Statute of Frauds’ ‘Goods Over $500’ Section Dooms Car Buyer’s Oral Contract Claim (IL First Dist.)

I’ve written here before on the Statute of Frauds (SOF) and how it requires certain contracts to be in writing to be enforceable.  I’ve also championed “MYLEGS” as a useful mnemonic device for dissecting a SOF issue.

M stands for ‘Marriage’ (contracts in consideration of marriage), Y for ‘Year’ (contracts that can’t be performed within the space of a year must be in writing), L for ‘Land’ (contracts for sale of interest in land), E for ‘Executorship’ (promises by a executor to pay a decedent’s creditor have to be in writing), G is for ‘Goods’ (contracts to sell goods over $500) and S for ‘Surety’ (a promise to pay another’s debt requires a writing).

The First District recently affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a breach of contract based on the Uniform Commercial Code’s (UCC) SOF provision governing the sale of goods for over $500 (the “G” in the above MYLEGS scheme).

The plaintiff in Isenbergh v. South Chicago Nissan, 2016 IL App(1st) 153510 went to a car dealer defendant to buy a new Nissan Versa (Versa 1) with specific features (manual transmission, anti-lock brakes, etc.).  When told the requested car wasn’t in stock, the plaintiff opted to rent a used car temporarily until the requested car was available.  But instead of renting a used car, the Plaintiff alleged the dealership convinced him to enter into a verbal “Return Agreement” for a substitute Versa (Versa 2). 

Under the Return Agreement, the dealership promised to sell the plaintiff Versa 2 – which didn’t have plaintiff’s desired features – and then buy it back from Plaintiff when Versa 1 was in stock.  According to Plaintiff, the Return Agreement contemplated Plaintiff’s total payments on Versa 2 would equal only two months of sales contract installment payments.

Plaintiff claimed the dealership refused to honor the Return Agreement and Plaintiff was stuck making monthly payments on Versa 2 (a car he never wanted to begin with) that will eventually eclipse $28,000.  The trial court granted defendant’s Section 2-619 motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s breach of contract action based on the SOF.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

The SOF requires that a contract for the sale of goods for the price of $500 or more be in writing to be enforceable. 810 ILCS 5/2-201.  A “contract for sale” includes both a present sale of goods as well as a contract to sell goods in the future.  A “sale” is the passing of title from seller to buyer for a price. 810 ILCS 5/2-106, 103.  “Goods” under the UCC are all things “movable” at the time of identification to the contract for sale. 810 ILCS 5/2-105.

The Return Agreement’s subject matter, a car, clearly met the UCC’s definitions of “goods” and the substance of the Return Agreement was a transaction for the sale of goods.  (The dealership promised to buy back Versa 2 from the Plaintiff once Versa 1 (the car Plaintiff wanted all along) became available.

Since Versa 2’s sale price was over $26,000 and plaintiff’s two payments under the Versa 2 purchase contract exceeded $1,100, Versa 2 easily met the SOF’s $500 threshold. Because of this, the Court found that the SOF defeated plaintiff’s claim for breach of an oral agreement to buy and sell a car selling for well over $500.

Afterwords:

This case presents a straightforward application of the SOF section governing the sale of goods that retail for at least $500.  Clearly, a motor vehicle is a movable “good” under the UCC and will almost always meet the $500 threshold by definition.

The case also makes clear that even if the contract contemplates a future sale and purchase (as opposed to a present one), the UCC still governs since the statute’s definition of sales contract explicitly speaks to contracts to sell goods in the future.

Finally, the case is a cautionary tale for car buyers and sellers alike as it shows that oral promises likely will not be enforced unless reduced to writing.

‘Integration’ Versus ‘Non-Reliance’ Clause: A ‘Distinction Without a Difference?’ (Hardly)

Two staples of sophisticated commercial contracts are integration (aka “merger” or “entire agreement”) clauses and non-reliance (aka “no-reliance” or “anti-reliance”) clauses. While sometimes used interchangeably in casual conversation, and while having some functional similarities, there are important differences between the two clauses.

An integration clause prevents parties from asserting or challenging a contract based on statements or agreements reached during the negotiation stage that were never reduced to writing.

A typical integration clause reads:

This Agreement , encompasses the entire agreement of the parties, and supersedes all previous understandings and agreements between the parties, whether oral or written. The parties hereby acknowledge and represent that they have not relied on any representation, assertion, guarantee, or other assurance, except those set out in this Agreement, made by or on behalf of any other party prior to the execution of this Agreement. 

Integration clauses protect against attempts to alter a contract based on oral statements or earlier drafts that supposedly change the final contract product’s substance.  In litigation, integration/merger clauses streamline issues for trial and avoid distracting courts with arguments over ancillary verbal statements or earlier contract drafts.here integration clauses predominate in contract disputes,

Where integration clauses predominate in contract disputes, non-reliance clauses typically govern in the tort setting.  In fact, an important distinction between integration and non-reliance clauses lies in the fact that an integration clause does not bar a fraud (a quintessential tort) claim when the alleged fraud is based on statements not contained in the contract (i.e,. extra-contractual statements). *1, 2

A typical non-reliance clause reads:

Seller shall not be deemed to make to Buyer any representation or warranty other than as expressly made in this agreement and Seller makes no representation or warranty to Buyer with respect to any projections, estimates or budgets delivered to or made available to Buyer or its counsel, accountants or advisors of future revenues, expenses or expenditures or future financial results of operations of Seller.  The parties to the contract warrant they are not relying on any oral or written representations not specifically incorporated into the contract.”  

