company president responsible for the earlier money judgment.

The trial court pierced the corporate veil and found the company president responsible for the money judgment against his company but declined to award plaintiff its attorneys’ fees generated in litigating the piercing action.

The First District affirmed the piercing judgment and reversed the trial court’s refusal to assess attorneys’ fees against the company President.

The Court first affirmed the piercing judgment on the basis that the company was inadequately capitalized (the company had a consistent negative balance), commingled funds with a related entity and the individual defendant and failed to follow basic corporate formalities (it failed to appoint any officers or document significant financial transactions).

In finding the plaintiff could recover its attorneys’ fees – both in the underlying suit and in the second piercing suit to enforce the prior judgment – the court stressed that piercing is an equitable remedy and not a standalone cause of action.  The court further refined its description of the piercing remedy by casting it as a means of enforcing liability on an underlying claim – such as the prior breach of contract action against the defendant’s judgment-proof company.

While a prevailing party in Illinois must normally pay its own attorneys’ fees, the fees can be shifted to the losing party where a statute or contract says so.  And there must be clear language in a contract for a court to award attorneys’ fees to a prevailing litigant.

Looking to Illinois (Fontana v. TLD Builders, Inc.), Seventh Circuit (Centerpoint v. Halim) (see write-up here and Colorado (Swinerton Builders v. Nassi) case precedent for guidance, the Court found that since the underlying contract – the Credit Agreement – contained expansive fee-shifting language, the plaintiff could recoup from the defendant the fees expended in both the first breach of contract suit against the company and the second, piercing case against the company president.  The Court echoed the Colorado appeals court’s (in Swinerton) depiction of piercing the corporate veil as a “procedural mechanism” to enforce an underlying judgment.

The combination of broad contractual fees language in the credit application and case law from different jurisdictions that fastened fee awards to company officers on similar facts led the First District to reverse the trial court and tax fees against the company president. (¶¶ 74-90)

Afterwords:

An important case and one that fee-seeking commercial litigators should look to for support of their recovery efforts.  A key lesson of Steiner is that broad, unequivocal attorneys’ fees language in a contract not only applies to an initial breach of contract suit against a dissolved company but also to a second, piercing lawsuit to enforce the earlier judgment against a company officer or controlling shareholder.

For the dominant shareholders of dissolved corporations, the case spells possible trouble since it upends the firmly entrenched principle that fee-shifting language in a contract only binds parties to the contract (not third parties).

Commercial Tenant’s Promise to Refund Broker Commissions Barred by Statute of Frauds – IL First Dist.

The plaintiff property owner in Peppercorn 1248 LLC v. Artemis DCLP, LLP, 2016 IL App (1st) 143791-U, sued a corporate tenant and its real estate brokers for return of commission payments where the tenant never took possession under a ten-year lease for a Chicago daycare facility.  Shortly after the lease was signed, the tenant invoked a licensing contingency and terminated the lease.

The lease conditioned tenant’s occupancy on the tenant securing the required City zoning and parking permits.  If the tenant was unable to obtain the licenses, it could declare the lease cancelled.  When the tenant refused to take possession, the plaintiff sued to recoup the commission payment.

Affirming summary judgment for the broker defendants, the Court addressed some recurring contract formation and enforcement issues prevalent in commercial litigation along with the “interference” prong of the tortious interference with contract claim.

In Illinois, where a contracting party is given discretion to perform a certain act, he must do so in good faith: the discretion must be exercised “reasonably,” with a “proper motive” and not “arbitrarily, capriciously or in a manner inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the parties.” (73-74)

Here, there was no evidence the tenant terminated the lease in bad faith.  It could not get the necessary permits and so was incapable of operating a daycare business on the site. 

Next, the court found the plaintiff’s claim for breach of oral contract (based on the brokers’ verbal promise to refund the commission payments) unenforceable under the Statute of Frauds’ (“SOF”) suretyship rule. A suretyship exists where one party, the surety, agrees to assume an obligation of another person, the principal, to a creditor of the principal.

The SOF bars a plaintiff’s claim that seeks to hold a third party responsible for another’s debt where the third party did not promise to pay the debt in writing.

An exception to this rule is the “main purpose” defense. This applies where the “main purpose” of an oral promise is to materially benefit or advance the promisor’s business interests.  In such a case, an oral promise to pay another’s debt can be enforced.

The court declined to apply the main purpose exception here.  It noted that the brokers’ commission payments totaled less than $70K on a 10-year lease worth $1.4M. The large disparity between the commission and total lease payments through the ten-year term cut against the plaintiff’s main- purpose argument.

The plaintiff sued the corporate tenant for failing to return the commission payments to the brokers. Since the tenant and the broker defendants were separate parties, any promise by the tenant to answer for the brokers’ debt had to be in writing (by the tenant) to be enforceable.

The court also upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s tortious interference count. (See here for tortious interference elements.)  A tortious interference with contract plaintiff must show, among other things, the defendant actively induced a breach of contract between plaintiff and another party.  However, the mere failure to act – without more – usually will not rise to the level of purposeful activity aimed at causing a breach.

The Court found one of the broker defendant’s alleged failure to help secure business permits for the tenant didn’t rise to the level of  intentional conduct that induced tenant’s breach of lease.  As a result, the plaintiff failed to offer evidence in support of the interference prong of its tortious interference claim sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Afterwords:

1/ A promise to pay another’s debt – a suretyship relationship – must be in writing to be enforceable under the SOF;

2/ A contractual relationship won’t give rise to a duty to disclose in a fraudulent concealment case unless there is demonstrated disparity in bargaining power between the parties;

3/ Tortious interference with contract requires active conduct that causes a breach of contract; a mere failure to act won’t normally qualify as sufficient contractual interference to be actionable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Buy Environmental Consulting Like a Pro: The Phase 1 ESA (A Guest Post)

Today’s Q & A guest post is courtesy of Winfield, Illinois’ A3 Environmental, LLC , a full-service environmental consulting and testing firm representing lenders, developers, private and governmental buyers and sellers of commercial and industrial properties across the country.  

A3’s contact information: (888) 405-1742 (phone); [email protected] (e-mail); contact: Alisa Allen and Tim Allen (www.a3environmental.com)(company web page). 

How to buy Environmental Consulting like a Pro: The Phase 1 ESA (Environmental Site Assessment)

Q: Who Pays For The Phase 1 ESA?

A: Like most real estate deals, it is negotiable. Typically, the party borrowing money is required by the bank to purchase the Phase 1 ESA as part of their due diligence.  A seller can commission their own Phase 1 ESA and provide it as part of their marketing materials to help speed a sale, but it is up to the buyer to make sure they have done their due diligence in order to qualify for liability protection under the innocent landowner defense.

Q:How Long Is A Phase 1 ESA Good For?

A: The Phase 1 ESA has a shelf life of six months (180 days). After six months, the Phase 1 ESA should be updated or a new one commissioned. The original consultant should complete the updated report and it should be less expensive than purchasing a new one. A buyer can rely upon a seller’s Phase 1 ESA, but they will not qualify for liability protection unless issued a reliance letter from the consultant who performed it. Costs for a reliance letter vary and are dependent upon the consultant.

Q: How Much Should A Phase 1 ESA Cost?

A: Different types of properties have different levels of complexity, which will be reflected in the price. An industrial property in an urban setting will be more difficult than a hotel built on a former cornfield. A simple Phase 1 ESA should start at less than $2,000.

Q: How Long Will A Phase 1 ESA Take To Complete?

A: The goal at A3 Environmental is to complete the Phase I ESA in two weeks. Other consultants typically take three to four weeks to complete a Phase 1 ESA. Properly done, a Phase 1 ESA will include an environmental database search, a historical records review, interviews, FOIA requests to appropriate entities, a site inspection, and a report that needs to be written by an environmental professional. Scheduling the site visit to coordinate with the on-site contact’s schedule and getting responses from FOIA requests are two things that can significantly prolong the process.

Q: Does The Bank Pick The Environmental Consultant?

A: Banks often pick the environmental consultant but pass the costs on to you.  They do this for two reasons: convenience and familiarity.  The problem with this arrangement is that the consultant isn’t accountable to the buyer; their client is the bank. Borrowers who shop for prices can often save themselves hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.  Most banks have their own ‘approved’ consultants and are commissioned before the buyer even knows it.   It’s important that your consultant be accountable to you, the buyer, because the risk you are taking and their associated costs are primarily yours. A3 Environmental is owned by Alisa Allen; a Licensed Professional Geologist, certified by the State of Illinois Office of Professional Regulation. A sample of our work can be provided upon request to any bank.

Q: What’s The Most Important Thing To Be On The Lookout For? Where Are You The Most Vulnerable?

To buy environmental consulting like a pro, there are two places to be on the lookout to guard against vulnerability. The first is to protect yourself against shoddy science. Make sure your consultant is familiar with the local area, is insured for errors and omissions, and has a track record of providing quality work product. The second, and possibly most important thing to guard against is the recommendation of further investigation, also known as a Phase 2 ESA. When getting ready to spend large sums of money the lender and buyer are both in vulnerable positions. Some consultants take advantage of this vulnerability and recommend a Phase 2 ESA when it may not be completely necessary. It’s difficult for banks and buyers to say no.

If a Phase 2 ESA is recommended, you can protect yourself by going back to the seller and renegotiating for them to pay some, or all, of the bill. Another way to protect yourself is to bid out any Phase 2 ESA work to your current consultant and other consultants in order to keep your consultant honest.  You can also get a second opinion from a different consultant, for a few hours of consulting time. The time and money you save can be well worth it. A3 Environmental would be happy to review a Phase 1 ESA report from consultants recommending a Phase 2 ESA. We offer a half hour of consulting time for free per project.

Q: What’s The Best Way To Save Money When Buying Environmental Consulting?

A: There are three ways to save money when buying environmental consulting services: (1) negotiate for the seller to pay for any possible investigation before you have a contract on the property; (2) don’t accept the bank’s environmental consultant; shop for pricing; (3) if further investigation is necessary, obtain several consulting proposals.

Q: What’s Your Best Advice?

A: Build a good relationship with one environmental consultant after you have done your initial research and a project or two. True, it’s important to hire a competitively priced consultant; however, having a solid relationship with a consultant you can call and have meaningful conversations, often at no charge, can be very valuable. If a consultant knows you are a reliable repeat buyer of environmental services they will work extra hard to be a trusted resource to help you save money, frustration and time.

Parting Thought:

This document is a complete listing of our best advice for purchasing environmental consulting. It’s a sample of the level of honesty, integrity and value we here at A3 Environmental live every day. We hope that you recognize this and consider us when choosing a trusted resource to achieve your goals.

Joint Mortgage Debt Means No Tenancy By Entirety Protection for Homeowners

The Illinois First District recently affirmed a mortgage foreclosure summary judgment for a plaintiff mortgage lender in a case involving the protection given to tenancy by the entirety (TBE) property.

In Marquette Bank v. Heartland Bank and Trust, 2015 IL App (1st) 142627, the main issue was whether a marital home was protected from foreclosure where it was owned by a land trust, the beneficiaries of which were a husband and wife; each owning beneficial interests TBE.

The defendants argued that since their home was owned by a land trust and they were the TBE beneficial owners of that land trust, the plaintiff could not foreclose its mortgage.

Affirming summary judgment, the appeals court examined the interplay between land trust law and how TBE property impacts judgment creditors’ rights.

The Illinois Joint Tenancy Act (765 ILCS 1005/1c) allows land trust beneficiaries to own their interests TBE and Code Section 12-112 (735 ILCS 5/12-112) provides that a TBE land trust beneficial interest “shall not be liable to be sold upon judgment entered….against only one of the tenants, except if the property was transferred into [TBE] with the sole intent to avoid the payment of debts existing at the time of the transfer beyond the transferor’s ability to pay those debts as they become due.”

TBE ownership protects marital residence property from a foreclosing creditor of only one spouse.  In TBE ownership, a husband and wife are considered a single unit – they each own 100% of the home – and the judgment creditors of one spouse normally can’t enforce a money judgment against the other spouse by forcing the home’s sale.

An exception to this rule is where property is conveyed into TBE solely to evade one spouse’s debt.  Another limitation on TBE protection is where both spouses are jointly liable on a debt.  In the joint debt setting, a judgment against one spouse will attach to the marital home and can be foreclosed on by the judgment creditor.

Code Section 12-112 provides that where property is held in a land trust and the trust’s beneficial owners are husband and wife, a creditor of only one of them can’t sell the other spouse’s beneficial land trust interest. 735 ILCS 5/12-112.

The Court rejected the defendants argument that as TBE land trust beneficiaries of the marital home, the spouse defendants were immune from foreclosure.  It noted that both spouses signed letters of direction authorizing the land trustee (owner) to mortgage the property, the mortgage documents allowed the plaintiff to foreclose in the event of default and empowered the lender to sell all or any part of the property. (¶¶ 16-18)

Summary Quick-Hits:

  • TBE property ownership protects an innocent spouse by saving the marital home from a judgment creditor’s foreclosure suit where only one spouse is liable on a debt;
  • A land trust beneficial interest is considered personal property and can be jointly owned in tenancy by the entirety;
  • Where spouses are jointly (both) liable on an underlying debt, TBE property can be sold to satisfy the joint debt.

 

Ill. Wage Payment and Collection Act Doesn’t Apply to NY and Cal. Corps. With Only Random Ill. Contacts

As worker mobility increases and employees working in one state and living in another almost an afterthought, questions of court jurisdiction over intrastate workplace relationships come to the fore.  Another issue triggered by a geographically nimble workforce is whether a non-resident can invoke the protections of another state’s laws.

Illinois provides a powerful remedial scheme for employees who are stiffed by their employers in the form of the Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (“Wage Act”).  See (here).  The Wage Act allows an employee to sue an employer for unpaid wages, bonuses or commissions where an employer breaches a written or oral employment contract.

The focal point of Cohan v. Medline Industries, Inc., 2016 WL 1086514 (N.D.Ill. 2016) is whether non-residents of Illinois can invoke the Wage Act against an Illinois-based employer for unpaid sales commissions.  The plaintiffs there, New York and California residents, sued their Illinois employer, for breach of various employment contract commission schedules involving the sale of medical devices.

The Northern District of Illinois held that the salespeople plaintiffs could not sue under Illinois’ Wage Act where their in-person contacts with Illinois were scarce.  The plaintiffs only entered Illinois for a few days a year as part of their employer’s mandatory sales training protocol.  All of the plaintiffs’ sales work was performed in their respective home states.

Highlights from the Court’s opinion include:

  •  The Wage Act doesn’t have “extraterritorial reach;” It’s purpose is to protect Illinois employees from being shorted compensation by their employers;
  • The Wage Act does protect non-Illinois residents who perform work in Illinois for an Illinois employer;
  • A plaintiff must perform “sufficient” work in Illinois to merit Wage Act protection;
  • There is no mechanical test to decide what is considered “sufficient” Illinois work to trigger the Wage Act protections;
  • The Wage Act only applies where there is an agreement – however informal – between an employer and employee;
  • The agreement required to trigger the Wage Act’s application doesn’t have to be formal or in writing. So long as there is a meeting of the minds, the Court will enforce the agreement;
  • The Wage Act does not cover employee claims to compensation outside of a written or oral agreement

Based on the plaintiffs’ episodic (at best) contacts with Illinois, the Court found that the Wage Act didn’t cover the plaintiffs’ unpaid commission claims.
Substantively, the Court found the Wage Act inapplicable as there was nothing in the various written employment agreements that supported the plaintiff’s damage calculations.  The plaintiffs’ relationship with the Illinois employer was set forth in multiple contracts that contained elaborate commission schedules.  Since the plaintiff’s claims sought damages beyond the scope of the written schedules, the Wage Act didn’t govern.
Take-aways:

1/ The Illinois Wage Act will apply to a non-resident of Illinois if he/she performs a sufficient quantum of work in Illinois;

2/ Scattered contacts with Illinois that are unrelated to a plaintiff’s job are not sufficient enough to qualify for a viable Wage Act lawsuit;

3/ While an agreement supporting a Wage Act claim doesn’t have to be in writing, there must be some agreement – no matter how unstructured or loose – for a plaintiff to have standing to sue for a Wage Act violation.

Corporate Five-Year Winding Up or “Survival” Period Has Harsh Results for Asbestos Injury Plaintiffs – Illinois Court

An Illinois appeals court recently considered the interplay between the corporate survival statute, 805 ILCS 5/12.80 (the “Survival Act”), which governs lawsuits against dissolved corporations) and when someone can bring a direct action against another person’s liability insurer.

The personal injury plaintiffs in Adams v. Employers Insurance Company of Wasau, 2016 IL App (3d) 150418 sued their former employer’s successor for asbestos-related injuries. Plaintiffs also sued the former company’s liability insurers for a declaratory ruling that their claims were covered by the policies.

The former employer dissolved in 2003 and plaintiffs filed suit in 2011. The plaintiffs alleged the dissolved company’s insurance policies transferred to the shareholders and the corporate successor. The insurers moved to dismiss on the basis that the plaintiff’s suit was untimely under the Survival Act’s five-year winding up (“survival”) period to sue dissolved companies and because Illinois law prohibits direct actions against insurers by non-policy holders.

