Vague Oral Agreement Dooms Mechanics Lien and Home Repair Act Claims – IL First Dist.

The First District recently examined the quantum of proof necessary to prevail on a breach of oral contract and mechanics lien claim and the factors governing a plaintiff’s request to amend its pleading.

In Link Company Group, LLC v. Cortes, 2018 IL App (1st) 171785-U, the Defendant hired the plaintiff – his former son-in-law – to rehab a residence in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. After a dispute over plaintiff’s construction work and billing issues, the plaintiff sued to foreclose a mechanics lien and for breach of contract. The defendant counter-sued and alleged plaintiff violated the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act (IHRRA) requires, among other things, a contractor to provide certain disclosures in writing to a homeowner client. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s lien and contract claims and denied summary judgment on defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. All parties appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court first took aim at the plaintiff’s breach of contract and mechanics lien claims.

While oral contracts are generally enforceable, they must contain definite and essential terms agreed to by the parties. For an oral contract to be enforceable, it must be so definite and certain in all respects that the court can determine what the parties agreed to.

Here, the substance of the oral contract was vague. When pressed at his deposition, the plaintiff was unable to articulate the basic terms of the parties’ oral construction contract. Since the court was unable to decipher the key contract terms or divine the parties’ intent, the plaintiff’s breach of contract failed.

The plaintiff’s inability to prove-up its oral contract claim also doomed its mechanics lien action. In Illinois, a valid mechanics lien foreclosure suit requires the contractor to prove an enforceable contract and the contractor’s substantial performance of that contract. Since the plaintiff failed to establish a binding oral contract, by definition, it couldn’t prevail on its mechanics lien claim.

The First District also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend its complaint. While amendments to pleadings are generally liberally allowed in Illinois, a court will not rubber stamp a request to amend. Instead, the court engages in a multi-factored analysis of (1) whether the proposed amendment would cure the defective pleading, (2) whether other parties would sustain prejudice by virtue of the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether previous opportunities to amend the pleadings could be identified.

Here, the plaintiff’s proposed implied-in-fact contract was “nearly identical” to the stricken breach of oral contract claim. An implied-in-fact contract is one where contract terms are implicit from the parties’ conduct. Here, the parties conduct was too attenuated to establish definite contract terms. As a result, the proposed implied-in-law contract claim was facially deficient and didn’t cure the earlier, failed pleading.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s failure to allege an enforceable oral agreement also precluded summary judgment on the defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. A valid IHRRA claim presupposes the existence of an enforceable contract. Since there was no written agreement and the parties’ oral agreement was unclear, there was no valid contract on which to hook an IHRRA violation.

Afterwords:

This case cements proposition that a valid oral contract claim requires proof of definite and certain terms. A plaintiff’s failure to allege a clear and definite oral agreement will prevent him from asserting either a mechanics lien or Home Repair Act claim based on the putative oral agreement.

Link Company also illustrates the four factors a litigant must satisfy in order to amend a pleading. If the proposed amended complaint fails to allege a colorable cause of action, a court can properly deny leave to amend despite Illinois’ liberal pleading amendments policy.

New Lessor’s Vie for Radio Station Tenant’s Past-Due Rent Squelched – IL First Dist.

The First District of Illinois recently considered whether a new landlord for commercial premises has standing to sue a tenant for unpaid rent accruing before the new landlord’s purchase of premises.

Soon after buying the commercial premises, the new landlord in 1002 E. 87th Street, LLC v. Midway Broadcasting Corporation, 2018 IL App (1st) 171691 started giving the radio station some static over past-due rent that was owed to the prior landlord.  The defendant’s silence in response spoke volumes and the dispute swelled to an irreconcilable impasse.  The plaintiff sued to recover about $70K in past-due rent. The tenant then turned the tables on the landlord, filing a wave of defenses and counterclaims and a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s suit. The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s suit for lack of standing and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the trial court, the appeals court examined the doctrine of standing in the context of a Code Section 2-619 motion filed in a lease dispute. The Court amplified its lease law analysis with a recitation of the applicable rules governing attorneys’ fees provisions.

