Archives for October 2014

Federal Court Applies IL Tortious Interference Rules and the Statute of Frauds in Railcar Lease Dispute

trainThe Northern District of Illinois recently discussed the pleading and proof elements of tortious interference with contract and the promissory estoppel doctrine in a commercial railcar lease dispute. In Midwest Renewable Energy, LLC v. Marquis Energy-Wisconsin, LLC 2014 WL 4627921 (N.D. Ill. 2014), the plaintiff sublessor of railcars sued the sublessee for damages after the plaintiff’s lessor terminated a lease (“Master Lease”) for the same cars.  The sublessee moved for summary judgment.

Result: Motion granted.  Plaintiff’s tortious interference and promissory estoppel claims are defeated.

Q: Why?

A: After the railcar lessor terminated the Master Lease with the plaintiff and started dealing directly with the sublessee, the plaintiff sued it’s sublessee for tortious interference and promissory estoppel. Granting summary judgment for the sublessee , the Court enunciated the key tortious interference with contract elements under Illinois law.

Tortious Interference with Contract

A tortious interference with contract plaintiff must show (1) the existence of a valid and enforceable contract between the plaintiff and another, (2) the defendants’ awareness of the contract, (3) the defendants’ intentional and unjustified inducement of a breach of the contract, (4) subsequent breach of the contract caused by the defendants’ wrongful conduct, and (5) damagesIf a plaintiff fails to perform its contractual obligations, it can’t prove breach and its tortious interference claim will fail.

Here, the plaintiff’s tortious interference claim failed because it couldn’t show that its lessor breached the Master Lease. The plaintiff actually breached it by subletting it to defendant without the (Master) lessor’s knowledge and consent (the Master Lease required the lessor’s consent to any sublease or assignment) and also by failing to make several months’ of railcar lease payments.  Since the lessor was able to terminate the lease on plaintiff’s breach, the plaintiff failed to establish that the lessor breached – an essential tortious interference element.

Promissory Estoppel

Next, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s promissory estoppel count. Plaintiff predicated this claim on the defendant/sublessee’s promise to buy out plaintiff’s rights under the Master Lease.

Promissory estoppel is a doctrine under which the plaintiff may recover without the presence of a contract. To prove promissory estoppel, a plaintiff must show (1) defendant made n unambiguous promise to plaintiff, (2) plaintiff relied on such promise, (3) plaintiff’s reliance was expected and foreseeable by defendants, and (4) plaintiff relied on the promise to its detriment.  Aspirational negotiations or proposals don’t equate to a clear promise under the doctrine.

Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim failed because it couldn’t show a clear promise by the defendant to buy out plaintiff’s Master Lease rights. The evidence reflected that any lease buy-out talks were merely negotiations; not ironclad promises.

The promissory estoppel clam was also defeated by the statute of frauds – which requires certain contracts to be in writing.  Under Section 2A of the UCC, lease contracts for goods (like railcars) have to be in writing unless the total lease payments are less than $1,000.  810 ILCS 5/2A–201(1). Where the statute of frauds applies, to a contract, it also requires an assignment of the contract to be in writing and signed by the party being sued.

Here, since the statute of frauds applied to the Master Leases and well over $1,000 was at stake, any assignment from plaintiff to defendant of the Master Lease had to be in writing.  The Court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that several e-mail exchanges with the sublessee satisfied the statute’s writing requirement.  The Court found that since the none of the emails contained the contract parties, subject matter or price term of the supposed assignment agreement, the sporadic emails didn’t meet the writing requirement. (*5).

Take-aways: The case is post-worthy for its discussion of the key tortious interference with contract elements and how important it is for a plaintiff to show that it complied with the contract it is claiming was wrongfully interfered with. The case also provides good summary of promissory estoppel elements and cements the proposition that the statute of frauds will still apply to bar the claim if the subject matter is one that has to be in writing under the law.  Finally, this case amplifies the importance of careful lease drafting and review.  Parties to lease agreements – whether for real estate or tangible goods – should be cognizant of assignment and sublease provisions.  They almost always require the prime lessor’s knowledge and written consent.

