Ill. Wage Payment and Collection Act Doesn’t Apply to NY and Cal. Corps. With Only Random Ill. Contacts

As worker mobility increases and employees working in one state and living in another almost an afterthought, questions of court jurisdiction over intrastate workplace relationships come to the fore.  Another issue triggered by a geographically nimble workforce is whether a non-resident can invoke the protections of another state’s laws.

Illinois provides a powerful remedial scheme for employees who are stiffed by their employers in the form of the Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (“Wage Act”).  See (here).  The Wage Act allows an employee to sue an employer for unpaid wages, bonuses or commissions where an employer breaches a written or oral employment contract.

The focal point of Cohan v. Medline Industries, Inc., 2016 WL 1086514 (N.D.Ill. 2016) is whether non-residents of Illinois can invoke the Wage Act against an Illinois-based employer for unpaid sales commissions.  The plaintiffs there, New York and California residents, sued their Illinois employer, for breach of various employment contract commission schedules involving the sale of medical devices.

The Northern District of Illinois held that the salespeople plaintiffs could not sue under Illinois’ Wage Act where their in-person contacts with Illinois were scarce.  The plaintiffs only entered Illinois for a few days a year as part of their employer’s mandatory sales training protocol.  All of the plaintiffs’ sales work was performed in their respective home states.

Highlights from the Court’s opinion include:

  •  The Wage Act doesn’t have “extraterritorial reach;” It’s purpose is to protect Illinois employees from being shorted compensation by their employers;
  • The Wage Act does protect non-Illinois residents who perform work in Illinois for an Illinois employer;
  • A plaintiff must perform “sufficient” work in Illinois to merit Wage Act protection;
  • There is no mechanical test to decide what is considered “sufficient” Illinois work to trigger the Wage Act protections;
  • The Wage Act only applies where there is an agreement – however informal – between an employer and employee;
  • The agreement required to trigger the Wage Act’s application doesn’t have to be formal or in writing. So long as there is a meeting of the minds, the Court will enforce the agreement;
  • The Wage Act does not cover employee claims to compensation outside of a written or oral agreement

Based on the plaintiffs’ episodic (at best) contacts with Illinois, the Court found that the Wage Act didn’t cover the plaintiffs’ unpaid commission claims.
Substantively, the Court found the Wage Act inapplicable as there was nothing in the various written employment agreements that supported the plaintiff’s damage calculations.  The plaintiffs’ relationship with the Illinois employer was set forth in multiple contracts that contained elaborate commission schedules.  Since the plaintiff’s claims sought damages beyond the scope of the written schedules, the Wage Act didn’t govern.
Take-aways:

1/ The Illinois Wage Act will apply to a non-resident of Illinois if he/she performs a sufficient quantum of work in Illinois;

2/ Scattered contacts with Illinois that are unrelated to a plaintiff’s job are not sufficient enough to qualify for a viable Wage Act lawsuit;

3/ While an agreement supporting a Wage Act claim doesn’t have to be in writing, there must be some agreement – no matter how unstructured or loose – for a plaintiff to have standing to sue for a Wage Act violation.

Debtor’s Refusal to Return Electronic Data = Embezzlement – No Bankruptcy Discharge – IL ND

FNA Group, Inc. v. Arvanitis, 2015 WL 5202990 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2015) examines the tension between the bankruptcy code’s aim of giving a financial fresh start to a debtor and the Law’s attempt to protect creditors from underhanded debtor conduct to avoid his debts.

After a 15-year employment relationship went sour, the plaintiff power washing company sued a former management-level employee when he failed to turn over confidential company property (the “Data”) he had access to during his employment.

After refusing a state court judge’s order to turn over the Data and an ensuing civil contempt finding, the defendant filed bankruptcy.

The plaintiff filed an adversary complaint in the bankruptcy case alleging the defendant’s (now the debtor) embezzlement and wilfull injury to company Data.

The plaintiff asked the bankruptcy court to find that the debtor’s obligations to the plaintiff were not dischargeable (i.e. could not be wiped out).

Siding with the plaintiff, the Court provides a useful discussion of the embezzlement and the wilfull and malicious injury bankruptcy discharge exceptions.

