Commercial Tenant Fails to Give Proper Notice of Intent to Extend Lease – IL Case Note

Although it’s an unpublished opinion, Sher-Jo, Inc. v. Town and Country Center, Inc., 2017 IL App (5th) 160095-U still serves as a cautionary tale for tenants that fail to hew to lease notice requirements.  The tenant plaintiff under the commercial lease was obligated to serve the defendant landlord with written notice by registered mail of the tenant’s exercise of its option to extend the lease for an additional five-year term.

Instead of mailing notice of its plans to extend the lease, the tenant faxed its notice and verbally told the landlord it was exercising its option to extend.  But the faxed notice didn’t specify the tenant was extending the lease.  It just said that the tenant’s sublessee – a restaurant – was going to extend its sublease for another five years.

The landlord rejected tenant’s attempt to renew the lease on the basis that it didn’t comport with the lease notice rules.  It (landlord) then entered into a lease directly with the restaurant subtenant.  The tenant filed suit for specific performance and a declaratory judgment that it properly and timely exercised the lease extension option.  After the trial court found the tenant successfully notified the landlord of its intention to extend the lease, the landlord appealed.

Held: Reversed.  Tenant’s failure to adhere to Lease notice requirement defeats its attempt to renew the lease.

Rules/Reasons:

A commercial lessee who seeks to exercise an option to extend a lease must strictly comply – not “substantially comply” – with the terms of the option.  And even though a failure to follow an option provision to the letter can have draconian results, rigid adherence to option requirements promotes commercial certainty.

Here, the tenant’s faxed notice only mentioned that it wished to extend the sublease with the restaurant.  The notice was silent about extending the master lease.

The Court rejected the tenant’s argument that a lease amendment modified the option notice provision in the main lease.  This was because while the amendment did reference the tenant’s option to extend the lease for an additional five-year term, it left untouched the master lease’s requirement that the tenant notify the landlord by certified mail of its intent to exercise the option.

Afterwords:

1/ In the commercial lease milieu, strict compliance with notice provisions is essential.  Although this case works a harsh result on the tenant/sub-lessor, the Court viewed fostering certainty in business transactions as more important than relieving a tenant who substantially, but not strictly, adhered to a lease notice requirement;

2/ Parties to a commercial lease should take pains to comply with notice provisions of a lease.  Otherwise, they run the risk of a court finding they failed to satisfy a precondition to extending a lease.

Fraudulent Transfer Action Can Be Brought In Post-Judgment Proceedings – No Separate Lawsuit Required – IL Court

Despite its vintage (over two decades), Kennedy v. Four Boys Labor Service, 664 N.E.2d 1088 (2nd Dist.  1996), is still relevant and instructional for its detailed discussion of Illinois’ fraudulent transfer statute and what post-judgment claims do and don’t fall within a supplementary proceeding to collect a judgment in Illinois.

The plaintiff won a $70K breach of contract judgment against his former employer and issued citations to discover assets to collect the judgment.

While plaintiff’s lawsuit was pending, the employer transferred its assets to another entity that had some of the same shareholders as the employer.  The “new” entity did business under the same name (Four Boys Labor Service) as the predecessor.

Plaintiff obtained an $82K judgment against the corporate officer who engineered the employer’s asset sale and the officer appealed.

Held: Judgment for plaintiff affirmed

Rules/reasons:

The Court applied several principles in rejecting the corporate officer’s main argument that a fraudulent transfer suit had to be filed in a separate action and couldn’t be brought within the context of the post-judgment proceeding.  Chief among them:

– Supplementary proceedings can only be initiated after a judgment has entered;

– The purpose of supplementary proceedings is to assist a creditor in discovering assets of the judgment debtor to apply to the judgment;

– Once a creditor discovers assets belonging to a judgment debtor in the hands of a third party, the court can order that third party to deliver up those assets to    satisfy the judgment;

– A court can authorize a creditor to maintain an action against any person or corporation that owes money to the judgment debtor, for recovery of the debt (See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(c)(6);

– A corporate director who dissolves a company without providing proper notice to known creditors can be held personally liable for corporate debts (805 ILCS 5/8.65, 12.75);

– An action to impose personal liability on a corporate director who fails to give notice of dissolution must be filed as a separate lawsuit and cannot be brought in a post-judgment/supplementary proceeding;