Affirming dismissal of the suit against the insurers, the court considered the scope of the Survival Act and whether its five-year repose period (the time limit to sue a defunct company) can ever be relaxed.

The Survival Act allows a corporation to sue or be sued up to five years from the date of dissolution. The suit must be based on a pre-dissolution debt and the five-year limit applies equally to individual corporate shareholders.  The statute tries to strike a balance between allowing lawsuits to be brought by or against a dissolved corporation and still setting a definite end date for a corporation’s liability. The five-year time limit for a corporation to sue or be sued represents the legislature’s determination that a corporation’s liability must come to and end at some point.

Exceptions to the Survival Act’s five-year repose period apply where a shareholder is a direct beneficiary of a contract and where the amount claimed is a “fixed, ascertainable sum.”

The Court held that since the plaintiffs didn’t file suit until long after the five-year repose period expired, and no shareholder direct actions were involved, the plaintiffs’ claims against the dissolved company (the plaintiffs’ former employer) were too late.

Illinois law also bans direct actions against insurance companies. The policy reason for this is to prevent a jury in a personal injury suit from learning that a defendant is insured and eliminate a jury’s temptation to award a larger verdict under the “deep pockets” theory (to paraphrase: “since defendant is protected by insurance, we may as well hit him with a hefty verdict.”)

The only time a direct action is allowed is where the question of coverage is entirely separate from the issue of the insured’s liability and damages. Where a plaintiff’s claim combines liability, damages and coverage, the direct action bar applies (the plaintiff cannot sue someone else’s insurer).

Here, the plaintiffs’ coverage claim was intertwined with the former employer’s (the dissolved entity) liability to the plaintiffs.  As a result, the plaintiffs action was an impermissible direct action against the dissolved company’s insurers.

Take-aways:

The Case starkly illustrates how unforgiving a statutory repose period is.  While the plaintiff’s injuries here were substantial, the Court made it clear it had to follow the law and that where the legislature has spoken – as it had by enacting the Survival Act – the Court must defer to it. Otherwise, the court encroaches on the law-making function of the legislature.

Another case lesson is that plaintiffs who have claims against dissolved companies should do all they can to ensure their claims are filed within the five-year post-dissolution period.  Otherwise, they risk having their claims time-barred.

 

Debtor’s Refusal to Return Electronic Data = Embezzlement – No Bankruptcy Discharge – IL ND

FNA Group, Inc. v. Arvanitis, 2015 WL 5202990 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2015) examines the tension between the bankruptcy code’s aim of giving a financial fresh start to a debtor and the Law’s attempt to protect creditors from underhanded debtor conduct to avoid his debts.

After a 15-year employment relationship went sour, the plaintiff power washing company sued a former management-level employee when he failed to turn over confidential company property (the “Data”) he had access to during his employment.

After refusing a state court judge’s order to turn over the Data and an ensuing civil contempt finding, the defendant filed bankruptcy.

The plaintiff filed an adversary complaint in the bankruptcy case alleging the defendant’s (now the debtor) embezzlement and wilfull injury to company Data.

The plaintiff asked the bankruptcy court to find that the debtor’s obligations to the plaintiff were not dischargeable (i.e. could not be wiped out).

Siding with the plaintiff, the Court provides a useful discussion of the embezzlement and the wilfull and malicious injury bankruptcy discharge exceptions.

The bankruptcy code’s discharge mechanism aims to give a debtor a fresh start by relieving him of pre-petition debts. Exceptions to the general discharge rule are construed strictly against the creditor and liberally in favor of the debtor.

Embezzlement under the bankruptcy code means the “fraudulent appropriation of property” by a person to whom the property was entrusted or to whom the property was lawfully transferred at some point.

A creditor who seeks to invoke the embezzlement discharge exception must show: (1) the debtor appropriated property or funds for his/her benefit, and (2) the debtor did so with fraudulent intent.

Fraudulent intent in the embezzlement context means “without authorization.” 11 U.S.C. s. 523(a)(4).

The Court found the creditor established all embezzlement elements. First, the debtor was clearly entrusted with the Data during his lengthy employment tenure. The debtor also appropriated the Data for his own use – as was evident by his emails where he threatened to destroy the Data or divulge its contents to plaintiff’s competitors.

Finally, the debtor lacked authorization to hold the Data after his resignation based on a non-disclosure agreement he signed where he acknowledged all things provided to him remained company property and had to be returned when he left the company.

By holding the Data hostage to extract a better severance package, the debtor exhibited a fraudulent intent.

The court also refused to allow a debtor discharge based on the bankruptcy code’s exception for willful and malicious injury. 11 U.S.C. s. 523(a)(6).

An “injury” under this section equates to the violation of another’s personal or property rights. “Wilfull” means an intent to injure the person’s property while “malicious” signals a conscious disregard for another’s rights without cause.

Here, the debtor injured the plaintiff by refusing to release the Data despite a (state) court order requiring him to do so. Plaintiff spent nearly $200,000 reconstructing the stolen property and retaining forensic experts and lawyers to negotiate the Data’s return.

Lastly, the debtor’s threatening e-mails to plaintiff in efforts to coerce the plaintiff to up its severance payment was malicious under Section 523 since the e-mails exhibited a disregard for the importance of the Data and its integrity.

Take-aways:

The bankruptcy law goal of giving a debtor fiscal breathing room has limits. If the debtor engages in intentional conduct aimed at evading creditors or furthers a scheme of lying to the bankruptcy court, his pre-petition debts won’t be discharged.

This case is post-worthy as it gives content to the embezzlement and wilfull and malicious property damage discharge exceptions.

Bank Escapes Liability Where It Accepts Two-Party Check With Only One Indorsement – IL ND

BBCN Bank v. Sterling Fire Restoration, Ltd., 2016 WL 691784 zeroes in on some signature commercial litigation issues – namely, (i) the required showings to win a motion for judgment on the pleadings and summary judgment in Federal court, (ii) the scope of a general release, and (iii) the parameters of the UCC section governing joint payee or “two-party” checks.

The plaintiff – who was assigned a cause of action by a fire restoration company (the “Assignor”) that did repair work on a commercial structure – sued two bank defendants under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) for accepting a two party check (the “Check”) where only one payee indorsed it. The Assignor was a payee on the Check but never indorsed it before the banks accepted and paid out on it.

The banks moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s UCC claims on the basis that the Assignor previously released all of its claims to the Check proceeds in a prior lawsuit.  The Assignor in turn moved for judgment on the pleadings on the banks’ third-party action which sought indemnification from the Assignor for any damages assessed against the banks in the current lawsuit.

Result: Bank defendants’ motions for summary judgment granted; Assignor’s judgment on the pleadings motion (on the banks’ third-party indemnification claims) denied.

Rules/Reasons:

FRCP 12(c) governs motions for judgment on the pleadings.  A party can move for judgment on the pleadings after the complaint and answer have been filed.  When deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court considers only the contents of the filed pleadings – including the complaint, answer, and complaint exhibits.  Like a summary judgment motion, a motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted only if there are no genuine issues of material fact to be resolved at trial.

FRCP 56 governs summary judgment motions.  A party opposing a summary judgment must “pierce” (go beyond) the pleadings and point to evidence in the record (depositions, discovery responses, etc.) that creates a genuine factual dispute that must be decided after a trial on the merits.

UCC section 3-110 applies to checks with multiple payees.  It provides that if an instrument is jointly payable to 2 or more persons (not “alternatively”), it can only be negotiated, discharged or enforced by all of the payees.  810 ILCS 5/3-110(d).

Here, since both payees did not sign the Check, the banks plainly violated section 3-110 by accepting and paying it.  The Check was payable to two parties and only one signed it.

The banks still escaped liability though since the Assignor (the restoration company) previously released its claims to the Check proceeds against the bank.  In Illinois, a general release bars all claims a signing party (the releasor) has actual knowledge of or that he could have discovered upon reasonable inquiry.

Here, the Assignor’s prior release of the bank defendants bound the plaintiff since an assignee cannot acquire any greater rights to something than its assignor has.

Since the plaintiff’s claim against the banks were previously released by the Assignor, the plaintiff could not pursue its Check claims against the banks. As a consequence, summary judgment entered for the banks.

The Assignor’s motion for judgment on the pleadings against the banks third-party claims was denied due to the presence of factual disputes.  Since the court could not tell whether the Assignor misrepresented that it had assigned its claim to the Check by looking only at the banks’ third-party complaint and the Assignor’s answer, there were disputed facts that could only be decided after a trial.

Take-aways:

  • Motions for judgment on the pleadings and summary judgment motions will be denied if there is a genuine factual dispute for trial;
  • A summary judgment opponent (respondent) must produce evidence (not simply allegations in pleadings) to show that there are disputed facts that can only be decided on a full trial on the merits;
  • The right remedy for a UCC 3-110 violation is a conversion action under UCC section 3-420;
  • In sophisticated commercial transactions, a broadly-worded release will be enforced as written.

 

Third Party Enforcement of A Non-Compete and Trade Secret Pre-emption – IL Law

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In Cronimet Holdings v. Keywell Metals, LLC, 2014 WL 580414 (N.D.Ill. 2014), the Northern District of Illinois considers whether a non-compete contract is enforceable by a stranger to that contract as well as trade secret pre-emption of other claims.

Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiff, who previously signed a non-disclosure agreement with a defunct metal company (the “Target Company”) it was considering buying, filed a declaratory action against a competitor (“Competitor”) requesting a ruling that the non-disclosure agreement and separate non-competes signed by the Target Company’s employees were not enforceable by the competitor who bought  the Target Company’s assets. The NDA and non-competes spanned 24 months.

The plaintiff moved to dismiss eight of the ten counterclaims filed by the Competitor.  It argued the Competitor lacked standing to enforce the non-competes and that its trade secrets counterclaim (based on the Illinois Trade Secrets Act, 765 ILCS 1065/1 (“ITSA”)) pre-empted several of the tort counterclaims.

In gutting most (8 out of 10) of the counterclaims, the court applied the operative rules governing when non-competes can be enforced by third parties:

 Illinois would likely permit the assignment of a non-compete to a third party;

Enforcing a non-compete presupposes a legitimate business interest to be protected;

– A legitimate business interest is a fact-based inquiry that focuses on whether there is (i) a “near-permanence” in a customer relationship, (ii) the company’s interest in a stable work force , (iii) whether a former employee acquired confidential information and (iv) whether a given non-compete has valid time and space restrictions;

A successor corporation can enforce confidentiality agreements signed by a predecessor (acquired) corporation where the acquired corporation merges into the acquiring one;

– A successor in interest is one who follows an original owner in control of property and who retains the same rights as the original owner;

– The ITSA pre-empts (displaces) conflicting or redundant tort claims that are based on a defendant’s misappropriation of trade secrets;

– Claims for unjust enrichment, quasi-contract relief or unfair competition are displaced by the ITSA where the claims essentially allege a trade secrets violation;

– The ITSA supplants claims that involve information that doesn’t rise to the level of a trade secret (e.g. not known to others and kept under ‘lock-and-key’);

(**4-5).

The court found that since a bankruptcy court (in the Target Company’s bankruptcy) previously ruled that the Competitor didn’t purchase the non-competes, and wasn’t the Target Company’s successor, the Competitor lacked standing to enforce the non-competes.

The Court also held that once the Target Company stopped doing business, its non-competes automatically lapsed since it no longer had any secret data or customers to protect.

The Court also agreed that the Company’s ITSA claim pre-empted its claims that asserted plaintiff was wrongfully using the Target Company’s secret data.  The court even applied ITSA pre-emption to non-trade secret information.  It held that so long as the information sought to be protected in a claim was allegedly secret, any non-ITSA claims based on that information were pre-empted.

Afterwords:

(1) A non-compete can likely be assigned to a third party;

(2) Where the party assigning a non-compete goes out of business, the assignor no longer has a legitimate business interest to protect; making it hard for the assignee to enforce the non-compete;

(3) ITSA, the Illinois trade secrets statute, will displace (pre-empt) causes of action or equitable remedies (unjust enrichment, unfair competition, etc.) that are based on a defendant’s improper use of confidential information – even where that information  doesn’t rise to the level of a trade secret.

No Punitive Damages Allowed In Statutory Replevin Action – IL 2d District

In Sensational Four, Inc. v. Tri-Par Die and Mold Corporation, 2016 IL App (2d) 150468, the food company plaintiff filed a replevin action against a manufacturer to recover  plaintiff’s injection molding equipment used to make jars and lids.

When the defendant failed to return plaintiff’s equipment despite a court replevin order to do so, plaintiff filed a rule to show cause motion and amended its complaint to assert various tort and contract claims.

The trial court claim found for the plaintiff after a bench trial and assessed punitive damages of $100,000 against the defendant for its “egregious” and malicious refusal to return the plaintiff’s equipment.  The defendant appealed on the basis that its due process rights were violated by the punitive damage award.

Held: Reversed.

Rules/Reasons:

Punitive damages aren’t favored in Illinois. Their purpose is to punish a defendant and deter others from acting with willful disregard for others’ rights.

Replevin is a statutory proceeding that requires a plaintiff to follow the replevin statute’s (see 735 ILCS 5/19-101, et seq.) provisions to the letter.

When construing a statute, a court looks first to the statutory language to divine the legislature’s intent.  And courts generally should not graft language on to a silent statute since this encroaches on the legislature’s drafting role.

Some statutes explicitly provide for punitive damages while others implicitly allow them. See Public Utilities Act (punitive damages expressly allowed); Nursing Home Care Act (implied punitives allowed where statute references “any other type of relief”). (¶ 25)

The Illinois replevin statute says nothing about punitive damages. It allows a plaintiff to recover damages sustained by the wrongful detention of the property in question along with costs and expenses related to the replevin. 735 ILCS 5/19-101, 120, 125. (¶¶ 26-28).  Nowhere does the statute mention punitive damages.

The Court reversed the punitive damage award since the replevin statute doesn’t explicitly allow punitive damages.  The Court noted that the legislature could have easily provided for a punitive damages remedy in the statute’s text if that was its intent.

Take-aways:

This case serves as a straight-forward example of a court refusing to inject meaning into a statute whose text is clear.  Where a statute doesn’t specifically allow for punitive damages, a plaintiff will have difficulty convincing a court to award them.  By contrast, if the statutory language is open-ended, like the Nursing Home Care Act’s “any other type of relief” language, a plaintiff may have a claim for punitive damages if it can prove a defendant’s intentional and extreme conduct.

Seventh Circuit Jettisons Software Firm’s Computer Fraud Case – No Damages Evidence

Earlier this year, the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for a real estate analytics company sued by a software firm who claimed the company was pilfering on-line land records.

The plaintiff in Fidlar Technologies v. LPS Real Estate Data Solutions, 810 F.3d 1075 (7th Cir. 2016) developed a software program called “Laredo” that computerized real estate records and made them available to viewers for a fee.  The plaintiff sued when it found out that the defendant was using a web harvester to bypass plaintiff’s software controls and capture the electronic records.  The defendant’s harvester allowed it to disguise the amount of time it was spending on-line and so avoid paying print fees associated with the electronic data. 

The Computer Fraud And Abuse Act (CFAA) Claim

The Court found the was a lack of evidence to support plaintiff’s Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) claim as plaintiff could not show the defendant’s “intent to defraud” or “damage” under the CFAA. See CFAA, 18 U.S.C. s. 1030.

CFAA: Intent to Defraud (18 U.S.C. s. 1030(a)(4)

The CFAA defines an intent to defraud as acting “willfully and with specific intent to deceive or cheat, usually for the purpose of getting financial gain for one’s self or causing financial loss to another.” An intent to defraud can be shown by circumstantial evidence since direct intent evidence is typically unavailable.

The Court credited the defendant’s sworn testimony that printing real estate records was a minor part of its business and that it did pay maximum monthly access fees for computerized real estate data.  

The defendant also produced evidence that it used its harvester not only in fee-charging counties, but also in those that didn’t charge at all.  This bolstered its argument that the harvester’s fee-avoidance was an unintended consequence of the defendant’s program.

Finally, the Court noted that defendant’s agreements with the various county offices (which made the real estate data available) didn’t expressly prohibit the use of a web harvester. These factors all weighed against finding intentional conduct under the CFAA by the defendant analytics company.

CFAA: Transmission and Damage Claim (18 U.S.C. s. 1030(a)(5)(a)

The Seventh Circuit also rejected the plaintiff’s CFAA transmission claim; echoing the District Court’s cramped construction of the CFAA.  The Court described the CFAA’s aim as punishing those who access computers in order to delete, destroy, or disable information.

“Damage” is defined in the CFAA as “any impairment to the integrity or availability of data, a program, a system or information….” 1030(e)(8). The Court interpreted this as destructive behavior aimed at injuring physical computer equipment or its stored data. Examples of this type of damaging conduct includes using a virus or deleting data.  Flooding an email account with data could also qualify as CFAA damage according to at least one case cited by the court. 

