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.

Contingent, ‘PI’ Firm’s Dearth of Time Records Dooms Attorneys’ Fee Award in Real Estate Spat

A personal injury firm’s (Goldberg, Weisman and Cairo) failure to properly document its attorney time records resulted in an almost 88% fee reduction after the defendants appealed from a real estate dispute bench trial verdict.

The plaintiffs – one of whom is a GWC attorney – in Kroot v. Chan, 2019 IL App (1st) 181392 sued the former property owners for violating Illinois Residential Real Property Disclosure Act, 765 ILCS 77/1 et. seq. (the Act) after they failed to disclose known property defects to the plaintiffs.

The trial court found for the plaintiffs on their Act claims and common law fraud claims and assessed nearly $70,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs against defendants. The defendants appealed citing the plaintiffs’ dearth of competent fee support.

Reversing, the First District emphasized how crucial it is for even a “contingent fee law firm” like GWC to sedulously document its attorney time and services.

Under Illinois law, a plaintiff seeking an attorney fee award had the burden of proving entitlement to fees. Additionally, an attorneys’ fee award must be based on facts admissible in evidence and cannot rest on speculation, conjecture or guess-work as to time spent on a given task.

Unless there is a contractual fee-shifting provision or a statute that provides for fees, an unsuccessful litigant is not responsible for the winner’s fees. And while the Act does provide a “hook” for attorneys’ fees, the common law fraud claim did not. As a result, the First District held that the fraud verdict against one defendant wasn’t properly subject to a fee petition.

“Reasonable attorneys’ fees” in the context of a fee-shifting statute (like the Act) denotes fees utilizing the prevailing market rate. The Act’s fee language differs from other statutes in that it provides that fees can be awarded to a winning party only where fees are incurred by that party. “Incurred,” in turn, means “to render liable or subject to” [⁋⁋ 11-12 citing Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1146 (1981)]. As a consequence, unless attorneys’ fees have actually been incurred by a prevailing party, the trial court has no authority to award fees under the Act.

At the evidentiary hearing on plaintiff’s fee petition, three GWC attorneys admitted they didn’t enter contemporaneous timesheets during the litigation and that a document purportedly summarizing GWC’s attorney time was only an estimate. The lawyers also conceded that plaintiffs didn’t actually pay any legal fees to GWC. Still another attorney witness acknowledged she tried to reconstruct her time nearly 8 months after the underlying work was performed. [⁋ 19]

The appeals court noted the record was devoid of any evidence that (1) plaintiffs ever agreed to pay for legal services, (2) plaintiffs were ever billed for GWC’s legal services, (3) plaintiff ever paid for those services, or (4) that GWC expected plaintiffs’ to pay for its services. The court also found that the supporting affidavits submitted in support of the fee petition were inadmissible hearsay documents. (It’s not clear from my reading of the opinion why the affidavits and billing record did not get into evidence under the business records hearsay exception.)

In the end, the Court found the absence of either simultaneous time records or testimony that the attorney working on the matter had an independent recollection of the time and tasks incurred/performed rendered the fee petition too speculative.

Kroot provides a useful gloss on the governing standards that control when a plaintiff can recover attorneys’ fees. Aside from stressing the importance of making contemporaneous time records and offering proper supporting fee evidence, the case’s lesson is that in the context of a statute like the Act that only provides for fees actually incurred, the plaintiff must actually pay attorneys’ fees to merit a fee award. Since the evidence was that the prevailing plaintiffs never actually were billed or paid any fees to their attorneys, the plaintiffs’ lawyers failed to carry their burden of proof on the fees issue.

Actuarial Firm Owes No Independent Legal Duty to Health Plan; Lost Profits Claim Lopped Off – 2nd Cir.

The Second Circuit appeals court recently examined the contours of New York’s economic loss rule in a dispute involving faulty actuarial services.

The plaintiff health care plan provider in MVP Health Plan, Inc. v. Optuminsight, Inc., 2019 WL 1504346 (2nd Cir. 2019) sued an actuary contractor for breach of contract and negligence when the actuary fell short of professional practice standards resulting in the health plan losing Medicare revenue.

The plaintiff appealed the district court’s bench trial verdict that limited plaintiff’s damages to the amounts it paid the actuary in 2013 (the year of the breach) and denied the plaintiff’s request for lost revenue.

The plaintiff also appealed the district court’s dismissal of its negligence count on the basis that it was duplicative of the breach of contract claim and the actuary owed the plaintiff no legal duty outside the scope of the contract.

Affirming, the Second Circuit first addressed the dismissal of plaintiff’s negligence claim. In New York, a breach of contract claim is not an independent tort (like negligence) unless the breaching party owes a legal duty to the non-breaching party independent of the contract. However, merely alleging a defendant’s breach of duty of care isn’t enough to bootstrap a garden variety contract claim into a tort.

Under New York law, an actuary is not deemed a “professional” for purposes of a malpractice cause of action and no case authorities saddle an actuary with a legal duty to its client extraneous to a contract. In addition, the court found the alleged breach did not involve “catastrophic consequences,” a “cataclysmic occurrence” or a “significant public interest” – all established bases for a finding of an extra-contractual duty.

Next, and while tacitly invoking Hadley v. Baxendale, [1854] EWHC Exch J70, the seminal 19th Century British court case involving consequential damages, the appeals court jettisoned the plaintiff’s lost revenues claim.

Breach of contract damages aim to put the plaintiff in the same financial position he would have occupied had the breaching party performed. “General” contract damages are those that are the “natural and probable consequence of” a breach of contract. Lost profits are unrecoverable consequential damages where the losses stem from collateral business arrangements.

To recover lost revenues as consequential damages, the plaintiff must establish (1) that damages were caused by the breach, (2) the extent of those damages with reasonable certainty, and (3) the damages were within the contemplation of the parties during contract formation.

To determine whether consequential damages were within the parties’ reasonable contemplation, the court looks to the nature, purpose and peculiar circumstances of the contract known by the parties and what liability the defendant may be supposed to have assumed consciously.

The court found that plaintiffs lost revenues were not damages naturally arising from defects in actuarial performance. Instead, it held those claimed damages were twice removed from the breach: they stemmed from plaintiff’s contracts with its member insureds. And since there was no evidence the parties contemplated the defendant would be responsible for the plaintiff’s lost revenues if the defendant breached the actuarial services agreement, the plaintiff’s lost profits damage claim was properly dismissed.

Afterwords:

MVP provides a useful primer on breach of contract damages, when lost profits are recoverable as general damages and the economic loss rule.
The case cements the proposition that where there is nothing inherent in the contract terms or the parties’ relationship that gives rise to a legal duty, the non-breaching party likely cannot augment its breach of contract action with additional tort claims.