7th Circuit Provides Primer on Fraudulent Transfer and Alter Ego Doctrine In Contract Dispute

The Seventh Circuit affirmed an almost $3M judgment against the defendants under fraudulent transfer, successor liability and alter ego rules in Center Point v. Halim, 2014 WL 697501.

The plaintiff energy company entered into a written contract to supply natural gas to defendants’ 41 Chicago area rental properties.  The individual defendants – a husband and wife – managed the properties through a management company (Company 1).

Over a two-year period, defendants used over $1.2M worth of plaintiff’s gas and didn’t pay for it.  Plaintiff sued Company 1 in state court and got a $1.7M judgment.  When plaintiff discovered that defendants transferred all of Company 1’s assets to Company 2, plaintiff sued Company 2 and the husband and wife in Federal court alleging a fraudulent transfer and successor liability.  The Northern District entered summary judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $2.7M on all claims and defendants appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first found that the defendants’ conduct violated the Illinois Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 (the “Act”).  The Act punishes debtor attempts to avoid creditors through actual fraud or constructive fraud.

Constructive fraud applies where (1) a debtor transfers assets without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer and (2) the debtor intends to incur or reasonably should believe he will incur debts beyond his ability to pay them as they become due.  Halim, *2, 740 ILCS 160/5.

The Court found that the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent. First, the Court noted that during a three-year time span, Company 1 (the state court judgment debtor) transferred almost $11M to the individual defendants; ostensibly to repay loans.

But the Court found it odd there was no documentation of loans or a paper trail showing where the millions of dollars went.  The suspicious timing of defendants’ creation of a new company – Company 2 – coupled with the defendants’ inability to account for the millions’ whereabouts, bolstered the Court’s constructive fraud finding.

Since the individual defendants’ depletion of Company 1’s assets made it impossible for it to pay the state court judgment, the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent under the Act. *3.

The Court also affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff under successor liability and alter ego theories.  In Illinois, the general rule is that a company that purchases assets of another company does not assume the liabilities of the purchased company.

A common exception to this rule is where there is an express assumption (of liability) by the purchasing company.  Here, the record showed that Company 2 assumed all rights, obligations, contracts and employees of Company 1.  As a result, the unsatisfied state court judgment attached to Company 2 under successor liability rules.

The Court also affirmed the judgment under the alter ego doctrine.  Alter ego applies where there is virtually no difference between the business entity and that entity’s controlling shareholders.  That is, the dominant shareholders don’t treat the corporation as a separate entity and fail to follow basic corporate formalities (e.g. minutes, stock issuance, incorporation papers, etc.).

The individual defendants treated Company 1 as their personal piggy bank by commingling their personal assets with the corporate assets.  There were no earmarks of “separateness” between the individual defendants’ assets and Company 1’s corporate assets.  *3-4.

Because of this, the husband and wife defendants were responsible (in the Federal suit) for the unsatisfied state court judgment entered against the defunct Company 1.

Take-away: Halim illustrates that where a judgment debtor corporation or controlling shareholders of that corporation transfer all corporate assets to a new, similarly named (or not) entity shortly after a lawsuit is filed, it will likely look suspicious and can lead to a constructive fraud finding.

The case also underscores the importance of following corporate formalities and keeping corporate assets separate from individual/personal assets – especially where the corporation is controlled by only two individuals.  A failure to treat the corporation as distinct from the dominant individuals, can lead to alter ego liability for those individuals.