Utah Default Judgment Not Subject to Full Faith and Credit in IL: No Long-Arm Jurisdiction Over Illinois Defendant Equals Void Judgment

Snap Advances, LLC v. Macomb Office Supply, Inc., 2019 IL App(1st) 180773-U examines the enforceability of a Utah judgment against an Illinois-based college bookstore operator.

There, a Utah business lender sued a defunct bookstore, its owner and corporate successor in Utah state court for breach of contract. The underlying contract (signed by the plaintiff and dissolved corporate predecessor) had Utah choice-of-law and venue terms. No defendant appeared in the Utah case and the plaintiff won a default judgment.

After the plaintiff registered the Utah default judgment in Illinois, the Illinois  court granted the successor company’s motion to vacate the Utah default judgment and dismissed the post-judgment proceedings. The plaintiff appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court first held that under the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution, every court must validate a foreign court’s judicial proceedings. The Uniform Enforcement of Judgments Act, 735 ILCS 5/12-650 et seq. also prevents an enforcing court from considering the merits of a foreign judgment.

But two instances where an enforcing court will look into the merits of a foreign judgment are where (1) the rendering court lacked jurisdiction over the defendant/judgment debtor, or (2) there is fraud in the procurement of the judgment.

This is so because a foreign judgment is not entitled to full faith and credit where an underlying defect (such as lack of jurisdiction) voids the judgment.  However, where the rendering court (here, Utah) specifically finds that it does have jurisdiction over a defendant, its ruling is conclusive and cannot be challenged by the enforcing court (Illinois).

But where the rendering court does not specifically rule on the jurisdiction question, the enforcing court can examine the rendering court’s jurisdiction. [⁋⁋ 22-23]

Since the Utah judgment was silent as to whether the Illinois-based successor company was subject to Utah jurisdiction, the Illinois court could look into whether the Utah court had jurisdiction over the successor defendant.  To do this, the Illinois court looked to Utah’s long-arm jurisdiction and Federal due process principles.

A Utah court has long-arm jurisdiction over a foreign defendant where a defendant does business in Utah, contracts to supply goods or services there, causes injury in Utah or owns Utah real estate. Utah Code Ann. s. 78B-3-205 (West 2016). Federal due process requires an out-of-state defendant to have minimum contacts with a foreign jurisdiction such that it should reasonably anticipate being sued there.

Since the record was silent as to any acts the Illinois successor did in Utah that could support either long-arm jurisdiction or Federal due process concerns, there was no basis for Utah jurisdiction over the Illinois successor entity.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the successor consented to Utah jurisdiction based on the predecessor’s assent to Utah law and venue provisions. Since the successor was not a party to the contract, there was nothing tying it to the contractual Utah choice-of-law and venue terms.

The court also nixed the plaintiff’s claim that since the Illinois defendants were served in Utah, they were subject to Utah jurisdiction. But, as the court astutely remarked, “service does not confer jurisdiction.”

Even if the Illinois defendant was property served in Utah, the Court continued, a defendant did not have to appear in Utah or respond to the Utah lawsuit. Instead, it could wait until the Utah judgment was registered in Illinois and then seek to vacate the Utah judgment.

But the defendant’s conduct didn’t go unnoticed by one of the appellate judges.  In a special concurrence, Judge Pucinski decried the business owner’s “slick” grifter-like financial “shell trick” where the owner plainly engineered the transfer of the defunct book store’s assets to a new buyer – the Illinois successor –  that operated from the same location, with the same inventory and identical personnel as the prior company.

Judge Pucinski worried about the possible chilling effect the majority’s ruling could have on out-of-state companies doing business with Illinois companies: a foreign company could be dissuaded from commerce with Illinois entities if Illinois courts would not hold their companies accountable for successor liability.

In the end though, the concurring judge sided with the majority. She cited a lack of record evidence that the Illinois successor was subject to Utah jurisdiction and a lack of Utah case law that stood for proposition that a corporate successor was bound by a predecessor’s contractual consent to jurisdiction in a sales contract. [⁋ 51]

Afterwords:

The case illustrates the limits of the Full Faith and Credit in the context of interstate jurisdictional disputes.

