Like Pulling Teeth: The Struggles of Collecting Judgments from Corporate Debtors

 

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As someone who does some collection work, I experience first-hand how difficult it is to collect on judgments – especially from small corporate debtors.  A 2011 Second District case illustrates in stark relief just how challenging and frustrating enforcing a judgment can be.

In Conserv v. Von Bergen Trucking, 2011 IL App (2d) 101225U (2011), the Court followed Pyshos v. Heart-Land Development Co., 258 Ill.App.3d 618 (1994) and held that a judgment creditor cannot try to pierce the corporate veil of a corporate defendant in citation proceedings.  In doing so, the court narrowly construed post-judgment proceedings (or supplementary proceedings) and clarified that a piercing claim (one where the creditor tries to hold the corporate officer personally liable for the corporate debt) is beyond the scope of a citation/supplementary proceeding.

If ever there was a case for piercing, this was it.  Even when the trial court denied the creditor’s motion to pierce the corporate veil, the court noted that the defendant was “definitely getting away with something.  But the law allows him to get away with something.”  Cold comfort for the creditor indeed.

In Conserv, once the money judgment was entered, the corporate debtor immediately emptied its bank accounts and began operating under a different (though similar) name.  The “new” corporation was grossly undercapitalized, commingled personal and corporate funds and failed to follow any corporate formalities (keeping minutes, filing annual reports, paying required fees, etc).

The reincarnated corporation was a blatant sham or alter-ego of the principal officer.  Still, the court denied the creditor’s piercing motion stating that a citation proceeding’s only relevant inquiries are (1) whether the judgment debtor possesses assets that can be applied toward the judgment; or (2) whether a third party is holding assets of the judgment debtor.  Period.

So – what should a creditor do when it learns that a corporate debtor is an alter-ego of an individual?  The answer:  (1) issue a third-party citation  against the shareholders or against another corporation the creditor believes ha s assets of the debtor corporation; or (2) file a new breach of contract claim against the corporation.

Under option (2) above, you argue that the officer is responsible for the corporation’s debts because that corporation is a hollow front for the officer’s business dealings.

 

 

The Ubiquitous “Excess Rent” Provision

The boilerplate “excess rent” or “rent differential” clause appears in many commercial leases.  Usually buried in a voluminous lease, no one pays much attention to it until the tenant vacates and the landlord sues for damages.  All of a sudden, the excess rent clause assumes critical importance as the landlord tries to prove up its damages.  The rent differential/excess rent section generally provides that when a tenant prematurely vacates commercial property, the landlord can recover the difference between (A) the present value of lease rent owed through the unexpired lease term and (B) the fair market rent for the unexpired term (rent through the balance of lease at lease rate minus market value of rent through lease expiration).  St. George Chicago, Inc. v. George J. Murges & Associates, Ltd., 296 Ill.App.3d 285 (1st Dist. 1998).  In Illinois, these rent differential terms are enforceable and will satisfy the lessor’s statutory duty to mitigate set forth in Section 9-213.1 of the eviction statute.

So if the breaching tenant was paying $1,000 a month under its lease, and the landlord can only find a replacement tenant who pays $600/month – the landlord can recover $400/month ($1,000 minus $600) times the numer of months left on the defaulting tenant’s lease.  Of course, if the market value is now $1,500/month – $500 more than the lease amount – the landlord cannot recover anything.  Instead, the landlord’s recovery will be limited to its damages incurred through the date the replacement tenant begins paying rent.

The Landlord’s Duty to Mitigate Damages

 

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When a commercial tenant defaults under a multi-year lease, say by abandoning the premises with several years left on the lease, the law requires the landlord to mitigate its damages.  So, if retail tenant skips out on a 10-year lease after year 2,  the landlord cannot sit idly by for 8 years and then recover 8 years’ worth of rent damages from the tenant.  Instead, the landlord must make measurable efforts to try to relet the property and reduce its monetary loss.

Section 9-213.1 of the Illinois eviction statute codifies the landlord’s duty to mitigate: “a landlord or his or her agent shall take reasonable measures to mitigate the damages recoverable against a defaulting lessee.” 735 ILCS 5/9-213.1.

Whether a landlord has met its duty to mitigate damages is a fact question for the judge or jury.  If a landlord tries to relet commercial property at a higher rate than was being paid by the breaching tenant, it might raise a red flag and result in a failure to mitigate.

What steps should a landlord take then when a tenant to breaches a multi-year lease?  There is no litmus test but Illinois state and Federal courts do provide some guidance.

One Illinois court found that the landlord mitigated its damages when it (1) engaged a building manager to market the site; (2) erected signage on the premises; (3) placed calls to real estate brokers and developers; (4) ran newspaper ads; and (5) offered trial witness testimony that placing advertisements and erecting signs constitute reasonable steps toward reletting the premises. MXL Industries, Inc. v. Mulder, 252 Ill.App.3d 18 (2d Dist. 1993).  (Note: now, in the computer age, a landlord should also list the property on Costar, Loopnet or similar sites.)

By contrast, the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court found a failure to mitigate where the suing landlord (1) waited five months to hire a broker to relet the property; (2) refused to improve the property; (3) attempted to re-rent the premises at a higher rental rate (than the defaulting tenant paid); and (4) didn’t rent the site for 2.5 years after the tenant abandoned. Kallman v. Radioshack Corp., 315 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2003).

A landlord should also be careful not to impose too harsh lease terms when dealing with a new tenant.  In Danada Square, LLC v. KFC National Management Co., 392 Ill.App.3d 598 (2d Dist. 2009), the court found that the landlord failed to mitigate when it offered a lease to the tenant with a 60-day “kick-out clause” – the landlord can terminate lease for any reason upon 60 days’ notice.

The take-away from all this is the landlord should promptly take steps to market a property once a tenant breaches a lease.  The landlord should also document its reletting efforts so it can prove in court that it mitigated its damages.