The bankruptcy code’s discharge mechanism aims to give a debtor a fresh start by relieving him of pre-petition debts. Exceptions to the general discharge rule are construed strictly against the creditor and liberally in favor of the debtor.

Embezzlement under the bankruptcy code means the “fraudulent appropriation of property” by a person to whom the property was entrusted or to whom the property was lawfully transferred at some point.

A creditor who seeks to invoke the embezzlement discharge exception must show: (1) the debtor appropriated property or funds for his/her benefit, and (2) the debtor did so with fraudulent intent.

Fraudulent intent in the embezzlement context means “without authorization.” 11 U.S.C. s. 523(a)(4).

The Court found the creditor established all embezzlement elements. First, the debtor was clearly entrusted with the Data during his lengthy employment tenure. The debtor also appropriated the Data for his own use – as was evident by his emails where he threatened to destroy the Data or divulge its contents to plaintiff’s competitors.

Finally, the debtor lacked authorization to hold the Data after his resignation based on a non-disclosure agreement he signed where he acknowledged all things provided to him remained company property and had to be returned when he left the company.

By holding the Data hostage to extract a better severance package, the debtor exhibited a fraudulent intent.

The court also refused to allow a debtor discharge based on the bankruptcy code’s exception for willful and malicious injury. 11 U.S.C. s. 523(a)(6).

An “injury” under this section equates to the violation of another’s personal or property rights. “Wilfull” means an intent to injure the person’s property while “malicious” signals a conscious disregard for another’s rights without cause.

Here, the debtor injured the plaintiff by refusing to release the Data despite a (state) court order requiring him to do so. Plaintiff spent nearly $200,000 reconstructing the stolen property and retaining forensic experts and lawyers to negotiate the Data’s return.

Lastly, the debtor’s threatening e-mails to plaintiff in efforts to coerce the plaintiff to up its severance payment was malicious under Section 523 since the e-mails exhibited a disregard for the importance of the Data and its integrity.

Take-aways:

The bankruptcy law goal of giving a debtor fiscal breathing room has limits. If the debtor engages in intentional conduct aimed at evading creditors or furthers a scheme of lying to the bankruptcy court, his pre-petition debts won’t be discharged.

This case is post-worthy as it gives content to the embezzlement and wilfull and malicious property damage discharge exceptions.

Voluntary Payment of Wages Sinks Transit Agency’s Conversion Counterclaim Against Ex-Employees – IL ND

In Laba v. CTA, 2016 WL 147656 (N.D.Ill. 2016), the Court considers the contours of the conversion tort in a dispute involving former Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) employees who lied about their hours worked.

The CTA claimed the employees converted or “stole” paycheck monies by falsifying employee time records in order to get paid by the agency.

The Court dismissed the CTA’s conversion claim based on the involuntary payment doctrine.  Conversion applies where a plaintiff shows (1) a defendant exercised unauthorized control over the plaintiff’s personal property; (2) plaintiff’s right to immediate possession of the property; and (3) a demand for possession of the property.  

A colorable conversion claim must involve specifically identifiable property.  Money can be the subject of  a conversion claim but it must be a specific source of funds.  A general obligation (“John owes me money and so he basically stole from me,” e.g.) isn’t enough for actionable conversion.

A well-established conversion defense is the voluntary payment rule.  This rule posits that where one party voluntarily transfers property to another, even if the transfer is mistaken, there is no conversion.  In such a case, there is a debtor-creditor relationship: the debtor would be the person to whom the funds were paid and the creditor the paying party. 

Here, since the CTA voluntarily paid money to the employees, in the form of regular paychecks, those monies could not be subject to a later conversion suit.  The CTA did not pay the ex-workers under duress.  The fact that the workers may not have earned their pay doesn’t change the analysis.  At most, according to the court, the time sheet embellishments created a “general debt arising from fraudulent conduct.”  The CTA has a remedy to recoup the funds; it’s just not one for conversion. 

Afterwords:

This case presents a creative use of the conversion tort in an unorthodox fact setting.  The case lesson is clear: where an employer pays an employee of the employer’s own volition, the payment will be considered “voluntary” even where it turns out the employee didn’t deserve the payment (i.e. by not working).  In such a case, the employer’s appropriate remedy is one for breach of contract or unjust enrichment.  A civil conversion claim will not apply to voluntarily employer-employee payments.