Lack of standing is an affirmative defense under Code Section 2-619(a)(9). Standing requires a plaintiff to have an interest in a given lawsuit and its potential outcome. The defendant claiming a lack of standing has the burden of proving the defense.

In the commercial lease milieu, a landlord has standing to sue for unpaid rent and where a landlord conveys property by warranty deeds without reserving any rights, he/she also conveys the leases for the property and the right to receive unaccrued rent. However, the new landlord does not have a right to recover rent that came due before it owned the property. The right to recover those rentals remains with the original landlord. [⁋ 17]

The Court wasn’t receptive to the plaintiff’s arguments that it was entitled to recover past-due rent owed to the prior landlord.  The court distinguished this case’s underlying facts from a recent case – A.M. Realty Western v. MSMC Realty, LLC, 2012 IL App (1st) 121183 – where a landlord sold a building and was still able to sue for rent that accrued during its tenure as building owner.  Midway Broadcasting’s facts plainly differ since the plaintiff was suing to recover rents that came due before plaintiff became the premises landlord.

Another factor weighing against the plaintiff landlord was Illinois’ venerable body of case law that holds that rent in arrears is not assignable. This is because past-due rent is viewed as a chose in action and not an incident of the real estate that passes from a seller to a buyer. And since there was no evidence in the record establishing that the prior landlord intended to assign its right to collect unpaid rents, plaintiff’s argument that the previous landlord assigned to it the right to collect defendant’s delinquent rent, missed the mark.

In a sort of reverse “you can’t transmit what you haven’t got” maxim, the plaintiff here had no legal basis to assert a past-due rent claim against the tenant since all unpaid rent came due during the prior landlord’s tenure.  Since that former landlord never assigned its right to collect rents, the plaintiff’s claim fell on deaf ears.

Next, the Court affirmed the tenant’s prevailing-party attorneys’ fees award and signaled that to “prevail” in a case, a party must win on a significant issue in the case. Like most leases, the operative one here provided that the winning party could recover its attorneys’ fees.  Illinois follows the American Rule – each side pays its own fees unless there is a contractual fee-shifting provision or an operative statute that gives the prevailing party the right to recover its fees.  Contractual attorneys’ fees provisions are strictly construed and appeals courts rarely overturn fee awards unless the trial court abuses its discretion.

In the context of attorneys’ fees disputes, a litigant is a prevailing party where it is successful on any significant issue in the action and receives a judgment in his/her favor or obtains affirmative recovery.  A litigant can still be a prevailing party even where it does not succeed on all claims in a given lawsuit. Courts can declare that neither side is a prevailing party where each side wins and loses on different claims. However, a “small victory” on a peripheral issue in a case normally won’t confer prevailing party status for purposes of a fee award.  [¶ 36]

The Court rejected the lessor’s claim that it was the prevailing party since the court entered an agreed use and occupancy award.  Use and occupancy awards are usually granted in lease disputes since “a lessee’s obligation to pay rent continues as a matter of law, even though the lessee may ultimately establish a right to *** obtain relief.”  [¶ 32].  Because of the somewhat routine nature of use and occupancy orders, the court declined to find the landlord a prevailing party on this issue.

Afterwords:

I found this case post-worthy since it deals with an issue I see with increasing frequency: what are a successor landlord’s rights to prior accruing rents from a tenant?  In hindsight, precision in lease drafting would be a great equalizer.  However, clear lease language is often absent and it’s left to the litigants and court to try to divine the parties’ intent.

The case and others like it make clear that rents accruing before a landlord purchases a building normally belong the predecessor owner.  Absent an agreement between the former and current lessors or a clear lease provision that expressly provides that a new owner can sue for accrued rents, the new landlord won’t have standing to sue for accrued unpaid rent.

