The ‘Procuring Cause’ Rule – Ill. Appeals Court Weighs In

The First District recently applied the ‘procuring cause’ doctrine to award the plaintiff real estate broker a money judgment based on a reasonable brokerage commission in Jameson Real Estate, LLC v. Ahmed, 2018 IL App (1st) 171534.

The broker provided the defendant with specifics concerning an “off market” car wash business and the land it sat on. The plaintiff later gave defendant a written brokerage contract for the sale of the car wash business and property that provided for a 5% sales commission.  The defendant never signed the contract.

After many months of negotiations, defendant orally informed plaintiff he no longer wished to buy the property and stopped communicating with plaintiff.

When plaintiff later learned that defendant bought the property behind plaintiff’s back, plaintiff sued to recover his 5% commission. The trial court directed a verdict for defendant on plaintiff’s express contract claims but entered judgment for plaintiff on his quantum meruit complaint count.  The money judgment was for an amount that was congruent with what a typical buyer’s broker – splitting a commission with a selling broker – would earn in a comparable commercial sale.

Quantum meruit, which means “as much as he deserves” provides a broker plaintiff with a cause of action to recover the reasonable value of services rendered but where no express contract exists between the parties.

A quantum meruit plaintiff must plead and prove (1) it performed a service to the benefit of a defendant, (2) that it did not perform the service gratuitously, (3) the defendant accepted the plaintiff’s service, and (4) no written contract exists to prescribe payment for the service.

The fine-line distinction between quantum meruit and unjust enrichment is that in the former, the measure of recovery is the reasonable value of work and material furnished, while in the unjust enrichment setting, the focus is on the benefit received and retained as a result of the improvement provided.  [¶ 61]

In the real estate setting, a quantum meruit commission recovery can be based on either a percentage of the sales price or the amount a buyer saved by excising a broker’s fee from a given transaction. [¶ 64]

Where a real estate broker brings parties together who ultimately consummate a real estate sale, the broker is treated as the procuring cause of the completed deal. In such a case, the broker is entitled to a reasonable commission shown by the evidence. A broker can be deemed a procuring cause where he demonstrates he was involved in negotiations and in disseminating property information which leads to a completed sale. [¶ 69]

The appeals court found the trial court’s quantum meruit award of $50,000, which equaled the seller’s broker commission and which two witnesses testified was a reasonable purchaser’s broker commission, was supported by the evidence. (Note – this judgment amount was less than half of what the broker sought in his breach of express contract claim – based on the unsigned 5% commission agreement.)

The Court rejected defendant’s ‘unclean hands’ defense premised on plaintiff’s failure to publicly list the property (so he could purchase it himself) and his lag time in asserting his commission rights.

The unclean hands doctrine prevents a party from taking advantage of its own wrong.  It prevents a plaintiff from obtaining legal relief where he is guilty of misconduct in connection with the subject matter of the litigation.  For misconduct to preclude recovery, it must rise to the level of fraud or bad faith. In addition, the misconduct must be directly aimed at the party against whom relief is sought.  Conduct geared towards a third party, no matter how egregious, generally won’t support an unclean hands defense.

Here, the defendant’s allegation that the plaintiff failed to publicly list the property, even if true, wasn’t directed at the defendant.  If anything, the failure to list negatively impacted the non-party property owner, not the defendant.

Afterwords:

In the real estate broker setting, procuring cause doctrine provides a viable fall-back theory of recovery in the absence of a definite, enforceable contract.

Where a broker offers witness testimony of a customary broker commission for a similar property sale, this can serve as a sufficient evidentiary basis for a procuring cause/quantum meruit recovery.

 

Faulty Service on LLC Defendant Dooms Administrative Agency’s Unpaid Wages Claim Versus Security Company

The Illinois Department of Labor’s (DOL) decision to send a notice of hearing to a limited liability company and its sole member to the member’s personal post office (p.o.) box (and not to the LLC’s registered agent) came back to haunt the agency in People of the State of Illinois v. Wilson, 2018 IL App (1st) 171614-U.

Reversing summary judgment for the DOL in its lawsuit to enforce an unpaid wages default judgment, the First District austerely applies the Illinois LLC Act’s (805 ILCS 180/1-1 et seq.) service of process requirements and voided the judgment for improper service.

Key Chronology:

February 2013: the DOL filed a complaint for violation of the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (the Wage Act) against the LLC security firm and its member (the “LLC Member”);

January 2015: the DOL sends a notice of hearing by regular mail to both defendants to the LLC Member’s personal p.o. box;

March 2015: Defendants fail to appear at the hearing (the “2015 Hearing”) and DOC defaults the defendants;

June 2015: Defendants fail to pay the default amount and DOL enters judgment that tacks on additional fees and penalties;

February 2016: DOL files suit in Illinois Chancery Court to enforce the June 2015 administrative judgment;

March 2016, May 2016: Defendants respectively appear through counsel and move to dismiss the case for improper service of the 2015 Hearing notice;

June – July 2016: DOL concedes that service was deficient on the LLC defendant (the security company) and voluntarily dismisses the LLC as party defendant;

May 2017: DOL’s motion for summary judgment granted;

June 2017: LLC Member appeals.

The Analysis

The main issue on appeal was whether the DOL gave proper notice of the 2015 Hearing. It did not.

Under the law, lack of jurisdiction may be raised at any time; even past the 35-day window to challenge an agency’s decision under the Illinois Administrative Review Law, 735 ILCS 5/3-103.

Section 50 of the LLC Act provides that an LLC must be served (1) via its registered agent or (2) the Secretary of State under limited circumstances.

Secretary of State service on an LLC is proper where (1) the LLC fails to appoint or maintain a registered agent in Illinois; (2) the LLC’s registered agent cannot be found with reasonable diligence at either the LLC’s registered office or its principal place of business; OR (3) when the LLC has been dissolved, the conditions of (1) and (2) above exist, and suit is brought within 5 years after issuance of a certificate of dissolution or filing of a judgment of dissolution. 805 ILCS 180/1-50(a), (b)(1-3).

Here, the DOL mailed notice of the 2015 Hearing to the wrong party: it only notified the LLC Member. It did not serve the notice on the LLC’s registered agent or through the Secretary of State. As a result, the LLC was not properly served in the underlying wage proceeding.

The DOL argued that since the LLC Member was also sued as an individual “employer” under Sections 2 and 13 of the Act, service of the 2015 Hearing on the LLC Member was valid.

The Court disagreed. Under Sections 2 and 13 of the Act, an employer can be liable for its own violations and acts committed by its agents and corporate officers or agents can be liable where they “knowingly permit” an employer to violate the Act.

Corporate officers who have “operational control” of a business are deemed employers under the Act. However, an individual’s status as a lone member of an entity – like the LLC Member – is not enough to subject the member to personal liability.

Instead, there must be evidence the member permitted the corporate employer to violate the Act by not paying the compensation due the employee. Otherwise, the Court held, every company decision-maker would be liable for a company’s failure to pay an employee’s wages. [⁋⁋ 49-50]

And since the DOL hearing officer never made any specific findings that the LLC Member knowingly permitted the security company to violate the Act, there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain the trial court’s summary judgment for the DOL. [⁋ 51]

Afterwords:

Wilson starkly illustrates that the LLC Act’s service of process strictures have teeth. If a litigant fails to serve an LLC’s registered agent or the Secretary of State, any judgment stemming from the invalid service is a nullity.

In hindsight, the DOL probably should have produced evidence at the 2015 Hearing that the LLC Member (a) had operational control over the security firm; and (b) personally participated in the firm’s decision not to pay the underlying claimant’s wages. Had it done so, it may have been able to salvage its case and show that p.o. box service on the LLC Member was sufficient to subject her to the DOL’s jurisdiction.

15-Year ‘Course of Dealing’ Clarifies Oral Agreement for Tax Sale Notices – IL First Dist.

The would-be tax deed buyer in Wheeler Financial, Inc. v. Law Publishing Co., 2018 IL App (1st) 171495 claimed the publisher defendant’s erroneous sale date in a required tax sale notice thwarted its purchase of a pricey Chicago property.

A jury found for the publisher defendant on the buyer’s breach of oral contract claim since the plaintiff failed to properly vet the draft “Take Notice” (the statutory notice provided by a tax deed applicant that gives notice to the owner) supplied by the defendant before publication. The plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the jury verdict, the First District discusses the nature of express versus implied contracts, the use of non-pattern jury instructions and when course of dealing evidence is admissible to explain the terms of an oral agreement.

Course of dealing – Generally

There was no formal written contract between the parties. But there was a 15-year business relationship where the plaintiff would send draft tax deed petition notices to the defendant who would in turn, publish the notices as required by the Illinois tax code. This decade-and-a-half course of dealing was the basis for jury verdict for the publisher defendant.

Section 223 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts defines a course of dealing as a sequence of previous conduct between parties to an agreement “which is fairly regarded as establishing a common basis of understanding for interpreting their expressions and other conduct.”

A course of dealing “gives meaning to or supplements or qualifies their agreement” and can be considered when determining the terms of an oral contract. Where contract terms are uncertain or doubtful and the parties have – by their conduct – placed a construction on the agreement that is reasonable, such a construction will be adopted by the court. [¶ ¶ 77-78]

Course of Dealing – The Evidence

Here, the course of dealing proof was found in both trial testimony and documents admitted in evidence.

At trial, current and former employees of the publisher defendant and plaintiff’s agent all testified it was the parties’ common practice for defendant to first provide draft Take Notices to plaintiff for its review and approval prior to publication. E-mails introduced in evidence at trial corroborated this practice.

In addition, plaintiff’s affiliated tax lien company’s own handbook contained a published policy of plaintiff reviewing all Take Notices for accuracy before the notices were published. [¶¶ 35, 83-85]

The appeals court agreed with the jury that the defendant sufficiently proved the parties course of dealing was that defendant would give plaintiff a chance to review the Take Notices before publication. And since the plaintiff failed to adhere to its contractual obligation to review and apprise the defendant of any notice errors, plaintiff could not win on its breach of contract claim. (This is because a breach of contract plaintiff’s prior material breach precludes it from recovering on a breach of contract claim.)

Jury Instructions and A Tacit Exculpatory Clause?

Since no Illinois pattern jury instruction defines “course of dealing,” the trial court instructed the jury based on Wald v. Chicago Shippers Ass’n’s (175 Ill.App.3d 607 (1988) statement that a prior course of dealing can define or qualify an uncertain oral agreement. [¶ 96] Since Wald accurately stated Illinois law on the essence and reach of course of dealing evidence, it was proper for the jury to consider the non-pattern jury instruction.

The court then rejected plaintiff’s argument that allowing the legal publisher to avoid liability was tantamount to creating an implied exculpatory clause. The plaintiff claimed that if the publisher could avoid liability for its erroneous notice date, the parties’ agreement was illusory since it allowed the defendant to breach with impunity.

The court disagreed. It held that the parties’ course of dealing created mutual obligations on the parties: plaintiff was obligated to review defendant’s Take Notices and advise of any errors while defendant was required to republish any corrected notices for free. These reciprocal duties placed enforceable obligations on the parties.

Afterwords:

Where specifics of an oral agreement are lacking, but the parties’ actions over time plainly recognize and validate a business relationship, a court will consider course of dealing evidence to give content to the arrangement.
Where course of dealing evidence establishes that a breach of contract plaintiff has assumed certain obligations, the plaintiff’s failure to perform those requirements will doom its breach of contract claim.

 

 

Nevada LLC Members’ Privilege to Tortiously Interfere with Business Relationships Has Limits – IL ND

When the former President of a lighting company started a competing venture, his former employer sued for damages under the Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act (IDTPA) and for breach of contract. The ex-President then countersued for unpaid commissions under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (IWPCA) and sued the individual members of the LLC plaintiff for tortious interference with advantageous business relationship. All parties moved to dismiss.

Green Light National, LLC v. Kent, 2018 WL 4384298, examines, among other things, the extra-territorial reach of the IWPCA and the scope of a corporate officer’s privilege to interfere with a rival’s business relationships.

An IDTPA plaintiff can only bring a claim where the wrongful conduct occurred “primarily and substantially in Illinois.” Factors include: (1) the place of plaintiff’s residence, (2) where the misrepresentation was made, (3) where the damage occurred, and (4) whether the plaintiff communicated with the defendant in Illinois.

Here, the court found factors (1) and (3) pointed toward Illinois as the locus of the challenged conduct. Plaintiff alleged the defendants used plaintiff’s lighting installations on the competitor’s website. And since plaintiff was an Illinois corporate entity, it was likely that plaintiff sustained damage in Illinois.  This made the case different from others where the lone connection to Illinois was a nationwide website. On the current record, the court wasn’t able to determine whether factors (2) and (4) weighed towards a finding that defendants’ misconduct happened in Illinois. As a result, the Court held that the plaintiff alleged a sufficient IDTPA claim to survive defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Next, the court sustained plaintiff’s breach of employment contract claim. The defendants moved to dismiss this claim on the basis that a 2013 Employment Agreement was superseded by a 2015 Operating Agreement which documented plaintiffs’ corporate restructuring. Under Illinois law, an earlier contract is superseded by a later contract where (1) both contracts deal with the same subject matter, (2) two contracts contain inconsistencies which evince the conclusion that the parties intended for the second contract to control their agreement and vitiate the former contract, and (3) the later contract reveal no intention of the parties to incorporate the terms of the earlier contract.

There were too many facial dissimilarities between the 2013 and 2015 documents for the court to definitively find that the former agreement merged into the latter one.

Turning to the defendant’s counterclaims, the Court sustained the tortious interference claim against two of the LLC members. In Illinois, corporate officers are protected from personal liability for acts committed on behalf of the corporation. Corporate officers and directors are privileged to use their business judgment in carrying out corporate business. So long as a corporate officer is acting in furtherance of a corporation’s legitimate business interest, the officer is shielded from individual liability. The same rule that protects corporate officers for decisions made on behalf of their company applies with equal force to LLC member decisions made for the LLC.

This LLC member privilege to interfere isn’t inviolable though.  Where the member acts maliciously – meaning intentionally and without justification – he abuses his qualified privilege. Here, the defendant alleged two LLC members made knowingly false statements about the defendant. These allegations, if true, were enough to make out a tortious interference with business relationships claim. The

The Court then denied the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss defendant’s IWPCA claim. The plaintiff argued that since defendant was not an Illinois resident, he couldn’t sue under the IWPCA since that statute lacks extraterritorial reach. The Court rejected this argument as Illinois law allows non-residents to sue under the IWPCA where they perform work in Illinois for an Illinois-based employer. The counter-plaintiff’s allegations that he made approximately 15 trips to Chicago over several months to perform work for the defendant was enough – at the motion to dismiss stage – to provide a hook for an IWPCA claim.

Afterwords:

1/ Where a later contract involves the same subject matter as an earlier contract and there are facial inconsistencies between them, a Court will likely find the later agreement supersedes the earlier one;

2/ Corporate officers (and LLC members) are immune from suit when taking action to pursue a legitimate business interest of the corporate entity. The privilege is lost though where a corporate officer engages in intentional and unjustified conduct;

3/ A non-resident can sue under the IWPCA where he/she alleges work was performed in Illinois for an Illinois employer.

Debtor’s Use of LLC As ‘Personal Piggy Bank’ Leads to Turnover and Charging Orders

Golfwood Square, LLC v. O’Malley, 2018 IL App(1st) 172220-U, examines the interplay between a charging order and a third party citation to discover assets turnover order against an LLC member debtor.  The plaintiff in Golfwood engaged in a years’ long effort to unspool a judgment debtor’s multi-tiered business entity arrangement in the hopes of collecting a sizeable (about $1M) money judgment.

Through post-judgment proceedings, the plaintiff learned that the debtor owned a 90% interest in an LLC (Subsidiary or Sub-LLC) that was itself the sole member of another LLC (Parent LLC) that received about $225K from the sale of a Chicago condominium.

Plaintiff also discovered the defendant had unfettered access to Parent LLC’s bank account and had siphoned over $80K from it since the judgment date.

In 2013 and 2017, plaintiff respectively obtained a charging order against Sub-LLC and a turnover order against Parent LLC in which the plaintiff sought to attach the remaining condominium sale proceeds.  The issue confronting the court was whether a judgment creditor could get a turnover order against a parent company to enforce a prior charging order against a subsidiary entity.  In deciding for the creditor, the Court examined the content and purpose of citations to discover assets turnover orders and LLC charging orders.