 

 

 

 

 

Illinois Defamation Law: The Quick and Dirty

Defamation is a false, factual statement published to a third party reader or listener.  Illinois recognizes two types of defamation – libel (written) and slander (oral) and the same rules apply to both.

A defamation plaintiff must present sufficient facts establishing (1) a false statement about the plaintiff, (2) that’s not privileged, (3) to a third party; and (4) that caused damages.

A defamatory statement is per se (meaning no proof of specific damages are required)  defamatory when it’s harmful on its face.  Defamatory per se statements are those that (1) impute that a plaintiff committed a crime; (2) impute a plaintiff is unable to perform or lacks integrity in his employment; or (3) statements that plaintiff lacks ability or that otherwise prejudices the plaintiff in her profession.

Only statements that are factual (“he stole $1,000 from me”) – capable of being proven true or false – are actionable; opinions are not (“I think he’s a nut job!”).  Calling someone a crook, a traitor, trashy, a rip-off artist are examples of non-defamatory statements of opinion under prior Illinois cases.

Even per se defamatory statements are not actionable if they are reasonably capable of an innocent construction.  Under the innocent-construction rule, a court considers a statement in context and gives words their natural and ordinary meaning.  If a statement in context is reasonably susceptible to a nondefamatory meaning, it should be given that meaning.

Truth is a defense to defamation.  The challenged statement doesn’t have to be completely true; it’s enough that it’s ‘substantially true’.  A defamatory statement is also not actionable where it’s subject to a privilege.  Two privileges the law recognizes are absolute and qualified privileges.

Qualified privilege applies where as a matter of law and general policy, the defendant has an interest in or duty to make the communication such that it’s privileged.  A classic example of a qualified privilege statement involves a corporation’s statement made while  investigating an employee’s conduct.

Once a qualified privilege attaches, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant intentionally published the material knowing it was false or displaying a reckless disregard as to it truth.  “Reckless disregard” means the speaker made a statement aware that it’s probably false with serious doubts as to its truth.

Source: Coghlan v. Beck (http://www.state.il.us/court/opinions/AppellateCourt/2013/1stDistrict/1120891.pdf

Preliminary Injunctions and The Illinois Trade Secrets Act

Trade secrets cases provide fertile grounds for preliminary injunctions and temporary restraining orders.  Here are the black-letter basics:

– A preliminary injunction plaintiff must show: (1) irreparable harm, (2) likelihood of success on the merits, (3) the harm the plaintiff would suffer if the injunction is denied is greater than the harm inflicted on the defendants and (4) the injunction is in the public interest;

– To win a trade secrets case, the plaintiff must establish (1) that the information at issue is a trade secret, and (2) that the information was misappropriated and used in the defendant’s business;

– A trade secret is broadly defined as “information” that is (a) sufficiently secret to derive monetary value from not being generally known to others (who can obtain monetary value from its use); and (b) subject of efforts to maintain the information’s secrecy or confidentiality. See Illinois Trade Secrets Act, 760 ILCS 1065/2 (the ITSA);

– Six common-law trade secrets factors include

(1) extent to which the information is known outside of plaintiff’s business,

(2) extent to which the information is known by employees and others involved in plaintiff’s business;

(3) extent of measures taken by plaintiff to guard the information’s secrecy;

(4) value of the information to the plaintiff’s business and its competitors;

(5) the amount of time, effort and money expended by the plaintiff in developing the information; and

(6) the ease or difficulty with which the information could be properly acquired or duplicated by others;

– Misappropriation means acquisition or discovery by improper means or use of the secret;

– There is a presumption of irreparable harm in trade secrets misappropriation cases;

– Irreparable injury means harm that is difficult to quantify;

– The purpose of a preliminary injunction (in the trade secrets context) is not to punish; but to eliminate a litigant’s unfair advantage over another.