‘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.

 

Non-Shareholder Can Be Liable On Alter-Ego and Veil Piercing Theory – IL Bankruptcy Court

Buckley v. Abuzir  will likely be viewed as a watershed in piercing the corporate veil litigation because of its exhaustive analysis of when a non-shareholder can be personally liable for corporate debts.  In that case, the court provides an extensive survey of how nearly every jurisdiction in the country has decided the non-shareholder piercing question.

In re Tolomeo, 2015 WL 5444129 (N.D.Ill. 2015) considers the related question of whether a creditor can pierce the corporate veil of entities controlled by a debtor non-shareholder so that those entities’ assets become part of the debtors’ bankruptcy estate.

The answer: “yes.”  In their complaint, the creditors sought a determination that three companies owned by the debtor’s wife but controlled by the debtor were the debtors’ alter-egos.  The creditors of the debtor also sought to pierce the companies’ corporate veils so that the companies’ assets would be considered part of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.  This would have the salutary effect of providing more funds for distribution to the various creditors.  After striking the debtor’s defenses to the complaint, the court granted the creditors motion for judgment on the pleadings. In doing so, the bankruptcy court applied some fundamental piercing principles to the situation where an individual debtor controls several companies even though he is not a nominal shareholder of the companies.

In Illinois, a corporation is a legal entity separate and distinct from its shareholders. However, this separateness will be disregarded where limited liability would defeat a strong equitable claim of a corporate creditor.

A party who seeks to set aside corporate liability protection on an alter-ego basis must make the two-part showing that (1) the company was so controlled and manipulated that it was a mere instrumentality of another entity or individual; and (2) misuse of the corporate form would promote fraud or injustice.

The mere instrumentality factors include (a) inadequate capitalization, (b) a failure to issue stock, (c) failure to observe corporate formalities, (d) nonpayment of dividends, (e) insolvency of the debtor corporation, (f) nonfunctioning officers or directors, (g) lack of corporate records, (h) commingling of funds, (i) diversion of assets from the corporation by or to a shareholder, (j) failure to maintain arm’s length relationships among related entities; and (k) the corporation being a mere façade for the dominant shareholders.

Promotion of injustice (factor (2) above)), in the veil piercing context, requires less than a showing of fraud but something more than the prospect of an unsatisfied judgment.

The court echoed Buckley and found that the corporate veil can be pierced to reach the assets of an individual even where he is not a shareholder, officer, director or employee.

The key question is whether a person exercises “equitable ownership and control” over a corporation to such an extent that there’s no demarcation between the corporation and the individual.  According to the court, making shareholder status a prerequisite for piercing liability elevates form over substance.

Applying these standards, the court found the circumstances ripe for piercing. The debtor controlled the three entities as he handled the day-to-day operations of the companies. He also freely shifted money between the entities and regularly paid his personal bills from company bank accounts. Finally, the court noted an utter lack of corporate records and threadbare compliance with rudimentary formalities. Taken together, the court found that the factors weighed in favor of finding that the three companies were the debtor’s alter-egos and the three entities should be considered part of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.

Take-aways:

1/ A defendant’s status as a corporate shareholder will not dictate whether or not his assets can be reached in an alter-ego or veil piercing setting.

2/ If non-shareholder sufficiently controls a corporate entity, he can be responsible for the corporate debts assuming other piercing factors are present.

3/ Veil piercing can occur absent actual fraud by a controlling shareholder.  The creditor plaintiff must show more than a mere unpaid debt or unsatisfied judgment, though.  Instead, there must be some element of unfairness present for a court to set aside corporate protection and fasten liability to the individual.

 

 

Bank Escapes Liability Where It Accepts Two-Party Check With Only One Indorsement – IL ND

BBCN Bank v. Sterling Fire Restoration, Ltd., 2016 WL 691784 homes in on the required showing to win a motion for judgment on the pleadings in Federal court, the scope of a general release, and the UCC section governing joint payee or “two-party” checks.

The plaintiff, an assignee of a fire restorer’s claim who did some repair work on a commercial structure, sued two banks for paying out on a two-party check (the “Check”) where only one payee indorsed it. The Assignor was a payee on the Check but never indorsed it.

The banks moved for summary judgment on the ground that the assignor previously released its claims to the Check proceeds in an earlier lawsuit and filed a third-party suit against the assignor for indemnification.  The assignor moved for judgment on the pleadings on the banks’ third-party action.

Result: Bank defendants’ motions for summary judgment granted; Assignor’s judgment on the pleadings motion (on the banks’ third-party indemnification claims) denied.

Rules/Reasons:

FRCP 12(c) governs motions for judgment on the pleadings.  A party can move for judgment on the pleadings after the complaint and answer have been filed.  When deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court considers only the contents of the filed pleadings – including the complaint, answer, and complaint exhibits.  Like a summary judgment motion, a motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted only if there are no genuine issues of material fact to be resolved at trial.

FRCP 56 governs summary judgment motions.  A party opposing a summary judgment must “pierce” (go beyond) the pleadings and point to evidence in the record (depositions, discovery responses, etc.) that creates a genuine factual dispute that must be decided after a trial on the merits.

UCC section 3-110 applies to checks with multiple payees.  It provides that if an instrument is jointly payable to 2 or more persons (not “alternatively”), it can only be negotiated, discharged or enforced by all of the payees.  810 ILCS 5/3-110(d).

Here, since both payees did not sign the Check, the banks plainly violated section 3-110 by accepting and paying it.  The Check was payable to two parties and only one signed it.

The banks still escaped liability though since the assigning restoration company previously released its claims to the Check proceeds.  In Illinois, a general release bars all claims a signing party (the releasor) has actual knowledge of or that he could have discovered upon reasonable inquiry.

Here, the assignor’s prior release of the bank defendants was binding on the plaintiff since an assignee cannot acquire greater rights to something than its assignor has.  And since the plaintiff’s claim against the banks was previously released by plaintiff’s assignor, plaintiff’s lawsuit against the banks were barred.

The Assignor’s motion for judgment on the pleadings on the banks’ third-party claims was denied due to factual disputes.  Since the court could not tell whether or not the assignor misrepresented to the plaintiff whether it had assigned its claim by looking only at the banks’ third-party complaint and the assignor’s answer, there were disputed facts that could only be decided after a trial.

Take-aways:

  • Motions for judgment on the pleadings and summary judgment motions will be denied if there is a genuine factual dispute for trial;
  • A summary judgment opponent (respondent) must produce evidence (not simply allegations in pleadings) to show that there are disputed facts that can only be decided on a full trial on the merits;
  • The right remedy for a UCC 3-110 violation is a conversion action under UCC section 3-420;
  • In sophisticated commercial transactions, a broadly-worded release will be enforced as written.