Code Section 2-1402 empowers a judgment creditor can issue supplementary proceedings to discover whether a debtor is in possession of assets or whether a third party is holding assets of a debtor that can be applied to satisfy a judgment.

Section 30-20 of the Limited Liability Company Act allows that same judgment creditor to apply for a charging order against an LLC member’s distributional interest in a limited liability company. Once a charging order issues from the court, it becomes a lien (or “hold”) on the debtor’s distributional interest and requires the LLC to pay over to the charging order recipient all distributions that would otherwise be paid to the judgment debtor. 735 ILCS 5/2-1402; 805 ILCS 180/30-20. Importantly, a charging order applicant does not have to name the LLC(s) as a party defendant(s) since the holder of the charging order doesn’t gain membership or management rights  in the LLC. [⁋⁋ 22, 35]

Under Parent LLC’s operating agreement, once the condominium was sold, Parent LLC was to dissolve and distribute all assets directly to Sub-LLC – Parent’s lone member.  From there, any distributions from Sub-LLC should have gone to defendant (who held a 90% ownership interest in Sub-LLC) and then turned over to the plaintiff.

However, defendant circumvented the charging order by accessing the sale proceeds (held in Parent LLC’s account) and distributing them to himself. The Court noted that documents produced during post-judgment discovery showed that the defendant spent nearly $80,000 of the sale proceeds on his personal debts and to pay off his other business obligations.

Based on the debtor’s conduct in accessing and dissipating Parent LLC’s bank account with impunity, and preventing Parent LLC from distributing the assets to Sub-LLC, where they could be reached by plaintiff, the trial court ordered the debtor to turn all Parent LLC’s remaining account funds over to the plaintiff to enforce the earlier charging order against Sub-LLC.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Parent LLC was in serious debt and that the condo sale proceeds were needed to pay off its debts. The Court found this argument clashed with defendant’s deposition testimony where he stated under oath that Parent LLC “had no direct liabilities.” This judicial admission – a clear, unequivocal statement concerning a fact within a litigant’s knowledge – was binding on the defendant and prevented him from trying to contradict this testimony. The argument also fell short in light of defendant’s repeatedly raiding Parent LLC’s account to pay his personal debts and those of his other business ventures all to the exclusion of plaintiff.

The court then summarily dispensed with defendant’s claim that the plaintiff improperly pierced the corporate veils of Parent LLC and Sub-LLC in post-judgment proceedings. In Illinois, a judgment creditor typically cannot pierce a corporate veil in supplementary proceedings. Instead, it must file a new action in which it seeks piercing as a remedy for an underlying cause of action.

The Court found that the trial court’s turnover order did not hold defendant personally liable for either LLC’s debt. Instead, the turnover order required Parent LLC to turnover assets belonging to the judgment debtor – the remaining condominium sale proceeds – to the plaintiff creditor.

Afterwords:

This case presents in sharp relief the difficulty of collecting a judgment from a debtor who operates under a protective shield of several layers of corporate entities.

Where a debtor uses an LLC’s assets as his “personal piggy bank,” Golfwood and cases like it show that a court won’t hesitate to vindicate a creditor’s recovery right through use of a turnover and charging order.

The case is also noteworthy as it illustrates a court looking to an LLC operating agreement for textual support for its turnover order.

7th Cir. Addresses Guarantor Liability, Ratification Doctrine in Futures Trading Snafu

Straits Financial v. Ten Sleep Cattle, 2018 WL 328767 (N.D.Ill. 2018) examines some signature business litigation issues against the backdrop of a commodities futures and trading account dispute. Among them are the nature and scope of a guarantor’s liability, the ratification doctrine as applied to covert conduct and the reach of the Illinois consumer fraud statute.

The plaintiff brokerage firm sued a Wyoming cattle rancher and his company to recover an approximate $170K deficit in the defendants’ trading account. (The defendants previously opened a non-discretionary account with plaintiff for the purpose of locking in future livestock prices.)

The ranch owner counter-sued, alleging a rogue trader of plaintiff made unauthorized trades with defendants’ money over a three-month period.  Defendants counter-sued for consumer fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and conversion. After a seven-day bench trial, the court entered a money judgment for the defendants and the plaintiff appealed.

In substantially affirming the trial court, the Seventh Circuit first tackled the plaintiff’s breach of guaranty claim.  In Illinois, guarantees are strictly construed and a guarantor’s liability cannot extend beyond that which he has agreed to accept.  A proverbial favorite of the law, a guarantor is given the benefit of any doubts concerning a contract’s enforceability.  A guarantor’s liability is discharged if there is a “material change” in the business dealings between the parties and an increase in risk undertaken by a guarantor.

Here, the speculative trading account (the one where the broker made multiple unauthorized trades) differed vastly in form and substance from the non-discretionary account.

Since the two trading accounts differed in purpose and practice, the Court held that it would materially alter the guarantor’s risk if he was penalized for the plaintiff’s broker’s fraudulent trading spree.  As a result, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial judge’s ruling for the defendant on the guarantee claim.

The Court then rejected plaintiff’s ratification argument: that defendants’ authorized the illegal churned trades by not timely objecting to them
An Illinois agency axiom posits that a person does not have an obligation to repudiate an illegal transaction until he has actual knowledge of all material facts involved in the transaction. Restatement (Third) of Agency, s. 4.06.

Illinois law also allows a fraud victim to seek relief as long as he renounces the fraud promptly after discovering it. A party attempting to undo a fraudulent transaction is excused from strict formalism, too.

Here, the ranch owner defendant immediately contacted the plaintiff’s broker when he learned of the improper trades and demanded the return of all money in the non-discretionary trading account. This, according to the Court, was a timely and sufficient attempt to soften the impact of the fraudulent trading.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s attorneys’ fees award to the defendants on its consumer fraud counterclaim. The Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, 815 ILCS 505/10a(c)(the “CFA”) allows a court to assess attorneys’ fees against the losing party.

The plaintiff argued that the trial judge errored by awarding attorneys’ fees expended by defendants in both CFA and non-CFA claims. Plaintiff contended  the trial judge should have limited his fee award strictly to the CFA claim.

Rejecting this argument, the Seventh Circuit noted that under Illinois law, where statutory fraud (which allow for fees) and common law (which don’t) claims arise from the same operative facts and involve the same evidence at trial, a court can award all fees; even ones involved in prosecuting or defending non-fee claims. And since facts tending to prove fraudulent trading “were woven throughout [the] case and the work done to develop those facts [could] not be neatly separated by claim,” the District court had discretion to allow defendants’ attorneys’ fees claim incurred in all of its counterclaims and defenses.

The Court then reversed the trial judge’s holding that the defendants failed to mitigate their damages by not reading plaintiff’s trading statements or asking about his accounts.  A breach of contract or tort plaintiff normally cannot stand idly by and allow an injury to fester without making reasonable efforts to avoid further loss.

But here, since the plaintiff’s broker committed fraud – an intentional tort – any “contributory negligence” resulting from defendant not reading the mailed statements wasn’t a valid defense to the rogue broker’s fraudulent conduct.

Afterwords:

This case shows the length a court will go to make sure a fraud perpetrator doesn’t benefit from his improper conduct.  Even if a fraud victim is arguably negligent in allowing the fraud to happen or in responding to it, the court will excuse the negligence in order to affix liability to the fraudster.

This case also illustrates how guarantors are favorites of the law and an increase in a guarantor’s risk or a marked change in business dealings between a creditor and a guarantor’s principal will absolve a guarantor from liability.

Finally, Ten Sleep shows that a prevailing party can get attorneys’ fees on mixed fee and non-fee claims where the same core of operative facts underlie them.

Earned Bonus Is Proper Subject of Employee’s Wage Payment Claim; Reliance on Employer Pre-Hiring Statements Is Reasonable – IL ND

After leaving a lucrative banking position in Florida for a Chicago consulting gig, Simpson v. Saggezza’s (2018 WL 3753431 (N.D.Ill. 2018) plaintiff soon learned the Illinois job markedly differed from what was advertised.

Among other things, the plaintiff discovered that the company’s pre-hiring revenue projections were off as were the plaintiff’s promised job duties, performance goals and bonus structure.

When plaintiff complained, the Illinois employer responded by firing him. Plaintiff sued the defendants – the employer and a company decision maker – for unpaid bonus money under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1, et. seq. (IWPCA) and for other common law claims. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims.

In denying the bulk of the defendants’ motion, the Court discussed the nature and reach of earned bonus liability under the IWPCA in the context of a motion to dismiss.

The IWPCA defines payments as including wages, salaries, earned commissions and earned bonuses pursuant to an employment contract.  820 ILCS 115/12. An earned bonus is defined as “compensation given in addition to the required compensation for services performed.”  Il. Admin. Code, Title 56, s. 300.500.

The IWPCA allows an earned bonus claim only where an employer makes an unequivocal promise; a discretionary or contingent promise isn’t enough.  So as long as the plaintiff alleges both an employer’s unambiguous promise to pay a bonus and the plaintiff’s satisfactory performance of the parties’ agreement, the plaintiff can make out a successful IWPCA claim for an unpaid earned bonus.

Here, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged a meeting of the minds on the bonus issue – the defendant-employer unequivocally promised a $25,000 bonus if plaintiff met a specific sales goal – and that the plaintiff met the goal.

The court then partially granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s statutory and common law retaliation claims.

IWPCA Section 14(c) prevents an employer from firing an employee in retaliation for the employee lodging a complaint against the employer for unpaid compensation. 820 ILCS 115/14(c).  Since the plaintiff alleged both an agreement for earned bonus payments and that he was fired for requesting payment, this was enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

The court did, however, dismiss plaintiff’s common law retaliatory discharge claim.  To prevail on this claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) he was terminated, (2) in retaliation for plaintiff’s conduct, and (3) the discharge violates a clearly mandated public policy.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that an IWPCA violation was enough to trigger Illinois public policy concerns. The court held that to invoke the public policy prong of the retaliation tort, the dispute “must strike at the heart of a citizen’s social rights, duties and responsibilities.”  And since the Court viewed an IWPCA money dispute to a private, economic matter between employer and employee, the employer’s alleged IWPCA violation didn’t implicate public policy.

Lastly, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s fraud in the inducement claim.  In this count, plaintiff alleged he quit his former Florida job in reliance on factual misstatements made by the defendant about its fiscal health, among other things.

To sufficiently plead fraudulent inducement, a plaintiff must allege (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it, (3) an intent to induce the other party to act, (4) action by the other party in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  To be actionable, a factual statement must involve a past or present fact; expression of opinions, expectations or future contingencies cannot support a fraudulent inducement claim.

Where there is a disparity in knowledge or access to knowledge between  two parties, the fraudulent inducement plaintiff can justifiably rely on a representation of fact even if he could have discovered the information’s falsity upon further investigation.

While the defendant argued that the predicate fraud statements were non-actionable embellishments or puffery, the court disagreed.  It found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant made factually false statements about the defendant’s financial state and the plaintiff’s job opportunities were specific enough to state a claim.

The court noted that plaintiff alleged the defendants supplied plaintiff with specific financial figures based on historical financial data as part of their pre-hiring pitch to the plaintiff. Taken in totality, the information was specific and current enough to support a fraud claim.

Afterwords:

Earned bonuses are covered by IWPCA; discretionary or conditional bonuses are not;

The common law retaliation tort has teeth. It’s not enough to assert a statutory violation to implicate the public policy element.  A private payment dispute between an employer and employee – even if it involves a statutory violation – won’t rise to the level of a public policy issue;

An employer’s false representations of a company’s financial status can underlie a plaintiff’s fraud claim since financial data supplied to a prospective hire is information an employer should readily have under its control and at its disposal.

Fed. Court ‘Blue Pencils’ Telecom Employer’s Overbroad Nonsolicitation Term – IL ND

In Call One, Inc. v. Anzine, 2018 WL 2735089 (N.D.Ill. 2018), the Northern District of Illinois provides a useful gloss on Illinois restrictive covenant law in the context of a trade secrets action filed by a call center employer against a long-time employee.

The defendant worked for the plaintiff as a sales representative for 15 years. About a decade into her employment tenure, the defendant signed a non-compete agreement which, among other things, prevented her from soliciting plaintiff’s “prospective customers” for a 12-month post-employment period.

After talks for defendant to become an independent distributor of the plaintiff broke down and defendant quit her job, plaintiff sued when it learned defendant altered a Customer Report and e-mailed it to her personal email account. The defendant countersued for a declaration that the non-solicitation clause was overbroad.

Granting summary judgment for the ex-employee on her counterclaim, the Northern District judge set forth applicable Illinois law on restrictive covenants.

  • Restrictive covenants are scrutinized carefully since they are restraints of trade. The key inquiry is whether a given restriction is reasonable and necessary to protect a legitimate business interest of the employer.
  • A post-employment restrictive covenant is reasonable only where (1) it is no greater than necessary for the protection of a legitimate business interest of an employer, (2) does not impose an undue hardship on the employee, and (3) is not injurious to the public.
  • When determining whether an employer has met the legitimate business interest test – prong (1) above – the court considers whether an employer enjoys near-permanent relationships with its customers, whether the employee acquired confidential information during her employment and time and place restrictions contained in the subject covenant.
  • Courts are reluctant to prohibit former employee’s from servicing customers they never had contact with while working for an employer.

Applying these factors, the court found that the non-solicitation term excessive. It specifically viewed the restriction broader than necessary to protect Plaintiff’s ongoing client relationships.

According to the court, to prevent defendant from soliciting anyone who was ever a customer of plaintiff over the past 15 years was facially overbroad and not necessary to protect plaintiff’s current customer relationships. Another reason the court found the non-solicitation provision too expansive was it prevented defendant from contacting plaintiff’s clients with whom she never had any direct contact and didn’t even know about.

The agreement also contained a severability or “blue pencil” provision. Such a provision allows a court to modify an overbroad restrictive covenant in some settings.

Here, because the 12-month non-solicitation provision was chronologically reasonable in scope, the Court reformed the covenant to only prevent defendant from contacting any entity (a) who was a current and prospective customer of plaintiff as of defendant’s January 2018 termination date and (b) for which defendant had responsibility at the time of her separation.

The Court also granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s claim premised on the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, the statute that gives a trade secrets plaintiff access to Federal courts. To prove a Federal trade secrets act claim, the plaintiff must establish (a) the existence of a trade secret, and (b) misappropriation.

Misappropriation includes unauthorized disclosure of a trade secret by a person who used improper means to acquire knowledge of the trade secret and unauthorized disclosure of a trade secret by a person who knew or had reason to know that knowledge of the trade secret was “acquired under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain the secrecy of the trade secret.” 18 U.S.C. ss. 1839(5)(B)(i)-(ii).

Plaintiff failed to adduce evidence that defendant owed a duty to protect the confidentiality of the Customer Report when it was never labelled as confidential.  As a result, no reasonable jury could find defendant acquired the Report through improper means by breaching a duty to maintain its secrecy.

Afterwords:

An employer suing a former employee for violating a restrictive covenant must demonstrate the existence of near-permanent customer relationships or confidential information. As long as the time and space limitation is objectively reasonable, a court can edit and contract the scope of a post-employment restriction.

Where an employer cannot demonstrate that an employee had a duty to maintain the secrecy of the information the employer is trying to protect, it likely can’t establish Federal trade secrets misappropriation.

The plaintiff’s elaborate information security policies worked against it here. By failing to label the subject Report as confidential (which was required per the employee handbook), the Court refused to find the Report sufficiently confidential to impose a duty on the defendant to keep it secret.

Vague Oral Agreement Dooms Mechanics Lien and Home Repair Act Claims – IL First Dist.

The First District recently examined the quantum of proof necessary to prevail on a breach of oral contract and mechanics lien claim and the factors governing a plaintiff’s request to amend its pleading.

In Link Company Group, LLC v. Cortes, 2018 IL App (1st) 171785-U, the Defendant hired the plaintiff – his former son-in-law – to rehab a residence in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. After a dispute over plaintiff’s construction work and billing issues, the plaintiff sued to foreclose a mechanics lien and for breach of contract. The defendant counter-sued and alleged plaintiff violated the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act (IHRRA) requires, among other things, a contractor to provide certain disclosures in writing to a homeowner client. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s lien and contract claims and denied summary judgment on defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. All parties appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court first took aim at the plaintiff’s breach of contract and mechanics lien claims.