Here, the defendant’s conduct didn’t impair the integrity of any computer hardware or compromise any real estate data. The defendant’s attempt to bypass on-line printing access and print fees is not the type of damage envisioned by the CFAA.  According to the Court, mere copying of computer data doesn’t fit the CFAA’s damage definition.  18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(8).

Afterwords:

Fidlar represents a court narrowly applying the CFAA so that it doesn’t cover the type of economic loss (e.g. subscription fees, etc.) claimed here by the plaintiff.  The case also illustrates that a successful CFAA claimant must show its computer equipment was physically harmed or its data destroyed.  Otherwise, a plaintiff will have to choose a non-CFAA remedy such as a breach of contract, trespass to chattels or trade secrets violation.

 

Faulty Service on Defunct LLC Spells Trouble for Judgment Creditor – IL 1st Dist.

In a case whose procedural progression spans more than a decade, the First District in John Isfan Construction v. Longwood Towers, LLC, 2016 IL App (1st) 143211 examines the litigation aftershocks flowing from a failure to properly serve a limited liability company (LLC).

The case also illustrates when a money judgment can be vacated under the “substantial justice” standard governing non-final judgments.

The tortured case chronology went like this:

2003 – plaintiff files a mechanics lien suit against LLC for unpaid construction work on an 80-unit condominium development;

2005 – LLC dissolves involuntarily;

2005 – lien suit voluntarily dismissed;

2006 – plaintiff breach of contract action filed against LLC;

2009 – default judgment entered against LLC for about $800K;

2011 – plaintiff issues citations to discover assets to LLC’s former members and files complaint against the members to hold them liable for the 2009 default judgment (on the theory that the LLC made unlawful distributions to the members);

2014 – LLC members move to vacate the 2009 judgment. Motion is denied by the trial court and LLC members appeal.

Holding: The appeals court reversed the trial court and found that the 2009 default judgment was void.

The reason: Plaintiff’s failure to properly serve the defunct LLC under Illinois law. As a result, a hefty money judgment was vacated.

Q:           Why?

A:            A defendant must be served with process for a court to exercise personal jurisdiction over him.  A judgment entered against a party who is not properly served is void.  

Section 50 of the LLC Act (805 ILCS 180/1-50) provides that service of process on an LLC defendant must be made on (a) the LLC’s registered agent or (b) the Secretary of State if the LLC doesn’t appoint a registered agent or where the LLC’s registered agent cannot be found at the LLC’s registered office or principal place of business.

In the context of a dissolved LLC, the LLC Act provides that an LLC continues post-dissolution solely for the purpose of winding up.  This is in contrast to the corporate survival statute that provides that a dissolved (non-LLC) corporation continues for five years after dissolution (This means the defunct corporation can be sued and served for up to five years after dissolution.)  805 ILCS 5/5.05.

Here, the plaintiff sued the LLC’s former registered agent over a year after the LLC dissolved.  This was improper service under the LLC Act.  By failing to serve the Secretary of State in accordance with the LLC Act, the court lacked jurisdiction over the LLC.  (¶¶ 37-40)

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the erstwhile LLC members waived their objection to jurisdiction over the LLC by participating in post-judgment proceedings.

Since a party who submits to a court’s jurisdiction does so only prospectively, not retroactively, the party’s appearance doesn’t activate an earlier order entered in the case before the appearance was filed. (¶¶ 40-42)

Another reason the Court voided the default judgment was the “substantial justice” standard which governs whether a court will vacate a judgment under Code Section 2-1301(e). 

The reason Section 2-1301 applied instead of the harsher 2-1401 was because the judgment wasn’t final.  It wasn’t final because at the time the judgment was entered, the plaintiff had a pending claim against another party that wasn’t disposed of.  ((¶¶ 46-47)

Under Illinois law, a default judgment is a drastic remedy and Illinois courts have a long and strong policy of deciding cases on the merits instead of on procedural grounds.  In addition, when seeking to vacate a non-final default order, the movant does not have to show a meritorious defense or diligence in presenting the defense.

Applying these default order guideposts, the Court found that substantial justice considerations dictated that the default judgment be vacated.  Even though the judgment was entered some five years before the motion to vacate was filed, it wasn’t a final order. 

This meant the LLC member movants did not have to show diligence in defending the action or a meritorious defense.  All the members had to demonstrate was that it was fair and just that they have their day in court and that they should be able to defend the plaintiff’s unlawful transfers allegations. (¶¶ 49, 51)

Afterwords: This case provides a useful summary of the key rules that govern how to serve LLC’s and particularly, dissolved LLC’s.  The case’s “cautionary tales” are to (i) serve corporate defendants in accordance with statutory direction; and (ii) always request a finding of finality for default judgments where there are multiple parties or claims involved.

Had the plaintiff received a finding of finality, the LLC members’ motion to vacate would have been untimely under Section 2-1401 – which requires a motion to attack a final judgment to be brought within two years and has a heavier proof burden than a 2-1301 motion.  Still, it wouldn’t have mattered here. The plaintiff’s failure to properly serve the LLC meant the judgment was void and could have been attacked at any time.

 

Paralegal Fees Can Be Tacked On to Attorney Fees Sanctions Award – IL First Dist.

Aside from its trenchant discussion of the constructive fraud rule in mechanics lien litigation, the Illinois First District in Father & Sons Home Improvement II, Inc. v. Stuart, 2016 IL App (1st) 143666 clarified that a paralegal’s time and services can be added to a claim for attorneys’ fees as a sanction against a losing party who files false pleadings.

In an earlier post, I discussed how the lien claimant in this case lost its lien foreclosure suit for misstating the completion of work date and inflating the monetary value of work and materials it affixed to the subject site.  The property owner and a lender defendant filed a fee petition and sanctions motion, respectively.

Examining the lender’s motion for Rule 137 sanctions, the Court stated some black-letter rules that govern fee petitions:

  • Under Rule 137, a party can recover attorneys’ fees incurred as a result of a sanctionable pleading or paper (one filed without an objectively reasonable legal basis);
  • Typically, “overhead” expenses aren’t compensable in a fee motion.  The theory is that overhead costs are already built into an attorneys’ hourly rate;
  •   Overhead includes telephone charges, in-house delivery charges, photocopying, check processing, and in-house paralegal and secretarial services;
  • However, when a paralegal performs a specialized legal task that would normally be performed by an attorney, the paralegal’s fees are recoverable since those services would not be considered overhead.

The Court found that the lender’s paralegals performed myriad services that would normally be done by an attorney – namely, researching the title history of the subject property and preparing a memorandum summarizing the title history.  By contrast, a paralegal’s general administrative tasks were disallowed by the court and could not be sought in the sanctions motion.

Afterwords:

When preparing a fee petition, the prevailing party should also include paralegal time and services; especially if they involve researching real estate land records and summarizing a title history.  While the line separating legal services (which are recoverable) and administrative or overhead expenses (which aren’t) is blurry, Father & Sons stands for the proposition that a fee petition or Rule 137 sanctions motion can be augmented by paralegal fees where the paralegal performs specialized work that contains an element of legal analysis.

 

Substantial Performance of Asset Purchase Agreement Wins the Day in Pancake House Spat

pancakes-155793_960_720The Second District affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff pancake house (“Restaurant”) seller in a breach of contract action against the Restaurant’s buyer and current operator.  Siding with the seller, the court discussed the contours of the substantial performance doctrine and what kind of evidence a plaintiff must supply to win summary judgment in a contract dispute.

The plaintiff in El and Be, Inc. v. Husain, 2016 IL App (2d) 150011-U, sold the Restaurant for about $500K pursuant to an Asset Purchase Agreement (APA).   The defendant failed to pay the agreed purchase price when it learned the plaintiff had several unpaid vendor bills, utility debts and a lien lawsuit was filed in Texas against Restaurant equipment by a secured creditor of the plaintiff.  The plaintiff sued for breach of contract to recover the APA purchase price and the defendant counterclaimed for fraud and breach of the APA.  The trial court entered summary judgment for the plaintiff on its claims as well as defendants’ counterclaims.

Affirming summary judgment for the plaintiff, the Second District framed the salient issue as whether the plaintiff substantially performed its APA obligations.

Perfect performance isn’t required to enforce a contract.  Instead, a plaintiff must show he substantially performed.  Substantial performance is hard to define and is a fact-based inquiry.  In deciding whether substantial performance has occurred, a court considers whether a defendant received and enjoyed the benefits of the plaintiff’s performance.  Substantial performance allows a plaintiff to win a breach of contract suit; especially where his performance is done in reliance on the parties’ contract.

The court found that the defendant Restaurant buyer clearly benefitted from the plaintiff’s performance.  The buyer gained the Restaurant assets and goodwill and operated the Restaurant continuously for over a year before plaintiff sued to enforce the APA.  The defendant’s operation of the Restaurant during this pre-suit period was a tangible benefit flowing to the defendant from the plaintiff’s APA performance.  (¶¶ 25-27).

Next, the Court rejected the defendant’s fraud counterclaim – premised on plaintiff’s failure to disclose outstanding debts prior to the Restaurant sale.  The defendant claimed this omission exposed the defendant to a future lien foreclosure action and a possible money judgment by plaintiff’s creditors.

In Illinois, a fraud plaintiff must establish (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) the statement maker’s knowledge or belief that the statement was false; (3) an intention to induce the plaintiff to act based on the statement, (4) reasonable reliance on the truth of the statement by the plaintiff, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  A fraud claimant must also prove damages (monetary loss, e.g.) with reasonable certainty.  While mathematical precision isn’t required, fraud damages that are speculative or hypothetical won’t support a fraud suit.

Here, since the defendant made only generalized allegations of possible damages and could not point to actual damages evidence – such as having to defend a lien foreclosure suit or a money judgment – the fraud claim failed.  On summary judgment, a litigant must offer evidence to support its claims.  The defendant’s failure to produce measurable damages evidence stemming from plaintiff’s pre-sale omissions doomed the fraud claim.  (¶¶ 33-36)

Afterwords:

El and Be, Inc. cements the proposition that perfect performance isn’t required to enforce a contract.  Instead, a breach of contract plaintiff must show substantial performance – that he performed to such a level that the defendant enjoyed tangible benefits from the performance.  Where a contract defendant clearly reaps monetary awards from a plaintiff’s contractual duties, the substantial performance standard is met.

The case also makes clear that fraud must be pled and proven with acute specificity and that vague assertions of damages without factual back-up won’t survive summary judgment.

 

Lien Inflation and “Plus Factors” – Constructive Fraud in Illinois Mechanics Lien Litigation

The contractor plaintiff in Father & Sons Home Improvement II, Inc. v. Stuart, 2016 IL App (1st) 143666 was caught in several lies in the process of recording and trying to foreclose its mechanics lien.  The misstatements resulted in the nullification of its lien and the plaintiff being on the hook for over $40K in opponent attorneys’ fees.

The plaintiff was hired to construct a deck, garage and basement on the defendant owner’s residence.  Inexplicably, the plaintiff recorded its mechanics lien 8 months before it finished its work. This was a problem because the lien contained the sworn testimony of plaintiff’s principal (via affidavit) that stated a completion date that was several months off.

Plaintiff then sued to foreclose the lien; again stating an inaccurate completion date in the complaint.  The owner and mortgage lender defendants filed separate summary judgment motions on the basis that the plaintiff committed constructive fraud by (1) falsely stating the lien completion date and (2) inflating the dollar value of its work in sworn documents (the affidavit and verified complaint).

Affirming summary judgment and separate fee awards for the defendants, the Court distilled the following mechanics lien constructive fraud principles:

  • The purpose of the mechanics lien act (Lien Act) is to require someone with an interest in real property to pay for property improvements or benefits he encouraged by his conduct.  Section 7 of the Lien Act provides that no lien will be defeated because of an error or if it states an inflated amount unless it is shown that the erroneous lien amount was made with “intent to defraud.”  770 ILCS 60/7;
  • The intent to defraud requirement aims to protect the honest lien claimant who simply makes a mistake in computing his lien amount.  But where there is evidence a lien claimant knowingly filed a false lien (either in completion date or amount), the lien claim will be defeated.  (¶¶ 30-31);
  • Where there is no direct proof of a contractor’s intent to defraud, “constructive fraud” can negate a lien where there is an overstated lien amount or false completion date combined with additional evidence;
  • The additional evidence or “plus factor” can come in the form of a false affidavit signed by the lien claimant that falsely states the underlying completion date or the amount of the improvements furnished to the property.  (¶ 35).

Based on the plaintiff’s multiple false statements – namely, a fabricated completion date and a grossly exaggerated lien amount based on the amount of work done – both in its mechanics lien and in its pleadings, the court found that at the very least, the plaintiff committed constructive fraud and invalidated the lien.

Attorneys’ Fees and Rule 137 Sanctions

The court also taxed the property owners’ attorneys’ fees to the losing contractor.  Section 17 of the Lien Act provides that an owner can recover its attorneys’ fees where a contractor files a lien action “without just cause or right.”  The Lien Act also specifies that only the owner – not any other party involved in the chain of contracts or other lienholders – can recover its attorneys’ fees.  A lien claim giving rise to a fee award is one that is “not well grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification or reversal of existing law.”  770 ILCS 60/17(d).

Based on the contractor’s clear case of constructive fraud in filing a lien with a false completion date and in a grossly excessive sum, the court ordered the contractor to pay the owner defendants’ attorneys’ fees.

The lender – who is not the property owner – wasn’t entitled to fees under Section 17 of the Lien Act.  Enter Rule 137 sanctions.  In Illinois, Rule 137 sanctions are awarded to prevent abuse of the judicial process by penalizing those who file vexatious and harassing lawsuit based on unsupported statements of fact or law.  Before assessing sanctions, a court does not engage in hindsight but instead looks at what was objectively reasonable at the time an attorney signed a document or filed a motion.

Because the plaintiff contractor repeatedly submitted false documents in the course of the litigation, the court awarded the mortgage lender its attorneys’ fees incurred in defending the lien suit and in successfully moving for summary judgment.  All told,  the Court sanctioned the contractor to the tune of over $26,000; awarding this sum to the lender defendant.

Afterwords:

This case serves as an obvious cautionary tale for mechanics lien plaintiffs.  Plainly, a lien claimant must state an accurate completion date and properly state the monetary value of improvements.  If the claimant realizes it has made a mistake, it should amend the lien.  And even though an amended lien usually won’t bind third parties (e.g. lenders, other lienholders, etc.), it’s better to correct known lien errors than to risk a hefty fee award at case’s end.

 

 

 

 

Fraud Suit Dismissed Where Prior Corporate Dissolution Claim Pending Between Parties – IL Court

Illinois courts aim to foster efficiency and finality in litigation. One way they accomplish this is by protecting people from repetitive lawsuits and requiring plaintiffs to bring all their claims in a single case.  Consolidation of claims is encouraged while piecemeal “claim splitting” is discouraged.

Code Section 2-619(a)(3) is a statutory attempt to streamline litigation. This section that allows for dismissal of a case where there is another action pending between the same parties for the same cause.

Schact v. Lome, 2016 IL App(1st) 141931 provides a recent case illustration of this section in the context of an aborted medical partnership.

The defendant originally filed suit in 2010 against two of his former medical partners to void their attempt to dissolve a medical corporation operated by them. The parties litigated that case for over three years before the plaintiffs (who were the defendants in the 2010 case) filed suit in 2013 for fraud.

The 2013 fraud action alleged the defendant fraudulently induced the plaintiffs to agree to a distribution of the medical corporation’s assets knowing that he (defendant) was going to challenge the corporate dissolution.

According to the plaintiffs, the defendant received almost $50,000 in cash on top of some corporate equipment based on his promise to end the 2010 litigation. Plaintiffs claimed the defendant hoodwinked them into agreeing to the money and property disbursements based on the defendant’s assurance he would dismiss the prior lawsuit.

The trial court dismissed the fraud action based on the same parties, same cause rule.  Affirming dismissal, the appeals court provided content to the “same cause” element of a Section 2-619 motion to dismiss.

  • Illinois Code Section 2-619(a)(3) is a procedural device aimed at avoiding duplicative litigation. It applies where there is a pending case involving the same parties for the same cause.
  • Lawsuits present the same cause when the relief sought is “based on substantially the same set of facts”;
  • The salient inquiry is whether both cases arise from the same transaction or occurrence, not whether the two lawsuits have identical causes of action or legal theories;
  • If the relief requested in each lawsuit relies on substantially the same facts, the “same cause” is met and can present grounds for dismissal.

(¶¶ 35-36)

In finding the same cause test met, the Court noted the 2010 dissolution action and the 2013 fraud suit were “inextricably intertwined.” Both cases involved a challenge to the plaintiffs’ earlier attempted breakup of the medical corporation.  Both cases also centered on the defendant’s conduct in agreeing to a distribution of the corporate assets while at the same time contesting those distributions.  Another commonality between the two suits was the damages claimed by the plaintiffs in the fraud action equaled the defense costs they incurred in the 2010 dissolution action. (¶ 37).

Since both lawsuits involved the same underlying facts, had similar issues and were based on the same conduct by the parties, the 2013 fraud action was properly dismissed since the 2010 dissolution action was still pending when the fraud case was filed.

