‘Zestimates’ Are Estimates; Not Fraud – 7th Circuit

The Seventh Circuit recently affirmed the Illinois Northern District’s Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of class action plaintiffs’ fraudand deceptive practices claims against the owners of the Zillow.com online real estate valuation site.

The lower court in Patel v. Zillow, Inc. found the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege colorable consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices claims based mainly on the site’s “Zestimate” feature an algorithm-based property estimator program.

The plaintiffs alleged Zillow scared off would-be buyers by undervaluing properties.  When Zillow refused plaintiffs request to remove the low-ball estimates, plaintiffs sued under various Illinois consumer statutes.  

Plaintiffs first alleged Zillow violated the Illinois Real Estate Appraiser Licensing Act, 225 ILCS 458/1 et. seq. (the “Licensing Act”) by performing appraisals without a license.  In their fraud and deceptive practices complaint counts, plaintiffs alleged Zillow used distorted property value estimates to tamp down true property values and engaged in false advertising by giving preferential listing treatment to sponsoring real estate brokers and lenders.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiffs’ Licensing Act claim on the ground that the Licensing Act doesn’t provide for a private cause of action.  Instead, the statute is replete with administrative enforcement provisions (fines of up to $25K) and criminal penalties (Class A misdemeanor for first offense; Class 4 felony for subsequent ones) for violations.  Since there was no express or implied private right of action for the Licensing Act violation, that claim failed. [3]

Jettisoning the plaintiffs’ statutory Deceptive Trade PracticesAct and Consumer Fraud Act claims (815 ILCS 510/1 et seq.; 815 ILCS 505/1 et seq., respectively), the Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court that Zestimates were not actionable statements of fact likely to confuse consumers.

Instead, like its name suggests (‘estimate’ is “built in”), a Zestimate is simply estimates of a property’s value.    This point is confirmed by Zillow’s disclaimer-laden site that makes clear it is only a “starting point” for determining property values.  

Expanding on the deceptive practices and consumer fraud claim deficits, the Court disagreed with plaintiffs’ thesis that removing faulty valuations would improve the algorithm’s overall accuracy.  The Court noted that if Zillow was forced to remove estimates each time someone disagreed with a published value, it would “skew distribution,” dilute the site’s utility and either unfairly benefit or penalize buyers or sellers; depending on whether the retracted data was accurate. [4]

Turning to plaintiffs’ false advertising component of its claims, the Seventh Circuit held that all web and print publications rely on ad revenue to finance operations.  The mere fact that Zillow sold ad space didn’t transmute property estimates into verifiable (therefore, actionable) factual assertions.  Zestimates are estimates: “Zillow is outside the scope of the trade practices act.” [5]

Afterwords

The Seventh Circuit’s Zillow opinion cements the proposition that an actionable deceptive trade practices and consumer fraud claim requires a defendant’s assertion of a verifiable fact to be actionable.  

The case also confirms where a statute – like the Licensing Act – sets out a diffuse administrative and criminal enforcement scheme, a court will not imply a private right of action based on a statutory violation.

 

Possible Problematic Lien Notice Starts Limitations Clock in Lawyer ‘Mal’ Case

In Construction Systems, Inc. v. FagelHaber LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 172430, the First District affirmed the time-barring of a legal malpractice suit stemming from a flubbed contractor’s lien filing.

Several months after a lender recorded its mortgage on a commercial project, the law firm defendant, then representing the plaintiff contractor, served a Section 24 notice – the Illinois mechanics’ lien act provision that governs subcontractor liens. 770 ILCS 60/24.  While the notice was served on the project owner and general contractor, it didn’t name the lender.  In Illinois, where a subcontractor fails to serve its lien notice on a lender, the lien loses priority against the lender.

After the contractor settled its lien claim with the lender’s successor, it sued the defendant law firm for malpractice. The contractor plaintiff alleged that had the law firm properly perfected the lien, the plaintiff would have recovered an additional $1.3M.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm, the First District agreed with the trial court and held that plaintiff’s legal malpractice suit accrued in early 2005. And since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2009, it was a couple years too late.

The Court based its ruling mainly on a foreboding February 2005 letter from plaintiff’s second counsel describing a “problematic situation” – the lender wasn’t notified of plaintiff’s subcontractor lien. The court also pointed out that plaintiff’s second attorney testified in her deposition that she learned of possible lien defects in February 2005; some four years before plaintiff filed suit.

Code Section 13-214.3(b) provides for a two-year limitations period for legal malpractice claims starting from when a plaintiff “knew or reasonably should have known of the injury for which damages are sought.” [⁋ 20]

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice case normally doesn’t accrue until he/she sustains an adverse judgment, settlement or dismissal. An exception to this rule is where it’s “plainly obvious” a plaintiff has been injured as a result of professional negligence.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it never discovered the lien defect until 2007 when the lender’s successor filed its summary judgment motion (which argued that the lien was defective as to the lender). According to the court “the relevant inquiry is not when [Plaintiff] knew or should have known about the lack of notice as an actual defense, but when [Plaintiff] should have discovered [Defendant’s] failure to serve statutory notice of the mechanic’s lien on [the prior lender] prompting it to further investigate [Defendant’s] performance.” [⁋ 24]

The court again cited the above “problematic situation” letter as proof that February 2005 (when the letter was sent) was the triggering date for plaintiff’s claim. Another key chronological factor was the plaintiff’s 2005 payment of attorneys’ fees.