While oral contracts are generally enforceable, they must contain definite and essential terms agreed to by the parties. For an oral contract to be enforceable, it must be so definite and certain in all respects that the court can determine what the parties agreed to.

Here, the substance of the oral contract was vague. When pressed at his deposition, the plaintiff was unable to articulate the basic terms of the parties’ oral construction contract. Since the court was unable to decipher the key contract terms or divine the parties’ intent, the plaintiff’s breach of contract failed.

The plaintiff’s inability to prove-up its oral contract claim also doomed its mechanics lien action. In Illinois, a valid mechanics lien foreclosure suit requires the contractor to prove an enforceable contract and the contractor’s substantial performance of that contract. Since the plaintiff failed to establish a binding oral contract, by definition, it couldn’t prevail on its mechanics lien claim.

The First District also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend its complaint. While amendments to pleadings are generally liberally allowed in Illinois, a court will not rubber stamp a request to amend. Instead, the court engages in a multi-factored analysis of (1) whether the proposed amendment would cure the defective pleading, (2) whether other parties would sustain prejudice by virtue of the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether previous opportunities to amend the pleadings could be identified.

Here, the plaintiff’s proposed implied-in-fact contract was “nearly identical” to the stricken breach of oral contract claim. An implied-in-fact contract is one where contract terms are implicit from the parties’ conduct. Here, the parties conduct was too attenuated to establish definite contract terms. As a result, the proposed implied-in-law contract claim was facially deficient and didn’t cure the earlier, failed pleading.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s failure to allege an enforceable oral agreement also precluded summary judgment on the defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. A valid IHRRA claim presupposes the existence of an enforceable contract. Since there was no written agreement and the parties’ oral agreement was unclear, there was no valid contract on which to hook an IHRRA violation.

Afterwords:

This case cements proposition that a valid oral contract claim requires proof of definite and certain terms. A plaintiff’s failure to allege a clear and definite oral agreement will prevent him from asserting either a mechanics lien or Home Repair Act claim based on the putative oral agreement.

Link Company also illustrates the four factors a litigant must satisfy in order to amend a pleading. If the proposed amended complaint fails to allege a colorable cause of action, a court can properly deny leave to amend despite Illinois’ liberal pleading amendments policy.

New Lessor’s Vie for Radio Station Tenant’s Past-Due Rent Squelched – IL First Dist.

The First District of Illinois recently considered whether a new landlord for commercial premises has standing to sue a tenant for unpaid rent accruing before the new landlord’s purchase of premises.

Soon after buying the commercial premises, the new landlord in 1002 E. 87th Street, LLC v. Midway Broadcasting Corporation, 2018 IL App (1st) 171691 started giving the radio station some static over past-due rent that was owed to the prior landlord.  The defendant’s silence in response spoke volumes and the dispute swelled to an irreconcilable impasse.  The plaintiff sued to recover about $70K in past-due rent. The tenant then turned the tables on the landlord, filing a wave of defenses and counterclaims and a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s suit. The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s suit for lack of standing and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the trial court, the appeals court examined the doctrine of standing in the context of a Code Section 2-619 motion filed in a lease dispute. The Court amplified its lease law analysis with a recitation of the applicable rules governing attorneys’ fees provisions.

Lack of standing is an affirmative defense under Code Section 2-619(a)(9). Standing requires a plaintiff to have an interest in a given lawsuit and its potential outcome. The defendant claiming a lack of standing has the burden of proving the defense.

In the commercial lease milieu, a landlord has standing to sue for unpaid rent and where a landlord conveys property by warranty deeds without reserving any rights, he/she also conveys the leases for the property and the right to receive unaccrued rent. However, the new landlord does not have a right to recover rent that came due before it owned the property. The right to recover those rentals remains with the original landlord. [⁋ 17]

The Court wasn’t receptive to the plaintiff’s arguments that it was entitled to recover past-due rent owed to the prior landlord.  The court distinguished this case’s underlying facts from a recent case – A.M. Realty Western v. MSMC Realty, LLC, 2012 IL App (1st) 121183 – where a landlord sold a building and was still able to sue for rent that accrued during its tenure as building owner.  Midway Broadcasting’s facts plainly differ since the plaintiff was suing to recover rents that came due before plaintiff became the premises landlord.

Another factor weighing against the plaintiff landlord was Illinois’ venerable body of case law that holds that rent in arrears is not assignable. This is because past-due rent is viewed as a chose in action and not an incident of the real estate that passes from a seller to a buyer. And since there was no evidence in the record establishing that the prior landlord intended to assign its right to collect unpaid rents, plaintiff’s argument that the previous landlord assigned to it the right to collect defendant’s delinquent rent, missed the mark.

In a sort of reverse “you can’t transmit what you haven’t got” maxim, the plaintiff here had no legal basis to assert a past-due rent claim against the tenant since all unpaid rent came due during the prior landlord’s tenure.  Since that former landlord never assigned its right to collect rents, the plaintiff’s claim fell on deaf ears.

Next, the Court affirmed the tenant’s prevailing-party attorneys’ fees award and signaled that to “prevail” in a case, a party must win on a significant issue in the case. Like most leases, the operative one here provided that the winning party could recover its attorneys’ fees.  Illinois follows the American Rule – each side pays its own fees unless there is a contractual fee-shifting provision or an operative statute that gives the prevailing party the right to recover its fees.  Contractual attorneys’ fees provisions are strictly construed and appeals courts rarely overturn fee awards unless the trial court abuses its discretion.

In the context of attorneys’ fees disputes, a litigant is a prevailing party where it is successful on any significant issue in the action and receives a judgment in his/her favor or obtains affirmative recovery.  A litigant can still be a prevailing party even where it does not succeed on all claims in a given lawsuit. Courts can declare that neither side is a prevailing party where each side wins and loses on different claims. However, a “small victory” on a peripheral issue in a case normally won’t confer prevailing party status for purposes of a fee award.  [¶ 36]

The Court rejected the lessor’s claim that it was the prevailing party since the court entered an agreed use and occupancy award.  Use and occupancy awards are usually granted in lease disputes since “a lessee’s obligation to pay rent continues as a matter of law, even though the lessee may ultimately establish a right to *** obtain relief.”  [¶ 32].  Because of the somewhat routine nature of use and occupancy orders, the court declined to find the landlord a prevailing party on this issue.

Afterwords:

I found this case post-worthy since it deals with an issue I see with increasing frequency: what are a successor landlord’s rights to prior accruing rents from a tenant?  In hindsight, precision in lease drafting would be a great equalizer.  However, clear lease language is often absent and it’s left to the litigants and court to try to divine the parties’ intent.

The case and others like it make clear that rents accruing before a landlord purchases a building normally belong the predecessor owner.  Absent an agreement between the former and current lessors or a clear lease provision that expressly provides that a new owner can sue for accrued rents, the new landlord won’t have standing to sue for accrued unpaid rent.

The case also makes it clear that small victories (here, an inconsequential dismissal of one of many counterclaims) in the context of larger lawsuit, won’t translate to prevailing party status for that “winner” and won’t give a hook for attorneys’ fees.

Business Records Evidence – Getting Them In: Reading List 2018

Today’s reading list highlights some recent civil and criminal cases from State and Federal jurisdictions across the country that address the admissibility of business records (with some public records and ‘residual’ rule cases sprinkled in) in diffuse fact settings.

The cases below examine evidentiary issues involving documents that range from the clandestine (top-secret State Department cables) to the pedestrian (credit card records, loan histories, Post-It ® notes) to the morbid (telephone records in a murder case).

The encapsulated rulings below illustrate that courts generally follows the same authenticity and hearsay rules but there is a marked difference in the in the intensity with which some courts put a plaintiff to its proofs. While some courts liberally allow business record evidence so long as there is a modicum of reliability, others more severely scrutinize the evidence admissibility process.

If nothing else, given the recency of these cases (they are all from this year), what follows will hopefully provide litigators a useful starting point for assessing what factors a court looks at when deciding whether business records evidence passes legal admissibility tests.


Records: Excel spreadsheets printed from a third-party’s servers

Type of Case: Fraud

Did They Get In? Yes

Case: U.S.A. v. Channon, 881 F.3d 806 (10th Cir. 2018)

Facts: Government sued defendants who operated a two-year scam where they cashed in OfficeMax rewards accounts to acquire over $100K in merchandise. Government offers OfficeMax spreadsheets authored and kept by an OM vendor into evidence.

Objections: hearsay, improper summaries

Applicable Rules and Holding:

FRE 1006 – a summary of documents are admissible where the underlying documents are voluminous and can’t be conveniently examined in court. Proponent must make original or duplicate available to the other party. Summary’s underlying documents don’t have to be admitted into evidence with the summary/ies but must still be admissible in evidence.

FRE 1001(d) – “original” electronic document means “any printout – or other output readable by sight – if it accurately reflects the information” housed in a host database.

Held: summary spreadsheet deemed an “original” where two witnesses testified the spreadsheets reflected same information in the database. Since government made the spreadsheets available to the defendants before trial, they were admissible.

FRE 801, 803(6): hearsay generally; business records exception

Hearsay presupposes a “statement” by a “declarant.” FRE 801. A declarant must be a human being. The Excel spreadsheets at issue here are computer data and not statements of a live person. The spreadsheets are not hearsay.

Even if the spreadsheets are considered hearsay, they are admissible under the business records exception since plaintiff testified that the records were prepared in normal course of business, made at or near the time of the events depicted, and were transmitted by someone who had a duty to accurately convey the information and where there are other badges of reliability.


Records: Credit card records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: Lewis v. Absolute Resolutions VII, LLC, 2018 WL 3261197 (Tex. App. – SA 2018)

Facts: Plaintiff debt buyer of credit card account sues card holder defendant. After summary judgment for plaintiff, defendant appeals on basis that court credited a defective business records affidavit.

Objection: hearsay, plaintiff wasn’t originator of the records.

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Tex. R. Evid. 803(6) – a business record created by one entity that later becomes another entity’s primary record is admissible as a record of regularly conducted activity.

Personal knowledge by the third party of the procedures used in preparing the original documents is not required where the documents are incorporated into the business of a third party, relied on by that party, and there are other indicators of reliability.

Tex. R. Evid. 902(10) – business records are admissible if accompanied by affidavit that satisfies requirements of Rule 902(10).

To introduce business records created by a third party, the proponent must establish (1) the document is incorporated and kept in course of testifying witness’s business, (2) the business typically relies on accuracy of the contents of the document, and (3) the circumstances otherwise indicate the trustworthiness of the document. Summary judgment for successor card issuer affirmed.


Records: Medical Records, Police Reports

Type of Case: Manslaughter (criminal)

Case: People v. McVey, (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 405

Did They Get In? No.

Facts: Defendant appeals conviction on manslaughter and vandalism charges based on trial court’s improper exclusion of victim’s medical records and police reports which Defendant believed had exculpatory information.

Objection: hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Cal. Code s. 1271 – business records hearsay rule.
Hospital records can be admitted as business records if custodian of records or other duly qualified witness provides proper authentication.

Cal. Code ss. 1560-1561 – compliance with subpoena for documents can dispense with need for live witness if records are attested to by custodian of records with a proper affidavit.

Records custodian affidavit must (1) describe mode of preparation of the records, (2) state that affiant is duly authorized custodian of the records and has authority to certify the records, and (3) state the records were prepared in the ordinary course of business at or near the time of the act, condition, or event recorded.

Police reports are generally not reliable enough for face-value admission at trial. While police reports can be kept in regular course of police “business,” they typically are not created to transact business. Instead, police reports are created primarily for later use at trial.

The hallmarks of reliability – contemporaneous creation, necessity of record’s accuracy for core purpose of business – are missing from police reports.


Records: Prior servicers’ mortgage loan records

Type of Case: Breach of contract, mortgage foreclosure

Did They Get In? Yes

Case: Deutsche Bank v. Sheward, 2018 WL 1832302 (Fla. 2018)

Facts: lender receives money judgment against borrower after bench trial. Borrower appeals on ground that loan payment history was inadmissible hearsay

Objection: hearsay – successor business incompetent to testify concerning predecessor’s records

Applicable Rules and Holding: where a business takes custody of and integrates another entity’s records and treats them as its (the integrating business) own, the acquired records are treated as “made” by acquiring business.

A witness can lay foundation for records of another company. There is no requirement that records custodian have personal knowledge of the manner in which prior servicer maintained and created records

A successor business can establish reliability of former business’s records by “independently confirming the accuracy of third-party’s business records.”

Plaintiff’s trial witness adequately described process that successor entity utilized to vet prior servicer documents.

Also, see Jackson v. Household Finance Corp., III, 236 So.3d 1170 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018)(foundation for prior mortgage loan servicer’s records can be laid by certification or affidavit under Rule 902(11))


Records: Third-Party’s vehicle inspection report containing vehicle ownership data

Did They Get In? No

Type of Case: Personal injury

Case: Larios v. Martinez, 239 So.3d 1041 (La. 2018)

Facts: plaintiff sues hit-and-run driver’s insurer under La. direct action statute. Insurer appeals bench trial verdict in favor of plaintiff.

Objection: hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding:

A witness laying the foundation for admissibility of business records need not have been the preparer of records. Instead, the custodian or qualified witness need only be familiar with record-keeping system of the entity whose records are sought to be introduced.

Plaintiff failed to introduce the report through a qualified witness. Plaintiff had no knowledge of the inspection report company’s record-keeping practices or methods. The trial court errored by allowing the report into evidence.

Judgment for plaintiff affirmed on other grounds.


Records: Student loan records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: National Collegiate Student Loan Trust v. Villalva, 2018 WL 2979358 (Az. 2018)

Facts: assignee of defaulted student loan sues borrower. Borrower defendant appeals bench trial judgment for plaintiff.

Objection: loan records are inadmissible hearsay and lack foundation

Applicable Rules and Holding: witness for an entity that did not create a loan record can still lay foundational predicate by testifying to creator’s transfer of the business record to custodial entity, and the transferee entity’s maintenance of the records and reliance on the record in the ordinary course of business.

Documents prepared solely for litigation are generally not business records. However, where the litigation documents are “mere reproductions” of regularly-kept records, they are admissible as business records to the same extent as the underlying records.

Plaintiff’s witness laid sufficient evidentiary foundation where witness testified that assignor/originator transferred loan documents to assignee/plaintiff, that the plaintiff integrated the records with its own and that plaintiff had historically purchased records from the assignor.

Documents created “with an eye toward litigation” were still admissible since they were culled from pre-existing loan records kept in the regular course of business. Judgment for plaintiff affirmed.


Records: Halfway house incident report

Type of Case: Criminal escape

Did They Get In? No

Case: Wassillie v. State of Alaska, 411 P.3d 595 (Alaska 2018)

Facts: Defendant charged and convicted of second degree escape for leaving halfway house in which he was sentenced to serve remaining prison term.

Objection: Jury considered inadmissible hearsay document – an incident report prepared by halfway house staff member

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Incident report is missing earmarks of trustworthiness and is inadmissible hearsay. An investigative report raises concerns about the report author’s “motivations to misrepresent.” There is potential for animosity between reporter and subject of report which could lead reporter to hide mistakes or “inflate evidence” in order to further the author’s agenda.

Whether a report is deemed to have been prepared in regular course of business involves a multi-factored analysis of (1) the purpose for which the record was prepared, (2) a possible motive to falsify the record, (3) whether the record is to be used in prospective litigation, (4) how routine or non-routine the challenged record is, and (5) how much reliance the business places on the record for business purposes.

Examples of documents found to be sufficiently routine under Alaska law to merit business records treatment include payroll records , bills of lading, account statements, and social security records are typically admissible as business records.

However, a more subjective document – like a police report or the incident report here – is too susceptible to author’s selective memory and subconscious bias. Conviction reversed.


Records: Cell phone records

Type of Case: Murder

Did They Get In? No.

Case: Baker v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 545 S.W.3d 267 (Ky 2018)

Facts: Defendant convicted of murder. Prosecution relied in part on victim’s cell phone records to tie defendant to victim.

Objection: cell phone records were inadmissible hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding: prosecution must establish that phone logs are (a) authentic and (b) non-hearsay (or subject to a hearsay exception). Kentucky Evidence Rule 901(b) provides that evidence can be authenticated via witness testimony from a qualified witness. Here, prosecution witness – a detective – established that phone records were authentic: they were what they purported to be.

