Creditor (Bank) -Debtor (Borrower) Relationship Not A Fiduciary One – IL First Dist. (I of II)

Kosowski v. Alberts, 2017 IL App (1st) 170622 – U, examines some signature commercial litigation remedies against the factual backdrop of a business loan default.

The plaintiffs, decades-long business partners in the printing and direct mail industry, borrowed money under a written loan agreement that gave the lender wide-ranging remedies upon the borrowers’ default. Plaintiffs quickly fell behind in payments and went out of business within two years. A casualty of the flagging print media business, the plaintiffs not only defaulted on the loan but lost their company collateral – the printing facility, inventory, equipment and accounts receivable -, too.

Plaintiffs sued the bank and one of its loan officers for multiple business torts bottomed on the claim that the bank prematurely declared a loan default and dealt with plaintiffs’ in a heavy-handed way.  Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment for the defendants.

Affirming, the First District dove deep into the nature and reach of the breach of fiduciary duty, consumer fraud, and conversion torts under Illinois law.

The court first rejected the plaintiff’s position that it stood in a fiduciary position vis a vis the bank. A breach of fiduciary duty plaintiff must allege (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty on the part of the defendant, (2) defendant’s breach of that duty, and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach.

A fiduciary relationship can arise as a matter of law (e.g. principal and agent; lawyer-client) or where there is a “special relationship” between the parties (one party exerts influence and superiority over another).  However, a basic debtor-creditor arrangement doesn’t rise to the fiduciary level.

Here, the loan agreement explicitly disclaimed a fiduciary arrangement between the loan parties.  It recited that the parties stood in an arms’ length posture and the bank owed no fiduciary duty to the borrowers.  While another loan section labelled the bank as the borrowers’ “attorney-in-fact,” (a quintessential fiduciary relationship) the Court construed this term narrowly and found it only applied upon the borrower’s default and spoke only to the bank’s duties concerning the disposition of the borrowers’ collateral.  On this point, the Court declined to follow a factually similar Arkansas case (Knox v. Regions Bank, 103 Ark.App. 99 (2008)) which found that a loan’s attorney-in-fact clause did signal a fiduciary relationship.  Knox had no precedential value since Illinois case authorities have consistently held that a debtor-creditor relationship isn’t a fiduciary one as a matter of law. (¶¶ 36-38)

Next, the Court found that there was no fiduciary relationship as a matter of fact.  A plaintiff who tries to establish a fiduciary relationship on this basis must produce evidence that he placed trust and confidence in another to the point that the other gained influence and superiority over the plaintiff.  Key factors pointing to a special relationship fiduciary duty include a disparity in age, business acumen and education, among other factors.

Here, the borrowers argued that the bank stood in a superior bargaining position to them.  The Court rejected this argument.  It noted the plaintiffs were experienced businessmen who had scaled a company from 3 employees to over 350 during a three-decade time span.  This lengthy business success undermined the plaintiffs’ disparity of bargaining power argument

Take-aways:

Kosowski is useful reading for anyone who litigates in the commercial finance arena. The case solidifies the proposition that a basic debtor-creditor (borrower-lender) relationship won’t rise to the level of a fiduciary one as a matter of law. The case also gives clues as to what constitutes a special relationship and what degree of disparity in bargaining power is required to establish a factual fiduciary duty.

Lastly, the case is also instructive on the evidentiary showing a conversion and consumer fraud plaintiff must make to survive summary judgment in the loan default context.

 

Appeals Court Gives Teeth to “Good Faith” Requirement of Accord and Satisfaction Defense

A common cautionary tale recounted in 1L contracts classes involves the crafty debtor who secretly short-pays a creditor but notes “payment in full” on his check. According to the classic “gotcha” vignette, the debtor’s devious conduct forever bars the unwitting creditor from suing the debtor.

Whether apocryphal or not (like the one about the newly minted lawyer who accidentally brought a marijuana cigarette into the courthouse and forever lost his license after less than 3 hours of practice) the fact pattern neatly illustrates the accord and satisfaction rue. Accord and satisfaction applies where a creditor and debtor have a legitimate dispute over amounts owed on a note (or other payment document) and the parties agree on an amount (the “accord”) the debtor can pay (the “satisfaction”) to resolve the disputed claim.

Piney Ridge Associates v. Ellington, 2017 IL App (3d) 160764-U reads like a first year contracts “hypo” come to life as it reflects the perils of creditor’s accepting partial payments where the payor recites “payment in full” on a check.

Piney Ridge’s plaintiff note buyer sued the defendant for defaulting on a 1993 promissory note. The defendant moved to dismiss because he wrote “payment in full” under the check endorsement line. The trial court agreed with the defendant that plaintiff’s acceptance of the check was an accord and satisfaction that defeated plaintiff’s suit.

The 3rd District appeals court reversed; it stressed that a debtor’s duplicitous conduct won’t support an accord and satisfaction defense.

Under Illinois law, an accord and satisfaction is a contractual method of discharging a debt: the accord is the parties’ agreement; the satisfaction is the execution of the agreement.

In deciding whether a transaction amounts to an accord and satisfaction, the court focuses on the parties’ intent.

Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code (which applies to negotiable instruments) a debtor who relies on the accord and satisfaction defense must prove (1) he/she tendered payment in good faith as full satisfaction of a claim, (2) the amount of the claim was unliquidated or subject to a bona fide dispute; and (3) the claimant obtained payment from the debtor. 810 ILCS 5/3-311(a).