– Where a third party transfers assets of a corporate debtor for consideration and with full knowledge of a creditor’s claim, the creditor may treat the proceeds from the sale of the assets as debtor’s property and recover them under Code Section 2-1402;

– A transfer of assets from one entity to another generally does not make the transferee liable for the transferor’s debts;

– But where the transferee company is a “mere continuation” of the selling entity, the transferee can be held responsible for the seller’s debt.  The key inquiry in determining successor liability under the mere continuation framework is whether there is continuity of shareholder or directors from the first entity to the second one;

– An action brought under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (FTA), 740 ILCS 160/1, is considered one that directly concerns the assets of the judgment debtor and imposes liability on the recipient/transferee based on the value of the transferred assets;

– A transfer is not voidable against one who takes in good faith and provides reasonably equivalent value.  740 ILCS 160/9;

– A court has discretion to sanction a party that disobeys a court order including by entering a money judgment against the offending party;

(664 N.E.2d at 1091-1093)

Applying these rules, the Court found that plaintiff could properly pursue its FTA claim within the supplementary proceeding and didn’t have to file a separate lawsuit.  This is because an FTA claim does not affix personal liability for a corporate debt (like in a corporate veil piercing or alter ego setting) but instead tries to avoid or undo a transfer and claw back the assets actually transferred.

FTA Section 160/5 sets forth eleven (11) factors that can point to a debtor’s actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor.   Some of the factors or “badges” of fraud that applied here included the transfer was made to corporate insiders, the failure to inform the plaintiff creditor of the transfer of the defendant’s assets, the transfer occurred after plaintiff filed suit, the transfer rendered defendant insolvent, and all of the defendant’s assets were transferred.  Taken together, this was enough evidence to support the trial court’s summary judgment for the plaintiff on his FTA count.

Take-away: Kennedy’s value lies in its stark lesson that commercial litigators should leave no financial stones unturned when trying to collect judgments.  Kennedy also clarifies that fraudulent transfer actions – where the creditor is trying to undo a transfer to a third party and not hold an individual liable for a corporate debt can be brought within the confines of a supplementary proceeding.

 

Lender Lambasted for Loaning Funds to Judgment Debtor’s Related Business – IL Court

The issue on appeal in National Life Real Estate Holdings, LLC v. Scarlato, 2017 IL App (1st) 161943 was whether a judgment creditor could reach loan proceeds flowing from a lender to a judgment debtor’s associated business entity where the debtor himself lacked access to the proceeds.

Answering “yes,” the Court considered some of Illinois post-judgment law’s philosophical foundations and the scope and mechanics of third-party judgment enforcement practice.

The plaintiff obtained a 2012 money judgment of over $3.4M against the debtor and two LLC’s managed by the debtor.   During supplementary proceedings, the plaintiff learned that International Bank of Chicago (“IBC”) loaned $3.5M to two other LLC’s associated with the debtor after plaintiff served a third-party citation on IBC.  The purpose of the loan was to pay for construction improvements on debtor’s industrial property.  And while the debtor wasn’t a payee of the loan, he did sign the relevant loan documents and loan disbursement request.

Plaintiff moved for judgment against IBC in the unpaid judgment amount for violating the third-party citation.  The trial court denied the motion and sided with IBC; it held that since the loan funds were paid to entities other than the debtor, the loan moneys did not belong to the debtor under Code Section 2-1402(f)(1) – the section that prevents a third party from disposing of debtor property in its possession until further order of court.  735 ILCS 5/2-1402(f)(1).

The Plaintiff appealed.  It argued that the debtor sufficiently controlled IBC’s construction loan and the proceeds were effectively, debtor’s property and subject to Plaintiff’s third-party citation.

Reversing, the First District rejected IBC’s two key arguments: first, that the loan proceeds did not belong to the debtor and so were beyond the reach of the third-party citation and second, IBC had set-off rights to the loan proceeds (assuming the funds did belong to debtor) and could set-off the $3.5M loan against debtor’ outstanding, other loan debt.

