Employer Can Enforce Unsigned (By It) Severance Agreement – Illinois Court

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In Wheeling Park District v. Arnold (2014 IL App (1st) 123185)), the First District addresses whether a party suing on a contract must sign it in order to enforce it.

The plaintiff  Park District sued to enforce a severance agreement it reached with a former employee.  Under the severance agreement, the District paid the employee three months of severance pay plus COBRA benefits in exchange for the employee releasing the District from all claims.

The employee signed the agreement, faxed it back to the District but had a change of heart before the District signed it but after it made the first severance payment.

The District then filed a declaratory judgment suit to enforce the agreement.  The Court granted the motion.

Affirming the trial court, the appeals court held that even though the District never signed the severance agreement, it was still enforceable because the defendant did sign it and the District performed by making the first severance installment.

Under black-letter contract principles, once a party signs an agreement and the other party (the non-signer) performs, the acceptance and consideration elements are met.  ¶ 20 (if a document is signed by the party being charged, the other party’s signature isn’t required if the document is delivered to the non-signing party who accepts through performance.)

Here, the defendant is the party being charged (sued) and the District performed: it sent three severance payments to defendant via direct deposit and also paid the contractually required COBRA benefits.  This performance was sufficient consideration for the employee’s acceptance of the severance agreement by signing it.

As a result, all basic contract elements were present: offer (the severance agreement), acceptance (the employee signed and delivered the agreement to the plaintiff) and consideration (the District paid three installment payments plus COBRA benefits to defendant).  The District’s signature on the severance agreement wasn’t required for the District to enforce it.

Afterwords:

– So long as the person “to be charged” signs the contract and the non-signing “charging” party performs, the contract is enforceable;

– if the plaintiff would have cancelled before the District paid, she would have a stronger argument.  Still, the District could argue that the parties had a binding contract or that it at least relied on plaintiff’s execution of the severance agreement.

 

Fee Shifting – Is ‘Prevailing Party’ Language Required?

I see this often: plaintiff sues a defendant for breach of contract.  The defendant has more financial resources than the plaintiff and the contract doesn’t have an attorneys’ fees provision.  Meaning, each side is responsible for its own fees. 

After several months, the plaintiff gets financially (and mentally) worn down by the richer defendant – who by now has filed numerous counterclaims and scheduled a flurry of witness depositions. 

The plaintiff says “uncle” and the parties enter the dreaded Mutual Walk-Away.  The plaintiff gets nothing, is annoyed at her lawyer (whom she has been paying hourly) and loses confidence in the litigation system. 

Once again, the deeper-pocketed defendant gets its way and the plaintiff, whose claim had merit, never gets her day in court.

One way to protect against this  common occurrence is to insert an attorneys’ fees or “fee-shifting” provision in the contract. 

Fee language can at least make a defendant think twice about trying to break a plaintiff’s will through protracted litigation.  It also encourages the plaintiff to not give up so easily when there is a potential fees and costs recovery at the end of the lawsuit. 

In Bank of America v. Oberman, Tivoli & Pickert, Inc., 2014 WL 293662,  an accounting firm sued a commercial lender for breach of a commercial loan agreement.  The agreement contained fee-shifting language applicable to the “collection, enforcement, administration, or protection” of the loan agreement. 

After plaintiff’s Illinois suit was dismissed for the fourth time and the dismissal was affirmed on appeal, the lender filed a separate action to recover its defense fees.

The accounting firm moved to dismiss the lender’s claim on the basis that the loan documents  didn’t specify that the prevailing party could recover attorneys’ fees.  The Northern District denied the motion.

Reasoning:

The general rule in Illinois is that the lawsuit winner isn’t entitled to recover its attorneys’ fees unless there is a contractual provision that says so;

– Allowing a losing party to collect attorneys’ fees from the successful party violates Illinois public policy;

– A fee provision doesn’t have to contain the magic words “prevailing party” to be enforceable.

*4-5.

The Northern District found the fee-shifting language applied to the lender’s defense of the accounting firm’s various lawsuits.  The loan contract specifically said that fees incurred in the “protection” of the loan agreement were recoverable. 