The case also makes it clear that small victories (here, an inconsequential dismissal of one of many counterclaims) in the context of larger lawsuit, won’t translate to prevailing party status for that “winner” and won’t give a hook for attorneys’ fees.

Business Records Evidence – Getting Them In: Reading List 2018

Today’s reading list highlights some recent civil and criminal cases from State and Federal jurisdictions across the country that address the admissibility of business records (with some public records and ‘residual’ rule cases sprinkled in) in diffuse fact settings.

The cases below examine evidentiary issues involving documents that range from the clandestine (top-secret State Department cables) to the pedestrian (credit card records, loan histories, Post-It ® notes) to the morbid (telephone records in a murder case).

The encapsulated rulings below illustrate that courts generally follows the same authenticity and hearsay rules but there is a marked difference in the in the intensity with which some courts put a plaintiff to its proofs. While some courts liberally allow business record evidence so long as there is a modicum of reliability, others more severely scrutinize the evidence admissibility process.

If nothing else, given the recency of these cases (they are all from this year), what follows will hopefully provide litigators a useful starting point for assessing what factors a court looks at when deciding whether business records evidence passes legal admissibility tests.


Records: Excel spreadsheets printed from a third-party’s servers

Type of Case: Fraud

Did They Get In? Yes

Case: U.S.A. v. Channon, 881 F.3d 806 (10th Cir. 2018)

Facts: Government sued defendants who operated a two-year scam where they cashed in OfficeMax rewards accounts to acquire over $100K in merchandise. Government offers OfficeMax spreadsheets authored and kept by an OM vendor into evidence.

Objections: hearsay, improper summaries

Applicable Rules and Holding:

FRE 1006 – a summary of documents are admissible where the underlying documents are voluminous and can’t be conveniently examined in court. Proponent must make original or duplicate available to the other party. Summary’s underlying documents don’t have to be admitted into evidence with the summary/ies but must still be admissible in evidence.

FRE 1001(d) – “original” electronic document means “any printout – or other output readable by sight – if it accurately reflects the information” housed in a host database.

Held: summary spreadsheet deemed an “original” where two witnesses testified the spreadsheets reflected same information in the database. Since government made the spreadsheets available to the defendants before trial, they were admissible.

FRE 801, 803(6): hearsay generally; business records exception

Hearsay presupposes a “statement” by a “declarant.” FRE 801. A declarant must be a human being. The Excel spreadsheets at issue here are computer data and not statements of a live person. The spreadsheets are not hearsay.

Even if the spreadsheets are considered hearsay, they are admissible under the business records exception since plaintiff testified that the records were prepared in normal course of business, made at or near the time of the events depicted, and were transmitted by someone who had a duty to accurately convey the information and where there are other badges of reliability.


Records: Credit card records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: Lewis v. Absolute Resolutions VII, LLC, 2018 WL 3261197 (Tex. App. – SA 2018)

Facts: Plaintiff debt buyer of credit card account sues card holder defendant. After summary judgment for plaintiff, defendant appeals on basis that court credited a defective business records affidavit.

Objection: hearsay, plaintiff wasn’t originator of the records.

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Tex. R. Evid. 803(6) – a business record created by one entity that later becomes another entity’s primary record is admissible as a record of regularly conducted activity.

Personal knowledge by the third party of the procedures used in preparing the original documents is not required where the documents are incorporated into the business of a third party, relied on by that party, and there are other indicators of reliability.

Tex. R. Evid. 902(10) – business records are admissible if accompanied by affidavit that satisfies requirements of Rule 902(10).

To introduce business records created by a third party, the proponent must establish (1) the document is incorporated and kept in course of testifying witness’s business, (2) the business typically relies on accuracy of the contents of the document, and (3) the circumstances otherwise indicate the trustworthiness of the document. Summary judgment for successor card issuer affirmed.


Records: Medical Records, Police Reports

Type of Case: Manslaughter (criminal)

Case: People v. McVey, (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 405

Did They Get In? No.

