Promissory Fraud: Sporting Goods Maker Pleads Seller’s Scheme to Defraud – IL ND

Maurice Sporting Goods, Inc. v. BB Holdings, Inc., 2017 WL 2692124, ponders the reach of the promissory fraud rule (a broken promise normally doesn’t equal fraud), how to plead around it, and the law of the case doctrine.

After a multi-year business relationship for the sale of sporting goods imploded, the plaintiff distributor sued the defendant manufacturer for breach of a 2015 buy-back agreement that required the manufacturer to “buy back” unsold inventory.

The manufacturer counterclaimed; it claimed the distributor defrauded it and tampered with the manufacturer’s relationship with a key customer.  Partially granting the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims, the Northern District discussed the factual specificity required of a plaintiff to circumvent the general rule that promissory fraud isn’t actionable.

The Court first addressed the distributor’s law of the case argument – the manufacturer was trying to relitigate its earlier failed estoppel defense (that the distributor’s fraud barred it from recovering damages from the manufacturer).  The court previously nixed the manufacturer’s estoppel defense because it failed to link the plaintiff’s fraud to the buy-back agreement.

The law of the case doctrine (LOC) prevents a court from reopening issues it previously decided in the same case.  LOC is a flexible doctrine, though.  A court will refuse to apply LOC if there is a change in the law, new evidence or compelling circumstances.

The court declined to apply the LOC doctrine here because the manufacturer’s stricken estoppel defense was premised on fraud by the plaintiff distributor related to a separate transaction – the original distributor agreement – that differed from the buy-back agreement that underlay plaintiff’s suit.

Next, the court examined whether defendant sufficiently alleged an exception to promissory fraud under Federal pleading rules.  Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires heightened factual specificity in fraud claims as the Rule tries to discourage litigants from bootstrapping simple breach of contract claims into tort actions with wide-ranging damages.

Promissory fraud is a false representation of intent concerning future conduct where there is no actual intent to do so.  While promissory fraud is generally not actionable, a plaintiff can plead around it by alleging egregious conduct or a pattern of deception or enticements that reasonably induce reliance.  A fraudulent scheme exists where a party alleges a specific and objective pattern of deception including the who, what, where, and when of the misstatements.

Here, the manufacturer was able to point to three different agents of the distributor who made misstatements in three different phone calls in the same month to support the fraud counterclaim.  These allegations that three distributor employees made false promises in order to sabotage defendant’s relationship with a major retailer were definite enough to meet Rule 9’s pleading requirements for fraud.

Afterwords:

While there is some elemental overlap between an estoppel defense and a promissory fraud counterclaim, the defeat of one won’t always cancel out the other where they relate to different transactions and different underlying facts.

To allege actionable fraud based on a broken promise, a plaintiff must plead a scheme to defraud that equates to a measurable pattern of deception or factual misrepresentations.

LinkedIn Connection Requests Don’t Violate Insurance Salesman’s Noncompete – IL Court

The First District recently considered whether an insurance salesman’s generic LinkedIn invites to some former co-workers violated non-compete provisions in his employment contract.

The plaintiff in Bankers Life v. American Senior Benefits employed the defendant for over a decade as a sales manager.  During his employment, plaintiff signed an employment agreement that contained a 24-month noncompete term that covered a specific geographic area (Rhode Island).  Plaintiff sued when it learned the defendant sent some LinkedIn connection requests to some former colleagues.

The court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion on the basis that the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence that the defendant breached the noncompete by trying to induce three of plaintiff’s employees to join defendant’s new agency.  Plaintiff appealed.

Plaintiff argued that the LinkedIn requests were veiled, if not blatant, attempts to circumvent the noncompete by inviting former co-workers to join a competitor.

The First District affirmed summary judgment for the defendant.  For support, it looked to cases in other jurisdictions that considered if social media overtures can violate employee restrictive covenants.  The Court noted that a majority of these cases hold that passive social media postings (LinkedIn and Facebook, mainly) don’t go far enough to violate a noncompete.

The cases that have found that social media breached noncompete obligations involve clear statements of solicitation by the departed employee where he directly tries to sign up a former client or colleague. Since all the defendant did in this case was send generic LinkedIn messages, they didn’t rise to the level of an actionable solicitation.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that summary judgment was premature and that the plaintiff should have the opportunity to take more discovery on this issue.  Illinois Rule 191 allows a summary judgment opponent to stave off judgment while it takes written and oral discovery to assemble evidence to oppose the motion.  But the plaintiff must show a “minimum level of information” showing a defendant is possibly liable before initiating a lawsuit or making a defendant submit to discovery requests.

Since the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence the defendant solicited any of plaintiff’s employees in the prohibited Rhode Island area, summary judgment for the defendant was proper.