Once the authenticity hurdle was cleared, prosecution had to defeat hearsay objection. While the call logs constituted regularly conducted activity under KRE 803(6), the prosecution didn’t offer the logs through a custodian or by way of a Rule 902(11) affidavit. As a result, the trial court erred by admitting the call logs.

Note: the admission of the hearsay call logs was “harmless” since there was copious other testimonial and documentary evidence of defendant’s guilt. Conviction affirmed.


Records: Home health nurse’s “sticky” note

Type of Case: Medical malpractice

Did It Get In? Yes.

Case: Arnold v. Grigsby, 417 P.3d 606 (Utah 2018)

Facts: Patient sues doctor and others for malpractice after colonoscopy goes bad. (Ouch.) Nurse and pharmacy employee’s handwritten note on post-it/sticky note on plaintiff’s medical chart introduced to show plaintiff’s knowledge of injury within two years of surgery. Post-it notes contents was basis for Defendant’s statute of limitations defense and jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict.

Objection: sticky note has multiple levels of hearsay and is inadmissible.

Applicable Rules and Holding: hearsay within hearsay is not excluded where each part of combined statements meets exception to rule of exclusion.

Sticky note is classic hearsay: it is being offered to prove truth of matter asserted – that plaintiff had contacted an attorney within days of the surgery. Utah R. Evid. 801(c)(hearsay generally).

The court found the note admissible under Rule 803(6) business records exception as the note is a record of the pharmacy’s regularly conducted activity and was entered contemporaneously into plaintiff’s electronic medical records.

Note’s statement that “client has been told by her lawyer not to sign any papers indicating she’ll pay” is admissible under Rule 803(3) – the hearsay exception for out of court statements that show a declarant’s state of mind (i.e. his motive, intent, plan, etc.).

Jury verdict for doctor defendants affirmed.


Records: Government reports; state department cables

Type of Case: Statutory claim under Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) (filed by relatives of victims killed by Bolivian Gov”t)

Did They Get In? Yes and No.

Case: Mamani v. Berzain, 2018 WL 2013600 (S.D. Fla 2018)

Facts: relatives of victims killed during civil unrest in Bolivia sued country’s former president and minister of defense under TVPA which allows plaintiffs to sue foreign officials in U.S. courts for torture and killing of a plaintiff’s relatives. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment denied.

Objection: various governmental documents are inadmissible hearsay or unauthenticated.

Applicable Rules and Holding: Public records hearsay exception – FRE 803(8) – and “residual” hearsay exception. FRE 803(7).

The public records hearsay exception applies where (1) the record sets forth the office’s activities, (2) the record concerns a matter observed by someone with a legal duty to report it – but not including a matter observed by law enforcement personnel in a criminal case, or (3) in a civil case or against the government in a criminal case, the record consists of factual findings from a legally authorized investigation.

The party opposing admission of the public record must show the source of or circumstances generating the information lacks basic levels of reliability.

Here, an investigatory report prepared by three prosecutors fit the definition of a record of a public office prepared in conjunction with an authorized investigation.

Under the “residual” hearsay exception, a statement is not excluded if it (1) has equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness, (2) is offered as evidence of a material fact, (3) is more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence the proponent can obtain through reasonable efforts, and (4) admitting it (the statement) will serve the purposes of these rules and interests of justice. FRE 807(a).

The residual hearsay exception is sparingly used and applies only where exceptional guarantees of trustworthiness are present coupled with elevated levels of probativeness and necessity.

Here, military and police records lack indicia of trustworthiness in light of the volatile atmosphere in which the reports were made. And while challenged state department cables do have exceptional guaranties of trustworthiness as they were signed by the then-U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, the defendants failed to establish that the cables were more probative on the point for which they were offered than any other evidence the defendants could have obtained through reasonable efforts.


Records: Accident report

Type of Case: Personal injury

Did It Get In? No.

Case: 76th and Broadway v. Consolidated Edison, 160 A.D.3d 447 (NY 2018)

Facts: plaintiff injured on construction site sues general contractor and owner for negligence. Appeals court reverses trial court and grants summary judgment for defendant.

Objection: accident report offered by plaintiff that stated platform “must have been moved during demolition or trench work by [defendant contractor] is inadmissible.

Applicable Rules and Holding: voluntary statements in accident report authored by someone who is not under a duty to prepare the report is inadmissible hearsay. The report was based on information supplied by unnamed third parties. Because of its speculative nature, the report is inadmissible to create genuine issue of material fact.


Records: Credit card records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: Lewis v. Absolute Resolutions VII, LLC, 2018 WL 3261197 (Tx. App. – SA 2018)

Facts: plaintiff assignee of credit card debt sues to collect. Summary judgment for assignee plaintiff affirmed.

Objection: plaintiff failed to lay proper foundation for original credit card issuer’s (Citibank) business records.

Applicable Rules and Holding: Business records are admissible if accompanied by Rule 902(10) affidavit. A business record created by one entity that later becomes another entity’s primary record is admissible as record of regularly conducted activity. Rule 803(6).

A third party’s (e.g. an assignee, successor, account buyer, etc.) personal knowledge of the specific procedures used by the record creator is not required where the third party incorporates the documents into its own business and regularly relies on the records.

To introduce business records created by a third party predecessor or assignee, the proponent must establish (1) the document is incorporated and kept in the course of the offering party’s business, (2) the business typically relies on the accuracy of the contents of the document, and (3) the circumstances otherwise indicate trustworthiness of the document.

The plaintiff’s Rule 902(10) affidavit explained the manner and circumstances in which plaintiff acquired the defendant’s credit card account and further stated that the plaintiff regularly relies on and incorporates other debt sellers’ business records.

The court was especially swayed by the testimony that the assignor was under a duty to convey accurate information to the plaintiff and risked civil and criminal penalties for providing false information. According to the court, this last factor gave the records an extra layer of protection against falsification.

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

Twin contract law axioms 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.  While 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.

Judgment Creditor and Debtor’s Lawyers Duke It Out Over Equity in Home – ND IL

A law firm’s failure to look closer at its client’s suspiciously timed transfer of residential property to a land trust recently backfired in a pitched priority battle between competing creditors.
Earlier this month (June 2018), the Northern District of Illinois reversed an earlier priority ruling for the law firm (see Radiance v. Accurate Steel, 2018 WL 1394036) for not exhausting its inquiry notice obligations. (The Court’s order is found at ECF No. 82; Case No. 13 C 7481.)

The case centers around a dispute over real estate between the plaintiff – a judgment creditor of the debtor (who defaulted on some promissory notes) – and the aforementioned law firm, who defended the debtor in post-judgment enforcement proceedings.

The Relevant Chronology

August 2013 – Defendant debtor transferred the Property to an irrevocable trust;

March 2014 – Plaintiff’s predecessor recorded its money judgment against defendant;

June 2014 – The law firm agrees to represent defendant if she mortgaged her residence property (the Property) as an advanced payment retainer (retainer funds that immediately become property of the attorney)(see https://www.iardc.org/DowlingFAQs.html).

June 2015 – The law firm records a mortgage against the Property;

March 2018 – The court voids the 2013 transfer of the Property into a land trust as a fraudulent transfer.

The effect of this last order was the Property reverted back to the debtor and was no longer protected by the trust from the debtor’s creditors. The Court later ruled that the law firm lacked actual or constructive notice that the creditor’s prior judgment lien could wipe out the later mortgage. As a result, the Court found the law firm met the criteria for a bona fide purchaser – someone who gives value for something without notice of a competing claimant’s right to the same property.

Reversing itself on plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court first noted that recording a judgment gives the creditor a lien on all real estate owned in a given county by a debtor. 735 ILCS 5/12-101. Illinois follows the venerable “first-in-time, first-in-right” rule which confers priority status on the party who first records its lien.  An exception to the first-in-time priority rule is where a competing claimant is a bona fide purchaser (BFP). A BFP is someone who provides value for something without notice of a prior lien on it.

Here, the law firm unquestionably provided value – legal services – and lacked notice of the bank’s judgment lien since at the time the firm recorded its mortgage, the title to the real estate was held in trust. Where a creditor records a judgment against property held in a land trust, the judgment is not a lien on the real estate. Instead, it only liens the debtor’s beneficial interest in the trust. (See here  and here.) These factors led the Court originally to find that the Firm met the BFP test under the law.

Granting the creditor plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court found the law firm was apprised of enough facts to put it on inquiry notice that the mortgage was vulnerable to being trumped by the plaintiff’s judgment lien. A species of constructive notice, a party is on inquiry notice “when facts or circumstances are present that create doubt, raise suspicions, or engender uncertainty about the true state of title to real estate, the transferee can’t turn a blind eye….but is required to investigate further.” In re Thorpe, 546 B.R. 172, 185 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. 2016)(citing Illinois state court case authorities). A property mortgagee has a responsibility not only to check for prior liens and encumbrances in the chain-of-title, but also to consider “circumstances reasonably engendering suspicions as to title.” Id.

In its reconsideration order, the Court cited the Creditor recording its judgment lien 15 months before the law firm recorded its mortgage, the copious evidence of the debtor’s financial problems and transfer of the Property just as debtor’s creditors were closing in as likely badges of a fraud. The Court found the debtor’s Property transfer after she defaulted on numerous business loans she guaranteed should have put the law firm on notice that the Property was fair game for creditors like plaintiff. In short, the Court found that the law firm was apprised of facts – namely, debtor’s financial problems, aggressive creditors, and valueless transfer of the Property into a land trust – that obligated the law firm to dig deeper into the circumstances surrounding the transfer.

Afterwords:

Radiance and the various briefing that culminated in the Court’s reconsideration order provide an interesting discussion of creditor priority rules, law firm retainer agreements, trust law fundamentals and fraudulent transfer basics, all in a complex fact pattern.

The case reaffirms the proposition that where property is held in trust, a prior judgment lien against a beneficiary will not trump the later recorded judgment against the trust property.

However, where real estate is arguably fraudulently transferred – either intentionally or constructively (no value is received, transferor incurs debts beyond her ability to pay, e.g.) – a creditor of that transferee, like the Law Firm here, should at least think twice before transacting business with a debtor and  further into whether a given property transfer is legitimate.

 

 

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.

 

Zillow ‘Zestimates’ Not Actionable Value Statements; Homeowner Plaintiffs’ Not Consumers Under IL Consumer Fraud Act – IL ND 2018

Decrying the defendants’ use of “suspect marketing gimmicks” that generate “confusion in the marketplace,” the class action plaintiffs’ allegations in Patel v. Zillow, Inc. didn’t go far enough to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

The Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed the real estate owning plaintiffs’ claims against the defendants, whose Zillow.com website is a popular online destination for property buyers, sellers, lenders and brokers.

The plaintiffs alleged Zillow violated Illinois’s deceptive trade practices and consumer fraud statutes by luring prospects to the site based on fabricated property valuation data, employing “bait and switch” sales tactics and false advertising and giving preferential treatment to brokers and lenders who pay advertising dollars to Zillow.

Plaintiffs took special aim at Zillow’s “Seller Boost” program – through which Zillow provides choice broker leads in exchange for ad dollars – and “Zestimate,” Zillow’s property valuation tool that is based on computer algorithms.

The Court first dismissed Plaintiffs’ Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act (IDTPA) claim (815 ILCS 510/1 et seq.). Plaintiffs alleged Zestimate was a “suspect marketing gimmick” designed to lure visitors to Zillow in an effort to increase ad revenue from real estate brokers and lenders, and perpetuated marketplace confusion and disparaged properties by refusing to take down Zestimates that were proven inaccurate. Plaintiffs also alleged Defendants advertise properties for sale they have no intention of actually selling.

The Court found that Zestimates are not false or misleading representations of fact likely to confuse consumers. They are simply estimates of a property’s market value. As Zillow’s disclaimer-laden site says, Zestimates are but “starting points” of a property’s value and no proxy for a professional appraisal. As a result, the Court found Zestimates were nonactionable opinions of value.
Plaintiffs’ allegation that Zestimate creates consumer confusion also fell short. An actionable IDTPA claim premised on likelihood of confusion means a defendant’s use of a given trade name, trademark or other distinctive symbol is likely to mislead consumers as to the source of an advertised product or service. Here, the plaintiffs’ allegations that Zestimate was falsely vaunted as a legitimate valuation tool did not assert confusion between Zillow’s and another’s products or services.

Plaintiffs’ “bait and switch” and commercial disparagement claims fared no better. A bait and switch claim asserts that at a seller advertised one product or service only to “switch” a customer to another, costlier one. A commercial disparagement claim, based on IDPTA Section 510/2(a)(8) prevents a defendant from denigrating the quality of a business’s goods and services through false or misleading statements of fact.

Since plaintiffs did not allege Zillow was enticing consumers with one product or service while later trying to hawk a more expensive item, the bait and switch IDTPA claim failed. The court dismissed the commercial disparagement claim since Zestimates are only opinions of value and not factual statements.

The Court next nixed Plaintiffs’ self-dealing claim: that Zillow secretly tried to enrich itself by funneling For Sale By Owner (FSBO) sellers to premier brokers. While Illinois does recognize that a real estate broker owes a duty of good faith when dealing with buyers, the Court noted that Zillow is not a real estate broker. As a result, Defendants owed plaintiffs no legal duty to abstain from self-dealing.

The glaring absence of likely future harm also doomed the plaintiffs’ IDTPA claim. (The likelihood of future consumer harm is an element of liability under the IDTPA.) The Court found that even if Plaintiffs were confused or misled by Zillow in the past, there was no risk of future confusion. In IDTPA consumer cases, once a plaintiff is aware of potentially deceptive marketing, he can simply refrain from purchasing the offending product or service.

Next, the court jettisoned plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims which alleged Zestimates impeded homeowners efforts to sell their properties. A business (or another non-consumer) can still sue under ICFA where alleges a nexus between a defendant’s conduct and consumer harm. To meet this consumer nexus test, a corporate plaintiff must plead conduct involving trade practices addressed to the market generally or that otherwise implicates consumer protection concerns. If a non-consumer plaintiff cannot allege how defendant’s actions impact consumers other than the plaintiff, the ICFA claim fails.

The plaintiffs’ consumer fraud allegations missed the mark because plaintiffs were real estate sellers, not buyers. Moreover, the Court found that plaintiffs’ requested relief would not serve the interests of consumers since the claimed actual damages were unique to plaintiffs. The plaintiffs attempt to recover costs incidental to their inability to sell their homes, including mortgage payments, taxes, home owner association costs, utilities, and the like were not shared by the wider consumer marketplace. (For example, the Court noted that plaintiffs did not allege prospective consumer buyers will have to pay incidental out-of-pocket expenses related to Zillow’s Zestimate published values.)

Lastly, the Court dismissed plaintiffs’ deceptive practices portion of their ICFA claim. To state such a claim, the plaintiff must allege he suffered actual damages proximately caused by a defendant’s deception. But where a plaintiff isn’t actually deceived, it can’t allege a deceptive practice.

Here, in addition to falling short on the consumer nexus test, plaintiffs could not allege Zillow’s site content deceived them. This is because under Illinois fraud principles, a plaintiff who “knows the truth” can’t make out a valid ICFA deceptive practice claim. In their complaint, the plaintiffs’ plainly alleged they were aware of Zillow’s challenged tactics. Because of this, plaintiffs were unable to establish Zillow as the proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injury.

Afterwords:

Zillow provides a good primer on Federal court pleading standards in the post-Twombly era and gives a nice gloss on the requisite pleading elements required to state a viable cause of action for injunctive and monetary relief under Illinois’s deceptive practices and consumer fraud statutes.

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/)]

 

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.

 

Landlord’s Double-Rent Holdover Claim Barred by Res Judicata – A Deep Cut (IL 2012)

A commercial lease dispute sets the backdrop for an appeals court’s nuanced discussion of statutory holdover damages and when res judicata and claim-splitting defeat a second lawsuit involving similar facts to and subject matter of an earlier case.

For many years, the tenant in Degrazia v. Levato operated “Jimbo’s” – a sports bar set in the shadow of U.S. Cellular Field (nka Guaranteed Rate Field) and perennial favorite watering hole for Chicago White Sox fans.

Lawsuit 1 – the 2006 Eviction Case

In 2006, plaintiff filed an eviction lawsuit when the lease expired and defendants refused to leave.  In addition to possession of the premises, the plaintiffs also sought to recover use and occupancy damages equal to double the monthly rent due under the lease through the eviction date.

