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.