The Court applied the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of protection (“to defend from danger or injury”) in ruling that defending a lawsuit equated to protecting the lender’s contract rights.  

Afterword:

To avoid the negative aftershocks of the above walk-away scenario, I always stress to clients that their contracts should contain attorneys’ fees language.  I also caution them that when signing another party’s contract, to be alert for attorneys’ fees language slanted in the other side’s favor. 

This case illustrates that while “prevailing party” terminology isn’t required to enforce a fee-shifting clause; the clearer and broader the clause, the better. 

 

 

7th Circuit Affirms Fraudulent Transfer and Alter Ego Judgment Against Corporate Officers

The Seventh Circuit affirmed an almost $3M judgment against the defendants under fraudulent transfer, successor liability and alter ego rules in Center Point v. Halim, 2014 WL 697501.

The plaintiff energy company entered into a written contract to supply natural gas to defendants’ 41 Chicago area rental properties.  The individual defendants – a husband and wife – managed the properties through a management company (Company 1).

Over a two-year period, defendants used over $1.2M worth of plaintiff’s gas and didn’t pay for it.  Plaintiff sued Company 1 in state court and got a $1.7M judgment.  When plaintiff discovered that defendants transferred all of Company 1’s assets to Company 2, plaintiff sued Company 2 and the husband and wife in Federal court alleging a fraudulent transfer and successor liability.  The Northern District entered summary judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $2.7M on all claims and defendants appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first found that the defendants’ conduct violated the Illinois Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 (the “Act”).  The Act punishes debtor attempts to avoid creditors through actual fraud or constructive fraud.

Constructive fraud applies where (1) a debtor transfers assets without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer and (2) the debtor intends to incur or reasonably should believe he will incur debts beyond his ability to pay them as they become due.  Halim, *2, 740 ILCS 160/5.

The Court found that the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent. First, the Court noted that during a three-year time span, Company 1 (the state court judgment debtor) transferred almost $11M to the individual defendants; ostensibly to repay loans.

But the Court found it odd there was no documentation of loans or a paper trail showing where the millions of dollars went.  The suspicious timing of defendants’ creation of a new company – Company 2 – coupled with the defendants’ inability to account for the millions’ whereabouts, bolstered the Court’s constructive fraud finding.

Since the individual defendants’ depletion of Company 1’s assets made it impossible for it to pay the state court judgment, the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent under the Act. *3.

The Court also affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff under successor liability and alter ego theories.  In Illinois, the general rule is that a company that purchases assets of another company does not assume the liabilities of the purchased company.

A common exception to this rule is where there is an express assumption (of liability) by the purchasing company.  Here, the record showed that Company 2 assumed all rights, obligations, contracts and employees of Company 1.  As a result, the unsatisfied state court judgment attached to Company 2 under successor liability rules.

The Court also affirmed the judgment under the alter ego doctrine.  Alter ego applies where there is virtually no difference between the business entity and that entity’s controlling shareholders.  That is, the dominant shareholders don’t treat the corporation as a separate entity and fail to follow basic corporate formalities (e.g. minutes, stock issuance, incorporation papers, etc.).

The individual defendants treated Company 1 as their personal piggy bank by commingling their personal assets with the corporate assets.  There were no earmarks of “separateness” between the individual defendants’ assets and Company 1’s corporate assets.  *3-4.

Because of this, the husband and wife defendants were responsible (in the Federal suit) for the unsatisfied state court judgment entered against the defunct Company 1.

Take-away: Halim illustrates that where a judgment debtor corporation or controlling shareholders of that corporation transfer all corporate assets to a new, similarly named (or not) entity shortly after a lawsuit is filed, it will likely look suspicious and can lead to a constructive fraud finding.

The case also underscores the importance of following corporate formalities and keeping corporate assets separate from individual/personal assets – especially where the corporation is controlled by only two individuals.  A failure to treat the corporation as distinct from the dominant individuals, can lead to alter ego liability for those individuals.