Take-aways:

Once again, considerations of judicial economy win out over opposing claims that two lawsuits are different enough to proceed on separate tracks.

Schact gives a broad reading to a somewhat nebulous basis for dismissal.  The case stresses that the legal theories advanced in two lawsuits don’t have to be identical to trigger the same cause element of Section 2-619.

Schact’s lesson is clear: Where two lawsuits between the same parties share common issues and stem from substantially similar facts, a defendant will have a strong argument that the later-filed case should be dismissed under the same cause Code section.

Denial of Motion for Judgment in Citation Proceedings Not Final – Appeal Dismissed (IL 1st Dist.)

While there are nuances and some exceptions to it, the general rule is that only “final” orders are appealable.  If a trial court’s order is final, the losing party can appeal it.  If the order isn’t final – meaning, the case is still going on – the losing party can’t appeal it.  Whether an order is final is often overlooked during the heat of trial battle.  However, as today’s feature case illustrates, the failure to appreciate the final versus non-final order distinction can doom an appeal as premature.

National Life Real Estate Holdings, LLC v. International Bank of Chicago, 2016 IL App (1st) 151446, the plaintiff judgment creditor won a $3MM-plus judgment against an individual and two LLC defendants. In trying to enforce the money judgment, the plaintiff issued a third-party citation to IBC, the respondent and defendant.

Upon learning that after IBC disbursed $3.5MM in loan funds to two businesses associated with the individual judgment debtor after it received the third-party citation, the plaintiff moved for judgment against IBC on the basis that it violated its obligations as a third-party citation respondent (to not transfer any of the judgment debtor’s property).

The circuit court denied the plaintiff’s motion.  It found that since the loan funds disbursed by IBC were not paid to and didn’t belong to the judgment debtor, IBC did not flout the citation’s “restraining provision” (which prevents a citation respondent from disposing of property belonging to a judgment debtor).  Affirming, the appeals court discussed the pertinent rules governing when orders entered in post-judgment proceedings can be appealed.

  • An appeal can only be taken from a “final order”‘
  • An order is final where it disposes of the rights of the parties, either upon the entire lawsuit or upon a separate and definite part of it;
  • A final order entered in a post-judgment proceeding is appealable, too;
  • A post-judgment order is deemed final when the judgment creditor is in a position to collect against the judgment debtor or third-party or the judgment creditor is prevented from doing so by court order;
  • A post-judgment order that does not (a) leave a creditor in position to collect a judgment or that (b) conclusively bars the creditor from collecting, is not final for purposes of appeal. 

(¶10); See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402; Ill. Sup. Ct. R. 304(b)(4).

The trial court’s order denying the judgment creditor’s motion for judgment wasn’t final as it didn’t end the lawsuit.  The appeals court noted the case is still pending and the judgment creditor may still have valid claims against IBC.  Since the trial court’s denial of the judgment creditor’s motion didn’t foreclose it from future collection efforts, the denial of the motion wasn’t a final and appealable order.  As a consequence, the creditor’s appeal was premature and properly dismissed.

Afterwords:

In hindsight, the plaintiff should have requested a Rule 304(a) finding that the order denying the motion for judgment was appealable.  While the court could have denied the motion, it would have at least give the creditor a shot at having an appeals court review the trial court’s order.

Going forward, the plaintiff should issue third-party citations to the loan recipients (the two business entities) and see if it can link the individual debtor to those businesses.  The plaintiff should also issue discovery to IBC to obtain specifics concerning the post-citation loan.  This information could give the plaintiff ammunition for future litigation against IBC relating to the loans.

 

Car Seller’s Impossibility and Commercial Frustration Defenses Fail In Missing Mercedes Case – IL ND

SFcitizen (photo credit: www.sfcitizen.com (visited 7.6.15))

Sunshine Imp & Exp Corp. v. Luxury Car Concierge, Inc., 2015 WL 2193808 (N.D.Ill. 2015) serves as a recent example of how difficult it is for a breach of contract defendant to successfully argue the impossibility or commercial frustration defense.

There, a case involving multiple layers of interconnected luxury car sellers, the plaintiff car seller sued another seller for breach of contract when the defendant’s failed to deliver a $100k Mercedes to the plaintiff.

The defendant blamed one of its vendors’ for failing to produce the car.  That vendor, in turn, cited the embezzlement of one of its sellers as the cause of the breach.

The defendant argued that since it couldn’t control the various parties involved in acquiring the car, it was immunized from liability under the impossibility and commercial frustration defenses.

The court rejected the defenses and entered judgment for the plaintiff for the full amount paid for the no-show Mercedes.

The defendant first made a procedural challenge to plaintiff’s suit.  It argued that since the plaintiff never formally responded to defendant’s affirmative defenses, the plaintiff waived its challenge to them.  The court quickly disposed of this argument.  While under Illinois law, the failure to object to an affirmative defense can result in the admission of the defense and a waiver of a right to contest it, this isn’t the case in Federal cases.

This is because Federal procedural rules govern Federal cases and under FRCP 8(b), if a responsive pleading isn’t required, an allegation in a defense is considered denied or avoided.  Moreover, FRCP 7(a) specifies the types of pleadings that are allowed and a reply to an affirmative defense isn’t one of them.  As a result, affirmative defenses raised in an answer are automatically deemed denied in the Federal scheme since no reply to affirmative defenses are permitted (unless ordered by the court).

The defendant’s impossibility of performance and commercial frustration defenses also failed substantively.

The impossibility doctrine applies where there is  an unanticipated circumstance that makes performance “vitally different” from what was or should have been within the reasonable contemplation of the parties.  Impossibility applies in very limited situations – parties to a contract normally must adhere to the agreement terms and subsequent contingencies that aren’t spelled out in a contract won’t invalidate the contract.

What’s more, the fact that a promisor can’t control the acts of a third party won’t trigger the impossibility defense unless the contract explicitly says so.  What’s more, a contracting promisor isn’t absolved of his obligations due to a third party’s failure to perform.

The court found the defendant’s impossibility defense lacking since it was (or should have been) foreseeable that the defendant’s supplier would have failed to deliver the car for any number of reasons.

(**3-4).

The defendant’s related defense of “commercial frustration” also fell short.  This defense applies in two circumstances: (1) where a frustrating event isn’t foreseeable and (2) that event totally or almost totally destroys the value of the party’s performance.  An example of this is where the destruction of a building terminates the lease.

Like impossibility, commercial frustration applies sparingly; it is only where a party’s performance is rendered “meaningless” due to the unforeseen circumstance that the contract terminates.  The defense becomes operative where a contract assumes the continued existence of a certain state of things and that state of things ceases to exist.

A successful commercial frustration defense voids the contract and requires any monies paid to be returned to the paying party.

The court discarded the defendant’s commercial frustration defense on the basis that the defendant could have foreseen that its supplier would have failed to tender the Mercedes.  Since the defendant failed to negotiate this possibility into the contract, the defense failed.  (**5-6).

Take-aways:

The procedural lesson is that a formal response to an affirmative defense isn’t required in Federal court unless required by the court.

The case’s chief legal point is that in contracts where a party’s performance is dependent on that of a third party/parties, the party should spell this out in the contract.  Failing that, the contract will likely be enforced as written even though the breach is caused by someone’s else’s failure to perform.

Getting E-Mails Into Evidence: (Ind.) Federal Court Weighs In

IMG_0924

Since e-mail is the dominant form of business communication across the globe, it’s no surprise that it comprises a large chunk of the documents used as evidence at a business dispute trial.

Email’s prevalence in lawsuits makes it crucial for litigators to understand the key evidence authenticity and foundational rules that govern whether an email gets into evidence.  This is especially true where an email goes to the heart of a plaintiff’s claims (or defendant’s defenses) and the e-mail author or recipient denies the e-mail’s validity.

Finnegan v. Myers, 2015 WL 5252433 (N.D. Ind. 2015), serves as a recent example of a Federal court applying fundamental evidence rules to the e-mail communications context.

In the case, the plaintiffs, whose teenaged daughter died under suspicious circumstances, sued various Indiana child welfare agencies for lodging criminal child neglect charges against them that were eventually dropped.  The plaintiffs then filed Federal civil rights and various due process claims against the defendants.

The defendants moved for summary judgment and then sought to strike some of plaintiffs’ evidence opposing summary judgment.  A key piece of evidence relied on by the plaintiff in opposing summary judgment that the defendants sought to exclude as improper hearsay was an e-mail from a forensic pathologist to child welfare personnel that called into questions the results of a prior autopsy of the deceased.

Denying defendants’ two motions (the summary judgment motion and motion to strike), the Court provides a useful gloss on the operative evidence rules that control e-mail documents in litigation.

  • The Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) require a proponent to produce evidence sufficient to support a finding the item is authentic – that it is what the proponent claims it to be;
  • FRE 901 recognizes several methods of authentication including witness testimony, expert or non-expert comparisons, distinctive characteristics, and public records, among others;
  • FRE 902 recognizes certain evidence as inherently trustworthy and “self-authenticating” (requiring no additional proof of authenticity).  Evidence in this camp includes public records, official publications, newspapers and periodicals, commercial paper, and certified domestic records of a regularly conducted activity;
  • Authentication only relates to the source of the documents – it does not mean that the documents’ contents are taken as true;
  • E-mails may be authenticated by circumstantial evidence such as (a) viewing the e-mail’s contents in light of the factual background of the case, (b) identifying the sender and receiver via affidavit, (c) identifying the sender by the e-mail address from which the e-mail was sent, (d) comparing the email’s substance to other evidence in the case, and (e) comparing the e-mail to other statements by the claimed author of a given email.

(** 5-6)

Applying these guideposts, the court found that the plaintiff sufficiently established that the subject email was genuine (i.e., it was what it purported to be) and that it was up to the jury to determine what probative value the email evidence had at trial.

The court also agreed with the plaintiff that the pathologist’s email wasn’t hearsay: it was not used for the truth of the email.  Instead, it was simply used to show that the State  agency was put on notice of a second autopsy and changes in the pathologist’s cause of death opinions.

Afterwords:

This case resonates with me since I’ve litigated cases in the past where a witness flatly denies sending an email even though it’s from an e-mail address associated with the witness.  In those situations. I’ve had to compile other evidence – like the recipient’s affidavit – and had to show the denied email is congruent with other evidence in the case to negate the denial.

Finnegan neatly melds FRE 901 and 902 and provides a succinct summary of what steps a litigator must take to establish the authenticity of e-mail evidence.

Landlord Subject to Potential Bailment and Intentional Infliction Claims for Leaving Tenant’s Property On Sidewalk – IL ND

The Internet is awash in state-by-state summaries of what a landlord can and can’t do with property left behind by a residential tenant. The various abandoned property rules range from making the landlord do nothing, to requiring it to hold the tenant’s property for a fixed number of days, to sending formal notice to the tenant before disposing of the property. For a good summary of various state’s abandoned property laws, see here.  Chicago’s (where I practice) Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance (RLTO), widely viewed as pro-tenant in every way, requires a landlord to store the property for seven days before disposing of it. See RLTO 5-12-130(f)

Zissu v. IH2 Property Illinois, LP, 2016 WL 212937, examines what causes of action apply where a landlord puts an evicted tenant’s property on a city street and the property is destroyed or stolen as a result.

The plaintiffs, who were evicted in an earlier state court forcible detainer action, sued their ex-landlord in Federal court (the landlord was a Delaware business entity) alleging negligence, conversion, bailment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress after the former landlord placed the plaintiff’s home furnishings, jewelry and personal documents on the sidewalk and the plaintiff’s property was stolen or damaged.

Granting in part and denying in part the landlord’s motion to dismiss, the court examined the pleading elements of the bailment, trespass to chattels and intentional infliction of emotional distress torts.

The court upheld the plaintiff’s bailment count. A bailment occurs where one party delivers goods or personal property to another who has agreed to accept the property and deal with it in a particular way.

To recover under a bailment theory, a plaintiff must allege: (1) an express or implied agreement to create a bailment, (2) delivery of the property to the bailee by the bailor, (3) the bailee’s acceptance of the property, and (4) the bailee’s failure to return the property or delivery of the property to the bailor in a damaged condition.

An implied, or “constructive,” bailment occurs where a defendant voluntarily receives a plaintiff’s property for some purpose other than that of obtaining ownership of the property. The implied bailment can be found with reference to the surrounding circumstances including (i) the benefits received by the parties, (ii) the parties’ intentions, (iii) the kind of property involved, and (iv) the opportunities for each party to exert control over the property.

The court held that the complaint’s allegations that the defendant actively took possession of the plaintiff’s property and removed it from the leased premises was sufficient to state a bailment claim under Federal notice pleading standards.

The court also sustained the plaintiff’s conversion and trespass to chattels claim. The crux of both of these claims is that a defendant either seized control of a plaintiff’s property (conversion) or interfered with a plaintiff’s property (trespass to chattels). A colorable conversion claim contains the added requirement that a plaintiff make a demand for possession – unless the defendant has already disposed of a plaintiff’s property; in which case a demand would be futile.

The court here found that the plaintiffs’ allegations that their former landlord dispossessed plaintiffs of their property stated a trespass to chattels and conversion claim for purposes of a motion to dismiss. The court also agreed with the plaintiff that a formal demand for the property would have been pointless since the defendant had already placed the plaintiffs’ property on the street and sidewalk next to the plaintiffs’ home.

Lastly, the court denied the defendant’s attempt to dismiss the plaintiff’s intentional infliction claim. An intentional infliction of emotional distress plaintiff must plead (1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) a defendant’s intent to inflict severe emotional distress on a plaintiff, and (3) the defendant’s conduct did in fact cause the plaintiff emotional distress.

Here, the court found that the plaintiffs’ claims that the defendant put expensive jewelry, medication and sensitive financial documents on the street in view of the whole neighborhood sufficiently stated an intentional infliction claim.

Afterwords:

This case presents an interesting illustration of some lesser-used and venerable torts (bailment, trespass to chattels) adapted to a modern-day fact pattern.

The continued vitality of the bailment and trespass to chattel theories shows that personal property rights still enjoy a privileged status in this society.

The case also serves as a reminder for landlords to check applicable abandoned property laws before disposing of a decamped tenant’s belongings.  As this case amply shows, a landlord who removes tenant property without notice to the tenant, does so at its peril and opens itself up to a future damages action.

 

 

 

Bank’s Business Records and Supporting Affidavit Satisfy Evidence Rules – IL 2nd Dist.

Because they’re so integral to commercial litigation, business records and the myriad evidentiary concerns intertwined with them, are a perennial favorite topic of this blog.

In earlier posts (here and here, I’ve featured US Bank, NA v. Avdic, 2014 IL App (1st) 121759 and Bank of America v. Land, 2013 IL App (5th) 120283, two cases that examine the foundation and authenticity requirements for admitting business records in evidence and probe the interplay between Illinois Supreme Court Rule 236 and Illinois Evidence Rule 803(6).

We now can add Bayview Loan Servicing, LLC v. Szpara, 2015 IL App (2d) 140331 to the Illinois business records cannon.  Harmonized, Avdic, Land and Bayview form a trilogy of key business records cases that are useful (if not required) reading for any commercial litigator.

Bayview’s facts parallel those of so many other business records cases: a mortgage foreclosing plaintiff tries to offer business records into evidence at trial or as support for a summary judgment motion and the defendant opposes the records’ admission.

Bayview’s bank plaintiff tried to get damages in evidence via a prove-up affidavit signed by a bank Vice President who didn’t actually create the records in the first place.  The defendant moved to strike the affidavit as lacking foundation.

Affirming summary judgment for the bank, the First District provides a cogent summary of the governing standards for summary judgment affidavits that are employed to get business records into evidence.

First, the court affirmed dismissal of the defendant’s fraud in the inducement affirmative defense – premised on the claim that a mortgage broker allied with the plaintiff made false statements concerning the defendant’s creditworthiness and value of the underlying property.

Fraud in the inducement is a species of common law fraud.  A fraud plaintiff in Illinois must show (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) knowledge or belief that the statement is false, (3) intent to induce the plaintiff to act or refrain from acting on the statement, (4) the plaintiff reasonably relied on the false statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  A colorable fraud claim must be specific with the plaintiff establishing the who, what, and when of the challenged statement.

The Court agreed with the trial court that the defendant’s fraud in the inducement defense was too vague and lacked the heightened specificity required under the law.  The defendant failed to sufficiently plead the misrepresentation and didn’t allege facts showing when the misstatement was made.  As a result, the defense was properly stricken on the bank’s motion. (¶¶ 34-35)

The court then found that the plaintiff’s business records – appended to a bank employee’s affidavit in support of the bank’s summary judgment motion –  were properly admitted into evidence and affirmed summary judgment for the bank.

Illinois Supreme Court Rule 236 and Illinois Evidence Rule 803(6)(“Records of Regularly Conducted Activity”) provide that a business record can be admitted into evidence as an exception to the hearsay rule if (1) the record was made in the regular course of business and (2) was made at or near the time of the events documented in the records.