Afterwords:

LinkedIn generic invites that don’t specifically ask someone to sever his/her relationship with current employer don’t go far enough to constitute improper solicitation;

Summary judgment is “put up or shut up moment;” the party opposing summary judgment must offer evidence that raises a question of material fact that can only be decided after a trial on the merits.

 

British Firm’s Multi-Million Dollar Trade Secrets Verdict Upheld Against Illinois Construction Equipment Juggernaut – IL Fed Court

Refusing to set aside a $73-plus million jury verdict for a small British equipment manufacturer against construction giant Caterpillar, Inc., a Federal court recently examined the contours of the Illinois trade secrets statute and the scope of damages for trade secrets violations.

The plaintiff in Miller UK, Ltd. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 2017 WL 1196963 (N.D.Ill. 2017) manufactured a coupler device that streamlined the earthmoving and excavation process.  Plaintiff’s predecessor and Caterpillar entered into a 1999 supply contract where plaintiff furnished the coupler to Caterpillar who would, in turn, sell it under its own name through a network of dealers.

The plaintiff sued when Caterpillar terminated the agreement and began marketing its own coupler – the Center-Lock – which bore an uncanny resemblance to plaintiff’s coupler design.

After a multi-week trial, the jury found for the plaintiff on its trade secrets claim and for Caterpillar’s on its defamation counterclaim for $1 million – a paltry sum dwarfed by the plaintiff’s outsized damages verdict.

The Court first assessed whether the plaintiff’s three-dimensional computerized drawings deserved trade secrets protection.

The Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1, defines a trade secret as encompassing information, technical or non-technical data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers that (1) is sufficiently secret to derive economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (2) is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy or confidentiality.

Misappropriation means “disclosure” or “use” of a trade secret by someone who lacks express or implied consent to do so and where he/she knows or should know that knowledge of the trade secret was acquired under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain its secrecy or limit its use.  Intentional conduct, howver, isn’t required: misappropriation can result from a defendant’s negligent or unintentional conduct.

Recoverable trade secret damages include actual loss caused by the misappropriation and unjust enrichment enjoyed by the misappropriator.  Where willful and malicious conduct is shown, the plaintiff can also recover punitive damages.  765 ILCS 1065/4.

In agreeing that the plaintiff’s coupler drawings were trade secrets, the Court noted plaintiff’s expansive use of confidentiality agreements when they furnished the drawings to Caterpillar and credited plaintiff’s trial testimony that the parties’ expectation was for the drawings to be kept secret.

The Court also upheld its trial rulings excluding certain evidence offered by Caterpillar.  One item of evidence rejected by the court as hearsay was a slide presentation prepared by Caterpillar to show how its coupler differed from plaintiff’s and didn’t utilize plaintiff’s confidential data.

Hearsay prevents a litigant from using out-of-court statements to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  An exception to the hearsay rule applies where an out-of-court statement (1) is consistent with a declarant’s trial testimony, (2) the party offering the statement did so to rebut an express or implied charge of recent fabrication or improper motive against the declarant, (3) the statement was made before the declarant had a motive for fabrication, and (4) the declarant testifies at trial and is subject to cross-examination.

Since the slide show was made as a direct response to plaintiff’s claim that Caterpillar used plaintiff’s confidential information, the statement (the slide show) was made after Caterpillar had a motive to fabricate the slide show.

The Court then affirmed the jury’s $1M verdict on Caterpillar’s defamation counter-claim based on plaintiff’s falsely implying that Caterpillar’s coupler failed standard safety tests in written and video submissions sent to Caterpillar’s equipment dealers.  The plaintiff’s letter and enclosed DVD showed a Caterpillar coupler bucket breaking apart and decapitating a life-size dummy. (Ouch!)  The obvious implication being that Caterpillar’s coupler is unsafe.

The Court agreed with the jury that the plaintiff’s conduct was actionable as per se defamation.  A quintessential defamation per se action is one alleging a plaintiff’s lack of ability or integrity in one’s business.  With per se defamation, damages are presumed – meaning, the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove mathematical (actual) monetary loss.

Instead, all that’s required is the damages assessed “not be considered substantial.”  Looking to an earlier case where the court awarded $1M for defamatory statements in tobacco litigation, the Court found that the jury’s verdict against the plaintiff coupler maker here was proper.

Afterwords:

The wide use of confidentiality agreements and evidence of oral pledges of secrecy can serve as sufficient evidence of an item’s confidential nature for purposes of trade secrets liability.  Trade secrets damages can include actual profits lost by a plaintiff, the amount the defendant (the party misappropriating the trade secrets) was unjustly enriched through the use of plaintiff’s trade secrets and, in some egregious cases, punitive damages.

The case also shows that a jury has wide latitude to fashion general damage awards in per se defamation suits.  This is especially so in cases involving deep-pocketed defendants.