Veil Piercing Money Judgment Survives Res Judicata Defense – Mich. Court

Piercing the corporate veil, as metaphorical phrase and very real remedy, applies when a shareholder abuses the corporate form to shield himself from liability to corporate creditors. A prototypical piercing scenario is where a sole shareholder so controls his company that it blurs the separation between shareholder and company and is unfair to protect the shareholder from personal liability for company debts.  In such a case, the law views the company and shareholder as inseparable “alter egos” and a court will bypass the liability protection normally afforded a corporate shareholder.

Green v. Ziegelman, 310 Mich.App. 436 (2015) chronicles a piercing defendant’s efforts to avoid personal liability for a breach of contract debt by asserting the res judicata defense. After a 2006 breach of contract money judgment against an architectural firm went unsatisfied, the plaintiff sued the firm’s sole shareholder in 2012 to hold him responsible for the prior judgment.

The defendant – the sole shareholder of an architectural firm – moved for summary judgment that the claim against him was barred by res judicata.  He argued that the plaintiff could have sought to pierce the architecture firm’s corporate veil in the 2006 action but failed to do so.  Now, according to the defendant, it was too late.

The trial court disagreed and denied the shareholder’s summary judgment motion.  After the trial court entered judgment for the plaintiff after trial, the defendant appealed.

Result: Trial court judgment upheld.

Reasons: Michigan law applies a three-part res judicata test: if (1) there is a final judgment on the merits, (2) the second lawsuit’s issue could have been resolved in the first lawsuit, and (3) both actions (the first and second lawsuit) involve the same parties, a second claim will be barred by res judicata.

Res judicata extends not only to claims that were actually litigated but to claims that could have been raised.  The res judicata doctrine is applied to promote fairness; it balances a plaintiff’s right to have his day in court versus a defendant’s competing right to have litigation closure along with the court’s interest in case finality and conserving court resources.

To prevail on a piercing claim in Michigan, a plaintiff doesn’t have to prove a corporate shareholder committed intentional fraud.  It is enough if the shareholder acts “in such a manner as to defraud and wrong the [plaintiff]” or in such circumstances that a court “would aid in the consummation of a wrong” if it validated a company’s separate existence from its shareholder.

To determine whether the plaintiff could have (and should have) sought to pierce the architectural firm’s corporate veil in the 2006 case, the Court noted that under Michigan law, corporate officers are expected to respect a corporation’s separate existence from its individual members.  Because of this, absent evidence that the shareholder defendant abused the corporate form, a piercing claim would not have been well-founded when plaintiff sued in the 2006 case.

The appeals court found that since there was no evidence to signal misuse of the corporate form, there was no reason for the plaintiff to try to pierce the architect company’s corporate veil in the earlier lawsuit.  As a result, the 2012 piercing case did not stem from the same underlying transaction as the 2006 breach of contract case.

Upholding the piercing judgment, the appeals court held that the shareholder completely dominated the architectural firm such that the firm and shareholder were the same person.  Other important factors that led the court to approve the piercing judgment included evidence that the shareholder commingled personal assets with company assets, that the company failed to follow basic corporate formalities, and that 10 days after judgment, the shareholder dissolved the architectural firm and started a new one.

Take-aways:

1/ The res judicata defense won’t bar a piercing the corporate veil claim unless there was clear evidence of fraud or an alter-ego relationship between company and shareholder at the time a prior lawsuit against the corporation was filed;

2/ A plaintiff in a piercing suit under Michigan law isn’t required to show specific fraudulent conduct by the dominant shareholder.  It’s enough that there is an overall “feel” of unfairness based on a multitude of factors including failure to follow formalities, undercapitalization and commingling of personal vs. company assets.

Corporate Five-Year Winding Up or “Survival” Period Has Harsh Results for Asbestos Injury Plaintiffs – Illinois Court

An Illinois appeals court recently considered the interplay between the corporate survival statute, 805 ILCS 5/12.80 (the “Survival Act”), which governs lawsuits against dissolved corporations) and when someone can bring a direct action against another person’s liability insurer.

The personal injury plaintiffs in Adams v. Employers Insurance Company of Wasau, 2016 IL App (3d) 150418 sued their former employer’s successor for asbestos-related injuries. Plaintiffs also sued the former company’s liability insurers for a declaratory ruling that their claims were covered by the policies.

The former employer dissolved in 2003 and plaintiffs filed suit in 2011. The plaintiffs alleged the dissolved company’s insurance policies transferred to the shareholders and the corporate successor. The insurers moved to dismiss on the basis that the plaintiff’s suit was untimely under the Survival Act’s five-year winding up (“survival”) period to sue dissolved companies and because Illinois law prohibits direct actions against insurers by non-policy holders.

Affirming dismissal of the suit against the insurers, the court considered the scope of the Survival Act and whether its five-year repose period (the time limit to sue a defunct company) can ever be relaxed.