The trial court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment motion in the 2006 eviction suit and struck defendant’s affirmative defense that plaintiff went back on an oral promise to renew the lease.  Defendant appealed and the trial court’s eviction order was affirmed.

Lawsuit 2 – the 2007 Damages Case

Plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit in 2007; this time for breach of lease.  In this second action, plaintiffs sought to recover statutory holdover damages under Section 9-202 of the Forcible Entry and Detainer Act (the “FED Act”).  The court granted defendant’s summary judgment motion on the basis that plaintiff’s second lawsuit was barred by res judicata and the policy against claim-splitting.  The plaintiffs appealed.

Rules and Reasoning

For res judicata to foreclose a second lawsuit, three elements must be present:  (1) a final judgment on the merits rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) an identity of
causes of action; and (3) an identity of the parties or their privies.

Illinois courts also hew to the rule against splitting claims or causes of action. Under the claim-splitting rule, where a cause of action is entire and indivisible, a plaintiff cannot divide it by bringing separate lawsuits.  A plaintiff cannot sue for part of a claim in one action and then sue for the rest of the claim in a second suit.  Like res judicata, the claim-splitting rule aims to foster finality and protect litigants from multiple lawsuits.

The First District held that the trial court’s order in the 2006 lawsuit granting plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment was a final order only on the issue of possession but not on plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees since the court expressly granted plaintiffs leave to file a fee petition.  And since there was no final order entered on plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees in the 2006 case, plaintiffs could seek the same fees in the 2007 lawsuit.

The Court did, however, affirm summary judgment for the tenants on plaintiffs’ statutory holdover claim.  FED Act Section 9-202 provides that a tenant who willfully holds over after a lease expires is liable for double rent. 735 ILCS 5/9-202.

The Plaintiffs sought the same double rent in both the 2006 (eviction) and 2007 (damages) lawsuit and requested these damages in their summary judgment motion filed in the 2006 case.  The eviction judge in that 2006 case only allowed plaintiffs to recover statutory use and occupancy instead of statutory holdover rent.  The First District held that the use and occupancy order was final.  And since plaintiffs never appealed or challenged the use and occupancy order in the 2006 case, plaintiff’s 2007 Lawsuit was defeated by res judicata.

The Court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the forcible court (in the 2006 Lawsuit) was limited to ordering possession and unable to award statutory holdover damages.  It found that FED Act Section 9-106 expressly allows a landlord to join a rent claim and FED Sections 9-201 and 9-202 respectively allow a plaintiff to recover use and occupancy and holdover damages.  As a result, the First District found there was nothing that prevented the 2006 eviction case judge from awarding holdover rent if plaintiffs were able to show that defendants willfully held over after the lease expired.

Afterwords:

There is scant case law on Illinois’ holdover statute.  While an action for possession under the FED Act is, in theory, a limited, summary proceeding directed solely to the question of possession, the FED Act sections that allow a plaintiff to join a rent claim, to recover use and occupancy payments in addition to double holdover rent give shrewd lessee lawyer’s enough of an opening to argue issue or claim preclusion.

This case demonstrates that the best pleadings practice is for the landlord to join its double-rent claims in the eviction case and put the burden on the tenant to argue the holdover damages claim is beyond the scope of a FED action.  Otherwise, there is a real risk that the failure to join a holdover claim in the possession action will prevent holdover damages in a later lawsuit.

ReMax Franchisor Defeats Tortious Interference Claim With Privilege Defense – IL 4th Dist.

The plaintiffs in Byram v. Danner, 2018 IL App (4th) 170058-U, sued after their planned purchase of a Remax real estate franchise imploded.  The plaintiffs missed an installment payment and the defendants responded by cancelling the agreement. Plaintiffs then filed a flurry of tort claims including fraud and tortious interference with contract.

Plaintiffs’ fraud count alleged the defendants lacked Remax authority to sell the franchise and hid this fact from the plaintiffs. The tortious interference claim asserted defendants bad-mouthed plaintiffs to certain agents, causing them to disassociate from plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs sought to recover their franchise fee, their first installment payment and unpaid commissions earned over a 16-month period. The trial court dismissed all of plaintiffs’ claims under Code Sections 2-615 and 2-619.  Plaintiffs appealed.

In finding the trial court properly jettisoned the fraud claim, the court noted that a valid cause of action for fraud requires (1) a false representation of material fact, (2) by a party who knows or believes it to be false, (3) with the intent to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) action by the plaintiff in reliance on the statement, and (5) injury to the plaintiff as a consequence of the reliance.

However, where a contractual provision negates one of the fraud elements, the fraud claim fails. Here, the underlying contract expressly conditioned defendants’ sale of the franchise on Remax accepting plaintiffs as a franchisee. This qualified language precluded plaintiffs from alleging that defendants misrepresented that they had authority from Remax to sell their franchise. (⁋ 43)

The appeals court also affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ tortious interference with prospective economic advantage claim.  To prevail on this theory, a plaintiff must plead and prove (1) his reasonable expectation of entering into a valid business relationship, (2) the defendant’s knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectancy, (3) purposeful interference by defendant that prevents plaintiff’s legitimate expectation from coming to fruition, and (4) damages to the plaintiff.

The ‘purposeful interference’ prong of the tort requires a showing of more than interference.  The plaintiff must also prove a defendant’s improper conduct done primarily to injure the plaintiff.  Where a defendant acts to protect or enhance his own business interests, he is privileged to act in a way that may collaterally harm another’s business expectancy.  Where a defendant invokes a privilege to interfere with a plaintiff’s business expectancy, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s conduct was unjustified or malicious.  (¶ 46)

The Court found defendants’ actions were done to protect the future success of their real estate franchise and listings.  Since plaintiffs failed to plead any specific facts showing defendants’ intent to financially harm the plaintiffs, dismissal of the tortious interference count was proper.

The Court reversed the dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract claims, however. This was because the affidavit filed in support of defendant’s Section 2-619 motion didn’t qualify as affirmative matter.  An affirmative matter is any defense other than a negation of the essential allegations of the plaintiff’s cause of action.  Affirmative matter is not evidence a defendant expects to contest an ultimate fact alleged in a complaint.

Here, defendants’ Section 2-619 affidavit effectively plaintiffs’ allegations were “not true:” that defendants didn’t owe plaintiffs any commissions.  The Court found that a motion affidavit that simply denies a complaint’s material facts does not constitute affirmative matter. (¶¶ 56-59)

Afterwords:

Byram provides a useful summary of the relevant guideposts and distinctions between section 2-615 and 2-619 motions to dismiss. Where a supporting affidavit merely disputes plaintiff’s factual allegations, it will equate to a denial of the plaintiff’s allegations. Such an affidavit will not constitute proper affirmative matter than wholly defeats a claim.

The case also provides value for its discussion of the Darwinian privilege defense to tortious interference. When a defendant acts to protect herself or her business, she can likely withstand a tortious interference claim by a competitor – even where that competitor is deprived of a remedy.

Texas Arbitration Provision Sounds Death Knell For Illinois Salesman’s Suit Against Former Employer – IL ND

(“Isn’t that remarkable…..”)

The Plaintiff in Brne v. Inspired eLearning, 2017 WL 4263995, worked in sales for the corporate publisher defendant.  His employment contract called for arbitration in San Antonio, Texas.

When defendant failed to pay plaintiff his earned commissions, plaintiff sued in Federal court in his home state of Illinois under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (“IWPCA”). Defendant moved for venue-based dismissal under Rule 12(b)(3)

The Illinois Northern District granted defendant’s motion and required the plaintiff to arbitrate in Texas.  A Rule 12(b)(3) motion is the proper vehicle to dismiss a case filed in the wrong venue. Once a defendant challenges the plaintiff’s venue choice, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish it filed in the proper district.  When plaintiff’s chosen venue is improper, the Court “shall dismiss [the case], or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.” 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a).

Upholding the Texas arbitration clause, the Illinois Federal court noted the liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements except when to do so would violate general contract enforceability rules (e.g. when arbitration agreement is the product of fraud, coercion, duress, etc.)

The Court then turned to plaintiff’s argument that the arbitration agreement was substantively unconscionable.  An agreement is substantively unconscionable where it is so one-sided, it “shocks the conscience” for a court to enforce the terms.

The plaintiff claimed the arbitration agreement’s cost-sharing provision and absence of fee-shifting rendered it substantively unconscionable.

Cost Sharing Provision

Under Texas and Illinois law, a party seeking to invalidate an arbitration agreement on the ground that arbitration is prohibitively expensive must provide individualized evidence to show it will likely be saddled with excessive costs during the course of the arbitration and is financially incapable of meeting those costs.  The fact that sharing arbitration costs might cut in to a plaintiff’s recovery isn’t enough: without specific evidence that clearly demonstrates arbitration is cost-prohibitive, a court will not strike down an arbitration cost-sharing provision as substantively unconscionable.  Since plaintiff failed to offer competent evidence that he was unable to shoulder half of the arbitration costs, his substantive unconscionability argument failed

Fee-Shifting Waiver

The plaintiff’s fee-shifting waiver argument fared better.  Plaintiff asserted  then argued that the arbitration agreement’s provision that each side pays their own fees deprived Plaintiff of his rights under the IWPCA (see above) which, among other things, allows a successful plaintiff to recover her attorneys’ fees. 820 ILCS 115/14.

The Court noted that contractual provisions against fee-shifting are not per se unconscionable and that the party challenging such a term must demonstrate concrete economic harm if it has to pay its own lawyer fees.  The court also noted that both Illinois and Texas courts look favorably on arbitration and that arbitration fee-shifting waivers are unconscionable only when they contradict a statute’s mandatory fee-shifting rights and the statute is central to the arbitrated dispute.

The court analogized the IWPCA to other states’ fee-shifting statutes and found the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees section integral to the statute’s aim of protecting workers from getting stiffed by their employers.  The court then observed that IWPCA’s attorney’s fees provision encouraged non-breaching employees to pursue their rights against employers.  In view of the importance of the IWPCA’s attorneys’ fees provision, the Court ruled that the arbitration clause’s fee-shifting waiver clashed materially with the IWPCA and was substantively unconscionable.

However, since the arbitration agreement contained a severability clause (i.e. any provisions that were void, could be excised from the arbitration contract), the Court severed the fee-shifting waiver term and enforced the balance of the arbitration agreement.  As a result, plaintiff must still arbitrate against his ex-employer in Texas (and cannot litigate in Illinois).

Afterwords:

This case lies at the confluence of freedom of contract, the strong judicial policy favoring arbitration and when an arbitration clause conflicts with statutory fee-shifting language.  The court nullified the arbitration provision requiring each side to pay its own fees since that term clashed directly with opposing language in the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act.  Still, the court enforced the parties’ arbitration agreement – minus the fee provision.

The case also provides a useful synopsis of venue-based motions to dismiss in Federal court.

 

 

 

 

‘Surviving Partner’ Statute Defeats Fraud Suit in Mobile Home Spat – IL Court

The plaintiff in Jett v. Zeman Homes sued a mobile home seller for fraud and negligence after it failed to disclose a home’s history of mold damage and location in a flood zone.  The plaintiff’s claims were premised mainly on an agent of the defendant mobile home owner who died during the course of the litigation.  Affirming summary judgment for the owner, the court considered and answered some important questions on the applicability of common law and consumer fraud actions to the real estate context and when the death of an agent will immunize a corporate principal for claims based on the deceased agent’s comments.

The plaintiff’s fraud claims alleged that defendant’s agent made material misrepresentations that there was not a mold problem in the mobile home park and that any mold the plaintiff noticed in her pre-purchase walk-through was an isolated occurrence.  Plaintiff also alleged the seller’s agent failed to disclose a history of flooding on the property the mobile home occupied and the home’s lack of concrete foundation which contributed to flooding in the home.

Plaintiff’s negligence count alleged defendant breached duties of disclosure delineated in Section 21 of the Mobile Home Landlord and Tenant Rights Act. 765 ILCS 745/21 (West 2016). Plaintiff alleged defendant breached its duty to her by failing to disclose the home’s history of mold infestation and failure to alleviate the mold problem after plaintiff notified defendant.

The appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s fraud claims based on Illinois Evidence Code Section 301 which provides that a party who contracts with a now-deceased agent of an adverse party is not competent to testify to any admission of the deceased agent unless the admission was made in the presence of other surviving agents of the adverse party. 735 ILCS 5/8-301 (West 2016).  This is an application of the “Dead Man’s Act” (see 735 ILCS 5/8-201) principles to the principal-agent setting.

Applying this surviving agent rule, the Court noted that plaintiff admitted in her deposition that the predicate statements giving rise to both her common law and statutory fraud counts were made solely by the deceased defendant’s agent.  Since plaintiff could not identify any other agents of the defendant who were present when the deceased agent made statements concerning prior mold damage on the home, she could not attribute a materially false statement (a common law fraud element) or a deceptive act or practice (a consumer fraud element) to the defendant.

The appeals court also affirmed summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s negligence count.  An Illinois negligence plaintiff must plead and prove: (1) the existence of a duty of care owed to the plaintiff by the defendant; (2) a breach of that duty, and (3) an injury proximately caused by that breach.

Since the lease agreement attached to plaintiff’s complaint demonstrated that the owner/lessor was someone other than the defendant, the plaintiff could not establish that defendant owed plaintiff a legal duty.

Afterwords:

A fraud plaintiff relying on statements of a deceased agent to hold a principal (e.g. an employer) liable, will have to prove the statement in question was made in the presence of surviving agents.  Otherwise, as this case shows, Illinois’ surviving partner or joint contractor statute will defeat the claim by barring the plaintiff from presenting evidence of the deceased’s statements or conduct.

 

Non-Shareholder Can Be Liable On Alter-Ego and Veil Piercing Theory – IL Bankruptcy Court

Buckley v. Abuzir  will likely be viewed as a watershed in piercing the corporate veil litigation because of its exhaustive analysis of when a non-shareholder can be personally liable for corporate debts.  In that case, the court provides an extensive survey of how nearly every jurisdiction in the country has decided the non-shareholder piercing question.

In re Tolomeo, 2015 WL 5444129 (N.D.Ill. 2015) considers the related question of whether a creditor can pierce the corporate veil of entities controlled by a debtor non-shareholder so that those entities’ assets become part of the debtors’ bankruptcy estate.

The answer: “yes.”  In their complaint, the creditors sought a determination that three companies owned by the debtor’s wife but controlled by the debtor were the debtors’ alter-egos.  The creditors of the debtor also sought to pierce the companies’ corporate veils so that the companies’ assets would be considered part of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.  This would have the salutary effect of providing more funds for distribution to the various creditors.  After striking the debtor’s defenses to the complaint, the court granted the creditors motion for judgment on the pleadings. In doing so, the bankruptcy court applied some fundamental piercing principles to the situation where an individual debtor controls several companies even though he is not a nominal shareholder of the companies.

In Illinois, a corporation is a legal entity separate and distinct from its shareholders. However, this separateness will be disregarded where limited liability would defeat a strong equitable claim of a corporate creditor.

A party who seeks to set aside corporate liability protection on an alter-ego basis must make the two-part showing that (1) the company was so controlled and manipulated that it was a mere instrumentality of another entity or individual; and (2) misuse of the corporate form would promote fraud or injustice.

The mere instrumentality factors include (a) inadequate capitalization, (b) a failure to issue stock, (c) failure to observe corporate formalities, (d) nonpayment of dividends, (e) insolvency of the debtor corporation, (f) nonfunctioning officers or directors, (g) lack of corporate records, (h) commingling of funds, (i) diversion of assets from the corporation by or to a shareholder, (j) failure to maintain arm’s length relationships among related entities; and (k) the corporation being a mere façade for the dominant shareholders.

Promotion of injustice (factor (2) above)), in the veil piercing context, requires less than a showing of fraud but something more than the prospect of an unsatisfied judgment.

The court echoed Buckley and found that the corporate veil can be pierced to reach the assets of an individual even where he is not a shareholder, officer, director or employee.

The key question is whether a person exercises “equitable ownership and control” over a corporation to such an extent that there’s no demarcation between the corporation and the individual.  According to the court, making shareholder status a prerequisite for piercing liability elevates form over substance.