In Illinois, a malpractice plaintiff must plead and prove damages and the payment of attorneys’ fees can equate to damages when the fees are tied to a former counsel’s neglect. Since plaintiff paid its second counsel’s fees in 2005 for work she performed in efforts to resuscitate the lien’s priority, 2005 was the limitation period’s triggering date. [⁋ 25]

Construction Systems cites Nelson v. Padgitt, 2016 IL App (1st) 160571, for the proposition that a plaintiff does not have to suffer an adverse judgment to sustain legal malpractice injury. In Nelson, an employment contract dispute, the Court held that the plaintiff should have discovered deficiencies in his employment contract (it provided for the loss of salary and commissions in the event of for-cause termination) in 2012 when he sued his former employer, not in 2014 when the employer won summary judgment.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that its damages were unknown until the lien litigation was finally settled and that it couldn’t sue until the lien dispute was resolved. The court held that the extent and existence of damages are different things and that it’s the date a plaintiff learns he/she was damaged, not the amount, that matters.

Lastly, the court nixed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel concern – that plaintiff couldn’t argue the lien was valid in the underlying case while arguing the opposite in the malpractice suit. According to the court, the plaintiff could have entered into a tolling agreement that would suspend the statute of limitations pending the outcome of the underlying case.

Conclusion

Construction Systems reaffirms that a legal malpractice claim can accrue before an adverse judgment is entered or an opponent files a formal pleading that points out claim defects.  Moreover, the payment of attorneys’ fees directly attributable to a former counsel’s neglect is sufficient to meet the damages prong of a legal malpractice case.

This case and others like it also make clear that the limitations period runs from the date a plaintiff learns she has been injured; not when financial harm is specifically quantified.

To preserve a possible malpractice claim while a plaintiff challenges an underlying adverse ruling, practitioners should consider tolling agreements to suspend any statutes of limitation and guard against possible judicial estoppel concerns (taking inconsistent positions in separate lawsuits).

‘Mandatory’ Forum Selection Clause Given Cramped Construction By IL Court (applying Ohio Law) in Hand Lotion Contract Spat

In my experience, when final contracts refer to earlier agreements between the parties, it can present fertile ground for textual conflicts.  Example: I once litigated a severance dispute where the operative employment agreement provided Delaware law (and fixed venue there, too) and incorporated two prior non-compete agreements.  One agreement contained a Nebraska forum clause while the other non-compete said New York law governed.  Much ink was spilled fleshing out the proper place to sue.

Sloan Biotechnology Laboratories, LLC v. Advanced Biomedical Inc., 2018 IL App (3d) 170020 examines the factors a court considers when deciding which of two paradoxical forum clauses apply.

The plaintiff there agreed to supply hand sanitizer product to the defendant pursuant to a 2015 Manufacturing Agreement (“2015 Agreement”). The 2015 Agreement incorporated a 2014 non-disclosure agreement (the “2014 NDA”)

The 2015 Agreement provided that Illinois law applied and identified Peoria, Illinois as the site of the contract. The incorporated 2014 NDA, in turn, contained both permissive and mandatory forum selection clauses, both of which fixed venue in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. The permissive forum clause simply stated Ohio law would govern and that it (the 2014 NDA) “may be enforced” in Ohio state court. The mandatory clause, found in the 2014 NDA’s “equitable remedies” section, provided that the scope and extent of any injunctive relief “shall be determined” by Cuyahoga County, Ohio state court. The trial court granted the Ohio defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint and found that Ohio was the proper forum for the lawsuit. The plaintiff appealed.

Applying Ohio law, the Illinois appeals court reversed.  It first recognized the existence of both permissive and mandatory forum selection clauses. The former allows parties to submit their disputes to a designated forum but doesn’t prohibit litigation elsewhere. The latter, mandatory provision, provides the exclusive forum for litigation. Use of the word “may” denotes a permissive forum clause while “shall” signifies a mandatory one. [⁋ 26]

In Ohio, a forum selection clause brokered between two sophisticated commercial entities is prima facie valid, so long as it was bargained for freely. To set aside a commercial forum selection clause, the challenger must make a “strong showing.”

A court will reject a commercial forum selection clause where (1) it results from fraud or overreaching or (2) its enforcement is unreasonable and essentially deprive a party of its day in court.

However, a challenger’s bare allegation that it’s inconvenient to litigate in another state isn’t enough to nullify a freely bargained for forum selection clause.

Like Illinois, Ohio utilizes the four-corners rule to contract interpretation. That is, contractual terms are to be ascribed their common, ordinary meanings and a court will not go beyond the plain language (or “four corners”) of the document to divine its meaning.

Applying these principles, the Court noted that the mandatory forum clause was narrowly drafted and only applied to questions of injunctive relief for NDA violations.  And since plaintiff’s lawsuit was not premised on a violation of the 2014 NDA (it was a declaratory judgment suit), the mandatory forum selection clause didn’t apply. As a consequence, the appeals court held there was nothing preventing the plaintiff from suing in Peoria County Illinois.

Afterwords:

Sloan represents a court rigidly enforcing a forum selection clause where the contracting parties are commercially sophisticated entities and there is no fraud or defect in contract formation.

The party challenging a forum clause must make a strong showing and offer more than inconvenience as the reason to reject the clause.

This case and others like it starkly illustrate the confusion that can result when multiple contracts (with diffuse forum clauses) reference and adopt each other.

If the different agreements involved here contained some forum consistency, a lot of time and money on a satellite issue (where to file suit) likely could have been saved.