In  the context of a prove-up affidavit based on business records, the affiant doesn’t have to be the one who personally prepared the record; it’s enough that the affiant has basic familiarity with the records and the business processes used by the party relying on them.

Under Evidence Rule 803(6), the lack of personal knowledge of someone signing an affidavit does not affect the admissibility of a given document, although it could affect the (evidentiary) weight given to that document.   (¶42).

The bank’s Vice President in Bayview testified in her prove-up affidavit that she had access to the business records relating to defendant’s loan, that she reviewed the records, had personal knowledge of how the plaintiff kept and prepared them and that the plaintiff’s regular practice was to keep loan records like the ones attached to the affidavit.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the affidavit was deficient since the bank agent wasn’t who created the attached loan records.  Citing to Avdic and Land, the Court found that, in the aggregate, the bank agent affidavit testimony sufficiently met the foundation and authenticity requirements to get the business records in evidence. (¶¶ 41-46)

Afterwords:

This case contains salutary discussion and rulings for plaintiff creditors as it streamlines the process of getting business records into evidence at the summary judgment stage and later, at trial.

Bayview reaffirms the key holdings from Avdic, Land and business records cases like them that an agent who had nothing to do with preparing underlying business records can still attest to the records’ validity and authenticity provided she can vouch for their validity and is familiar with the mode of the records’ creation.

Voluntary Payment of Wages Sinks Transit Agency’s Conversion Counterclaim Against Ex-Employees – IL ND

In Laba v. CTA, 2016 WL 147656 (N.D.Ill. 2016), the Court considers the contours of the conversion tort in a dispute involving former Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) employees who lied about their hours worked.

The CTA claimed the employees converted or “stole” paycheck monies by falsifying employee time records in order to get paid by the agency.

The Court dismissed the CTA’s conversion claim based on the involuntary payment doctrine.  Conversion applies where a plaintiff shows (1) a defendant exercised unauthorized control over the plaintiff’s personal property; (2) plaintiff’s right to immediate possession of the property; and (3) a demand for possession of the property.  

A colorable conversion claim must involve specifically identifiable property.  Money can be the subject of  a conversion claim but it must be a specific source of funds.  A general obligation (“John owes me money and so he basically stole from me,” e.g.) isn’t enough for actionable conversion.

A well-established conversion defense is the voluntary payment rule.  This rule posits that where one party voluntarily transfers property to another, even if the transfer is mistaken, there is no conversion.  In such a case, there is a debtor-creditor relationship: the debtor would be the person to whom the funds were paid and the creditor the paying party. 

Here, since the CTA voluntarily paid money to the employees, in the form of regular paychecks, those monies could not be subject to a later conversion suit.  The CTA did not pay the ex-workers under duress.  The fact that the workers may not have earned their pay doesn’t change the analysis.  At most, according to the court, the time sheet embellishments created a “general debt arising from fraudulent conduct.”  The CTA has a remedy to recoup the funds; it’s just not one for conversion. 

Afterwords:

This case presents a creative use of the conversion tort in an unorthodox fact setting.  The case lesson is clear: where an employer pays an employee of the employer’s own volition, the payment will be considered “voluntary” even where it turns out the employee didn’t deserve the payment (i.e. by not working).  In such a case, the employer’s appropriate remedy is one for breach of contract or unjust enrichment.  A civil conversion claim will not apply to voluntarily employer-employee payments.

“Mirror-Image” Contract Acceptance: 7th Circuit Finds Attorneys’ Fees Provision in Invoice Not Binding on Food Buyer

imageVLM Food Trading International, Inc. v. Illinois Trading Co., (http://cases.justia.com/federal/appellate-courts/ca7/14-2776/14-2776-2016-01-21.pdf?ts=1453404644) considers whether a seller can recover attorneys’ fees where the contract doesn’t provide for fees but the invoices sent after the goods are shipped do have fee-shifting language.   

The Seventh Circuit held that the invoice fee-shifting clause does not bind the buyer.

The Contract Chronology: The plaintiff foods seller would submit a purchase order to defendant that stated the product, price, quantity and delivery locus.  The defendant, in turn, would send a confirming e-mail to the plaintiff.  After that, the plaintiff shipped the goods to the defendant and later sent a “trailing” invoice to the defendant.

The first appearance of the fee-shifting language in the contracting sequence were found in the trailing invoices sent after the seller’s items were shipped to the defendant.

The main dispute centered on when the contract was formed and whether the trailing invoices’ fees provisions were part of the contract. 

An international treaty – the U.N. Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (the “Convention”) – happened to govern this dispute.  The Convention applies a derivation of the common law “mirror image” rule of contract interpretation: an acceptance must “mirror” the offer or else it’s construed as a counter-offer.  

Under the mirror image rule, any additional terms or qualifications to the offer are considered proposed modifications.  A party doesn’t have to object to a proposed modification to exclude (reject) it.  Any term not contained in the offer and acceptance simply do not bind the parties.  What’s more, one’s silence or inactivity doesn’t equal acceptance of the proposed offer changes.  A party can only accept the terms through a statement or conduct.

The Seventh Circuit held that the plaintiff’s purchase orders were the offer, and the buyer’s confirming e-mails were the acceptance.  Any terms proposed outside the scope of the purchase orders or emails were not part of the parties’ agreement.  Since the plaintiff’s trailing invoices (and their fee-shifting and interest language) were sent after the acceptance, they didn’t bind the buyer.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s trade usage argument – that buyer assented to the fee provision by not objecting to the invoice language.  Again, under the mirror image rule, the buyer’s silence isn’t considered acceptance.  The Court also found that trade usage only applies where there is contractual ambiguity.  Here, the contract was clear and so there was no reason to consider any course of conduct or trade usage evidence.

Finally, the Court found the defendant did not manifest an intent to adhere to the invoice fee language.  The key factor on this point was the trailing invoices were sent to defendant’s generic billing address; they weren’t sent to a specific corporate decision-maker. 

Take-aways:

VLM is interesting reading to me since I’ve encountered this exact fact pattern several times through the years in my commercial litigation practice.  The case chronicles a typical multi-step goods contract involving commercial entities.  

In a case where an international treaty doesn’t govern, fee language can be considered part of the contract under the Uniform Commercial Code if it is standard practice in an industry to have after-the-fact fee provisions in invoices or the parties’ course of conduct shows an intent to hew to the invoice fee-shifting clause. 

VLM offers a useful analysis of the factors a court considers when determining whether after-the-fact contractual terms can bind the parties.

 

 

 

Material Changes to Office Lease Insulates Guarantor From Liability For Corporate Tenant Defaults – Illinois Court

The Illinois First District recently examined the reach of a corporate officer’s commercial lease guaranty in a case involving a multi-year and multi-suite office lease.  The office landlord plaintiff in Stonegate Properties, Inc. v. Piccolo, 2016 IL App (1st) 150182, sued to hold a corporate tenant’s CEO and lease guarantor liable for rental damages after the corporate tenant defaulted and declared bankruptcy.

The five-year lease was amended several times through the years – each time by the corporate tenant through its CEO and lease guarantor – culminating in an amended lease for three additional office spaces (compared to the original lease’s two spaces) in nearly triple the monthly rent amount from the original lease.

After the corporate tenant defaulted and filed for bankruptcy protection, the plaintiff landlord sued the guarantor defendant to recover nearly $1.4M in unpaid lease rental payments. The guarantor defendant successfully moved to dismiss on the basis that she was released from the guaranty since the lease parties made material changes to the lease and increased the guarantor’s risk with no additional consideration to the guarantor.

Affirming, the First District examined the scope of guarantor liability when the lease guarantor is also the corporate tenant’s principal officer.

The Court cited and applied these operative contract law principles in siding for the guarantor:

– A lease is a contract between a landlord and tenant, and the general rules of contract construction apply to the construction of leases;

A guaranty is a promise by one or more parties to answer for the debts of another.  A clearly-worded guaranty should be given effect as written;

– A guaranty is considered a separate, independent obligations from the underlying contract.  Where a guaranty is undated, a court will still consider it as drafted contemporaneously with the underlying lease if the guaranty refers to that lease;

– A guaranty signed at the same time as the underlying contract is supported by adequate consideration.  A contractual modification – something that injects new elements into a contract – must be supported by consideration to be valid and binding.  Pre-existing obligations are not sufficient consideration under the law;

– In the context of commercial lease guaranties, a guaranty’s term is only extended if the underlying lease term is also extended in accordance with the lease terms;

– Common guaranty defenses involve changes to the underlying contract that materially increase the guarantor’s financial risk;

– Where the risk originally assumed by a guarantor is augmented by acts of the principal (the person whose debts are being guaranteed), the guarantor is released from his contractual obligations;

– Where a corporate principal signs a lease in her corporate capacity, she is not personally responsible for her corporate employer’s lease obligations.  This is because a corporation is a separate legal entity from its component shareholders.

(¶¶ 40-45, 46-55, 60-62, 65-66)

Applying these principles, the Court sided in favor of the guarantor.  The court noted that the lease addendum materially modified the underlying lease obligations and increased the guarantor’s fiscal risk. In addition, the guaranty was silent on whether it applied to material lease modifications.  Because of this, the court found that the guarantor’s consent to the lease changes was required in order to bind the guarantor to the changes.

Since the guarantor never gave her express consent to the lease changes (broadening the leased premises from two office suites to 5; tripling the monthly rent), she was immunized from further guaranty obligations once the corporate tenant and office landlord signed the lease addendum.

The Court also rejected the office lessor’s attempt to fasten liability to the guarantor under a piercing the corporate veil/alter-ego theory.  Since the plaintiff didn’t sue to pierce the corporate veil (such as under an alter-ego theory), the Court found that the guarantor’s execution of the lease addendum as an agent of the corporate tenant didn’t bind the defendant personally to the corporation’s lease obligations. (¶¶ 72-77).

Afterwords:

Stonegate provides a thorough analysis of the contours of a commercial lease guarantor’s liability.  While a guaranty is construed as written under black-letter contract law principles, if the guarantor’s principal (here, the corporate tenant) changes the underlying lease obligation so that the guarantor’s original risk is increased, the change in lease term will not be binding on the guarantor.  This is so even where the corporate agent who agreed to the material lease amendment is the lease guarantor.

False Info in Employee Time Records Can Support Common Law Fraud Claim – IL Fed Court

Some key questions the Court grapples with in Laba v. CTA, 2016 WL 147656 (N.D.Ill. 2016) are whether an employee who sleeps on the job or runs personal errands on company time opens himself up to a breach of fiduciary or fraud claim by his employer.  The Court answered “no” (fiduciary duty claim) and “maybe” (fraud claim) in an employment dispute involving the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

Some former CTA employees sued the embattled transit agency for invasion of privacy and illegal search and seizure after learning the CTA implanted Global Positioning System (“GPS”) technology on the plaintiffs’ work-issued cell phones. An audit of those phones revealed the plaintiffs’ regularly engaged in personal frolics during work hours.

The CTA removed the case to Federal court and filed various state law counterclaims to recoup money it paid to the ex-employees including claims for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and conversion. The Northern District granted in part and denied in part the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the CTA’s counterclaims.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Sustaining the CTA’s breach of fiduciary duty claim against the ex-employees’ motion to dismiss, the Court looked to black-letter Illinois law for guidance.  To state a breach of fiduciary duty claim in Illinois, a plaintiff must allege (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty, (2) breach of that duty, and (3) breach of the duty proximately caused damages.  The employer-employee relationship is one the law recognizes as a fiduciary one.

While the extent of an employee’s duty to his employer varies depending on whether the employee is a corporate officer, the law is clear that employees owe duties of loyalty to their employers.  Where an employee engages in self-dealing or misappropriates employer property or funds for the employee’s personal use, it can give rise to a fiduciary suit by the employer.

Here, the Court found that the employees’ conduct, while irresponsible and possibly negligent, didn’t rise to the level of disloyalty under the law.  The Court made it clear that under-par job performance doesn’t equate to conduct that can support a breach of fiduciary duty claim. (**6-7).

Fraudulent Misrepresentation

The Court upheld the CTA’s fraudulent misrepresentation claim – premised on the allegation that the plaintiffs lied to the CTA about the hours they were working in order to induce the CTA to pay them.  Under Illinois law, a fraud plaintiff must show (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the party making the statement, (3) with the intent to induce the statement’s recipient to act, (4) action by the recipient in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage resulting from that reliance.

Under the Federal pleading rules, a fraud claimant must plead the “who, what, where when and how” of the fraud but the allegation of a defendant’s intent or knowledge can be alleged generally.

Here, the Court found that the CTA sufficiently alleged a fraudulent scheme by the employees to misrepresent the hours they worked in exchange for their paychecks.  This was enough, under Illinois fraud law, to survive the employees’ motion to dismiss.  See FRCP 9(b); (*7).

Take-aways:

1/ While an employee owes an employer fiduciary duties of loyalty, his sub-par job performance doesn’t equate to a breach of fiduciary duty.  There must be self-dealing or intentional conduct by the employee for him to be vulnerable to an employer’s fiduciary duty suit;

2/ An employee misrepresenting hours work can underlie a common law fraud claim if the employer can show it paid in reliance on the truth of the employee’s hour reporting;

 

 

 

Cab Passenger Fares Aren’t “Wages” Under IL Wage Payment and Collection Act – 7th Circuit

The salient question considered by the Seventh Circuit in Enger v. Chicago Carriage Cab Corp., 2016 WL 106878 (7th Cir. 2016) was whether “wages” under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 et seq. (the “Act”) encompasses “indirect wages” – monies paid an employee by third parties (i.e. as opposed to money paid directly from an employer).

The answer: No, it does not.

The plaintiffs, current and former Chicago cab drivers over a ten-year time frame sued various cab companies alleging Wage Act violations and unjust enrichment.

The plaintiffs alleged the companies violated the Act by misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of employees. The plaintiffs argued that the cab companies requirement that the driver plaintiffs pay daily or weekly shift fees (basically, a lease payment giving the drivers the right to operate the cabs) and other operating expenses, the companies violated the Act.

Affirming the district court’s motion to dismiss, the Seventh Circuit gave a cramped construction to the term wages under the Act examined the content and reach of the Act as applied to claims that

The Act gives employees a cause of action for payment of earned wages. “Wages” is defined by the Act as compensation owed an employee by an employer pursuant to an employment contract.

While the Seventh Circuit agreed with the drivers that there was at least an implied contract between them and the cab companies, those companies did not pay wages to the drivers as the term is defined by the Act.

This was because there was no obligation for the cab company to pay anything to the driver. The cab driver-cab company relationship was a reciprocal one: the driver paid a license fee to the company and then collected fares and tips from passengers.  No money was paid directly from the company to the driver.

The Court found that for the Act to apply to the drivers claims, it would have to expand the statutory definition of wages to include “indirect compensation:” compensation from someone other than the employer. Since there was no published case law on this issue, the Seventh Circuit refused to expand the Act’s definition of wages to include non-employer payments.

For support, the Court noted that Illinois’ Minimum Wage Law specifically defines wages to include gratuities in addition to compensation owed a plaintiff by reason of his employment. Since the legislature could have broadened the Act’s wages definition to include indirect compensation (like tips, etc.) but chose not to, the Court limited wages under the Act to payments directly from an employer to employee.

The Court also rejected the drivers’ argument that they received wages under the Act since drivers are often paid by the cab company when a passenger pays a fare via credit card. In this credit card scenario, the court found that the cab company simply acted as an intermediary that facilitated the credit card transaction. The company did not assume role of wage paying employer just because its credit card processor was used to handle some passenger credit card payments.

The driver’s unjust enrichment claim – that the cab companies were unjustly enriched by the drivers’ shift fees – also fell short.  Since there was an implied contract between the drivers and cab companies, unjust enrichment didn’t apply since an express or implied contract negates an unjust enrichment claim.

Afterwords:

This case clarifies that recoverable wages under Illinois’ Wage Act must flow directly from an employer to an employee.  Payments from third-party sources (like cab passengers) aren’t covered by the Wage Act.

Enger also serves as latest in a long line of cases that emphasize that an unjust enrichment can’t co-exist with an express or implied (as was the case here) contract governs the parties’ relationship.

 

Feelin’ Minnesota? Most Likely (Court Pierces Corporate Veil of Copyright Trolling Firm To Reach Lawyer’s Personal Assets)

After being widely lambasted for its heavy-handed and ethically ambiguous (challenged?) BitTorrent litigation tactics over the past few years, an incarnation of the infamous Prenda law firm was recently hit with a piercing the corporate veil judgment by a Minnesota state court.

In Guava, LLC v. Merkel, 2015 WL 4877851 (Minn. 2015), the plaintiff pornographic film producer, represented by the Alpha, LLC law firm (“Alpha”), filed a civil conspiracy suit and state wiretapping claim against various defendants whom plaintiff claimed illegally downloaded adult films owned by the plaintiff.

Alpha’s lone member is Minnesota attorney and Prenda alum Paul Hansmeier, who has garnered some negative press of his own both for his copyright trolling efforts and his more recent ADA violation suits against small businesses.  In October 2015, the Supreme Court of Minnesota instituted formal disciplinary proceedings against Hansmeier for various lawyer misconduct charges.

