General Contractor Insolvency, Not Owner Recourse, is Key Implied Warranty of Habitability Test – IL First Dist.

In Sienna Court Condominium Association v. Champion Aluminum Corporation, 2017 IL App (1st) 143364, the First District addressed two important issues of common law and statutory corporate law.  It first considered when a property owner could sue the subcontractor of a defunct general contractor where there was no contractual relationship between the owner and subcontractor and then examined when a defunct limited liability company (LLC) could file a lawsuit in the LLC’s name.

The plaintiff condo association sued the developer, general contractor (“GC”) and subcontractors for various building defects.  The subcontractors moved to dismiss the association’s claims on the ground that they couldn’t be liable for breaching the implied warranty of habitability if the plaintiff has possible recourse from the defunct GC’s insurer.

The trial court denied the subcontractors’ motion and they appealed.

Affirming denial of the subcontractors’ motions, the First District considered whether a homeowner’s implied warranty claim could proceed against the subcontractors of an insolvent GC where (1) the plaintiff had a potential source of recovery from the GC’s insurer or (2) the plaintiff had already recovered monies from a warranty fund specifically earmarked for warranty claims.

The court answered “yes” (plaintiff’s suit can go forward against the subs) on both counts. It held that when deciding whether a plaintiff can sue a subcontractor for breach of implied warranty of habitability, the focus is whether or not the GC is insolvent; not whether plaintiff can possibly recover (or even has recovered) from an alternate source (like a dissolved GC’s insurer).

For precedential support, the Court looked to 1324 W. Pratt Condominium Ass’n v. Platt Construction Group,   2013 IL App (1st) 130744 where the First District allowed a property buyer’s warranty claims versus a subcontractor where the general contractor was in good corporate standing and had some assets.  The court held that an innocent purchaser can sue a sub where the builder-seller is insolvent.

In the implied warranty of habitability context, insolvency means a party’s liabilities exceed its assets and the party has stopped paying debts in the ordinary course of its business. (¶¶ 89-90).  And under Pratt’s “emphatic language,” the relevant inquiry is GC’s insolvency, not plaintiff’s “recourse”.¶ 94

Sienna Court noted that assessing the viability of an owner’s implied warranty claim against a subcontractor under the “recourse” standard is difficult since there are conceivably numerous factual settings and arguments that could suggest plaintiff has “recourse.”  The court found the insolvency test more workable and more easily applied then the amorphous recourse standard. (¶ 96).

Next, the Court considered the chronological outer limit for a dissolved LLC to file a civil lawsuit.  The GC dissolved in 2010 and filed counterclaims in 2014.  The trial court ruled that the 2014 counterclaims were too late and time-barred them.

The appeals court affirmed.  It noted that Section 35-1 of the Illinois LLC Act (805 ILCS 180/1-1 et seq.) provides that an LLC which “is dissolved, and, unless continued pursuant to subsection (b) of Section 35-3, its business must be wound up,” upon the occurrence of certain events, including “Administrative dissolution under Section 35-25.” 805 ILCS 180/35-1

While Illinois’ Business Corporation Act of 1993 specifies that a dissolved corporation may pursue civil remedies only up to five years after the date of dissolution (805 ILCS 5/12.80 (West 2014)), the LLC Act is silent on when a dissolved LLC’s right to sue expires.  Section 35-4(c) only says “a person winding up a limited liability company’s business may preserve the company’s business or property as a going concern for a reasonable time”

The Court opted for a cramped reading of Section 35-4’s reasonable time language.  In viewing the LLC Act holistically, the Court found that the legislature contemplated LLC’s having a finite period of time to wind up its affairs including bringing any lawsuits.  Based on its restrictive interpretation of Section 35-4, the Court held the almost four-year gap between the GC’s dissolution (2010) and counterclaim filing (2014) did not constitute a reasonable time.

Afterwords:

Sienna Court emphasizes that a general contractor’s insolvency – not potential recourse – is the dominant inquiry in considering a property owner’s implied warranty of habitability claim against a subcontractor where the general contractor is out of business and there is no privity of contract between the owner and subcontractor.

The case also gives some definition to Section 35-4 of the LLC Act’s “reasonable time” standard for a dissolved LLC to sue on pre-dissolution claims.  In this case, the Court found that waiting four years after dissolution to file counterclaims was too long.

 

 

Sole Proprietor d/b/a Auto Dealership Held Liable For Floor Plan Loan Default- IL 2d Dist.

The Illinois Second District brings into focus the perils of a business owner failing to incorporate in a car loan dispute in Baird v. Ogden Lincoln Mercury, Inc., 2016 IL App (2d) 160073-U.  Affirming judgment on the pleadings for the plaintiff lender in the case, the Court answers some important questions on the difference between corporate and personal liability and how judicial admissions in pleadings can come back to haunt you.

The plaintiff sued the individual defendant and two affiliated corporations for breach of contract and quantum meruit respectively, in the wake of a “floor plan” loan default.  The individual defendant previously signed the governing loan documents as “President” of Ogden Auto Group, an entity not registered in Illinois.  The corporate defendants consented to a judgment against them on the quantum meruit claim and the case continued on the lender’s contract claim versus the individual defendant.