Facts: Defendant appeals conviction on manslaughter and vandalism charges based on trial court’s improper exclusion of victim’s medical records and police reports which Defendant believed had exculpatory information.

Objection: hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Cal. Code s. 1271 – business records hearsay rule.
Hospital records can be admitted as business records if custodian of records or other duly qualified witness provides proper authentication.

Cal. Code ss. 1560-1561 – compliance with subpoena for documents can dispense with need for live witness if records are attested to by custodian of records with a proper affidavit.

Records custodian affidavit must (1) describe mode of preparation of the records, (2) state that affiant is duly authorized custodian of the records and has authority to certify the records, and (3) state the records were prepared in the ordinary course of business at or near the time of the act, condition, or event recorded.

Police reports are generally not reliable enough for face-value admission at trial. While police reports can be kept in regular course of police “business,” they typically are not created to transact business. Instead, police reports are created primarily for later use at trial.

The hallmarks of reliability – contemporaneous creation, necessity of record’s accuracy for core purpose of business – are missing from police reports.


Records: Prior servicers’ mortgage loan records

Type of Case: Breach of contract, mortgage foreclosure

Did They Get In? Yes

Case: Deutsche Bank v. Sheward, 2018 WL 1832302 (Fla. 2018)

Facts: lender receives money judgment against borrower after bench trial. Borrower appeals on ground that loan payment history was inadmissible hearsay

Objection: hearsay – successor business incompetent to testify concerning predecessor’s records

Applicable Rules and Holding: where a business takes custody of and integrates another entity’s records and treats them as its (the integrating business) own, the acquired records are treated as “made” by acquiring business.

A witness can lay foundation for records of another company. There is no requirement that records custodian have personal knowledge of the manner in which prior servicer maintained and created records

A successor business can establish reliability of former business’s records by “independently confirming the accuracy of third-party’s business records.”

Plaintiff’s trial witness adequately described process that successor entity utilized to vet prior servicer documents.

Also, see Jackson v. Household Finance Corp., III, 236 So.3d 1170 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018)(foundation for prior mortgage loan servicer’s records can be laid by certification or affidavit under Rule 902(11))


Records: Third-Party’s vehicle inspection report containing vehicle ownership data

Did They Get In? No

Type of Case: Personal injury

Case: Larios v. Martinez, 239 So.3d 1041 (La. 2018)

Facts: plaintiff sues hit-and-run driver’s insurer under La. direct action statute. Insurer appeals bench trial verdict in favor of plaintiff.

Objection: hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding:

A witness laying the foundation for admissibility of business records need not have been the preparer of records. Instead, the custodian or qualified witness need only be familiar with record-keeping system of the entity whose records are sought to be introduced.

Plaintiff failed to introduce the report through a qualified witness. Plaintiff had no knowledge of the inspection report company’s record-keeping practices or methods. The trial court errored by allowing the report into evidence.

Judgment for plaintiff affirmed on other grounds.


Records: Student loan records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: National Collegiate Student Loan Trust v. Villalva, 2018 WL 2979358 (Az. 2018)

Facts: assignee of defaulted student loan sues borrower. Borrower defendant appeals bench trial judgment for plaintiff.

Objection: loan records are inadmissible hearsay and lack foundation

Applicable Rules and Holding: witness for an entity that did not create a loan record can still lay foundational predicate by testifying to creator’s transfer of the business record to custodial entity, and the transferee entity’s maintenance of the records and reliance on the record in the ordinary course of business.

Documents prepared solely for litigation are generally not business records. However, where the litigation documents are “mere reproductions” of regularly-kept records, they are admissible as business records to the same extent as the underlying records.

Plaintiff’s witness laid sufficient evidentiary foundation where witness testified that assignor/originator transferred loan documents to assignee/plaintiff, that the plaintiff integrated the records with its own and that plaintiff had historically purchased records from the assignor.

Documents created “with an eye toward litigation” were still admissible since they were culled from pre-existing loan records kept in the regular course of business. Judgment for plaintiff affirmed.