Applying these standards, the court found the circumstances ripe for piercing. The debtor controlled the three entities as he handled the day-to-day operations of the companies. He also freely shifted money between the entities and regularly paid his personal bills from company bank accounts. Finally, the court noted an utter lack of corporate records and threadbare compliance with rudimentary formalities. Taken together, the court found that the factors weighed in favor of finding that the three companies were the debtor’s alter-egos and the three entities should be considered part of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.

Take-aways:

1/ A defendant’s status as a corporate shareholder will not dictate whether or not his assets can be reached in an alter-ego or veil piercing setting.

2/ If non-shareholder sufficiently controls a corporate entity, he can be responsible for the corporate debts assuming other piercing factors are present.

3/ Veil piercing can occur absent actual fraud by a controlling shareholder.  The creditor plaintiff must show more than a mere unpaid debt or unsatisfied judgment, though.  Instead, there must be some element of unfairness present for a court to set aside corporate protection and fasten liability to the individual.

 

 

Lender’s Reliance on Predecessor Bank’s Loan Documents Satisfies Business Records Hearsay Rule – IL First Dist.

A commercial guaranty dispute provides the background for the First District’s recent discussion of some signature litigation issues including the voluntary (versus compulsory) payment rule and how that impacts an appeal, the business records hearsay exception, and governing standards for the recovery of attorneys fees.

The lender plaintiff in Northbrook Bank & Trust Co. v. Abbas, 2018 IL App (1st) 162972 sued commercial loan guarantors for about $2M after a loan default involving four properties.
On appeal, the lender argued that the guarantors’ appeal was moot since they paid the judgment. Under the mootness doctrine, courts will not review cases simply to establish precedent or guide future litigation. This rule ensures that an actual controversy exists and that a court can grant effective relief.

A debtor’s voluntary payment of a money judgment prevents the paying party from pursuing an appeal. Compulsory payment, however, will not moot an appeal.
The court found the guarantors’ payment compulsory in view of the lender’s aggressive post-judgment efforts including issuing multiple citations and a wage garnishment and moving to compel the guarantors’ production of documents in the citation proceeding. Faced with these post-judgment maneuvers, the Court found the payment compulsory and refused to void the appeal. (⁋⁋ 24-27)

The First District then affirmed the trial court’s admission of the lender’s business records into evidence over the defendant’s hearsay objection.  To admit business records into evidence, the proponent (here, the plaintiff) must lay a proper foundation by showing the records were made (1) in the regular course of business, and (2) at or near the time of the event or occurrence. Illinois Rule of Evidence 803(6) allows “records of regularly conducted activity” into evidence where (I) a record is made at or near the time, (ii) by or from information transmitted by a person with knowledge, (iii) if kept in the regular course of business and (iv) where it was the regular practice of that business activity to make the record as shown by the custodian’s or other qualified witness’s testimony.

The theory on which business records are generally admissible is that their purpose is to aid in the proper transaction of business and the records are useless unless accurate. Because the accuracy of business records is vital to any functioning commercial enterprise, “the motive for following a routine of accuracy is great and motive to falsify nonexistent.” [¶¶ 47-48]

With computer-generated business records, the evidence’s proponent must establish (i) the equipment used is industry standard, (ii) the entries were made in the regular course of business, (iii) at or near the time of the transaction, and (iv) the sources of information, method and time of preparation indicate the entries’ trustworthiness. Significantly, the person offering the business records into evidence (either at trial or via affidavit) isn’t required to have personally entered the data into the computer or even learn of the records before the litigation started. A witness’s lack of personal knowledge concerning the creation of business records affects the weight of the evidence; not its admissibility. [¶ 50]

Here, the plaintiff’s loan officer testified he oversaw defendants’ account, that he personally reviewed the entire loan history as part of his job duties and authenticated copies of the subject loan records. In its totality, the Court viewed the bank officer’s testimony as sufficient to admit the loan records into evidence.

Next, the Court affirmed the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees to the lender plaintiff. Illinois follows the ‘American rule’: each party pays its own fees unless there is a contract or statutory provision providing for fee-shifting. If contractual fee language is unambiguous, the Court will enforce it as written.

A trial court’s attorneys’ fee award must be reasonable based on, among other things, (i) the nature and complexity of the case, (ii) an attorney’s skill and standing, (iii) degree of responsibility required, (iv) customary attorney charges in the locale of the petitioning party, and (v) nexus between litigation and fees charged. As long as the petitioner presents a detailed breakdown of fees and expenses, the opponent has a chance to present counter-evidence, and the court can make a reasonableness determination, an evidentiary hearing isn’t required.

Afterwords:

Abbas presents a useful, straightforward summary of the business records hearsay exception, attorneys’ fees standards and how payment of a judgment impacts a later right to appeal that judgment.

The case also illustrates how vital getting documents into evidence in breach of contract cases and the paramount importance of clear prevailing party fee provisions in written agreements.

 

Shortened ‘Arb Award’ Rejection Deadline Upheld Against Constitutional Attack – IL Appeals Court

The First District appeals court recently nixed a plaintiff’s constitutional challenge to a local rule’s arbitration rejection deadline.  The opinion’s upshot is clear: when a supreme court rule conflicts with a statute, the rule wins.

The plaintiff in McBreen v. Mercedes-Benz, USA, LLC  argued her equal protection and due process rights were violated when a trial court denied her attempt to tardily reject an arbitration award. The case was decided by a single arbitrator under the auspices of the Cook County Law Division Mandatory Arbitration Program (MAP), a two-year pilot program that sends commercial cases with damage claims between $50,000 and $75,00 to mandatory arbitration.

Among other things, the Law Division MAP provides for hearings before a single arbitrator and requires a losing party to reject the award within seven business days. Cook County Cir. Ct. R. 25.1, 25.5, 25.11.

After an arbitrator found for defendants, the plaintiff didn’t reject the award until 30 days later – 23 days too late. The trial court then granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s case and denied plaintiff’s motion to void the arbitration award or extend the rejection deadline.  The trial court entered judgment on the arbitration award for defendant.

Plaintiff argued on appeal that Rule 25’s compressed rejection period violated her constitutional rights since it conflicted with the  30-day rejection deadline for Municipal Department arbitrations. (The Cook County Municipal Department hears personal injury cases and breach of contract suits where the damage claim is $30,000 or less.)   The plaintiff also claimed the Law Division MAP was unconstitutional since it clashed with the “panel of three” arbitrators rule prevailing in Municipal Department arbitrations.

Affirming the trial court, the Court first considered whether the Illinois Supreme Court had power to establish the Law Division MAP program with its seven-day rejection rule.

The Law Division MAP rejection period conflicts with Cook County’s Municipal Department arbitration scheme – which has a 30-day rejection rule.  (The Municipal arbitration rules, codified in Supreme Court Rules 86-95, were legislatively implemented via Code Sections 2-1001A and 1003A which, respectively, authorize the establishment of an arbitration program where a panel of three arbitrators hears cases involving less than $50,000 in damages. Rule 93(a) contains the 30-day rejection cut-off.)

The First District noted that while the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection period clashes with the Municipal Department’s 30-day period, Illinois courts through the decades consistently recognize the Illinois Supreme Court’s constitutional authority to make rules governing practice and procedure in the lower courts and that where a supreme court rule conflicts with a statute on a judicial procedure matter, the rule wins.

The court also notes the Illinois legislature echoed this inherent power for the Supreme Court to establish court rules in Code Section 1-104(a).  In the end, the Court found that In view of the Illinois Supreme Court’s expansive power in the area of pleadings, practice and procedure, the Law Division MAP’s abbreviated rejection period trumped any conflicting, longer rejection period found in other statutes or rules.  (¶¶ 17-18, 22-23).

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s equal protection argument – that the Law Division MAP program infringed the rights of Municipal court participants by shortening the rejection time span from 30 to seven days.  While allowing that Law Division and Municipal litigants in the arbitration setting share the same objective of taking part in a less-costly alternative to litigation, the Court found the two Programs “qualitatively different:” the Law Division MAP is geared to those seeking damages of between $50,000 and $75,000 while the Municipal plaintiff’s damages are capped at $30,000.

According to the Court, the different damage ceilings involved in Law Division and Municipal cases meant that plaintiffs in the two court systems aren’t similarly situated under the Equal Protection clause. (¶¶ 34-35).

Plaintiff’s final argument, that the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection period violated her due process rights also failed.  Due process requires an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful matter.

The plaintiff argued that the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection cut-off failed to give her a meaningful opportunity to challenge the award.   The Court thought otherwise.  It noted that statutes are presumed constitutional and someone challenging a statute’s constitutionality bears a heavy burden.  It then cited to multiple cases across a wide strata of facts which have upheld time limits of less than 30 days.

Afterwords:

McBreen offers a thorough, triangulated analysis of what happens when a Supreme Court Rule, a county’s local court rule and legislative enactments all speak to the same issue and appear to contradict each other.  The case solidifies the proposition that the Supreme Court’s primacy in the realm of lower court procedure and pleading extends to mandatory arbitration regimes, too.  While the case is silent on what constitutes a sufficient basis to extend the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection deadline, McBreen makes clear that a constitutional challenge will likely ring hollow.

 

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

AUI Construction Group, LLC v. Vaessen, 2016 IL App (2d) 160009 wrestles with whether a massive wind turbine tower that can be removed only by detonating several bombs at a cost of over half a million dollars qualifies as a lienable property improvement or is a non-lienable trade fixture under Illinois law.

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.  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.

Affirming, the Second District first noted that Illinois’ Mechanics Lien Act (770 ILCS 60/0.01 et seq.)(MLA) protects those who furnish material or labor for the improvement of real property.  The MLA allows a claimant to record a lien where its labor, materials or services improves the property’s value. 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. So long as the parties manifest an intent to improve the realty, a removable item can still be lienable.  Moreover, parties are free to specify in their contract that title to equipment furnished to property will not pass to the land owner until its fully paid for.

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 (factor number 3 above) 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 it received and rent is typically not lienable under the law.  The Court also pointed out that the tower could be removed albeit it through a laborious and expensive process.  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 is 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 that the subcontractor plaintiff did not have a security interest in the turbine under UCC Section 9-334 since, under that section, security interests do not attach to “ordinary building materials incorporated into an improvement on land.”  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.

 

Set-off Is Counterclaim; Not Affirmative Defense – IL Court Rules in Partition Suit

Stadnyk v. Nedoshytko, 2017 IL App (1st) 152103-U views the counterclaim-versus-affirmative defense distinction through the prism of a statutory partition suit involving co-owners of a Chicago apartment building.

The plaintiff sued to declare the parties’ respective ownership rights in the subject property.  After the court issued a partition order finding the plaintiff and defendants had respective 7/8 and 1/8 ownership interests.  After the trial court ordered a partition of the property, the defendants filed affirmative defenses titled unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty and equitable accounting.  Through all the “defenses” defendants sought to recoup property maintenance and repair expenses they made through the years.

The trial court struck defendants’ affirmative defenses on the basis that they were actually counterclaims and not defenses. The court also refused to award statutory attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff.  Each side appealed.

Affirming the trial court’s striking of the defendants’ affirmative defenses, the First District initially considered the difference between an affirmative defense and a counterclaim.

Code Section 2-608 provides that counterclaims in the nature of “setoff, recoupment, cross-claim or otherwise, and whether in tort or contract, for liquidated or unliquidated damages, or for other relief, may be pleaded as a cross claim in any action, and when so pleaded shall be called a counterclaim.” 735 ILCS 5/2-608

Code Section 2-613 governs affirmative defenses and requires the pleader to allege facts supporting a given defense and gives as examples, payment, release, satisfaction, discharge, license, fraud, duress, estoppel, laches, statute of frauds, illegality, contributory negligence, want or failure of consideration. 735 ILCS 5/2-613.

Counterclaims differ from affirmative defenses in that counterclaims seek affirmative relief while affirmative defenses simply seek to defeat a plaintiff’s cause of action.  In this case, the defendants’ did not seek to defeat plaintiff’s partition suit.  Instead, the defendants sought post-partition set-offs against sale proceeds going to plaintiff for defendants’ property maintenance and repair expenses.

A setoff is a counterclaim filed by a defendant on a transaction extrinsic to the subject of plaintiff’s suit.  Since the defendants styled their affirmative defenses as sounding in setoff and accounting – two causes of action (not defenses) – the Court affirmed the trial court’s striking the defenses.

The Court also reversed the trial court’s order refusing to apportion plaintiff’s attorneys fees.  Section 17-125 of the partition statute provides that a partition plaintiff’s attorney can recover his fees apportioned among the various parties since, in theory, the attorney acts for all interested parties.  However, where a party mounts a “good and substantial defense to the complaint,” the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees should not be spread among the litigants. 735 ILCS 5/17-125.

Here, the defendants attempted to raise defenses (setoff and public sale, as opposed to private, was required) but only after the trial court entered the partition order.  Since the defendants didn’t challenge plaintiff’s partition request but instead sought a setoff for defendants’ contributions to the property and a public sale of the property, the trial court correctly concluded the defendants failed to raise good and substantial defenses under the partition statute.  As a consequence, the trial court should have apportioned plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.

Afterwords:

Stadnyk cements the proposition that a counterclaim differs from an affirmative defense and that setoff fits into the former category.  The case also stresses that where a defendant seeks to recover damages from a plaintiff based on a collateral transaction (other than the one underlying the plaintiff’s lawsuit), defendant should file a counterclaim for a setoff rather than attempt to raise the setoff as a defense.

Other critical holdings from the case include that a court of equity lacks power to go against clear statutory language that require a public sale and partition plaintiff attorneys’ fees should only be apportioned where a defendant doesn’t raise a substantial defense to the partition suit.

 

 

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 homes in on the required showing to win a motion for judgment on the pleadings in Federal court, the scope of a general release, and the UCC section governing joint payee or “two-party” checks.

The plaintiff, an assignee of a fire restorer’s claim who did some repair work on a commercial structure, sued two banks for paying out on a two-party check (the “Check”) where only one payee indorsed it. The Assignor was a payee on the Check but never indorsed it.

The banks moved for summary judgment on the ground that the assignor previously released its claims to the Check proceeds in an earlier lawsuit and filed a third-party suit against the assignor for indemnification.  The assignor moved for judgment on the pleadings on the banks’ third-party action.

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 assigning restoration company previously released its claims to the Check proceeds.  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 was binding on the plaintiff since an assignee cannot acquire greater rights to something than its assignor has.  And since the plaintiff’s claim against the banks was previously released by plaintiff’s assignor, plaintiff’s lawsuit against the banks were barred.

The Assignor’s motion for judgment on the pleadings on the banks’ third-party claims was denied due to factual disputes.  Since the court could not tell whether or not the assignor misrepresented to the plaintiff whether it had assigned its claim 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.

 

Turnover Order Against Debtor’s Wife’s Company Upheld – IL First District

While the amount of the turnover order – less than $6,000 – challenged in Xcel Supply, LLC v. Horowitz, 2018 IL App (1st) 162986 was but a fraction of the underlying judgment – over $600,000 – the case provides a useful discussion of the interplay between Section 2-1402 and Rule 277 – Illinois’s twin supplementary (post-judgment) proceedings authorities – and when a third-party citation respondent is entitled to an evidentiary hearing.

About a month after a trial court entered a money judgment against defendant, his wife – through her company – wrote six checks to the defendant/ judgment debtor over a three-month span totaling $5,220.

On the creditor’s turnover motion, the trial court ordered the debtor’s wife and third-party citation respondent (the Respondent) to turn over $5,220 to plaintiff’s counsel (defendant’s wife’s company). The Respondent appealed.

Affirming, the Court examined Code Section 2-1402 and Rule 277 to assess whether the turnover order was supported by competent proof.

Code Section 2-1402(a) permits a judgment creditor to prosecute supplementary proceedings to discover assets or income of the debtor and apply assets or income discovered toward the payment of the judgment.

The creditor can initiate post-judgment proceedings against the debtor or any other third party who may have information concerning income or assets belonging to the judgment debtor.

Code Section 2-1402 vests the Court with broad powers to compel any person to deliver assets to be applied towards satisfaction of the judgment in situations where the judgment debtor can recover those assets. An order compelling a third-party to deliver assets in full or partial satisfaction of the judgment is called a turnover order. A court can enter judgement against someone who violates a citation’s restraining provision in the amount of the property transferred or up to the judgment amount. 2-1402(f)(1); ⁋⁋ 40-41.

