Subcontractor’s Failure to Get Certified Mail ‘Green Cards’ into Evidence = Draconian Trial Loss in Lien Spat

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a harsh result against a subcontractor who failed to properly serve a Section 24 notice in accordance with the strictures of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act.

The earth-moving subcontractor recorded a lien against a nascent Starbucks in Chicago’s western suburbs seeking payment for various change orders. It sent its lien notice to the property’s lender by certified mail but not to the property owner.

After a bench trial, the trial judge reluctantly found for the property owner defendants and held that the subcontractor’s lien notice failed to follow the Act.  The subcontractor appealed.

Affirming judgment for the property owner, the Court first emphasized the oft-cited rule that since rights created by the Act are statutory, the statutory technical and procedural requirements are strictly construed. The burden of proving that each requirement of the Act has been satisfied is on the party seeking to enforce its lien – here, the subcontractor.  But where there is no dispute that an owner actually received notice, courts will overlook technical defects.

Section 24 of the Act requires a subcontractor to serve notice of its intent to lien by certified mail or personal delivery to the record owner and lender (if known)within 90 days after completing the work on the property. 770 ILCS 60/24(a).

An exception to this notice requirement is where a general contractor’s sworn statement provides the owner notice of the subcontractor’s work and unpaid amount.

While courts will uphold a lien notice sent only to an owner (and not to the lender) since there is no concern of the owner being prejudiced or having to pay twice, the reverse isn’t true. Citing to half-century-old case law, the Court held that since notice to an owner is the ‘very substance of the basis on which a mechanic’s lien may be predicated,’, the Court refused to excuse the subcontractor’s failure to serve the owner with its lien notice even though the lender was given proper statutory notice.

And while the plaintiff attached some certified mail green (return) card copies to its written response to Defendant’s directed verdict motion at trial, the plaintiff never authenticated the cards or offered them in evidence at trial. As a result, the appeals court refused to consider the green cards as part of the appellate record. (An appeals court cannot consider documents that were not admitted into evidence at trial.)

In addition, the plaintiff’s trial testimony was conflicting. The Plaintiff’s owner’s testimony conflicted with a 2014 affidavit of mailing prepared by one of Plaintiff’s employees.  This evidentiary dissonance failed to show the owner’s actual notice of the plaintiff’s lien notice.  As a result, the trial court found that the plaintiff failed to carry its burden of proving that it complied with its Act lien notice rules.

The court then rejected the subcontractor’s argument that the owner had actual notice of its work since it saw the plaintiff performing grading work on the property and the plaintiff sent regular invoices to the owner’s agent.  However, under Illinois law, the mere presence of or owner’s knowledge that a contractor on a job is not a valid substitute for the required statutory notice.

The court also nixed the subcontractor’s claim that the owner had actual notice of the subcontractor’s work based on the sworn statements submitted to the owner from the general contractor. While courts have upheld an otherwise deficient subcontractor lien notice where sworn statements in the record plainly show the subcontractor’s identity and amounts owed.  Here, there were no sworn statements in the record. A trial witness may only testify to matters on which he/she has personal knowledge. Ill. R. Evid. 602. Since the plaintiff didn’t call to testify the owner’s construction manager – the only one who supposedly received the GC’s sworn statements (that identified plaintiff) –  there was no competent evidence that the owner received and reviewed any sworn statements that referenced the plaintiff’s work and amounts owed.

Afterwords:

This case shows how unforgiving statutory notice requirements can be in the mechanics lien context.

In hindsight, the subcontractor plaintiff should have introduced certified mail receipts into evidence.

Failing that, it should have called the owner’s construction manager as an adverse agent to lock in testimony that the general contractor furnished the owner with sworn statements and those statements sufficiently identified the subcontractor plaintiff.

Cal. Court Validates Reverse-Piercing; Creditor Can Add LLC to Prior Judgment Against Member

I previously featured (here) a 2018 4th Circuit decision that discussed reverse veil-piercing under Delaware law.  In 2017, a California court provided its own trenchant analysis of reverse veil-piercing and how that remedy relates to a charging order against an LLC member’s distributional interest.

The judgment creditor plaintiff in Curci Investments, LLC v. Baldwin, 14 Cal.App.5th 214 (2017) won a $7.2M judgment against a prominent real estate developer. In post-judgment discovery, the creditor learned the developer was sheltering his assets in an LLC; an entity through which he also loaned over $40M to family members and partnerships in the years leading up to the judgment.

The trial court denied the creditor’s motion to “reverse pierce” and hold the LLC responsible for the judgment.  The court reasoned that reverse-piercing was not a recognized remedy in California. The creditor appealed.

First, the court noted, under California law, a judgment creditor can move to modify a judgment to add additional judgment debtors. See Cal. CCP 187.

The court then stressed that an LLC’s legal separation from its members may be disregarded where the LLC is utilized to “perpetrate a fraud, circumvent a statute, or accomplish some other wrongful or inequitable purpose.”

In such circumstances, the acts of the LLC will be imputed to the individual members or managers who dominate the LLC. Under this alter-ego doctrine, individuals or other entities cannot abuse the corporate form to commit a fraud or elude creditors.

The appeals court broke with the trial judge and held that California recognizes “outside reverse veil piercing.” This applies where a third-party creditor tries to satisfy an individual’s debt by attaching assets of an entity controlled by that individual.