The Alpha firm’s litigation strategy in the Guava case followed the familiar script of issuing a subpoena blitz against some 300 internet service providers (ISPs) to learn the identity of the movie downloaders.  Many of the ISP customers fought back with motions to quash the subpoenas.

After assessing monetary sanctions against Alpha for bad faith conduct – trying to extract settlements from the ISP customers with no real intent to litigate – the trial court entered a money judgment against Alpha for the subpoena respondents and John Doe defendants.

Through post-judgment discovery, the subpoena defendants learned that Hansmeier had transferred over $150,000 from Alpha, defunding it in the process.

The judgment creditor defendants then moved to amend the judgment to add Hansmeier individually under a piercing the corporate veil theory. After the trial court granted the motion, Alpha and Hansmeier appealed.

Held: Affirmed

Rules/Reasoning:

In Minnesota, a district court has jurisdiction to take actions to enforce a judgment when the judgment is uncollectable and where refusing to amend a judgment would be inequitable.

A classic example of an equitable remedy that a court can apply to amend an unsatisfied money judgment is piercing the corporate veil. A Minnesota court will pierce the corporate veil where (1) a judgment debtor is the alter ego of another person or entity and (2) where there is fraud.

The alter ego analysis looks at a medley of factors including, among others, whether the judgment debtor was sufficiently capitalized, whether corporate formalities were followed, payment or nonpayment of dividends, and whether the dominant shareholder siphoned funds from an entity to avoid paying the entity’s debts.

The fraud piercing factor considers whether an individual has used the corporate form to gain an undeserved advantage. The party trying to pierce the corporate veil doesn’t have to show actual (read: intentional) fraud but must instead show the corporate entity operated as a constructive fraud on the judgment creditor.

Here, the defendants established both piercing prongs. The evidence clearly showed Alpha was used to further Hansmeier’s personal purposes, there was a disregard for basic corporate formalities and the firm was insufficiently and deliberately undercapitalized.

The court also found that it would be fundamentally unfair for Hansmeier to escape judgment here; noting that Hansmeier emptied Alpha’s bank accounts after it became clear that defendants were trying to enforce the money judgment against the Alpha firm.

Afterword:

While a Minnesota state court ruling won’t bind other jurisdictions, the case is post-worthy The case lesson is clear: if a court (at least in Minnesota) sees suspicious emptying of corporate assets when it’s about to enter a money judgment, it has equitable authority to modify a judgment so that it binds any individual who is siphoning the corporate assets.

The case is also significant because it breaks from states like Illinois that specify that piercing the corporate veil is not available in post-judgment proceedings. In Illinois and other states, a judgment creditor like the Guava defendants would have to file a separate lawsuit to pierce the corporate veil.  This obviously would entail spending time and money trying to attach assets that likely would be dissipated by case’s end.  The court here avoided what it viewed as an unfair result simply by amending the money judgment to add Hansmeier as a judgment debtor even though he was never a party to the lawsuit.

Implied-in-Law Contracts Versus Express Contracts: “Black Letter” Basics

Tsitiridis v. Mahmoud, 2015 IL App (1st) 141599-U pits a taxi medallion owner against a medallion manager in a breach of contract dispute.  Plaintiff pled both express and implied contract theories against the medallion manager based on an oral, year-to-year contract where the plaintiff licensed the medallions to the defendant (who used them in his fleet of cabs) for a monthly fee.  Under the agreement, the defendant also assumed responsibility for all its drivers’ traffic and parking violations and related fines.

When the defendant failed to pay its drivers’ traffic fines, plaintiff covered them by paying the city of Chicago about $60K.  Plaintiff then sued the defendant for reimbursement.

After the trial court dismissed the complaint on the defendant’s motion, the medallion owner plaintiff appealed.

The First District partially agreed and disagreed with the trial court. In doing so, it highlighted the chief differences between express and implied-in-law contracts and the importance of a plaintiff differentiating between the two theories in its Complaint.

A valid contract in Illinois requires an offer, acceptance and consideration (a reciprocal promise or some exchange of value between the parties).

While the medallion contract involved in this case seemed factually unorthodox since it was a verbal, year-to-year contract, the plaintiff alleged that in the cab business, it was an “industry standard” agreement.  Plaintiff alleged that the agreement was a classic quid pro quo: plaintiff licensed the medallions to the defendant who then used the medallions in its fleet of cabs in exchange for a monthly fee to the plaintiff.

Despite the lack of a written agreement, the court noted that in some cases, “industry standards” can explain facially incomplete contracts and save an agreement that would normally be dismissed by a court as indefinite.

The plaintiff’s complaint allegations that the oral medallion contract was standard in the taxicab industry was enough to allege a colorable breach of express contract claim. As a result, the trial court’s dismissal of the breach of oral contract Complaint count was reversed.

The court did affirm dismissal of the implied contract claims, though.   It voiced the differences between implied-in-law and implied-in-fact contracts.

An implied-in-law contract or quasi-contract arises by implication and does not depend on an actual agreement.   It is based on equitable concerns that no one should be able to unjustly enrich himself at another’s expense.

Implied-in-fact contracts, by contrast, are express contracts.  The court looks to the parties’ conduct (instead of the contract’s language) and whether the conduct is congruent with a mutual meeting of the minds concerning the pled contract terms.  If there is a match between alleged contract terms and the acts of the parties, the court will find an implied-in-fact contract exists.

Illinois law is also clear that an implied-in-law contract cannot co-exist with an express contract claim.  They are mutually exclusive.  While Illinois does allow a plaintiff to plead conflicting claims in the alternative, a plaintiff cannot allege a breach of express contract claim and an implied-in-law contract one in the same complaint.

Since the plaintiff here incorporated the same breach of express contract allegations into his implied-in-law contract count, the two counts were facially conflicting and the implied-in-law count had to be dismissed.

Take-away:

Like quantum meruit and unjust enrichment, Implied-in-law contract can serve as a viable fallback theory if there is some factual defect in a breach of express contract action.

However, while Illinois law allows alternative pleading, plaintiffs should take pains to make sure they don’t incorporate their implied contract facts into their express contract ones. If they do, they risk dismissal.

This case also has value for its clarifying the rule that industry standards can sometimes inform a contract’s meaning and supply the necessary “gap fillers” to sustain an otherwise too indefinite breach of contract complaint count.

“I Just Work Here”: Service on Corporate “Employee” Not The Same As Service On Corporate “Agent” – IL Court


Route 31, LLC, v. Collision Centers of America, 2015 IL App (2d) 150344-U examines the law and facts that determine whether service of process on a corporation complies with Illinois law.

The plaintiff served its lawsuit on the defendant’s office manager and eventually won a default judgment.  About nine months later, the corporation moved to quash service and vacate the default judgment on the basis that service was defective.  The trial court denied the motion and the defendant appealed.

The corporate defendant argued that the court had no personal jurisdiction over it since the plaintiff improperly served the lawsuit. A judgment entered without personal jurisdiction can be challenged at any time.

  • Personal jurisdiction may be established either by service of process in accordance with statutory requirements or by a party’s voluntary submission to the court’s jurisdiction.
  • Strict compliance with the statutes governing the service of process is required before a court will acquire personal jurisdiction over the person served.
  • Where service of process is not obtained in accordance with the requirements of the statute authorizing service of process, it is invalid, no personal jurisdiction is acquired, and any default judgment rendered against a defendant is void.
  • Section 2–204 of the Code provides that a private corporation may be served by leaving a copy of the process with its registered agent or any officer or “agent” of the corporation found anywhere in the state or in any other manner permitted by law. 735 ILCS 5/2–204 (West 2012).
  • Substitute service of a corporation may be made by serving the Secretary of State. 805 ILCS 5/5.25(b)
  • A sheriff’s return of service is prima facie evidence of service, which can be set aside only by clear and satisfactory evidence.
  • However, when a corporation is sued, the sheriff’s return as to the fact of agency is not conclusive. Id.

(¶¶ 13-14)

Employee vs. Agent: “What’s the Difference?”

Employee status and agency are often used interchangeably in common parlance but the terms differ in the service of process context.  An employee is not always an “agent.”   Illinois cases have invalidated service of process on corporations where a plaintiff, in different cases, served a cashier and receptionist with process and neither understood what it was.

But at least one court (Megan v. L.B. Foster Co., 1 Ill.App.3d 1036, 1038 (1971), did find that “service upon an intelligent clerk of a company who acts as a receptionist and who understood the purport of the service of summons” was sufficient service on a corporate employee.

In Collision Centers, the plaintiff and defendant submitted warring affidavits.  The plaintiff’s process server testified that the summons recipient held herself out as the “office manager,” and acknowledged that she was authorized to accept service.  The office manager’s affidavit said just the opposite: she claimed to have no corporate responsibilities or authority to receive legal papers for her employer.

The court noted that under the process server’s affidavit, the office manager was akin to an agent – an “intelligent” company representative who appreciates the importance of the served summons.

Yet the defendant’s office manager swore she was only a garden-variety “employee” who lacked any corporate authority to accept service and lacked a basic understanding of the papers’ meaning.  In fact, the office manager stated in the affidavit that she was badgered into accepting the papers by the plaintiff’s process server.

The widely divergent affidavit testimony meant the court could only decide the service issue after an evidentiary hearing with live testimony.  Since plaintiff has the burden of proving proper corporate service and never requested an evidentiary hearing in the trial court, the trial court erred in denying defendant’s petition to quash service without first conducting a hearing.  As a result, the judgment against the corporation was reversed.

Afterwords:

This case highlights the importance of a civil suit plaintiff’s vigilance when serving a corporation.  If service on a registered agent of a corporation (something that is typically public record via a Secretary of State website) isn’t possible, the plaintiff should take pains to serve an officer of the corporation or at least a knowledgeable agent.  Unfortunately, in Illinois at least, this isn’t always possible on the first try since service must usually go through the County Sheriff in the first instance.

No Course of Dealing In Trucking Dispute – Attorneys’ Fees Language in Invoice Not Binding On Transport Co. (IL ND)

C&K Trucking, LLC v. AGL, LLC, 2015 WL 6756282, features a narcotic fact pattern and this legal issue: Can boilerplate “legalese” in an invoice create binding contract rights against the invoice recipient?

Whether the mere mention of this topic is sleep inducing will depend on the person.  But what I can say is that the question is a pertinent one from a commercial litigation standpoint since it continues to crop up pretty regularly in practice.

I’ve represented parties trying to enforce favorable invoice language while at other times, defended against one-sided invoice terms.  The main issue there, like in today’s featured case, is whether there was a meeting of the minds on the disputed invoice language.

The plaintiff transportation broker in C&K Trucking sued to recover damages for unpaid cargo brokerage services. The broker’s damages action was based on invoices that provided it could recover unpaid amounts in addition to interest and attorneys’ fees.

The problem was that the broker didn’t send its invoices until after it performed under a series of oral contracts with the trucking firm defendants.

The contracting chronology went like this: plaintiff broker verbally hired the defendant to transport cargo for the plaintiff’s clients.  Once the defendants delivered the cargo and was paid by the broker’s clients, the broker sent the defendants invoices that contained the disputed fee-shifting terms.

Defendants moved for summary judgment that the invoice attorneys’ fees provision weren’t enforceable since they (defendants) never agreed to fee-shifting at the outset.  The Northern District agreed and granted defendants’ summary judgment motion.  In doing so, the court relied on some fundamental contract formation principles and reiterated the quantum of evidence needed to survive a summary judgment motion.

In Federal court, the summary judgment movant must show the court that a trial is pointless – that there’s no disputed issue of fact. Once the movant meets this burden, the non-moving party must then show that the affidavits, depositions and admissions on file do in fact show there are “material” disputed facts that should be resolved at trial.

A disputed fact is material where it might affect the outcome of the suit. But a metaphysical doubt isn’t enough. If the evidence doesn’t show a true factual dispute, a summary judgment will be granted.

To establish the formation of a valid contract in Illinois, the plaintiff must prove there was an offer, an acceptance and valuable consideration.  The plaintiff must also establish that the contract’s main terms were definite and certain.

Any one-sided attempt to change terms of a contract by sending an invoice with additional terms that were never discussed by the parties will normally fail to create an enforceable contract. 

An exception to this applies where there is a course of dealing between the parties.  A course of dealing is defined as a continuous relationship between parties over time that, based on the parties’ conduct, reflects a mutual understanding of each party’s rights and duties concerning a particular transaction.  A course of dealing under contract law can inform or qualify written contract language.

In this case, the plaintiff argued that the defendants’ years-long pattern of accepting and paying plaintiff’s invoices established a course of dealing and evinced defendant’s implied acceptance of the invoice contents.  The court rejected this argument since there was no evidence that defendants ever paid the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees through the life of the verbal contracts.  The court also pointed to the fact that defendants disputed many of plaintiff’s invoices as additional proof that there was no tacit acknowledgement by defendants that it was responsible for plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.

Afterwords:

The key lesson from the factually unsexy C&K Trucking case is that boilerplate fee-shifting invoice terms sent after the contract is performed generally aren’t enforceable. There must be a meeting of the minds at the contract formation stage to allow fee-shifting.

A course of dealing based on the parties’ past conduct can sometimes serve as a proxy for explicit contract terms or a party’s acceptance of those terms.  However, where the parties’ prior transactions do not clearly show mutual assent to disputed language, the breach of contract plaintiff cannot rely on the course of dealing rule to prove a defendant’s implied acceptance.

 

 

 

Hotel Titan Escapes Multi-Million Dollar Fla. Judgment Where No Joint Venture in Breach of Contract Case

In today’s featured case, the plaintiff construction firm contracted with a vacation resort operator in the Bahamas partly owned by a Marriott hotel subsidiary. When the resort  breached the contract, the plaintiff sued and won a $7.5M default judgment in a Bahamas court. When that judgment proved uncollectable, the plaintiff sued to enforce the judgment in Florida state court against Marriott – arguing it was responsible for the judgment since it was part of a joint venture that owned the resort company.  The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and against Marriott who then appealed.

Reversing the judgment, the Florida appeals court first noted that under Florida law, a joint venture is an association of persons or legal entities to carry out a single enterprise for profit.

In addition to proving the single enterprise for profit, the joint venture plaintiff must demonstrate (i) a community of interest in the performance of the common purpose, (ii) joint control or right to control the venture; (iii) a joint proprietary interest in the subject matter of the venture; (4) the right to share in the profits; and (5) a duty to share in any losses that may be sustained.

All elements must be established. If only one is absent, there’s no joint venture – even if the parties intended to form a joint venture from the outset.

The formation of a corporation almost always signals there is no joint venture. This is because joint ventures generally follow partnership law which follows a different set of rules than do corporations. So, by definition, corporate shareholders cannot be joint venturers by definition.

Otherwise, a plaintiff could “have it both ways” and claim that a given business entity was both a corporation and a joint venture. This would defeat the liability-limiting function of the corporate form.

A hallmark of joint control in a joint venture context is mutual agency: the ability of one joint venturer to bind another concerning the venture’s subject matter.  The reverse is also true: where one party cannot bind the other, there is no joint venture.

Here, none of the alleged joint venturers had legal authority to bind the others within the scope of the joint venture. The plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of joint control over either the subject of the venture or the other venturers’ conduct.

There was also no proof that one joint venture participant could bind the others. Since Marriott was only a minority shareholder in the resort enterprise, the court found it didn’t exercise enough control over the defaulted resort to subject it (Marriott) to liability for the resort’s breach of contract.

The court also ruled in Marriott’s favor on the plaintiff’s fraudulent inducement claim premised on Marriott’s failure to disclose the resort’s precarious economic status in order to  entice the plaintiff to contract with the resort.

Under Florida law, a fraud in the inducement claim predicated on a failure to disclose material information requires a plaintiff to prove a defendant had a duty to disclose information. A duty to disclose can be found (1) where there is a fiduciary duty among parties; or (2) where a party partially discloses certain facts such that he should have to divulge the rest of the related facts known to it.

Here, neither situation applied. Marriott owed no fiduciary duty to the plaintiff and didn’t transmit incomplete information to the plaintiff that could saddle the hotel chain with a duty to disclose.

Take-aways:

A big economic victory for Marriott. Clearly the plaintiff was trying to fasten liability to a deep-pocketed defendant several layers removed from the breaching party. The case shows how strictly some courts will scrutinize a joint venture claim. If there is no joint control or mutual agency, there is no joint venture. Period.

The case also solidifies business tort axiom that a fraudulent inducement by silence claim will only prevail if there is a duty to disclose – which almost always requires the finding of a fiduciary relationship. In situations like here, where there is a high-dollar contract between sophisticated commercial entities, it will usually be impossible to prove a fiduciary relationship.

Source: Marriott International, Inc. v. American Bridge Bahamas, Ltd., 2015 WL 8936529

 

Stipulation In Earlier Case Subjects LLC Member to Unjust Enrichment and Constructive Trust Judgment in Check Cashing Dispute – IL 1st Dist.