Rule 277 works in tandem with Section 2-1402 and specifies how supplementary proceedings are conducted. Among other things, the Rule allows “any interested party” to subpoena witnesses and adduce evidence in the same manner it could at a civil trial.

Where a judgment creditor and third-party citation respondent each claim superior rights to the same debtor assets, the trial court should conduct an evidentiary hearing. However, where only the judgment creditor is claiming rights in the debtor’s assets, the trial court can decide the post-judgment proceeding without an evidentiary hearing.

Here, because the Respondent was the debtor’s wife – the Court viewed her as an illusory citation respondent. That is, the debtor and Respondent acted as a united front. Because this was not the prototypical “tug-of-war” between a judgment creditor and third-party citation respondent, the trial court was able to rule on the respondent’s argument without an evidentiary hearing.

The Court also rejected the respondent’s argument that the turnover order lacked an evidentiary basis. The Court noted that the judgment debtor admitted in his affidavit to cashing all six checks from the Respondent’s company and that Respondent did nothing to stop him from cashing the checks.

Since the Respondent never challenged the debtor’s right to cash the checks, the Court viewed it as strong proof that the checks were the debtor’s property to spend as he pleased.

Finally, the Court rejected Respondent’s argument that the money sent to the debtor wasn’t really his money as the funds were earmarked for their children’s expenses. According to the court, since both the debtor and Respondent had equal parental obligations to pay their children’s expenses, whether or not the money was for child expenses didn’t negate the trial court’s finding that the checks were defendant’s property and Respondent violated the citation by transferring the checks to the defendant after the date of the money judgment.

Afterwords: This case shows that citation restraining provisions which bar a third-party citation respondent from transferring money or property belonging to or to become due a judgment debtor have teeth.

While an evidentiary hearing is normally required where there are competing claimants to the same pool of assets, this rule is relaxed where the citation respondent is aligned (here, through marriage) with the debtor. In such a case, the court will look beyond the legal nomenclature and assess the reality of the parties’ relationship. Where the third-party citation respondent doesn’t have a meaningful claim to transferred debtor assets, the Court can decide a turnover motion without hearing live witness testimony.

Lost Profits: Direct Or Indirect Damages? (And Why It Matters)

Two species of compensation in breach of contract lawsuits are (1) direct damages and (2) indirect damages.  The former allows a plaintiff to recover money damages that flow directly from a breach while the latter – sometimes labeled “consequential” damages – are more remote and separated from the breach.

Deciphering the difference between the two damage regimes is easy in theory but often difficult in practice.

At the intersection of the two damages types lies the lost profits remedy.  Lost profits damages allow the non-breaching party to recover profits he would have earned had the breaching party performed under the terms of the contract.  They (lost profits) divide into direct or indirect damages depending on the facts.

Westlake Financial Group, Inc. v. CDH-Delnor Health System, 2015 IL App(2d) 140589 spotlights the lost profits question in a dispute between two businesses over an insurance brokerage contract (the “Insurance Contract”) and a separate on-line claims tracking agreement (“the Tracking Contract”).

Both contracts spanned four years with 60-day termination clauses.  The plaintiff sued when the defendant prematurely cancelled both Contracts with more than two years left on them.  Plaintiff sought damages for lost Insurance Contract insurance commissions and for fees it would have earned under the Tracking Contract.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss and the plaintiff appealed.

Result: Reversed in part.

The trial court dismissed the bulk of plaintiff’s claims based on a limitation of damages clause in the Insurance Contract that immunized the defendant from consequential damages.

In Illinois, contract damages are measured by the amount of money needed to place the plaintiff in  the same position he would be if the contract was performed.  Damage limitation provisions in contracts are enforced so long as they don’t offend public policy.  These limitation clauses are strictly construed against the party benefitting from them.  (¶¶ 29-30).

Direct damages or “general damages” flow directly and without interruption from the type of wrong alleged in a complaint.  By contrast, indirect or consequential damages are losses that are removed from the breach and usually involve an intervening event that causes the damage.

Lost profits can constitute either direct damages or indirect damages depending on the facts.  Where a plaintiff’s lost profits damages result directly from a defendant’s breach, the lost profits are recoverable as direct damages.

A prototypical direct lost profits damages example cited by the court is where a phone directory publisher is liable for lost profits caused by its failure to include a business’s name in the directory.  In that scenario, any lost profits suffered by the business are directly attributable to the publisher’s failure to publish the business name in the directory – the very thing it was hired to do.  (¶¶ 32-35).

The Insurance Contract here contained a consequential damages exclusion and specifically mentioned lost profits as a type of consequential damages.  Still, the court found that the exclusion did not bar plaintiff’s direct lost profits claim.  The court noted that the Insurance Contract’s damage limitation provision only mentioned lost profits as an example of consequential damages.  It didn’t say that lost profits were categorically excluded.

The court also rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s claimed damages were too speculative to merit recovery.

Under Illinois law, damages are speculative where their existence is uncertain; not when there amount is uncertain.

Since lost profits can’t be proven with mathematical certainty, the plaintiff only has to show a “reasonable basis” for their (lost profits) computation.  (¶ 51).

Since the plaintiff premised its Insurance Contract lost profits claim on a four-year track record of calculable insurance commissions, the court found the plaintiff sufficiently pled the existence of damages.  Any dispute in the amount of plaintiff’s damages was an issue later for trial.  At the motion to dismiss stage, plaintiff sufficiently pled a breach of contract claim.  (¶¶ 52-53).

Afterwords:

– Consequential damages exclusion that mentions lost profits – as a type or example of consequential damages – won’t preclude lost profits that are a direct result (as opposed to an indirect result) of the breach of contract;

– A business plaintiff’s past profits from prior years can serve as sufficient gauge of future lost profits in a breach of contract claim.

 

Creditor (Bank) -Debtor (Borrower) Relationship Not A Fiduciary One – IL First Dist. (I of II)

Kosowski v. Alberts, 2017 IL App (1st) 170622 – U, examines some signature commercial litigation remedies against the factual backdrop of a business loan default.

The plaintiffs, decades-long business partners in the printing and direct mail industry, borrowed money under a written loan agreement that gave the lender wide-ranging remedies upon the borrowers’ default. Plaintiffs quickly fell behind in payments and went out of business within two years. A casualty of the flagging print media business, the plaintiffs not only defaulted on the loan but lost their company collateral – the printing facility, inventory, equipment and accounts receivable -, too.

Plaintiffs sued the bank and one of its loan officers for multiple business torts bottomed on the claim that the bank prematurely declared a loan default and dealt with plaintiffs’ in a heavy-handed way.  Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment for the defendants.

Affirming, the First District dove deep into the nature and reach of the breach of fiduciary duty, consumer fraud, and conversion torts under Illinois law.

The court first rejected the plaintiff’s position that it stood in a fiduciary position vis a vis the bank. A breach of fiduciary duty plaintiff must allege (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty on the part of the defendant, (2) defendant’s breach of that duty, and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach.

A fiduciary relationship can arise as a matter of law (e.g. principal and agent; lawyer-client) or where there is a “special relationship” between the parties (one party exerts influence and superiority over another).  However, a basic debtor-creditor arrangement doesn’t rise to the fiduciary level.

Here, the loan agreement explicitly disclaimed a fiduciary arrangement between the loan parties.  It recited that the parties stood in an arms’ length posture and the bank owed no fiduciary duty to the borrowers.  While another loan section labelled the bank as the borrowers’ “attorney-in-fact,” (a quintessential fiduciary relationship) the Court construed this term narrowly and found it only applied upon the borrower’s default and spoke only to the bank’s duties concerning the disposition of the borrowers’ collateral.  On this point, the Court declined to follow a factually similar Arkansas case (Knox v. Regions Bank, 103 Ark.App. 99 (2008)) which found that a loan’s attorney-in-fact clause did signal a fiduciary relationship.  Knox had no precedential value since Illinois case authorities have consistently held that a debtor-creditor relationship isn’t a fiduciary one as a matter of law. (¶¶ 36-38)

Next, the Court found that there was no fiduciary relationship as a matter of fact.  A plaintiff who tries to establish a fiduciary relationship on this basis must produce evidence that he placed trust and confidence in another to the point that the other gained influence and superiority over the plaintiff.  Key factors pointing to a special relationship fiduciary duty include a disparity in age, business acumen and education, among other factors.

Here, the borrowers argued that the bank stood in a superior bargaining position to them.  The Court rejected this argument.  It noted the plaintiffs were experienced businessmen who had scaled a company from 3 employees to over 350 during a three-decade time span.  This lengthy business success undermined the plaintiffs’ disparity of bargaining power argument

Take-aways:

Kosowski is useful reading for anyone who litigates in the commercial finance arena. The case solidifies the proposition that a basic debtor-creditor (borrower-lender) relationship won’t rise to the level of a fiduciary one as a matter of law. The case also gives clues as to what constitutes a special relationship and what degree of disparity in bargaining power is required to establish a factual fiduciary duty.

Lastly, the case is also instructive on the evidentiary showing a conversion and consumer fraud plaintiff must make to survive summary judgment in the loan default context.

 

Binding LLC to Operating Agreement A Substantive Change in Illinois Law; No Retroactive Effect – IL Court

The summer of 2017 ushered in a slew of changes, to Illinois’ limited liability company statute, 805 ILCS 180/15-1 et seq. (the “Act”).  Some of the key Act amendments included clarifying LLC member rights to access company records, explaining if and when a member or manager’s fiduciary duties can be eliminated or reduced, tweaking the Act’s judgment creditor remedies section, and changing the Act’s conversion (e.g. partnership to LLC or vice versa) and domestication rules.

Q Restaurant Group Holdings, LLC v. Lapidus, 2017 IL App (2d) 170804-U, examines another statutory change – one that binds an LLC to an operating agreement (OA) even where the LLC doesn’t sign it. See 805 ILCS 180/15-5.

The OA is the LLC’s governing document that sets forth each member’s (or manager’s) respective rights and obligations concerning contribution, distribution, voting rights and the like. The OA’s signing parties are typically the LLC members/managers – not the LLC itself.  Legally, this is significant because under privity of contract principles – only a party to a written agreement can sue to enforce it.

2017’s LLC Act changes make it clear that the LLC entity has standing to sue and be sued under the OA regardless of whether or not the LLC signed it.

The plaintiff in Lapidus sued the defendant for various business torts including conversion and tortious interference with contract. The defendant moved to dismiss the suit based on mandatory arbitration language in the OA.  Denying defendant’s Section 2-619 motion, the Court held that since the amended Section 15-5 of the Act worked a substantive change to the former LLC Act section, it didn’t apply retroactively. (The OA in Lapidus preceded the 2017 amendments.)

Rules/reasoning:

Affirming the trial court, the First District examined the dichotomy between procedural and substantive changes to legislation.  Where a statutory amendment is enacted after a lawsuit is filed, the Court looks to whether the legislature specified the reach (i.e. does it apply retroactively?) of the amendment.  Where new legislation is silent on its scope, the Court determines whether a given amendment is procedural or substantive.  If procedural, the amendment has retroactive effect.  If the change is substantive, however, it will only apply prospectively.

A procedural change is one that “prescribes the method of enforcing rights or obtaining redress” such as pleadings, evidence and practice.  A substantive change, by contrast, is one that establishes, creates or defines legal rights.  (¶¶ 15-16; citing to Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 280 (1994); 5 ILCS 70/4 (Illinois’s Statute on Statutes))

In finding that amended Section 15-5 was a substantive change to Illinois’ LLC Act (and therefore couldn’t be applied retroactively) the court noted the amended statute “established a contractual right” by binding the LLC to an OA it never signed.

Since the plaintiff LLC in Lapidus never signed the OA, the Court couldn’t require the plaintiff to follow the OA’s arbitration clause without substantially altering the LLC’s contract rights.  As a result, the Court held that amended Section 15-5 did not apply to the pre-amendment OA and the plaintiff didn’t have to adhere to the arbitration clause.t have to adhere to the OA’s arbitration provisions. (¶¶ 18-19).

Afterwords:

I. To decide if a statutory amendment applies retroactively (as opposed to only being forward-looking), the court considers whether the change is procedural or substantive.

II. While the distinction between procedural and substantive isn’t always clear, Lapidus stands for proposition a change in the law that alters a parties basic contract rights (such as by making a non-party a party to an operating agreement) is substantive and will only apply in the future.

III.  And though the case is unpublished, Lapidus still makes for interesting reading in light of Illinois’ manifold LLC Act changes.  With so many recent statutory changes (see here_for example), this case likely augurs an uptick in cases interpreting the 2017 LLC Act amendments.

Appeals Court Gives Teeth to “Good Faith” Requirement of Accord and Satisfaction Defense

A common cautionary tale recounted in 1L contracts classes involves the crafty debtor who secretly short-pays a creditor but notes “payment in full” on his check. According to the classic “gotcha” vignette, the debtor’s devious conduct forever bars the unwitting creditor from suing the debtor.

Whether apocryphal or not (like the one about the newly minted lawyer who accidentally brought a marijuana cigarette into the courthouse and forever lost his license after less than 3 hours of practice) the fact pattern neatly illustrates the accord and satisfaction rue. Accord and satisfaction applies where a creditor and debtor have a legitimate dispute over amounts owed on a note (or other payment document) and the parties agree on an amount (the “accord”) the debtor can pay (the “satisfaction”) to resolve the disputed claim.

Piney Ridge Associates v. Ellington, 2017 IL App (3d) 160764-U reads like a first year contracts “hypo” come to life as it reflects the perils of creditor’s accepting partial payments where the payor recites “payment in full” on a check.

Piney Ridge’s plaintiff note buyer sued the defendant for defaulting on a 1993 promissory note. The defendant moved to dismiss because he wrote “payment in full” under the check endorsement line. The trial court agreed with the defendant that plaintiff’s acceptance of the check was an accord and satisfaction that defeated plaintiff’s suit.

The 3rd District appeals court reversed; it stressed that a debtor’s duplicitous conduct won’t support an accord and satisfaction defense.

Under Illinois law, an accord and satisfaction is a contractual method of discharging a debt: the accord is the parties’ agreement; the satisfaction is the execution of the agreement.

In deciding whether a transaction amounts to an accord and satisfaction, the court focuses on the parties’ intent.

Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code (which applies to negotiable instruments) a debtor who relies on the accord and satisfaction defense must prove (1) he/she tendered payment in good faith as full satisfaction of a claim, (2) the amount of the claim was unliquidated or subject to a bona fide dispute; and (3) the claimant obtained payment from the debtor. 810 ILCS 5/3-311(a).

Good faith means honesty in fact and observing “reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” The debtor must also provide the creditor with a conspicuous statement that the debtor’s payment is tendered in full satisfaction of a claim. (⁋12)(810 ILCS 5/3-311(a), (b)). Without an honest dispute, there is no accord and satisfaction. (⁋ 14)

A debtor who fails to act in good faith cannot bind a creditor to an accord and satisfaction. Case examples of a court refusing to find an accord and satisfaction include defendants who, despite clearly marking their payment as “in full”, paid less than 10% of a workers’ compensation lien in one case, and in another, paid less than half the plaintiff’s total invoice amount and lied to the plaintiff’s agent about past payments. (⁋⁋ 13, 14)(citing to Fremarek v. John Hancock Mutual Life Ins. Co., 272 Ill.App.3d 1067 (1995); and McMahon Food Corp. v. Burger Dairy Co., 103 F.3d 1307 (7th Cir. 1996).

Applying this good faith requirement, the Court noted that the defendant paid $354 to the plaintiff at the time the defendant admittedly owed over $10,000 (defendant sent a pre-suit letter to the prior noteholder conceding he owed $10,000 on the note). The Court held that this approximately $7,600 shortfall clearly did not meet accord and satisfaction’s good faith component.

Bullet-points:

  • Accord and satisfaction requires good faith on the payor’s part and a court won’t validate debtor subterfuge.
  • Where the amount paid “in full” is dwarfed by the uncontested claim amount, the Court won’t find an accord and satisfaction.
  • Where there is no legitimate dispute concerning a debt’s existence and amount, there can be no accord and satisfaction.

 

 

No Automatic Finality Where Pleading Never Amended After ‘Without Prejudice’ Dismissal – IL Court

Richter v. Prairie Farms Dairy, Inc.’s, (2016 IL 119518) essential holding is that a prior dismissal without prejudice doesn’t convert to a final order for res judicata or appeal purposes where a plaintiff fails to amend the dismissed pleading within the time deadline set by the court and the movant defendant doesn’t seek a dismissal with prejudice.