Records: Halfway house incident report

Type of Case: Criminal escape

Did They Get In? No

Case: Wassillie v. State of Alaska, 411 P.3d 595 (Alaska 2018)

Facts: Defendant charged and convicted of second degree escape for leaving halfway house in which he was sentenced to serve remaining prison term.

Objection: Jury considered inadmissible hearsay document – an incident report prepared by halfway house staff member

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Incident report is missing earmarks of trustworthiness and is inadmissible hearsay. An investigative report raises concerns about the report author’s “motivations to misrepresent.” There is potential for animosity between reporter and subject of report which could lead reporter to hide mistakes or “inflate evidence” in order to further the author’s agenda.

Whether a report is deemed to have been prepared in regular course of business involves a multi-factored analysis of (1) the purpose for which the record was prepared, (2) a possible motive to falsify the record, (3) whether the record is to be used in prospective litigation, (4) how routine or non-routine the challenged record is, and (5) how much reliance the business places on the record for business purposes.

Examples of documents found to be sufficiently routine under Alaska law to merit business records treatment include payroll records , bills of lading, account statements, and social security records are typically admissible as business records.

However, a more subjective document – like a police report or the incident report here – is too susceptible to author’s selective memory and subconscious bias. Conviction reversed.


Records: Cell phone records

Type of Case: Murder

Did They Get In? No.

Case: Baker v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 545 S.W.3d 267 (Ky 2018)

Facts: Defendant convicted of murder. Prosecution relied in part on victim’s cell phone records to tie defendant to victim.

Objection: cell phone records were inadmissible hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding: prosecution must establish that phone logs are (a) authentic and (b) non-hearsay (or subject to a hearsay exception). Kentucky Evidence Rule 901(b) provides that evidence can be authenticated via witness testimony from a qualified witness. Here, prosecution witness – a detective – established that phone records were authentic: they were what they purported to be.

Once the authenticity hurdle was cleared, prosecution had to defeat hearsay objection. While the call logs constituted regularly conducted activity under KRE 803(6), the prosecution didn’t offer the logs through a custodian or by way of a Rule 902(11) affidavit. As a result, the trial court erred by admitting the call logs.

Note: the admission of the hearsay call logs was “harmless” since there was copious other testimonial and documentary evidence of defendant’s guilt. Conviction affirmed.


Records: Home health nurse’s “sticky” note

Type of Case: Medical malpractice

Did It Get In? Yes.

Case: Arnold v. Grigsby, 417 P.3d 606 (Utah 2018)

Facts: Patient sues doctor and others for malpractice after colonoscopy goes bad. (Ouch.) Nurse and pharmacy employee’s handwritten note on post-it/sticky note on plaintiff’s medical chart introduced to show plaintiff’s knowledge of injury within two years of surgery. Post-it notes contents was basis for Defendant’s statute of limitations defense and jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict.

Objection: sticky note has multiple levels of hearsay and is inadmissible.

Applicable Rules and Holding: hearsay within hearsay is not excluded where each part of combined statements meets exception to rule of exclusion.

Sticky note is classic hearsay: it is being offered to prove truth of matter asserted – that plaintiff had contacted an attorney within days of the surgery. Utah R. Evid. 801(c)(hearsay generally).

The court found the note admissible under Rule 803(6) business records exception as the note is a record of the pharmacy’s regularly conducted activity and was entered contemporaneously into plaintiff’s electronic medical records.

Note’s statement that “client has been told by her lawyer not to sign any papers indicating she’ll pay” is admissible under Rule 803(3) – the hearsay exception for out of court statements that show a declarant’s state of mind (i.e. his motive, intent, plan, etc.).

Jury verdict for doctor defendants affirmed.


Records: Government reports; state department cables

Type of Case: Statutory claim under Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) (filed by relatives of victims killed by Bolivian Gov”t)

Did They Get In? Yes and No.