In a densely fact-packed case that contains an exhausting procedural history, the First District recently provided guidance on the chief elements of the equitable unjust enrichment and constructive trust remedies.

National Union v. DiMucci’s (2015 IL App (1st) 122725) back story centers around an anchor commercial tenant’s (Montgomery Ward) bankruptcy filing and its corporate landlord’s allowed claim for about $640K in defaulted lease payments.  In the bankruptcy case, the landlord assigned its approved claim by written stipulation to its lender whom it owed approximately $16M under a defaulted development loan.

The bankruptcy court paid $640K to the landlord who, instead of assigning it to the lender, pocketed the check.  The lender’s insurer then filed a state court action against the landlord’s officer (who deposited the funds in his personal account) to recover the $640K paid to the landlord in the Montgomery Ward bankruptcy.  After the trial court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff on its unjust enrichment and constructive trust counts, the defendant appealed.

Affirming the trial court’s judgment for the plaintiff, the First District first focused on the importance of the stipulation signed by the landlord in the prior bankruptcy case. The court rejected the landlord’s argument that his attorney in the bankruptcy case lacked authority to stipulate that the landlord would assign its $640K claim to the plaintiff’s insured (the lender). 

A stipulation is considered a judicial admission that cannot be contradicted by a party.  But it is only considered a judicial admission in the case in which it’s filed.  In a later case, the earlier stipulation is an evidentiary admission that can be explained away.

The law is also clear that a party is normally bound by his attorney’s entry into a stipulation on the party’s behalf. This holds true even where the attorney makes a mistake or is negligent.  Where an attorney lacks a client’s express authority, a client is still bound by his attorney’s conduct where the client fails to promptly seek relief from the stipulation. To undo a stipulation entered into by its attorney, a party must make a clear showing that the stipulated matter was untrue. Since the landlord failed to meet this elevated burden of invalidating the stipulation, the court held the landlord to the terms of the stipulation and ruled that it should have turned over the $640K to the plaintiff.

Unjust Enrichment and LLC Act

Next, the court examined the plaintiff’s unjust enrichment count. Unjust enrichment requires a plaintiff to show a defendant retained a benefit to plaintiff’s detriment and that the retention of the benefit violates basic principles of fairness. Where an unjust enrichment claim is based on a benefit being conferred on a defendant by an intermediary (here, the bankruptcy agent responsible for paying claims), the plaintiff must show (1) the benefit should have been given to the plaintiff but was mistakenly given to the defendant, (2) the defendant obtained the benefit from the third party via wrongful conduct, or (3) where plaintiff has a better claim to the benefit than does the defendant. (¶ 67)

Scenario (1) – benefit mistakenly given to defendant – clearly applied here. The bankruptcy court agent paid the landlord’s agent by mistake when the payment should have gone to the plaintiff pursuant to the stipulation.

The court also rejected defendant’s claim that he wasn’t liable under the Illinois LLC Act which immunizes LLC members from company obligations.  805 ILCS 180/10-10.  However, since plaintiff sued the defendant in his individual capacity for his own wrongful conduct (depositing a check in his personal account), the LLC Act didn’t protect the defendant from unjust enrichment liability.

Constructive Trust

The First District then affirmed the trial court’s imposition of a constructive trust on the $640K check.  A constructive trust is an equitable remedy applied to correct unjust enrichment. A constructive trust is generally created where there is fraudulent conduct by a defendant, a breach of fiduciary duty or when duress, coercion or mistake is present. While a defendant’s wrongful conduct is usually required for a court to impose a constructive trust, this isn’t always so. The key inquiry is whether it is unfair to allow a party to retain possession of property – regardless of whether the party has possession based on wrongful conduct or by mistake.

Here, the defendant failed to offer any evidence other than his own affidavit to dispute the fact that he wrongfully deposited funds that should have gone to the plaintiff; the court noting that under Supreme Court Rule 191, self-serving and conclusory affidavits aren’t enough to defeat summary judgment. (¶¶ 75-77)

Take-aways:

This case offers a useful synopsis of two fairly common equitable remedies – unjust enrichment and the constructive trust device – in a complex fact pattern involving multiple parties and diffuse legal proceedings.

The case makes clear that a party will be bound by his attorney’s conduct in signing a stipulation on the party’s behalf and that if a litigant wishes to nullify unauthorized attorney conduct, he carries a heavy burden of proof.

 

 

 

 

Joint Ventures, Close Corporations and Summary Judgment Motion Practice – IL Northern District Case Snapshot

The featured case is Apex Medical Research v. Arif (http://cases.justia.com/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2015cv02458/308072/52/0.pdf?ts=1447939471)

A medical clinical trials firm sued a doctor and his company for breach of contract and some tort claims when the firm learned the doctor was soliciting firm clients in violation of a noncompete signed by him.

In partially granting and denying a flurry of summary judgment motions, the Illinois Northern District highlights the importance of Local Rule 56 statements and responses in summary judgment practice. Substantively, the court provides detailed discussion of the key factors governing whether a business arrangement is a joint venture and what obligations flow from such a finding.

The clinical trials agreement contemplated that plaintiff would locate medical trial opportunities and then provide them to the doctor defendant.  The doctor would then conduct the trials in exchange for a percentage of the revenue generated by them.  The plaintiff sued when the parties’ relationship soured.

Procedurally, the court emphasized the key rules governing Local Rule 56 (“LR 56”) statements and responses in summary judgment practice:

LR 56 is designed to aid the trial court in determining whether a trial is necessary; Its purpose is to identify relevant admissible evidence supporting the material facts.  LR 56 is not a vehicle for factual or legal arguments;

– LR 56 requires the moving party to provide a statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue;

– The non-moving party must then file a response to each numbered paragraph of the movant’s statement of facts and if it disagrees with any statement of fact, the non-movant must make specific reference to the affidavits and case record that supports the denial;

– A failure to cite to the record in support of a factual denial may be disregarded by the court;

– The non-movant may also submit its own statement of additional facts that require denial of the summary judgment motion;

– Where a non-movant makes evasive denials or claims insufficient knowledge to answer a moving party’s factual statement, the court will deem the fact admitted.

(**2-3)

The court focused its substantive legal analysis on whether the individual defendant owed fiduciary duties to the plaintiff.  Under Illinois law, a joint venturer owes fiduciary duties of loyalty and good faith to his other joint venturer.  So too does a shareholder in a close corporation (a corporation where stock is held in the hands of only a few people or family members) – but only if that shareholder is able to influence corporate policy and management.

The hallmarks of an Illinois joint venture are: (1) an express or implied association of two or more persons to carry out a single enterprise for profit; (2) a manifested intent by the parties to be joint venturers; (3) a community of interest (i.e. joint contribution of property, money, effort, skill or knowledge); and (4) a measure of joint control and management of the enterprise.  (*16).

The most important joint venture element is the joint control (item (4)) aspect.  Here, there were provisions of the parties’ written contract that reflected equal control and management of the clinical trials arrangement but other contract terms reflected the opposite – that the plaintiff could supervise the doctor defendant.  These conflicts in the evidence showed there was a genuine factual dispute on whether the parties jointly controlled and managed the trial venture.

The evidence was also murky as to whether the doctor defendant had enough control over the corporate plaintiff to subject the doctor to fiduciary obligations as a close corporation shareholder.  The conflicting evidence led the court to deny summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claim. (**16-17).

Afterwords:

Procedurally, the case presents a thorough summary of the key rules governing summary judgment practice in Illinois Federal courts.  The party opposing summary judgment must explicitly cite to the case record for its denial of a given stated fact to be recognized by the court.

The case also provides useful substantive law discussion of the key factors governing the existence of a joint venture and whether a close corporation’s shareholder owes fiduciary duties to the other stockholders of that corporation.

 

Rights of First Refusal: Bankruptcy “Infotapes” Titan Wins Michigan Avenue Penthouse Dispute – IL 1st Dist.

IMG_0593

In today’s installment of High Class Problems, I feature Peter Francis Geraci, the Chicago bankruptcy lawyer whose pervasive television presence is doubtlessly familiar to weekday afternoon viewers.  Geraci and his wife recently won their real estate dispute with a company controlled by a foreign investor over rights to a 40th floor penthouse (“Penthouse”) in Chicago’s tony Michigan Avenue (“Magnificent Mile”) shopping district.

Reversing the trial court – who sided with the investor plaintiff- the First District appeals court in First 38, LLC v. NM Project Company, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 142680-U, expands on some recurring contract interpretation principles as applied to a high-dollar real estate dispute.

The plaintiff, a company associated with Mexican mining impresario and billionaire German Larrea, held a right of first refusal (“ROFR”) that required the Penthouse seller defendant to notify the plaintiff of any bona fide offer to buy the Penthouse that was accepted by the owner.  The owner was required to provide a copy of the signed offer (with certain identifying information blacked out) to the plaintiff who then had one (1) business day to match the offer.

When the owner sent the offer with the Geracis’ information redacted and failed to provide a copy of the earnest money check (a cool $860K, approx.), the plaintiff sued to block the sale of the Penthouse to the Geracis claiming the owner failed to adhere to the terms of the ROFR.  The Geracis eventually counter-sued for injunctive relief and specific performance and asked the court to require the owner to sell the Penthouse to them.

After a bench trial, the court ruled in plaintiff’s favor and the Geracis appealed.

Reversing, the First District discussed the operative contract law principles that framed the parties’ dispute.

A right of first refusal is a restraint on alienation and is strictly construed against the holder;

– An Illinois court’s primary goal in interpreting a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent by imputing the plain and ordinary meaning to the contract terms;

– A contract will not be deemed ambiguous just because the parties disagree on its meaning; instead, ambiguity requires words that are reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning;

– When a contract contains an ambiguity, a court may consider evidence of the parties intent (“your honor, this is what we meant….”);

– An “offer” in the context of contract law is a “manifestation of willingness to enter into a bargain made in such a way that another person’s assent to that bargain is invited and will conclude it’;

– An offer must be definite as to its material terms such that the parties are reasonably certain as to what the offer entails;

– A court cannot alter, change or modify terms of a contract or add new ones that the parties didn’t agree to and there is a presumption against provisions that could have easily been included in a contract;

A bona fide offer is one where the purchaser can command the funds necessary to accept an offer.
(¶¶ 47-48, 51-52, 63)

Here, the court found the ROFR’s plain text unambiguous.  It provided that upon defendant notifying the plaintiff of an accepted and bona fide offer, the plaintiff’s ROFR obligations were triggered. (Plaintiff had one day to match the accepted offer.)  By its clear terms, the ROFR did not require the owner defendant to divulge the third-party buyer’s identity nor did it require proof of the third-party’s earnest money deposit.

According to the court, had the parties wished to require more offer specifics, they could have easily done so.  (¶ 54).  As a result, the First District reversed the trial court and held that the owner defendant complied with its ROFR notice requirements.  Since plaintiff failed to match the Geracis’ offer for the Penthouse within one business day of notice, it relinquished its rights to match the offer.

Take-aways:

For such expensive and unique subject matter, the main legal rules relied on by the court are simple.  The court applies basic contract formation and interpretation rules to decipher the ROFR and determine whether the parties adhered to their respective obligations under it.

From a drafting standpoint, the case cautions sophisticated commercial entities to take pains to spell out key contract terms as specifically as possible to avoid future disputes over what the contract says and means.

Illinois Real Estate Broker Gets Commission Money Judgment Where She Offers Ready, Willing and Able Home Buyer to Owner – IL 2d Dist.

A home seller’s self-styled ‘sarcastic’ emails and change of heart about whether to sell her home wasn’t enough to escape her obligation to pay her real estate broker’s commission, the Illinois Second District recently ruled.

In Clann Dilis, Ltd. v. Kilroy, 2015 IL App (2d) 15-0421-U, an unpublished case, the plaintiff broker and homeowner defendant signed an exclusive listing agreement to sell the defendant’s home that she co-owned with her ex-husband.  The defendant’s divorce case with her ex was pending at the time the parties’ signed the listing agreement.

After some back and forth concerning the sales price, the broker ultimately found a buyer for the home willing to pay what was in the defendant’s price range.  When the defendant rejected the offer, deciding instead to keep the home, the broker sued to recover her contractual commission – 6% of the sale price to the buyer.

After a bench trial, the circuit court entered a money judgment for the plaintiff of about $13K.  The homeowner defendant appealed on the basis that the prospective buyer lacked financial ability to consummate the home purchase.

Held: affirmed

Q: Why?

A: The proposed buyer located by the plaintiff offered $209,000 for the defendant’s home.  This price was within the range previously authorized by the defendant in emails to the broker.  E-mail evidence at trial showed the plaintiff willing to go as low as $199,000 in marketing the property.  The defendant’s husband moved in the divorce case to compel the defendant to accept the offer and the divorce court granted the motion.  Still, the defendant refused to sell; opting instead to buy out her ex-husband’s interest in the property.

Plaintiff then sued the defendant for breach of contract claiming she procured a suitable buyer for the property at a price assented to by the defendant.

Affirming the trial court’s judgment for plaintiff’s 6% commission, the Second District pronounced some key contract law principles that govern a real estate broker’s claim for a commission.

A breach of contract plaintiff must establish (1) the existence of a valid and enforceable contract, (2) performance by the plaintiff, (3) breach of contract by the defendant, and (4) damages resulting from the breach.  Whether a breach has occurred is a question of fact that is left to the trial court’s decision.  A court’s determination that a defendant breached a contract can’t be overturned unless the breach finding is unreasonable, arbitrary or not based on the evidence presented. (¶ 38.)

In the broker commission context, a broker earns her commission where she produces a ready, willing and able buyer.  A buyer is deemed ready, willing and able if he (1) has agreed to buy the property, and (2) has sufficient funds on hand or is able to secure the necessary funds within the time set by the contract.  A buyer lacks sufficient funds if he is depending on third parties to supply the funds and that third party isn’t legally bound to provide the funds to the buyer.

In addition, the sale to the would-be buyer doesn’t have to be consummated for the broker to be entitled to her commission.  As long as the broker introduces a buyer that is able to buy the property on terms specified in a listing agreement, the broker has a right to her commission.  (¶¶ 39, 49-50.)

Here, the trial court found that the buyer located by the plaintiff was a ready, willing and able one.  The court pointed out that the buyer signed a contract to buy the property for $209,000, the buyer had obtained a preapproval letter from a mortgage lender committing to the purchase funds, and the defendant authorized the plaintiff to sell the property for less than $209,000.  Taken together, these factors supported the trial court’s ruling that the broker furnished an acceptable buyer and was entitled to her commission.

Afterwords:

This case’s simple fact pattern provides a clear illustration of the procuring cause doctrine: so long as a real estate broker provides a ready, willing and able buyer, she can recover her commission; even if the sale falls through.

The case also showcases the factors a court looks at when determining whether a given real estate buyer is financially capable of consummating a purchase.

Finally, from the evidence lens, the Kilroy case highlights the importance of e-mail admissions from a party and how they can often make or break a litigant’s case at trial.

 

Trademark Infringement – The Irreparable Harm and Inadequate Remedy at Law Injunction Elements

The Northern District of Illinois recently pronounced the governing standards for injunctive relief in a franchise dispute between rival auto repair shops.

SBA-TLC, LLC v. Merlin Corp., 2015 WL 6955493 (N.D.Ill. 2015) sued its former franchisee for trademark infringement after the franchisee continued using the plaintiff’s signage, logo and design plans after the franchisor declared a default and terminated the franchise.

The court granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction based on the following black-letter basics:

To obtain injunctive relief, the moving party must show (1) he is likely to succeed on the merits, (2) the movant is likely to suffer irreparable harm if an injunction isn’t issued, (3) the balance of harms tips in the movant’s favor, and (4) an injunction is in the public interest.

To win a trademark infringement suit, the plaintiff must show (1) a protectable trademark, and (2) a likelihood of confusion as to the origin of the defendant’s product. In the injunction context, the trademark plaintiff merely has to show a “better than negligible chance of winning on the merits.

The plaintiff here introduced evidence that it properly registered its trademarks and that the defendant continued to use them after plaintiff declared a franchise agreement default. This satisfied the likelihood of success prong.

The court next found the plaintiff satisfied the irreparable harm and inadequate remedy at law injunction elements. Irreparable harm means harm that is not fully compensable (or avoidable) by a final judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.  To show an inadequate remedy at law, the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove that a remedy is entirely worthless.  Instead, the plaintiff needs to show that a money damage award is “seriously deficient.”

Trademark cases especially lend themselves to court findings of irreparable harm and an inadequate remedy at law since it is difficult to monetize the impact trademark infringement has on a given brand. Lost profits and loss of goodwill are factors that signal irreparable harm in trademark disputes. The court further found that since it’s difficult to accurately measure economic damages in trademark cases, an inadequate remedy at law could be presumed.

Finally, the court found that the balance of harms weighed in favor of an injunction. It found the potential harm to plaintiff if an injunction did not issue would be great since the defendant franchisee could continue to use plaintiff’s marks and financially harm the plaintiff. By contrast, harm to the franchisee defendant was relatively minimal since the franchisee could easily be compensated for any lost profits sustained during the period of the injunction.