Snap Advances also demonstrates that where there is no evidence of a corporate successor’s consent to foreign state jurisdiction, a default judgment entered there could have no effect here.

The case also cements proposition that contractual choice-of-law and venue terms consented to by a corporate predecessor won’t bind its successor.

IL ND Considers Conflicts of Laws and Inevitable Disclosure Doctrine in Employee Non-Solicitation and Trade Secrets Spat

When some  high-level General Electric employees defected to a Chicago rival, GE sued for trade secrets theft and for violations of employee non-solicitation and confidentiality agreements.

Partially granting and partially denying the employee defendants’ motions, the District Court in General Electric Company v. Uptake Technologies, Inc., 2019 WL 2601351 (N.D.Ill. 2019) provides a thorough choice-of-law analysis and discusses the trade secrets case inevitable disclosure doctrine.

Non-Solicitation Agreement: What State’s Law Applies – New York or California?

The first choice-of-law question involved GE’s non-solicitation agreement (the NSA). GE argued that New York law applied since that was what the NSA specified. For their part, the defendants argued that California law controlled the NSA since that is where they were based when they worked for GE and because California law voids employment restrictive covenants.

In Illinois (a federal court exercising supplemental jurisdiction over state-law claims applies the choice-of-law rules of the forum state – here, Illinois), a choice-of-law provision governs unless (1) the chosen forum has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction, or (2) application of the chosen law is contrary to a fundamental public policy of a state with a materially greater interest in the issue in dispute.

A party challenging a contractual choice-of-law provision bears the burden of demonstrating a difference in two states’ laws – a conflict – and that the conflict will make a different in the outcome of the lawsuit.

Under New York law, a restrictive covenant in an employment agreement is reasonable if it is no greater than required to protect a legitimate interest of an employer, does not impose an undue hardship on the employee and is not injurious to the public. New York court also consider the temporal and geographic reach of restrictions.

The court found that the NSA’s were enforceable under New York law. It noted that GE was a global company, the one-year term was reasonable and the restriction was narrowly-tailored to high-level employees.

By contrast, California Code Section 16600 voids any contract “by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade or business of any kind.” The Court found the NSA was likely void under California law, but it wasn’t a cut-and-dried issue since there is a clear split in California case authorities: some courts enforce non-solicitation agreements; others don’t.

This schism in the California courts signaled an unclear California policy which led the Court to ultimately conclude that applying New York law did not clearly impinge on a fundamental California public policy. [*6]

The Court then found that GE sufficiently alleged the required elements of a breach of contract claim against the defendants and denied the defendants’ motion. (The court did grant the motion filed by the lone employee whose NSA specified California law would govern.)

GE’s Trade Secrets Claim – What Law Governs?

Illinois’s choice-of-law rule for trade secret misappropriation focuses on where the misappropriation occurred or where the defendant benefitted from the misappropriation.

Since Uptake’s (the individual defendants’ corporate employer) principal place of business is in Illinois and the defendants allegedly pilfered GE’s trade secrets there, Illinois law governed GE’s trade secrets claim.

Illinois recognizes the “inevitable disclosure doctrine” which allows a trade secrets plaintiff to show misappropriation by showing a defendant’s new employment “will inevitably lead him to rely on the plaintiff’s trade secrets.”

The plaintiff must allege more than that an erstwhile employee’s general skills and knowledge will be used to benefit a new employer. Instead, the plaintiff must focus on protecting “particularized plans or processes” a defendant was privy to which are unknown to industry competitors and could give the new employer an unfair advantage over the plaintiff. [*9][citing to PepsiCo v. Redmond, 54 F.3d 1262 (7th Cir. 1995).

In evaluating whether disclosure is inevitable, the Court considers (1) the level of competition between former and current employer, (2) whether employee’s new position is similar to former position, and (3) actions new employer has taken to protect against the new employee’s use or disclosure of former employer’s trade secrets.

Since GE alleged that Uptake is a competitor in the data analytics market for industrial machinery and the defendants’ Uptake positions are similar to their former GE ones, the Court found GE sufficiently pled an ITSA claim under the inevitable disclosure doctrine.

