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.

 

Lost Profits: Direct Or Indirect Damages? (And Why It Matters)

Two species of compensation in breach of contract lawsuits are (1) direct damages and (2) indirect damages.  The former allows a plaintiff to recover money damages that flow directly from a breach while the latter – sometimes labeled “consequential” damages – are more remote and separated from the breach.

Deciphering the difference between the two damage regimes is easy in theory but often difficult in practice.

At the intersection of the two damages types lies the lost profits remedy.  Lost profits damages allow the non-breaching party to recover profits he would have earned had the breaching party performed under the terms of the contract.  They (lost profits) divide into direct or indirect damages depending on the facts.

Westlake Financial Group, Inc. v. CDH-Delnor Health System, 2015 IL App(2d) 140589 spotlights the lost profits question in a dispute between two businesses over an insurance brokerage contract (the “Insurance Contract”) and a separate on-line claims tracking agreement (“the Tracking Contract”).

Both contracts spanned four years with 60-day termination clauses.  The plaintiff sued when the defendant prematurely cancelled both Contracts with more than two years left on them.  Plaintiff sought damages for lost Insurance Contract insurance commissions and for fees it would have earned under the Tracking Contract.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss and the plaintiff appealed.

Result: Reversed in part.

The trial court dismissed the bulk of plaintiff’s claims based on a limitation of damages clause in the Insurance Contract that immunized the defendant from consequential damages.

In Illinois, contract damages are measured by the amount of money needed to place the plaintiff in  the same position he would be if the contract was performed.  Damage limitation provisions in contracts are enforced so long as they don’t offend public policy.  These limitation clauses are strictly construed against the party benefitting from them.  (¶¶ 29-30).

Direct damages or “general damages” flow directly and without interruption from the type of wrong alleged in a complaint.  By contrast, indirect or consequential damages are losses that are removed from the breach and usually involve an intervening event that causes the damage.

Lost profits can constitute either direct damages or indirect damages depending on the facts.  Where a plaintiff’s lost profits damages result directly from a defendant’s breach, the lost profits are recoverable as direct damages.

A prototypical direct lost profits damages example cited by the court is where a phone directory publisher is liable for lost profits caused by its failure to include a business’s name in the directory.  In that scenario, any lost profits suffered by the business are directly attributable to the publisher’s failure to publish the business name in the directory – the very thing it was hired to do.  (¶¶ 32-35).

The Insurance Contract here contained a consequential damages exclusion and specifically mentioned lost profits as a type of consequential damages.  Still, the court found that the exclusion did not bar plaintiff’s direct lost profits claim.  The court noted that the Insurance Contract’s damage limitation provision only mentioned lost profits as an example of consequential damages.  It didn’t say that lost profits were categorically excluded.

The court also rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s claimed damages were too speculative to merit recovery.

Under Illinois law, damages are speculative where their existence is uncertain; not when there amount is uncertain.

Since lost profits can’t be proven with mathematical certainty, the plaintiff only has to show a “reasonable basis” for their (lost profits) computation.  (¶ 51).

Since the plaintiff premised its Insurance Contract lost profits claim on a four-year track record of calculable insurance commissions, the court found the plaintiff sufficiently pled the existence of damages.  Any dispute in the amount of plaintiff’s damages was an issue later for trial.  At the motion to dismiss stage, plaintiff sufficiently pled a breach of contract claim.  (¶¶ 52-53).

Afterwords:

– Consequential damages exclusion that mentions lost profits – as a type or example of consequential damages – won’t preclude lost profits that are a direct result (as opposed to an indirect result) of the breach of contract;

– A business plaintiff’s past profits from prior years can serve as sufficient gauge of future lost profits in a breach of contract claim.