Take-away:

SBA=TLC provides a succinct summary of governing injunction standards under FRCP 65. The case stands for proposition that the irreparable harm and inadequate remedy at law prongs of injunctive relief are presumed in the trademark infringement context given the intrinsic difficulties in quantifying infringement damages.

 

 

Homeowners’ Operation of Home-Based Daycare Business Doesn’t Violate Restrictive Covenant Requiring Residence Use – IL Third Dist.

The plaintiff homeowner’s association in Neufairfield Homeonwers Ass’n v. Wagner, 2015 IL App (3d) 140775, filed suit against two sets of homeowners claiming they violated restrictive covenants in the development’s declaration by operating daycare businesses from their homes.

The association based their suit on a declaration covenant that required all lots to be used for “Single Family Dwellings.”

The declaration allowed an exception for home-based businesses but only if they were operated in conformance with City ordinances and if there were no vehicles with business markings parked overnight in the development.  A further qualification to the home-based business rule prohibited activities that encouraged customers or members of the public to “frequent” the development.

The association sued when several homeowners complained that the daycare businesses resulted in increased vehicular traffic in the development and was a nuisance to the residents.

The association supported their case with an affidavit from the property manager and a homeowner – both of whom testified that the two daycares resulted in multiple non-residents entering and exiting the subdivision on a daily basis and that several residents had similar complaints.

Affirming summary judgment for the homeowner defendants, the appeals court provides a primer on the enforceability of restrictive covenants and the governing contract interpretation principles affecting them. It wrote:

-Restrictive covenants affecting land rights will be enforced according to their (the covenants) plain and unambiguous language;

–  In interpreting a restrictive covenant, the court’s objective is to give effect to the parties’ actual intent when the covenant was made;

– A condominium declaration is strong evidence of a developer’s intent and it will be construed against the developer where the declaration’s text is unclear;

– Undefined words in a declaration are given their “ordinary and commonly understood meanings” and a court will freely use a dictionary as a resource to decipher a word’s ordinary and popular meaning.

(¶¶ 16-20).

Here, the key declaration word was “frequent” – that is, did the defendants’ daycare businesses result in customers or members of the public “frequenting” the subdivision?

The declaration didn’t define the verb “frequent” but the dictionary did as to do something “habitually” or “persistently.”  Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 909 (1981); (¶ 20).

The plaintiff’s supporting affidavit established that, at most, 7 or 8 cars entered and exited the subdivision on a daily basis – supposedly to patronize the daycare businesses.  The court viewed this amount of traffic wasn’t persistent or habitual enough to meet the dictionary definition of “frequent” under the declaration.

As a result, the association’s declaratory judgment suit failed and the court affirmed summary judgment for the property owners.

Afterwords:

1/ Courts will construe declarations and restrictive covenants as written and will do so under standard contract interpretation rules (e.g. unambiguous language will be construed under plain language test and without resort to outside evidence).

2/ Where a term isn’t defined, a court can look to dictionary to inform a word’s ordinary and popular meaning.

3/ A court will construe a restrictive covenant in favor of free use of residential property and where a declaration specifically allows home-based businesses, a court will scrutinize association attempts to curtail a property owner’s use of his property.

 

 

Real Estate Not Subject To Conversion Claim – IL 2nd Dist.

The Illinois Second District recently reversed a trial court’s imposition of a constructive trust and assessment of punitive damages in a conversion case involving the transfer of real property.

In In re Estate of Yanni, 2015 IL App (2d) 150108, the Public Guardian filed suit on behalf of a disabled property owner (the “Ward”) for conversion and undue influence seeking to recover real estate – the Ward’s home – from the Ward’s son who deeded the home to himself without the Ward’s permission.

The trial court imposed a constructive trust on the property, awarded damages of $150K (the amount the Ward had contributed to the home through the years) and assessed punitive damages against the defendant for wrongful conduct. Defendant appealed.

Reversing, the appeals court held that the trial court should have granted the defendant’s Section 2-615 motion to dismiss since a claim for conversion, by definition, only applies to personal property (i.e. something moveable); not to real estate.

The court first addressed the procedural impact of the defendant answering the complaint after his prior motion to dismiss was denied. Normally, where a party answers a complaint after a court denies his motion to dismiss, he waives any defects in the complaint.

An exception to this rule is where the complaint altogether fails to state a recognized cause of action. If this is the case, the complaint can be attacked at any time and by any means. This is so because “a complaint that fails to state a [recognized] cause of action cannot support a judgment.”

However, this exception allowing complaint attacks at any time doesn’t apply to an incomplete or deficiently pled complaint – such as where a complaint alleges only bare conclusions instead of specific facts in a fraud claim. For a defendant to challenge a complaint after he answers it, the complaint must fail to state a recognized theory of recovery.

Here, the trial court erred because it allowed a judgment for the guardian on a conversion claim where the subject of the action was real property.  In Illinois, there is no recognized cause of action for conversion of real property. A conversion claim only applies to personal property.

Conversion is the wrongful and unauthorized deprivation of personal property from the person entitled to its immediate possession. The conversion plaintiff’s right to possess the property must be “absolute” and “unconditional” and he must make a demand for possession as a precondition to suing for conversion. (¶¶ 20-21)

The court rejected the guardian’s argument that the complaint alleged the defendant’s conversion of funds instead of physical realty.  The court noted that in the complaint, the guardian requested that the home be returned to the Ward’s estate and the Ward be given immediate possession of it.

The court also pointed to the fact that the defendant didn’t receive any funds or sales proceeds from the transfer that could be attached by a conversion claim. All that was alleged was that the defendant deeded the house to himself and his wife without the Ward’s permission. Since there were no liquid funds traceable to the defendant’s conduct, a conversion claim wasn’t a cognizable theory of recovery.

Afterwords:

This case provides some useful reminders about the nature of conversion and the proper timing to attack a complaint.

Conversion only applies to personal property. In an action involving real estate – unless there are specific funds that can be tied to a transfer of the property – conversion is not the right theory of recovery.

In hindsight, if in the plaintiff guardian’s shoes, I think I’d pursue a constructive trust based on equitable claims like a declaratory judgment (that the defendant’s deeding the home to himself is invalid), unjust enrichment and a partition action.

 

LLC Stopped From Selling Member’s Residence In Violation of Prior Charging Order – Utah Federal Court

Q: Can A Court Stop An LLC That Pays the Monthly Mortgage of One of Its Members From Selling that Member’s Home Where A Charging Order Has Issued Against the LLC to Enforce a Money Judgment Against the LLC Member?

A: Yes.

Q2: How So?

A2: By selling the member’s property and paying off the member’s mortgage with the sale proceeds, the LLC is effectively “paying the member” to the exclusion of the plaintiff judgment creditor.

Source: Earthgrains Baking Companies, Inc. v. Sycamore Family Bakery, Inc., et al, USDC Utah 2015 (https://casetext.com/case/earthgrains-baking-cos-v-sycamore-family-bakery-inc-3)

In this case, the plaintiff won a multi-million dollar money judgment against a corporate and individual defendant in a trademark dispute.  The plaintiff then secured a charging order against a LLC of which the individual defendant was a 48% member.  When the LLC failed to respond to the charging order, the plaintiff moved for an order of contempt against the LLC and sought to stop the LLC from selling the defendant’s home.

The court granted the contempt motion.  First, the court found that it had jurisdiction over the LLC.  The LLC argued that Utah lacked jurisdiction over it since the LLC was formed in Nevada.  The LLC claimed that under the “internal affairs” doctrine, the state of the LLC’s formation – Nevada – governs legal matters concerning the LLC.

Disagreeing, the court noted that a LLC’s internal affairs are limited only to “matters peculiar to the relationships among or between the corporation and its current officers, directors, and shareholders.”  The internal affairs doctrine does not apply to claims of third party creditors.  Here, since the plaintiff was a creditor of the LLC’s member, this was not a dispute between LLC and member.  As a result, the internal affairs rule didn’t apply and the Utah court had jurisdiction over the LLC since a LLC member lived in Utah.  (See Cosgrove v. Bartolotta, 150 F.3d 729, 731 (7th Cir. 1998)).

The Charging Order required the LLC to pay any distribution that would normally go to the member directly to the plaintiff until the money judgment was satisfied.  The Charging Order specifically mentions transfers characterized or designated as payment for defendant’s “loans,” among other things.

The LLC was making monthly mortgage payments on the member’s home and listed the home for sale in the amount of $4M.  Plaintiff wanted to prevent the sale since there was a prior $2M mortgage on the home.

In blocking the sale, the court found that if the LLC sold the member’s home and paid off the member’s mortgage lender with the proceeds, this would violate the Charging Order since it would constitute an indirect payment to the member.  The court deemed any payoff of the member’s mortgage a “distribution” (a direct or indirect transfer of money or property from LLC to member) under the Utah’s LLC Act. (Utah Code Ann. § 48-2c-102(5)(a)).

Since the Charging Order provided that any loan payments involving the member were to be paid to the plaintiff until the judgment is satisfied, the court found that to allow the LLC to sell the property and disburse the proceeds to a third party (the lender) would harm the plaintiff in its ability to satisfy the judgment.

Afterwords:

An interesting case that discusses the intricacies of charging orders and the thorny questions that arise when trying to figure out where to sue an LLC that has contacts in several states.  The case portrays a court willing to give an expansive interpretation of what constitutes an indirect distribution from an LLC to its member. 

Earthgrains also reflects a court endeavoring to protect a creditor’s judgment rights where an LLC and its member appear to be engaging in misdirection (if not outright deception) in order to elude the creditor.

[A special thanks to attorney and Forbes contributor Jay Adkisson for alerting me to this case (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jayadkisson/)]

 

LLC That Pays Itself and Insiders to Exclusion of Creditor Plaintiff Violates Fraudulent Transfer Statute – Illinois Court

Applying Delaware corporate law, an Illinois appeals court in A.G. Cullen Construction, Inc. v. Burnham Partners, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 122538, reversed the dismissal of a contractor’s claim against a LLC and its sole member to enforce an out-of-state arbitration award.  In finding for the plaintiff contractor, the court considered some important and recurring questions concerning the level of protection LLCs provide a lone member and the reach of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 et seq. (“UFTA”), as it applies to commercial disputes.

The plaintiff sued  a Delaware LLC and its principal member, an Illinois LLC, to enforce a $450K Pennsylvania arbitration award against the Delaware LLC.  The plaintiff added UFTA and breach of fiduciary duty claims against the Delaware and Illinois LLCs based on pre-arbitration transfers made by the Delaware LLC of over $3M.

After a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the LLC defendants and plaintiff appealed.

Reversing, the appeals court noted that the thrust of the UFTA claim was that the Delaware LLC enriched itself and its constituents when it wound down the company and paid itself and its member (the Illinois LLC) to the exclusion of plaintiff.

The UFTA was enacted to allow a creditor to defeat a debtor’s transfer of assets to which the creditor was entitled.  The UFTA has two separate schemes of liability: (1) actual fraud, a/k/a “fraud in fact” and (2) constructive fraud or “fraud in law” claims.  To prevail on an actual fraud claim, the plaintiff must prove a defendant’s intent to defraud, hinder or delay creditors.

By contrast, a constructive fraud UFTA claim doesn’t require proof of an intent to defraud.  Instead, the court looks to whether a transfer was made by a debtor for less than reasonably equivalent value leaving the debtor unable to pay any of its debts. (¶¶ 26-27); 740 ILCS 160/5(a)(1)(actual fraud), 160/5(a)(2)(constructive fraud).

When determining whether a debtor had an actual intent to defraud a creditor, a court considers up to eleven (11) “badges”of fraud which, in the aggregate, hone in on when a transfer was made, to whom, and what consideration flowed to the debtor in exchange for the transfer.

The court found that the Delaware LLC’s transfers of over $3M before the arbitration hearing had several attributes of actual fraud. Chief among them were that (i) the transfer was to an “insider” (i.e. a corporate officer and his relative), (ii) the Delaware LLC transferred assets without telling the plaintiff knowing that the plaintiff had a claim against it; (iii) the Delaware LLC received no consideration a $400K “management fee” paid to the Illinois LLC (the Delaware LLC’s sole member); and (iv) the Delaware LLC was insolvent after the  transfers.

Aside from reversing the UFTA judgment, the court also found the plaintiff should have won on its piercing the corporate veil and breach of fiduciary duty claims.  On the former, piercing claim, the court held that the evidence of fraudulent transfers by the Delaware LLC to the Illinois LLC presented a strong presumption of unjust circumstances that would merit piercing.  Under Delaware law (Delaware law governed since the defendant was based there), a court will pierce the corporate veil of limited liability where there is fraud or where a subsidiary is an alter ego of its corporate parent.  (¶ 41)

On the fiduciary duty count, the court held that once the Delaware LLC became insolvent, the Illinois LLC’s manager owed a fiduciary duty to creditors like the plaintiff to manage the Delaware LLC’s assets in the best interest of creditors. (¶¶ 45-46)

Afterwords:

A pro-creditor case in that it cements proposition that a UFTA plaintiff can prevail where he shows the convergence of several suspicious circumstances or “fraud badges” (i.e., transfer to insider, for little or no consideration, hiding the transfer from the creditor, etc.).  The case illustrates a court closely scrutinizing the timing and content of transfers that resulted in a company have no assets left to pay creditors.

Another important take-away lies in the court’s pronouncement that a corporate officer owes a fiduciary duty to corporate creditors upon the company’s dissolution.

Finally, the case shows the analytical overlap between UFTA claims and piercing claims.  It’s clear here at least, that where a plaintiff can show grounds for UFTA liability based on fraudulent transfers, this will also establish a basis to pierce the corporate veil.

 

Property Is Subject to Turnover Order Where Buyer Is ‘Continuation’ of Twice-Removed Seller – Successor Liability in IL

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a trial court’s turnover order based on a finding that a property transfer involving three separate parties was in reality, a single “pre-arranged transfer” involving a “straw purchaser.”

I previously profiled Advocate Financial Group, LLC v. 5434 North Winthrop, 2015 IL App (2d) 150144 (see http://paulporvaznik.com/5485/5485) where the court addressed the “mere continuation” and fraud exceptions to the general rule of no successor liability (a successor corporation isn’t responsible for debts of predecessor) in a creditor’s post- judgment action against an entity twice removed from the judgment debtor.

The plaintiff obtained a breach of contract judgment against the developer defendant (Company 1) who transferred the building twice after the judgment date. The second building transfer was to a third-party (Company 3) who ostensibly had no relation to Company 1. The sale from Company 1 went through another entity – Company 2 – that was unrelated to Company 1.

Plaintiff alleged that Company 1 and Company 3 combined to thwart plaintiff’s collection efforts and sought the turnover of the building so plaintiff could sell it and use the proceeds to pay down the judgment. The trial court granted the turnover motion on the basis that Company 3 was the “continuation” of Company 1 in light of the common personnel between the companies.  The appeals court reversed though.  It found that further evidence was needed on the continuation exception but hinted that the fraud exception might apply instead to wipe out the Company 1-to Company 2- to Company 3 property transfer.

On remand, the trial court found that the fraud exception (successor can be liable for predecessor debts where they fraudulently collude to avoid predecessor’s debts) indeed applied and found the transfer of the building to Company 3 was a sham transfer and again ordered Company 3 to turn the building over to the plaintiff. Company 3 appealed.

Held: affirmed

Reasons:

– A corporation that purchases the assets of another corporation is generally not liable for the debts or liabilities of the transferor corporation. The rule’s purpose is to protect good faith purchasers from unassumed liability and seeks to foster the fluidity of corporate assets;

– The “fraudulent purpose” exception to the rule of no successor liability applies where a transaction is consummated for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s obligations; 

– The mere continuation exception requires a showing that the successor entity “maintains the same or similar management and ownership, but merely wears different clothes.”  The test is not whether the seller’s business operation continues in the purchaser, but whether the seller’s corporate entity continues in the purchaser. 

– The key continuation question is always identity of ownership: does the “before” company and “after” company have the same officers, directors, and stockholders? 

The factual oddity here concerned Company 2 – the intermediary.  It was unclear whether Company 2 abetted Company 1 in its efforts to shake the plaintiff creditor.  The court affirmed the trial court’s factual finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser from Company 1. The court focused on the abbreviated time span between the two transfers – Company 2 sold to Company 3 within days of buying the building from Company 1 – in finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser. The court also pointed to evidence at trial that Company 1 was negotiating the ultimate transfer to Company 3 before the sale to Company 2 was even complete.

Taken together, the court agreed with the trial court that the two transfers (Company 1 to Company 2; Company 2 to Company 3) constituted an integrated, “pre-arranged” attempt to wipe out Company 1’s judgment debt to plaintiff.

Afterwords:  This case illustrates that a court will scrutinize property transfers that utilize middle-men that only hold the property for a short period of times (read: for only a few days).

Where successive property transfers occur within a compressed time window and the ultimate corporate buyer has substantial overlap (in terms of management personnel) with the first corporate seller, a court can void the transaction and deem it as part of a fraudulent effort to evade one of the first seller’s creditors.