Afterwords:

This case illustrates in sharp relief how convoluted and important choice-of-law questions are when different employment agreement sections apply different states’ laws.

The case also provides a useful summary of the key considerations litigators should hone in on when alleging (or defending) trade secrets misappropriation claims based on the inevitable disclosure doctrine.

Subcontractor’s Failure to Get Certified Mail ‘Green Cards’ into Evidence = Draconian Trial Loss in Lien Spat

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a harsh result against a subcontractor who failed to properly serve a Section 24 notice in accordance with the strictures of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act.

The earth-moving subcontractor recorded a lien against a nascent Starbucks in Chicago’s western suburbs seeking payment for various change orders. It sent its lien notice to the property’s lender by certified mail but not to the property owner.

After a bench trial, the trial judge reluctantly found for the property owner defendants and held that the subcontractor’s lien notice failed to follow the Act.  The subcontractor appealed.

Affirming judgment for the property owner, the Court first emphasized the oft-cited rule that since rights created by the Act are statutory, the statutory technical and procedural requirements are strictly construed. The burden of proving that each requirement of the Act has been satisfied is on the party seeking to enforce its lien – here, the subcontractor.  But where there is no dispute that an owner actually received notice, courts will overlook technical defects.

Section 24 of the Act requires a subcontractor to serve notice of its intent to lien by certified mail or personal delivery to the record owner and lender (if known)within 90 days after completing the work on the property. 770 ILCS 60/24(a).

An exception to this notice requirement is where a general contractor’s sworn statement provides the owner notice of the subcontractor’s work and unpaid amount.

While courts will uphold a lien notice sent only to an owner (and not to the lender) since there is no concern of the owner being prejudiced or having to pay twice, the reverse isn’t true. Citing to half-century-old case law, the Court held that since notice to an owner is the ‘very substance of the basis on which a mechanic’s lien may be predicated,’, the Court refused to excuse the subcontractor’s failure to serve the owner with its lien notice even though the lender was given proper statutory notice.

And while the plaintiff attached some certified mail green (return) card copies to its written response to Defendant’s directed verdict motion at trial, the plaintiff never authenticated the cards or offered them in evidence at trial. As a result, the appeals court refused to consider the green cards as part of the appellate record. (An appeals court cannot consider documents that were not admitted into evidence at trial.)

In addition, the plaintiff’s trial testimony was conflicting. The Plaintiff’s owner’s testimony conflicted with a 2014 affidavit of mailing prepared by one of Plaintiff’s employees.  This evidentiary dissonance failed to show the owner’s actual notice of the plaintiff’s lien notice.  As a result, the trial court found that the plaintiff failed to carry its burden of proving that it complied with its Act lien notice rules.

The court then rejected the subcontractor’s argument that the owner had actual notice of its work since it saw the plaintiff performing grading work on the property and the plaintiff sent regular invoices to the owner’s agent.  However, under Illinois law, the mere presence of or owner’s knowledge that a contractor on a job is not a valid substitute for the required statutory notice.

The court also nixed the subcontractor’s claim that the owner had actual notice of the subcontractor’s work based on the sworn statements submitted to the owner from the general contractor. While courts have upheld an otherwise deficient subcontractor lien notice where sworn statements in the record plainly show the subcontractor’s identity and amounts owed.  Here, there were no sworn statements in the record. A trial witness may only testify to matters on which he/she has personal knowledge. Ill. R. Evid. 602. Since the plaintiff didn’t call to testify the owner’s construction manager – the only one who supposedly received the GC’s sworn statements (that identified plaintiff) –  there was no competent evidence that the owner received and reviewed any sworn statements that referenced the plaintiff’s work and amounts owed.

Afterwords:

This case shows how unforgiving statutory notice requirements can be in the mechanics lien context.

In hindsight, the subcontractor plaintiff should have introduced certified mail receipts into evidence.

Failing that, it should have called the owner’s construction manager as an adverse agent to lock in testimony that the general contractor furnished the owner with sworn statements and those statements sufficiently identified the subcontractor plaintiff.