The Survival Act allows a corporation to sue or be sued up to five years from the date of dissolution. The suit must be based on a pre-dissolution debt and the five-year limit applies equally to individual corporate shareholders.  The statute tries to strike a balance between allowing lawsuits to be brought by or against a dissolved corporation and still setting a definite end date for a corporation’s liability. The five-year time limit for a corporation to sue or be sued represents the legislature’s determination that a corporation’s liability must come to and end at some point.

Exceptions to the Survival Act’s five-year repose period apply where a shareholder is a direct beneficiary of a contract and where the amount claimed is a “fixed, ascertainable sum.”

The Court held that since the plaintiffs didn’t file suit until long after the five-year repose period expired, and no shareholder direct actions were involved, the plaintiffs’ claims against the dissolved company (the plaintiffs’ former employer) were too late.

Illinois law also bans direct actions against insurance companies. The policy reason for this is to prevent a jury in a personal injury suit from learning that a defendant is insured and eliminate a jury’s temptation to award a larger verdict under the “deep pockets” theory (to paraphrase: “since defendant is protected by insurance, we may as well hit him with a hefty verdict.”)

The only time a direct action is allowed is where the question of coverage is entirely separate from the issue of the insured’s liability and damages. Where a plaintiff’s claim combines liability, damages and coverage, the direct action bar applies (the plaintiff cannot sue someone else’s insurer).

Here, the plaintiffs’ coverage claim was intertwined with the former employer’s (the dissolved entity) liability to the plaintiffs.  As a result, the plaintiffs action was an impermissible direct action against the dissolved company’s insurers.

Take-aways:

The Case starkly illustrates how unforgiving a statutory repose period is.  While the plaintiff’s injuries here were substantial, the Court made it clear it had to follow the law and that where the legislature has spoken – as it had by enacting the Survival Act – the Court must defer to it. Otherwise, the court encroaches on the law-making function of the legislature.

Another case lesson is that plaintiffs who have claims against dissolved companies should do all they can to ensure their claims are filed within the five-year post-dissolution period.  Otherwise, they risk having their claims time-barred.

 

Denial of Motion for Judgment in Citation Proceedings Not Final – Appeal Dismissed (IL 1st Dist.)

While there are nuances and some exceptions to it, the general rule is that only “final” orders are appealable.  If a trial court’s order is final, the losing party can appeal it.  If the order isn’t final – meaning, the case is still going on – the losing party can’t appeal it.  Whether an order is final is often overlooked during the heat of trial battle.  However, as today’s feature case illustrates, the failure to appreciate the final versus non-final order distinction can doom an appeal as premature.

National Life Real Estate Holdings, LLC v. International Bank of Chicago, 2016 IL App (1st) 151446, the plaintiff judgment creditor won a $3MM-plus judgment against an individual and two LLC defendants. In trying to enforce the money judgment, the plaintiff issued a third-party citation to IBC, the respondent and defendant.

Upon learning that after IBC disbursed $3.5MM in loan funds to two businesses associated with the individual judgment debtor after it received the third-party citation, the plaintiff moved for judgment against IBC on the basis that it violated its obligations as a third-party citation respondent (to not transfer any of the judgment debtor’s property).

The circuit court denied the plaintiff’s motion.  It found that since the loan funds disbursed by IBC were not paid to and didn’t belong to the judgment debtor, IBC did not flout the citation’s “restraining provision” (which prevents a citation respondent from disposing of property belonging to a judgment debtor).  Affirming, the appeals court discussed the pertinent rules governing when orders entered in post-judgment proceedings can be appealed.

  • An appeal can only be taken from a “final order”‘
  • An order is final where it disposes of the rights of the parties, either upon the entire lawsuit or upon a separate and definite part of it;
  • A final order entered in a post-judgment proceeding is appealable, too;
  • A post-judgment order is deemed final when the judgment creditor is in a position to collect against the judgment debtor or third-party or the judgment creditor is prevented from doing so by court order;
  • A post-judgment order that does not (a) leave a creditor in position to collect a judgment or that (b) conclusively bars the creditor from collecting, is not final for purposes of appeal. 

(¶10); See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402; Ill. Sup. Ct. R. 304(b)(4).

The trial court’s order denying the judgment creditor’s motion for judgment wasn’t final as it didn’t end the lawsuit.  The appeals court noted the case is still pending and the judgment creditor may still have valid claims against IBC.  Since the trial court’s denial of the judgment creditor’s motion didn’t foreclose it from future collection efforts, the denial of the motion wasn’t a final and appealable order.  As a consequence, the creditor’s appeal was premature and properly dismissed.

Afterwords:

In hindsight, the plaintiff should have requested a Rule 304(a) finding that the order denying the motion for judgment was appealable.  While the court could have denied the motion, it would have at least give the creditor a shot at having an appeals court review the trial court’s order.

Going forward, the plaintiff should issue third-party citations to the loan recipients (the two business entities) and see if it can link the individual debtor to those businesses.  The plaintiff should also issue discovery to IBC to obtain specifics concerning the post-citation loan.  This information could give the plaintiff ammunition for future litigation against IBC relating to the loans.