Limitation of Damages Clause Doesn’t Bar Trade Secrets, Copyright Claims – IL ND

A Federal district court in Illinois recently addressed the scope of a limitation of damages provision in a dispute over automotive marketing software. The  developer plaintiff in Aculocity, LLC v. Force Marketing Holdings, LLC, 2019 WL 764040 (N.D. Ill. 2019), sued the marketing company defendant for breach of contract – based on the defendant’s failure to pay for plaintiff’s software – and joined statutory copyright and trade secrets claims – based on the allegation that the defendant disclosed plaintiff’s software source code to third parties.

The defendant moved for partial summary judgment that plaintiff’s claimed damages were foreclosed by the contract’s damage limitation provision. The court denied as premature since no discovery had been taken on plaintiff’s claimed damages.

The agreement limited plaintiff’s damages to the total amount the software developer plaintiff was to be paid under the contract and broadly excluded recovery of any “consequential, incidental, indirect, punitive or special damages (including loss of profits, data, business or goodwill).”  The contractual damage limitation broadly applied to all contract, tort, strict liability, breach of warranty and failure of essential purpose claims.

In Illinois, parties can limit remedies and damages for a contractual breach if the agreement provision is unambiguous and doesn’t violate public policy.

Illinois law recognizes a distinction between direct damages and consequential damages. The former, also known as “general damages” are damages that the law presumes flow from the type of wrong complained of.

Consequential damages, by contrast, are losses that do not flow directly and immediately from a defendant’s wrongful act but result indirectly from the act. Whether lost profits are considered direct damages depends on their (the lost profits) degree of foreseeability. In one oft-cited case, Midland Hotel Corp. v. Reuben H. Donnelley Corp., 515 N.E.2d 61, 67 (Ill.1987), the Illinois Supreme Court held that a plaintiff’s lost profits were direct damages where the publisher defendant failed to include plaintiff’s advertisement in a newly published directory.

The District Court in Aculocity found that whether the plaintiff’s lost profits claims were direct damages (and therefore outside the scope of the consequential damages disclaimer) couldn’t be answered at the case’s pleading stage.  And while the contract specifically listed lost profits as an example of barred consequential damages, this disclaimer did not apply to direct lost profits. As a result, the Court denied the defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment on this point. [*3]

The Court also held that the plaintiff’s statutory trade secrets and copyright claims survived summary judgment. The Court noted that the contract’s damage limitation clause spoke only to tort claims and contractual duties. It was silent on whether the limitation applied to statutory claims – claims the court recognized as independent of the contract. [*4] Since the clause didn’t specifically mention statutory causes of action, the Court refused to expand the limitation’s reach to plaintiff’s copyright and trade secrets Complaint counts.

Take-aways:

Aculocity and cases like it provide an interesting discussion of the scope of consequential damage limitations in the context of a lost profits damages claim. While lost profits are often quintessential consequential damages (and therefore defeated by a damage limitation provision), where a plaintiff’s lost profits are foreseeable and arise naturally from a breach of contract, the damages will be considered general, direct damages that can survive a limitation of damages provision.

‘Zestimates’ Are Estimates; Not Fraud – 7th Circuit

The Seventh Circuit recently affirmed the Illinois Northern District’s Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of class action plaintiffs’ fraudand deceptive practices claims against the owners of the Zillow.com online real estate valuation site.

The lower court in Patel v. Zillow, Inc. found the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege colorable consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices claims based mainly on the site’s “Zestimate” feature an algorithm-based property estimator program.

The plaintiffs alleged Zillow scared off would-be buyers by undervaluing properties.  When Zillow refused plaintiffs request to remove the low-ball estimates, plaintiffs sued under various Illinois consumer statutes.  

Plaintiffs first alleged Zillow violated the Illinois Real Estate Appraiser Licensing Act, 225 ILCS 458/1 et. seq. (the “Licensing Act”) by performing appraisals without a license.  In their fraud and deceptive practices complaint counts, plaintiffs alleged Zillow used distorted property value estimates to tamp down true property values and engaged in false advertising by giving preferential listing treatment to sponsoring real estate brokers and lenders.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiffs’ Licensing Act claim on the ground that the Licensing Act doesn’t provide for a private cause of action.  Instead, the statute is replete with administrative enforcement provisions (fines of up to $25K) and criminal penalties (Class A misdemeanor for first offense; Class 4 felony for subsequent ones) for violations.  Since there was no express or implied private right of action for the Licensing Act violation, that claim failed. [3]

Jettisoning the plaintiffs’ statutory Deceptive Trade PracticesAct and Consumer Fraud Act claims (815 ILCS 510/1 et seq.; 815 ILCS 505/1 et seq., respectively), the Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court that Zestimates were not actionable statements of fact likely to confuse consumers.

Instead, like its name suggests (‘estimate’ is “built in”), a Zestimate is simply estimates of a property’s value.    This point is confirmed by Zillow’s disclaimer-laden site that makes clear it is only a “starting point” for determining property values.  