On the question of whether the post-citation loan was debtor’s property, the Court wrote:

  • Once a citation is served, it becomes a lien for the judgment or balance due on the judgment. Section 2-1402(m);
  • A judgment creditor can have judgment entered against a third party who violates the citation restraining provision by dissipating debtor property or disposing of any moneys belonging to the debtor Section 2-1402(f)(1);
  • Section 2-1402’s purpose is to enable a judgment debtor or third party from frustrating a creditor before that creditor has a chance to reach assets in the debtor’s or third party’s possession. Courts apply supplemental proceedings rules broadly to prevent artful debtors from drafting loan documents in such a way that they elude a citation’s grasp.
  • The only relevant inquiries in supplementary proceedings are (1) whether the judgment debtor is in possession of assets that should be applied to satisfy the judgment, or (2) whether a third party is holding assets of the judgment debtor that should be applied to satisfy the judgment.
  • Section 2-1402 is construed liberally and is the product of a legislative intent to broadly define “property” and whether property “belong[s] to a judgment debtor or to which he or she may be entitled” is an “open-ended” inquiry. (¶¶ 35-36)

The ‘Badges’ of Debtors Control Over the Post-Citation Loan and Case Precedent

In finding the debtor exercised enough control over the IBC loan to subject it to the third-party citation, the Court focused on: (i) the debtor signed the main loan documents including the note, an assignment, the disbursement request and authorization, (ii) the loan funds passed through the bank accounts of two LLC’s of which debtor was a managing member, and (iii) the debtor had sole authority to request advances from IBC.

While conceding the loan funds did end up going to pay for completed construction work and not to the debtor, the Court still believed IBC tried to “game” plaintiff’s citation by making a multi-million dollar loan to businesses allied with the debtor even though the loans never funneled directly to the debtor.

Noting a dearth of Illinois state court case law on the subject, the Court cited with approval the Seventh Circuit’s holding in U.S. v. Kristofic, 847 F.2d 1295 (7th Cir. 1988), a criminal embezzlement case.  There, the appeals court squarely held that loan proceeds do not remain the lender’s property and that a borrower is not a lender’s trustee vis a vis the funds.  Applying the same logic here, the First District found that the loan proceeds were not IBC’s property but were instead, the debtor’s.  Because of this, the loan was subject to the plaintiff’s citation lien.

The Court bolstered its holding with policy arguments.  It opined that if judgment debtors could enter into loan agreements with third parties (like IBC) that restrict a debtor’s access to the loan yet still give a debtor power to direct the loan’s disbursement, it would allow industrious debtors to avoid a judgment. (¶ 39)

The Court also rejected IBC’s set-off argument – that set-off language in other loan documents allowed it to apply the challenged $3.5 loan amount against other loan indebtedness.  Noting that IBC didn’t try to set-off debtor’s other loan obligations with the loan under attack until after it was served with the citation and after the plaintiff filed its motion for judgment, the Court found that IBC forfeited its set-off rights.

In dissent, Judge Mikva wrote that since IBC’s loan was earmarked for a specific purpose and to specific payees, the debtor didn’t have enough control over the loan for it to belong to the debtor within the meaning of Section 2-1402.

The dissent also applied Illinois’s collection law axiom that a judgment creditor has no greater rights in an asset than does the judgment debtor.  Since the debtor here could not access the IBC loan proceeds (again, they were earmarked for specific purpose and payable to business entities – not the debtor individually), the plaintiff creditor couldn’t either.  And since the debtor lacked legal access rights to the loan proceeds, they were not property belonging to him under Section 2-1402 and IBC’s loan distribution did not violate the citation. (¶¶ 55-56)

Afterwords

A big victory for creditor’s counsel.   The Court broadly construes “property under a debtor’s control” in the context of a third-party citation under Section 2-1402 and harshly scrutinized a lender’s artful attempts to dodge a citation.

The case reaffirms that loan proceeds don’t remain the lender’s property and that a borrower doesn’t hold loan proceeds in trust for the lender.

The case also makes clear that where loan proceeds are paid to someone other than the debtor, the Court may still find the debtor has enough dominion over funds to subject them to the citation restraining provisions if there are enough earmarks of debtor control over the funds

Finally, in the context of lender set-off rights, Scarlato cautions a lender to timely assert its set-off rights against a defaulting borrower or else it runs the risk of forfeiting its set-off rights against a competing judgment creditor.