Case: Mamani v. Berzain, 2018 WL 2013600 (S.D. Fla 2018)

Facts: relatives of victims killed during civil unrest in Bolivia sued country’s former president and minister of defense under TVPA which allows plaintiffs to sue foreign officials in U.S. courts for torture and killing of a plaintiff’s relatives. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment denied.

Objection: various governmental documents are inadmissible hearsay or unauthenticated.

Applicable Rules and Holding: Public records hearsay exception – FRE 803(8) – and “residual” hearsay exception. FRE 803(7).

The public records hearsay exception applies where (1) the record sets forth the office’s activities, (2) the record concerns a matter observed by someone with a legal duty to report it – but not including a matter observed by law enforcement personnel in a criminal case, or (3) in a civil case or against the government in a criminal case, the record consists of factual findings from a legally authorized investigation.

The party opposing admission of the public record must show the source of or circumstances generating the information lacks basic levels of reliability.

Here, an investigatory report prepared by three prosecutors fit the definition of a record of a public office prepared in conjunction with an authorized investigation.

Under the “residual” hearsay exception, a statement is not excluded if it (1) has equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness, (2) is offered as evidence of a material fact, (3) is more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence the proponent can obtain through reasonable efforts, and (4) admitting it (the statement) will serve the purposes of these rules and interests of justice. FRE 807(a).

The residual hearsay exception is sparingly used and applies only where exceptional guarantees of trustworthiness are present coupled with elevated levels of probativeness and necessity.

Here, military and police records lack indicia of trustworthiness in light of the volatile atmosphere in which the reports were made. And while challenged state department cables do have exceptional guaranties of trustworthiness as they were signed by the then-U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, the defendants failed to establish that the cables were more probative on the point for which they were offered than any other evidence the defendants could have obtained through reasonable efforts.


Records: Accident report

Type of Case: Personal injury

Did It Get In? No.

Case: 76th and Broadway v. Consolidated Edison, 160 A.D.3d 447 (NY 2018)

Facts: plaintiff injured on construction site sues general contractor and owner for negligence. Appeals court reverses trial court and grants summary judgment for defendant.

Objection: accident report offered by plaintiff that stated platform “must have been moved during demolition or trench work by [defendant contractor] is inadmissible.

Applicable Rules and Holding: voluntary statements in accident report authored by someone who is not under a duty to prepare the report is inadmissible hearsay. The report was based on information supplied by unnamed third parties. Because of its speculative nature, the report is inadmissible to create genuine issue of material fact.


Records: Credit card records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: Lewis v. Absolute Resolutions VII, LLC, 2018 WL 3261197 (Tx. App. – SA 2018)

Facts: plaintiff assignee of credit card debt sues to collect. Summary judgment for assignee plaintiff affirmed.

Objection: plaintiff failed to lay proper foundation for original credit card issuer’s (Citibank) business records.

Applicable Rules and Holding: Business records are admissible if accompanied by Rule 902(10) affidavit. A business record created by one entity that later becomes another entity’s primary record is admissible as record of regularly conducted activity. Rule 803(6).

A third party’s (e.g. an assignee, successor, account buyer, etc.) personal knowledge of the specific procedures used by the record creator is not required where the third party incorporates the documents into its own business and regularly relies on the records.

To introduce business records created by a third party predecessor or assignee, the proponent must establish (1) the document is incorporated and kept in the course of the offering party’s business, (2) the business typically relies on the accuracy of the contents of the document, and (3) the circumstances otherwise indicate trustworthiness of the document.

The plaintiff’s Rule 902(10) affidavit explained the manner and circumstances in which plaintiff acquired the defendant’s credit card account and further stated that the plaintiff regularly relies on and incorporates other debt sellers’ business records.

The court was especially swayed by the testimony that the assignor was under a duty to convey accurate information to the plaintiff and risked civil and criminal penalties for providing false information. According to the court, this last factor gave the records an extra layer of protection against falsification.