The reasons typically given by courts that decline to reverse pierce are discouraging creditor’s from bypassing standard judgment collection protocols, the protection of innocent shareholders and preventing the use of equitable remedies where legal theories or remedies are available.

Here, however, those policy concerns weren’t present.

First, the court noted that unlike in the corporate debtor context – where a creditor can step into a shareholder’s shoes and obtain shares, the right to vote and to dividends – a creditor’s rights against an LLC member are limited.

With an LLC, a plaintiff can only get a charging order against the LLC member’s distributional interest. The member remains an LLC member and keeps all of his/her rights to manage and control the LLC.

And since the individual defendant in Curci retained complete control to decide if and when LLC distributions would be made, the charging order was an illusory remedy.

This last point was blinding in light of the evidence that the defendant caused the LLC to distribute nearly $180M in the six years leading up to the judgment and no distributions had been made in the five years after the judgment.

The Court further distinguished the charging order remedy from reverse piercing in that the former only affixes to an LLC member’s distributional interest while the latter remedy reaches the LLC’s assets; not the individual member’s. [7]

Second, there was no possibility that an innocent shareholder would be harmed. This was because the judgment debtor owned a 99% interest in the LLC. (The 1% holder was the debtor’s wife who, under California community property laws, was also liable for the debt owed to the plaintiff.)

Lastly, there was no concern of the plaintiff using reverse-piercing to circumvent legal remedies like conversion or a fraudulent transfer suit. The court found that burdening the creditor with showing the absence of a legal remedy would sufficiently protect against indiscriminate reverse piercing.

Afterwords:

While Curci presents an extreme example of an individual using the corporate form to elude a money judgment, the case illustrates the clear proposition that if an individual judgment debtor is using a business entity to shield him/herself from a judgment, the court will reverse pierce and hold the sheltering business jointly responsible with the individual for a money judgment.

The case should be required reading for any creditor’s rights practitioners; especially on the West Coast.

Court Weighs In On Constructive Fraud in Contractor Lien Dispute, Summary Judgment Burdens – IL First Dist.

The First District affirmed partial summary judgment for a restaurant tenant in a contractor’s mechanics lien claim in MEP Construction, LLC v. Truco MP, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 180539.

The contractor sued to foreclose its $250,000-plus mechanics lien for unpaid construction management services furnished under a written contract between the contractor and restaurant lessee.

The lessee moved for summary judgment arguing the contractor completed only about $120,000 worth of work and so the lien was doubly inflated.  The lessee further contended that the majority of the liened work was done by plaintiff’s sub-contractors; not the plaintiff. The trial court sided with the lessee and found the plaintiff’s lien constructively fraudulent.

Affirming, the appeals court first restated the familiar, governing summary judgment standards and the contours of constructive fraud in the mechanics’ lien context.

The “put up or shut up” litigation moment – summary judgment requires the opposing party to come forward with evidence that supports its skeletal pleadings allegations.

Statements in an affidavit opposing summary judgment based on information and belief or that are unsupported conclusions, opinions or speculation are insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

Section 7 of the Illinois mechanics lien act (770 ILCS 60/7) provides that no lien shall be defeated due to an error or overcharging unless the overcharge (or error) is “made with intent to defraud.” Section 7 aims to protect the honest lien claimant who makes a mistake rather than the dishonest claimant who makes a knowingly false statement. Benign mistakes are OK; purposeful lien inflation is not.
An intent to defraud can be inferred from “documents containing overstated lien amounts combined with additional evidence.” The additional evidence or “plus factor” requires more than a bare overcharge on a document: there must be additional evidence at play before a court invalidates a lien as constructively fraudulent.

Affirming the trial court’s constructive fraud ruling, the First District pointed to plaintiff’s president’s sworn statement which indicated plaintiff only performed a fraction of the liened work and that the majority of the lien was from subcontractors who dealt directly with the lessee. Critical to the court’s conclusion was that the plaintiff did not have contractual relationships with its supposed sub-contractors.

Looking to Illinois lien law case precedent, the Court noted that lien overstatements of 38%, 82% and 79% – all substantially less than the more than 100% overstatement here – were all deemed constructively fraudulent by other courts. [⁋ 17]

The Court also affirmed the lower court’s denial of the contractor’s motion for more discovery. (The contractor argued summary judgment was premature absent additional discovery.) Illinois Supreme Court Rule 191(b) allows a party opposing summary judgment to file an affidavit stating that material facts are known only to persons whose affidavits can’t be obtained due to hostility or otherwise. The failure to file a 191(b) motion precludes that party from trying to reverse a summary judgment after-the-fact on the basis of denied discovery. [⁋ 20]

Here, the contractor’s failure to seek additional time to take discovery before responding to the lessee’s summary judgment motion doomed its argument that the court entered judgment for the lessee too soon.

Take-aways:

Constructive fraud requires more than a simple math error. Instead, there must be a substantial overcharge coupled with other evidence. Here, that consisted of the fact the contractor neither performed much of the underlying services nor had contractual relationships with the various subcontractors supposedly working under it.

The case also solidifies the proposition that while there is no magic lien inflation percentage that is per se fraudulent, an overstatement of more than 100% meets the threshold.

Procedurally, the case lesson is for a summary judgment respondent to timely move for more discovery under Rule 191(b) and to specifically identify the material evidence the summary judgment respondent needs to unearth in the requested discovery.