The Court first rejected the individual defendant’s argument that the breach of contract claim “merged” into the quantum meruit confessed judgment against the corporate defendant.  While a breach of express contract claim normally cannot co-exist with an implied-in-law or quantum meruit claim, the plaintiff’s quantum meruit claim lay against different defendants than the breach of contract action: the breach of contract suit targeted only the individual defendant.  In addition, Illinois law permits multiple judgments in the same case and so the earlier quantum meruit judgment didn’t preclude a later money judgment.  See 735 ILCS 5/2-1301(a).

The Court then granting the plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings based on the defendant’s judicial admissions in his verified answer to the Complaint.

Judicial admissions conclusively bind a party and include formal admissions in the pleadings that have the effect of withdrawing a fact from issue and dispensing wholly with the need for proof of the fact.”

– Judicial admissions are defined as “deliberate, clear, unequivocal statements by a party about a concrete fact within that party’s knowledge” and will conclusively bind the party making the admission.

– A statement is not a judicial admission if it is a matter of opinion, estimate, appearance, inference, or uncertain summary.

– An admission in a verified pleading, not the product of mistake or inadvertence, is a binding, judicial admission.

– An unincorporated business has no legal identity separate from its owner and is deemed an asset of the responsible individual.  A sole proprietorship’s liabilities are imputed to the individual owner.  One who operates a business as a sole proprietor under several names remains one “person,” and is personally liable for all business obligations.

(¶¶ 31-32)

Here, the individual defendant admitted signing both floor plan loans on behalf of Ogden Auto Group, which is not a legally recognized entity.  Since Ogden Auto Group wasn’t incorporated, it was legally a non-entity and the individual defendant was properly found liable for the unpaid loan balances.

Afterwords:

1/ A business owner’s failure to incorporate can have dire consequences.  By not setting up a separate legal entity to run a business through, the sole proprietor remains personally liable for all debts regardless of what name he does business under;

2/ Verified admissions in pleadings are hard to erase.  Unless a party can show pure mistake or inadvertence, a verified pleading admission will bind the litigant and prevent him from later contradicting the admission.

 

Non-shareholder Liable For Chinese Restaurant’s Lease Obligations Where No Apparent Corporate Connection – IL Case Note

fortune-cookiePink Fox v. Kwok, 2016 IL App (1st) 150868-U, examines the corporate versus personal liability dichotomy through the lens of a commercial lease dispute.  There, a nonshareholder signed a lease for a corporate tenant (a Chinese restaurant) but failed to mention the tenant’s business name next to his signature.  This had predictable bad results for him as the lease signer was hit with a money judgment of almost $200K in past-due rent and nearly $20K in attorneys’ fees and court costs.

The restaurant lease had a ten-year term and required the tenant to pay over $13K in monthly rent along with real estate taxes and maintenance costs.  The lease was signed by a non-shareholder of the corporate tenant who was friends with the tenant’s officers.

The non-shareholder and other lease guarantors appealed a bench trial judgment holding them personally responsible for the defunct tenant’s lease obligations.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

The first procedural question was whether the trial court erred when it refused to deem the defendants’ affirmative defenses admitted based on the plaintiff’s failure to respond to the defenses.

Code Section 2-602 requires a plaintiff to reply to an affirmative defense within 21 days.  The failure to reply to an affirmative defense is an admission of the facts pled in the defense.  But the failure to reply only admits the truth of factual matter; not legal conclusions. 

A failure to reply doesn’t admit the validity of the unanswered defense.  The court has wide discretion to allow late replies to affirmative defenses in keeping with Illinois’ stated policy of having cases decided on their merits instead of technicalities.  (¶ 55)

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s allowing the plaintiff’s late reply.  The court noted the defendants had several months to seek a judgment for the plaintiff’s failure to reply to the defenses yet waited until the day of trial to “spring” a motion on the plaintiff.  Since the Illinois Code is to be construed liberally and not in a draconian fashion, the Court found there was no prejudice to the defendants in allowing the plaintiff’s late reply.

The court next considered whether the trial court properly entertained extrinsic evidence to interpret the commercial lease.  The body of the lease stated that the tenant was a corporation yet the signature page indicated that an individual was the tenant.  This textual clash created a lease ambiguity that merited hearing evidence of the parties’ intent at trial.

Generally, when an agent signs a contract in his own name and fails to mention the identity of his corporate principal, the agent remains liable on the contract he signs.  But where an agent signs a document and does note his corporate affiliation, he usually is not personally responsible on the contract.  Where an agent lacks authority to sign on behalf of his corporate employer, the agent will be personally liable.  (¶¶ 76-77)

Since the person signing the lease testified at trial that he did so “out of friendship,” the trial court properly found he was personally responsible for the defunct Chinese restaurant’s lease obligations.

The court also affirmed the money judgment against the lease guarantors and rejected their claim that there was no consideration to support the guarantees.

Under black letter lease guarantee rules, where a guarantee is signed at the same time as the lease, the consideration supporting the lease will also support the guarantee.  In such a case, the guarantor does not need to receive separate or additional consideration from the underlying tenant to be bound by the guarantee.

So long as the primary obligor – here the corporate tenant – receives consideration, the law deems the same consideration as flowing to the guarantor.

Afterwords:

1/ Signing a lease on behalf of a corporate entity without denoting corporate connection is risky business;

2/ If you sign something out of friendship, like the defendant here, you should make sure you are indemnified by the friend/person (individual or corporation) you’re signing for;

3/ Where a guaranty is signed at the same time as the underlying lease, no additional consideration to the guarantor is required.  The consideration flowing to the tenant is sufficient to also bind the guarantor.