Claiming their membership in an agriculture cooperative was unfairly terminated, the Richter plaintiffs sued the defendant co-op for statutory shareholder remedies under the Illinois Business Corporation Act, 805 ILCS 5/12.56 (BCA), and common law fraud. Plaintiffs’ key theory was that defendant prematurely and pretextually terminated a milk marketing agreement by invoking an obscure bylaws provision in the agreement.

The trial court dismissed plaintiffs’ fraud claims without prejudice and gave them 30 days to amend their complaint – a deadline ultimately increased to 120 days. Plaintiffs never amended their fraud claims though, instead choosing to pursue the BCA claim. After nearly five years of litigation, the plaintiff sought the voluntary dismissal of the BCA claim and later refiled another action within the one-year window allowed by 735 ILCS 5/2-1009.

The trial court granted the defendant’s 2-619 motion to dismiss the refiled suit under res judicata principles. It found the plaintiffs’ failure to amend the fraud claims “finalized” the prior dismissal without prejudice order and barred plaintiffs’ refiled suit.  The Fourth District reversed.  It held the trial court’s dismissal without prejudice was not final on its face and could never support a res judicata finding. Defendant appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Affirming the appeals court, the Supreme Court dove deep into the earmarks of a final judgment for appeal and res judicata purposes and examined when an involuntary dismissal precludes the later refiling of a lawsuit.

Res judicata requires a final judgment on the merits for the doctrine to preclude a second lawsuit between two parties for the same cause of action. The doctrine bars not only what was actually decided in a prior action, but also matters that could have been litigated and decided in that action.

A “final” judgment or order denotes one that terminates the litigation and absolutely fixes the parties’ rights so that all that’s left is enforcing the judgment. (⁋24)
Illinois Supreme Court Rule 273 provides that an involuntary dismissal – other than one for lack of jurisdiction, improper venue, or failure to join an indispensable party – is considered an adjudication on the merits.

A dismissal “without prejudice” signals there was no final decision on the merits. A dismissal that grants a plaintiff leave to amend its pleading is not final because the dismissal does not terminate the litigation. (⁋25). In such a case, a plaintiff is not barred from refiling an action. s

The Illinois Supreme Court declined the defendant’s invitation to create an “automatic final judgment ” rule when a plaintiff fails to amend within court-imposed time limits. Instead, the Court placed the onus on the litigants to convert a non-final dismissal order into a final one by seeking a dismissal with prejudice once the time for amendments has lapsed. And since the defendant had the burden of showing that res judicata applied and failed to obtain a definite with prejudice dismissal of plaintiff’s claims, the plaintiff was not prevented from refiling their lawsuit.

But What About Rein and Hudson?

Rein v. David A. Noyes & Co., 172 Ill.2d 325, 334–35 (1996) and Hudson v. City of Chicago, 228 Ill.2d 462, 467 (2008) are oft-cited case law poster children for the perils of refiling previously (voluntarily) dismissed claims when other claims in the same suit were involuntarily dismissed. In such a case, a plaintiff’s refiled action can be barred by res judicata since the voluntarily dismissed claims could have been litigated in the earlier suit.  But here, unlike in Rein and Hudson, no part of plaintiff’s suit was dismissed with prejudice. And since a nonfinal order can never bar a subsequent action, res judicata didn’t apply.

Implication

When faced with a dismissal without prejudice, a plaintiff should quickly seek leave to amend or seek a dismissal with prejudice to start the notice of appeal clock. For its part, a defendant should seek with- prejudice dismissal language where a plaintiff fails to amend within time limits allowed by the court. Doing so will put the defendant in a good position to file a dismissal motion predicated on res judicata or claim-splitting if the plaintiff later refiles against the same defendant.

Commission Payment Terms in Employment Contract Trump Cable Rep’s ‘Procuring Cause’ Claim in Sales Contract Spat – IL Court

I once represented a client who sued his former employer – an energy company – for unpaid commission and bonuses.  Before he hired me, the client filed a pro se administrative claim with the Illinois Department of Labor (DOL) to recover the monies.  The DOL found in my client’s favor but could not decide on a specific dollar amount. Several months later, I sued to recover under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (Wage Act) and for breach of contract.  In that case, which settled favorably for us, the employer unsuccessfully argued my client’s prior DOL case precluded our civil Wage Act claim.  The trial court rejected this res judicata argument on the basis that the DOL proceeding was not equivalent to a prior adjudication on the merits.

Borum v. Wideopenwest Illinois, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 141482-U, a two-year old, unpublished decision, presents a similar fact pattern and considers whether an ex-employee’s earlier administrative claim prevents a later civil lawsuit against the same employer for the same claim.  The case also spotlights the interplay between an employment agreement’s payment terms and the procuring cause doctrine in a sales commissions dispute.

Defendant hired plaintiff to prospect for cable customers.  It agreed to pay plaintiff a commission based on customers he signed up.  The defendant’s standard employment contract documented the plaintiff’s commission payment rights: plaintiff earned his commission once a customer signed a right-of-entry agreement with the cable supplier.

After lodging an unsuccessful DOL, plaintiff sued the cable company in state court to recover unpaid sales commissions. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss all counts of the plaintiff’s complaint and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the trial court’s dismissal, the Court first considered whether the plaintiff’s DOL proceeding barred his civil suit under res judicata or collateral estoppel principles.  Section 14 of the Wage Act authorizes an employee to file either a DOL claim or a civil action, but not both, to recover underpayment damages along with 2% per month of the underpaid amount.

The DOL ruled against the plaintiff.  It found the right-of-entry agreements were not consummated until signed by both a customer and the defendant employer.)

The Court found the DOL hearing was too informal and not “judicial” or “adjudicatory” enough to defeat plaintiff’s later civil suit under the res judicata rule.

Res judicata requires a final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction.  Collateral estoppel precludes litigation of an issue previously decided in an earlier proceeding.  Res judicata and collateral estoppel can extend to administrative proceedings that are judicial, adjudicatory or quasi-judicial in nature.

So where administrative proceedings involve sworn testimony, are adversarial in nature and include cross-examination of witnesses, they can bar a subsequent civil suit.

Here, since the DOL conducted only an informal hearing with no cross-examination or sworn witnesses, the DOL had no adjudicatory power over the parties and so its finding for defendant had no preclusive effect against the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

The court also rejected plaintiff’s procuring cause argument.  Designed to soften the harsh impact of at-will contracts, the procuring cause doctrine allows a departed salesperson to recover commissions on sales he/she consummated before his/her employment ends even where the money isn’t paid to the employer until after the salesperson departs.  The procuring cause rule is only a gap filler though: it’s a default rule that only applies where a contract is silent on when commissions are paid.

Since plaintiff’s contract with defendant specifically provided plaintiff would be paid commissions earned during (but not after) the period of the employment, the court found this specific enough to vitiate the procuring cause rule.

Lastly, the Court considered whether defendant violated its handbook which stated compensation terms could only be changed on 30 days advance notice.  Plaintiff argued that the defendant made a unilateral change to its compensation policy without giving plaintiff the requisite notice.

The key question for the Court was whether the employee manual was an enforceable contract. For an employee handbook to vest an employee with binding contract rights, (1) the handbook promise must be clear enough that an employee reasonably believes and offer has been made, (2) the handbook offer must be distributed to the employee so that he/she actually receives it or is aware of its contents; the (3) the employee must accept the offer by commencing work after learning of the policy statement.

Since the plaintiff conceded he wasn’t aware of the employee manual until the day he was fired, the court found he couldn’t reasonably show the handbook provided him with enforceable contract rights. (¶¶ 83-85).

Bullet-points:

  • Administrative claims can support a res judicata defense but only where the administrative hearing is adversarial (judicial) in nature; such as where witnesses give sworn testimony that can be tested on cross-examination;
  • The procuring cause rule won’t trump specific contract payment terms;
  • A written employer policy on compensation adjustments isn’t binding against an employer where the aggrieved employee isn’t aware of the policy until on or after he/she’s fired.

 

 

 

 

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Commercial Borrowers’ Civil RICO Suit For Inflated Appraisals and Loans Bounced by IL Fed Court

 

Delaware Motel Associates v. Capital Crossing Servicing Company, LLC, 2017 WL 4224618 examines the pleading requisites for civil RICO claims and the razor-thin difference between unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims in a hotel development loan dispute.

The plaintiff real estate investors sued a lender and its appraisal firm for civil RICO violations.  The plaintiffs alleged the appraiser and lender plotted to issue fraudulent loans based on inflated property values over a multi-year span.  The Northern District of Illinois granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss the claims under Rule 12(b)(6).

Reasons:

To state a cognizable RICO claim, a plaintiff must plead (1) conduct (2) of an enterprise (3) through a pattern (4) of racketeering activity. To satisfy the enterprise element – item (2) – the plaintiff has to allege “a group of persons acting together for a common purpose or course of conduct.” Here, the plaintiffs’ complaint was devoid of specific allegations that defendants worked together to advance a common objective and lacked any facts showing defendants’ common purpose.

The plaintiffs also failed to adequately allege defendants engaged in racketeering activity. Quintessential RICO conduct includes mail and wire fraud, bank fraud, extortion and money laundering. 18 U.S.C. § 1961(1). Because of their inherently fraudulent make-up, these predicate acts must be pled with acute specificity under Rule 9(b).

To satisfy Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading standard, the civil RICO plaintiff must allege the time, place, and content of the alleged fraud.  While Federal pleading rules sometimes allow fraud to be pled “on information and belief,” the plaintiff still must supply “some firsthand information to provide grounds to corroborate their suspicions.”  The Court found the plaintiff’s mail, wire and bank fraud allegations sparse since they didn’t identify a specific fraudulent loan or inflated land appraisal.

The Court also dispatched with the plaintiffs’ intentional interference with prospective economic advantage claim.  This requires a plaintiff to allege: (1) he had a reasonable expectancy of a valid business relationship; (2) the defendant knew about the expectancy; (3) the defendant intentionally interfered with the expectancy and prevented it from ripening into a valid business relationship; and (4) the intentional interference injured the plaintiff.

In their Complaint, plaintiffs failed to allege any defendant who knew of plaintiff’s reasonable expectancy of a valid business relationship who purposefully tampered with the expectancy.

Rejecting plaintiffs’ unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims, the court again focused on plaintiffs’ pleading deficits.  The plaintiffs failed to allege the critical unjust enrichment element that plaintiff conferred a benefit on defendants which they unfairly kept.  The plaintiffs similarly failed to plead quantum meruit as the Complaint was missing allegations that plaintiff performed a service that benefitted defendants.

Useful Bullet-Points

– This case provides a useful pleadings primer for civil RICO cases and emphasizes the paramount importance of factual specificity in fraud-based claims.  To allege a RICO enterprise, the plaintiff must allege concerted actions by a group of people to pursue a common goal.

– A viable racketeering claim sounding in mail or wire fraud requires specific factual allegations.  Otherwise, the RICO claim can be subject to Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal.

 

Marital Privilege Argument Premature in Insurance Broker’s Trade Secrets Case Against Former Agent – IL ND

The district court in Cornerstone Assurance Group v. Harrison discusses the Federal court plausibility standard for pleadings and considers whether Illinois’s marital privilege statute defeats an insurance broker’s trade secrets suit against a former employee.

The defendant signed an employment contract that contained a confidentiality provision covering plaintiff’s financial information, marketing plans, client leads, prospects, and lists along with fee schedules, and computer software.  Plaintiff paid defendant $1,000 not to disclose plaintiff’s confidential information.

The plaintiff alleged the defendant disclosed the information – including a protected client list and private medical data – to her husband, who worked for a competing broker.  The plaintiff alleged the competitor used that information to recruit plaintiff’s employees.  The defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims under Rule 12(b)(6).

Trade Secrets Claim

Denying the motion, the court first looked to the pleading requirements of a claim under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1, et seq.To prevail on a claim for misappropriation of a trade secret under the [ITSA], the plaintiff must demonstrate (1) the information at issue was a trade secret, (2) that the information was misappropriated, and (3) that it was used in the defendant’s business.

ITSA defines a trade secret as information, data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers or suppliers, that is (1) 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 (20 is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy or confidentiality. 765 ILCS 1065/2(d)

The law does not confer trade secret status for information “generally known or understood within an industry even if not to the public at large.”  A plaintiff also foregoes trade secret protection where it fails to take affirmative measures to keep others from using the proprietary information.  In addition to these statutory guideposts, Illinois case law considers several additional factors that inform the trade secrets analysis.  These include: (1) the extent to which the information is known outside of the plaintiff s business; (2) the extent to which the information is known by employees and others involved in the plaintiff s business; (3) the extent of measures taken by the plaintiff to guard the secrecy of the information; (4) the value of the information to the plaintiff s business and to its competitors; (5) the amount of time, effort and money expended by the plaintiff in developing the information; and (6) the ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others.  No one factor predominates but the more factors present increases plaintiff’s chances of establishing a trade secret.

The Court held the plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to show that some of the information allegedly misappropriated was a trade secret.  Under Illinois law, a list of actual or potential customers as well as insurance claims data can qualify as a trade secret under certain facts.  The plaintiff’s Complaint allegations that it spent several years developing the confidential data at issue and that it wasn’t accessible to others satisfied the pleading requirements for a valid trade secrets case.

Marital Communications Privilege

The Court held it was too soon to address Defendant’s argument that the marital privilege statute negated Plaintiff’s claims.  The marital privilege attaches to husband and wife communications.  But a spouse’s communication to a third party waives the privilege and a litigant is free to use that communication against its adversary.  The marital privilege also doesn’t extend to subsequent uses of protected communication.  See 735 ILCS 5/8-801 (husband and wife may not testify to communication or admission made by either of them to each other.)

While the court opted to table the privilege issue until after discovery, the Court noted the plaintiff alleged the defendant disclosed trade secrets not only to her husband but to a third party – the husband’s employer. Since the Complaint established it was possible the defendant shared information with someone other than her husband, the marital privilege didn’t bar plaintiff’s claims at the case’s pleading stage.

Afterwords

This case represents a court flexibly applying Rule 12’s plausibility standard in the trade secrets context.  Solidifying the proposition that a plaintiff doesn’t have to plead evidence or try its case at the pleading stage, the Court makes clear that disclosure of a trade secret to even a single competitor can satisfy the misappropriation prong of a trade secrets claim.  Harrison also shows the marital communications privilege won’t apply to information that escapes a husband-wife union.  A complaint’s plausible allegation that protected information went beyond the confines of the marital union nullifies the marital privilege.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

‘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 that with a “no” in Stevens v. Interactive Financial Advisors, Inc., 2016 WL 4056401 (N.D.Ill. 2016)

The plaintiff there sued his former brokerage firm for tortious interference with contract and conversion when the firm blocked plaintiff’s access to client data after he was fired.

The District Court granted summary judgment for defendant on the plaintiff’s tortious interference claim and a jury later found judgment for defendant on plaintiff’s conversion suit.

At the conversion trial, 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 doesn’t qualify as a demand for possession.  The jury entered judgment for the defendant and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the jury verdict, the Seventh Circuit addressed whether impeding a plaintiff’s access to financial data can give rise to a conversion action in light of Illinois’s pre-suit demand for possession requirement and various 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 Court held that since the firm was bound by Federal securities laws that prohibiting it from disclosing nonpublic client information to third parties, coupled with plaintiff’s firing, the plaintiff could not show a right to immediate possession of the locked out client data.

The Seventh Circuit also agreed with the jury upheld the jury verdict on the insurance clients conversion suit based on the plaintiff’s failure to make a demand for possession.  The Court noted the plaintiff failed to demand the  return of his insurance client’s data before he sued.

And since Illinois courts have never held that the act of suing was a proxy for the required demand, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the jury verdict.

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 protecting 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/ Filing a lawsuit doesn’t dispense with the conversion tort’s demand for possession.

3/ A conversion plaintiff must make a demand for possession before suing even where the demand is likely pointless. Otherwise, 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 grade 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. A year or two later a classmate’s older brother played Into the Void’s  menacing, atonal intro and I was hooked. Black Sabbath would become my all-time metal gods. 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, the song’s vaguely disco-tinged beat and electro-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 Too Much‘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 contro