Expanding on the deceptive practices and consumer fraud claim deficits, the Court disagreed with plaintiffs’ thesis that removing faulty valuations would improve the algorithm’s overall accuracy.  The Court noted that if Zillow was forced to remove estimates each time someone disagreed with a published value, it would “skew distribution,” dilute the site’s utility and either unfairly benefit or penalize buyers or sellers; depending on whether the retracted data was accurate. [4]

Turning to plaintiffs’ false advertising component of its claims, the Seventh Circuit held that all web and print publications rely on ad revenue to finance operations.  The mere fact that Zillow sold ad space didn’t transmute property estimates into verifiable (therefore, actionable) factual assertions.  Zestimates are estimates: “Zillow is outside the scope of the trade practices act.” [5]

Afterwords

The Seventh Circuit’s Zillow opinion cements the proposition that an actionable deceptive trade practices and consumer fraud claim requires a defendant’s assertion of a verifiable fact to be actionable.  

The case also confirms where a statute – like the Licensing Act – sets out a diffuse administrative and criminal enforcement scheme, a court will not imply a private right of action based on a statutory violation.

 

Possible Problematic Lien Notice Starts Limitations Clock in Lawyer ‘Mal’ Case

In Construction Systems, Inc. v. FagelHaber LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 172430, the First District affirmed the time-barring of a legal malpractice suit stemming from a flubbed contractor’s lien filing.

Several months after a lender recorded its mortgage on a commercial project, the law firm defendant, then representing the plaintiff contractor, served a Section 24 notice – the Illinois mechanics’ lien act provision that governs subcontractor liens. 770 ILCS 60/24.  While the notice was served on the project owner and general contractor, it didn’t name the lender.  In Illinois, where a subcontractor fails to serve its lien notice on a lender, the lien loses priority against the lender.

After the contractor settled its lien claim with the lender’s successor, it sued the defendant law firm for malpractice. The contractor plaintiff alleged that had the law firm properly perfected the lien, the plaintiff would have recovered an additional $1.3M.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm, the First District agreed with the trial court and held that plaintiff’s legal malpractice suit accrued in early 2005. And since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2009, it was a couple years too late.

The Court based its ruling mainly on a foreboding February 2005 letter from plaintiff’s second counsel describing a “problematic situation” – the lender wasn’t notified of plaintiff’s subcontractor lien. The court also pointed out that plaintiff’s second attorney testified in her deposition that she learned of possible lien defects in February 2005; some four years before plaintiff filed suit.

Code Section 13-214.3(b) provides for a two-year limitations period for legal malpractice claims starting from when a plaintiff “knew or reasonably should have known of the injury for which damages are sought.” [⁋ 20]

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice case normally doesn’t accrue until he/she sustains an adverse judgment, settlement or dismissal. An exception to this rule is where it’s “plainly obvious” a plaintiff has been injured as a result of professional negligence.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it never discovered the lien defect until 2007 when the lender’s successor filed its summary judgment motion (which argued that the lien was defective as to the lender). According to the court “the relevant inquiry is not when [Plaintiff] knew or should have known about the lack of notice as an actual defense, but when [Plaintiff] should have discovered [Defendant’s] failure to serve statutory notice of the mechanic’s lien on [the prior lender] prompting it to further investigate [Defendant’s] performance.” [⁋ 24]

The court again cited the above “problematic situation” letter as proof that February 2005 (when the letter was sent) was the triggering date for plaintiff’s claim. Another key chronological factor was the plaintiff’s 2005 payment of attorneys’ fees.

In Illinois, a malpractice plaintiff must plead and prove damages and the payment of attorneys’ fees can equate to damages when the fees are tied to a former counsel’s neglect. Since plaintiff paid its second counsel’s fees in 2005 for work she performed in efforts to resuscitate the lien’s priority, 2005 was the limitation period’s triggering date. [⁋ 25]

Construction Systems cites Nelson v. Padgitt, 2016 IL App (1st) 160571, for the proposition that a plaintiff does not have to suffer an adverse judgment to sustain legal malpractice injury. In Nelson, an employment contract dispute, the Court held that the plaintiff should have discovered deficiencies in his employment contract (it provided for the loss of salary and commissions in the event of for-cause termination) in 2012 when he sued his former employer, not in 2014 when the employer won summary judgment.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that its damages were unknown until the lien litigation was finally settled and that it couldn’t sue until the lien dispute was resolved. The court held that the extent and existence of damages are different things and that it’s the date a plaintiff learns he/she was damaged, not the amount, that matters.

Lastly, the court nixed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel concern – that plaintiff couldn’t argue the lien was valid in the underlying case while arguing the opposite in the malpractice suit. According to the court, the plaintiff could have entered into a tolling agreement that would suspend the statute of limitations pending the outcome of the underlying case.

Conclusion

Construction Systems reaffirms that a legal malpractice claim can accrue before an adverse judgment is entered or an opponent files a formal pleading that points out claim defects.  Moreover, the payment of attorneys’ fees directly attributable to a former counsel’s neglect is sufficient to meet the damages prong of a legal malpractice case.

This case and others like it also make clear that the limitations period runs from the date a plaintiff learns she has been injured; not when financial harm is specifically quantified.

To preserve a possible malpractice claim while a plaintiff challenges an underlying adverse ruling, practitioners should consider tolling agreements to suspend any statutes of limitation and guard against possible judicial estoppel concerns (taking inconsistent positions in separate lawsuits).