No-reliance language precludes a party from claiming he/she was duped into signing a contract by another party’s fraudulent misrepresentation.  Unlike an integration clause, a non-reliance clause can defeat a fraud claim since “reliance” is one of the elements a fraud plaintiff must show: that he relied on a defendant’s misstatement to the plaintiff’s detriment.  To allege fraud after you sign a non-reliance clause is a contradiction in terms.

Afterwords:

Lawyers and non-lawyers alike should be leery of integration clauses and non-reliance clauses in commercial contracts.  The former prevents a party from relying on agreements reached during negotiations that aren’t reduced to writing while the latter (non-reliance clauses) will defeat one side’s effort to assert fraud against the other.

An integration clause will not, however, prevent a plaintiff from suing for fraud.  If a plaintiff can prove he was fraudulently induced into signing a contract, an integration clause will not automatically defeat such a claim.

Sources:

  1. Vigortone Ag Prods. v. AG Prods, 316 F.3d 641 (7th Cir. 2002).
  2. W.W. Vincent & Co. v. First Colony Life Ins. Co., 351 Ill.App.3d 752 (1st Dist. 2004)

 

Election of Remedies vs. Alternative Pleading In Illinois

The election of remedies doctrine clashes with Illinois alternative pleading rules in Evashank v. Miller Brewing Company, 2013 IL App (1st) 112987-U, a case involving a dispute over a misread beer promotional ticket.

The plaintiff was given a promotional sticker at the Coach’s Corner bar that plaintiff thought read “win a million dollars”.  It actually said “this summer I want to win a million dollars.”  When the plaintiff tried to claim his big bucks prize, the bar and promotional staff said no and plaintiff sued the beer company and promotional group for fraud and breach of contract. 

Before trial, the court made the plaintiff to choose whether he was going to pursue his fraud or breach of contract claims against the bar.  Plaintiff chose the latter.  The court found for the tavern and plaintiff appealed.

Result: Reversed in part.

Election of Remedies

The election of remedies doctrine applies where a plaintiff elects inconsistent remedies for the same injury.  The rule provides that the prosecution of one remedy to judgment bars a second action stemming from the same transaction based on an inconsistent theory.  The prototypical example: a plaintiff can’t seek to recover breach of contract damages while at the same time  (or later) try to rescind that same contract.  The remedies are inconsistent.

Illinois courts confine the election of remedies rule to situations where (1) double compensation for the plaintiff is threatened, (2) defendant has been misled by the plaintiff’s conduct in choosing one remedy over another, or (3) where res judicata applies (final judgment on the merits, same parties, same cause of action). 

The election of remedies rule bars a plaintiff from recovering on one theory in a case and then later seeking a different remedy in a second case based on the same facts (as the first case). ¶¶ 50-51

But Illinois law does permit alternative pleading.  Code Sections 2-604 and 2-613 allow a plaintiff to plead inconsistent theories of recovery and allege contradictory facts at the pleading stage.  A plaintiff can also go to trial on inconsistent claims (e.g. fraud and breach of contract).  The proofs at that trial will determine which theory, if any, the plaintiff can recover on.  ¶¶47-49.

Here, there was only one case.  Plaintiff didn’t try to first recover on fraud and then, in a second action, try to recover for breach of contract.  While fraud and breach of contract have different pleading and proof elements and proving one (breach of contract) normally prevents proof of the other (fraud), a plaintiff can still proceed to trial on both legal theories; he just can’t recover damages on both. 

Since plaintiff should have been allowed to take both his breach of contract and fraud counts to trial, the trial court mistakenly made plaintiff choose his remedy at the pre-trial stage.  And while the First District viewed the plaintiff’s fraud claim as weak, it still reversed the dismissal of that count because the trial court misapplied the election of remedies rule.

The Breach of Contract Claim

The trial court properly directed verdict against plaintiff on the breach of contract count.  There was no meeting of the minds or consideration.  The plaintiff admitted he paid nothing for the “million dollar sticker” and had no expectation of winning a million dollars when he visited the bar.  This precluded a finding that there was an enforceable agreement.  The sticker was misread; plain and simple.  There was no enforceable contract.  ¶¶ 49-52.

Afterwords:

A case that features a deep analysis of some finer procedural points in a “fun” fact pattern.  Some key take-aways include:

1/ An absence of a meeting of minds will prevent enforcement of a contract; especially in the promotional setting;

2/ An advertisement or promotional “offer” is generally construed as an invitation to make an offer – not an offer that invites acceptance.

3/ While Illinois permits alternative pleading, it doesn’t allow recovery on inconsistent remedies (e.g. a plaintiff can’t recover for breach of contract while at same time seek rescission of the contract.);

4/ A plaintiff can’t recover for both fraud and breach of contract (he must choose one or the other), but he doesn’t have to make this choice until after trial.