Good faith means honesty in fact and observing “reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” The debtor must also provide the creditor with a conspicuous statement that the debtor’s payment is tendered in full satisfaction of a claim. (⁋12)(810 ILCS 5/3-311(a), (b)). Without an honest dispute, there is no accord and satisfaction. (⁋ 14)

A debtor who fails to act in good faith cannot bind a creditor to an accord and satisfaction. Case examples of a court refusing to find an accord and satisfaction include defendants who, despite clearly marking their payment as “in full”, paid less than 10% of a workers’ compensation lien in one case, and in another, paid less than half the plaintiff’s total invoice amount and lied to the plaintiff’s agent about past payments. (⁋⁋ 13, 14)(citing to Fremarek v. John Hancock Mutual Life Ins. Co., 272 Ill.App.3d 1067 (1995); and McMahon Food Corp. v. Burger Dairy Co., 103 F.3d 1307 (7th Cir. 1996).

Applying this good faith requirement, the Court noted that the defendant paid $354 to the plaintiff at the time the defendant admittedly owed over $10,000 (defendant sent a pre-suit letter to the prior noteholder conceding he owed $10,000 on the note). The Court held that this approximately $7,600 shortfall clearly did not meet accord and satisfaction’s good faith component.

Bullet-points:

  • Accord and satisfaction requires good faith on the payor’s part and a court won’t validate debtor subterfuge.
  • Where the amount paid “in full” is dwarfed by the uncontested claim amount, the Court won’t find an accord and satisfaction.
  • Where there is no legitimate dispute concerning a debt’s existence and amount, there can be no accord and satisfaction.

 

 

No Automatic Finality Where Pleading Never Amended After ‘Without Prejudice’ Dismissal – IL Court

Richter v. Prairie Farms Dairy, Inc.’s, (2016 IL 119518) essential holding is that a prior dismissal without prejudice doesn’t convert to a final order for res judicata or appeal purposes where a plaintiff fails to amend the dismissed pleading within the time deadline set by the court and the movant defendant doesn’t seek a dismissal with prejudice.

Claiming their membership in an agriculture cooperative was unfairly terminated, the Richter plaintiffs sued the defendant co-op for statutory shareholder remedies under the Illinois Business Corporation Act, 805 ILCS 5/12.56 (BCA), and common law fraud. Plaintiffs’ key theory was that defendant prematurely and pretextually terminated a milk marketing agreement by invoking an obscure bylaws provision in the agreement.

The trial court dismissed plaintiffs’ fraud claims without prejudice and gave them 30 days to amend their complaint – a deadline ultimately increased to 120 days. Plaintiffs never amended their fraud claims though, instead choosing to pursue the BCA claim. After nearly five years of litigation, the plaintiff sought the voluntary dismissal of the BCA claim and later refiled another action within the one-year window allowed by 735 ILCS 5/2-1009.

The trial court granted the defendant’s 2-619 motion to dismiss the refiled suit under res judicata principles. It found the plaintiffs’ failure to amend the fraud claims “finalized” the prior dismissal without prejudice order and barred plaintiffs’ refiled suit.  The Fourth District reversed.  It held the trial court’s dismissal without prejudice was not final on its face and could never support a res judicata finding. Defendant appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Affirming the appeals court, the Supreme Court dove deep into the earmarks of a final judgment for appeal and res judicata purposes and examined when an involuntary dismissal precludes the later refiling of a lawsuit.

Res judicata requires a final judgment on the merits for the doctrine to preclude a second lawsuit between two parties for the same cause of action. The doctrine bars not only what was actually decided in a prior action, but also matters that could have been litigated and decided in that action.

A “final” judgment or order denotes one that terminates the litigation and absolutely fixes the parties’ rights so that all that’s left is enforcing the judgment. (⁋24)
Illinois Supreme Court Rule 273 provides that an involuntary dismissal – other than one for lack of jurisdiction, improper venue, or failure to join an indispensable party – is considered an adjudication on the merits.

A dismissal “without prejudice” signals there was no final decision on the merits. A dismissal that grants a plaintiff leave to amend its pleading is not final because the dismissal does not terminate the litigation. (⁋25). In such a case, a plaintiff is not barred from refiling an action. s

The Illinois Supreme Court declined the defendant’s invitation to create an “automatic final judgment ” rule when a plaintiff fails to amend within court-imposed time limits. Instead, the Court placed the onus on the litigants to convert a non-final dismissal order into a final one by seeking a dismissal with prejudice once the time for amendments has lapsed. And since the defendant had the burden of showing that res judicata applied and failed to obtain a definite with prejudice dismissal of plaintiff’s claims, the plaintiff was not prevented from refiling their lawsuit.

But What About Rein and Hudson?

Rein v. David A. Noyes & Co., 172 Ill.2d 325, 334–35 (1996) and Hudson v. City of Chicago, 228 Ill.2d 462, 467 (2008) are oft-cited case law poster children for the perils of refiling previously (voluntarily) dismissed claims when other claims in the same suit were involuntarily dismissed. In such a case, a plaintiff’s refiled action can be barred by res judicata since the voluntarily dismissed claims could have been litigated in the earlier suit.  But here, unlike in Rein and Hudson, no part of plaintiff’s suit was dismissed with prejudice. And since a nonfinal order can never bar a subsequent action, res judicata didn’t apply.

Implication

When faced with a dismissal without prejudice, a plaintiff should quickly seek leave to amend or seek a dismissal with prejudice to start the notice of appeal clock. For its part, a defendant should seek with- prejudice dismissal language where a plaintiff fails to amend within time limits allowed by the court. Doing so will put the defendant in a good position to file a dismissal motion predicated on res judicata or claim-splitting if the plaintiff later refiles against the same defendant.