Archives for February 2015

Defective Lis Pendens In Wisc. Suit Doesn’t Warrant Contempt Sanctions Against NY Lawyer – Seventh Circuit Says

imageThe Seventh Circuit recently considered the scope of civil contempt of court and the range of permissible sanctions for an out-of-state attorney who misfiles a document that potentially impedes the sale of real estate.

In Trade Well International v. United Central Bank, (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1691932.html) a New York attorney admitted temporarily in Wisconsin to pursue a Federal case there mistakenly filed a construction lien when he meant to file a lis pendens in a replevin suit seeking the return of furnishings his client provided to a Wisconsin hotel.  The lien clouded the hotel’s title and put a wrench in the defendant’s efforts to sell it to a third party.

As a sanction for the faulty filing, the district judge revoked the lawyer’s pro hac vice status (this allows a lawyer from state to practice temporarily in another), held him in contempt and fined him $500.  The lawyer appealed.

Held: Reversed. The sanction was too harsh.

Q: Why?

A: Under Wisconsin law, a lis pendens must be filed whenever legal relief is sought affecting real property that could confirm or change interests in that property.  The lis pendens must be filed in the register of deeds for the county where the real estate is located.  Fixtures are classified as real property by Wisconsin statute.

When a lis pendens is filed, a subsequent purchaser or lender on the property is bound by the proceedings in the same manner as a party to the lawsuit.

A lis pendens prepared by a member of the Wisconsin Bar doesn’t have to be authenticated. But where a non-member of the Wisconsin Bar prepares it, the lis pendens must be authenticated (sworn to under oath by a public officer of the State).

The purpose of the lis pendens is to give constructive notice to third parties that there is a pending judicial proceeding involving real estate.  A  lis pendens differs from a construction lien in that (unlike the construction lien) it doesn’t create a lien on real property.

Here, the attorney’s lis pendens was facially deficient since it referenced Wisc’s construction lien statute and it wasn’t properly authenticated.

The court then discussed the applicable contempt of court nomenclature.  A contempt sanction is civil if it is “remedial” but criminal if “punitive.” Where a litigant or lawyer is punished for out-of-court conduct, the contempt is “indirect.” For criminal contempt, the court must give notice to the party that it is being charged (with criminal contempt) and must ask the government to prosecute the contempt.

Before holding someone in civil contempt, the court must specify what “unequivocal” court order or command was violated by the person being sanctioned.  An order of contempt is immediately appealable.

Reversing the district court’s contempt finding, the Seventh Circuit held it was unclear whether the contempt finding was criminal or civil since the trial judge didn’t specify in the order.

The record also showed that the attorney was at most negligent: he mistakenly recorded a lis pendens that referenced (but shouldn’t have) Wisconsin’s construction lien statute. The Seventh Circuit stressed that negligence or hasty drafting isn’t enough to support a finding of bad faith under the law.

Since the district court couldn’t articulate the basis for its contempt finding against the NY attorney and because there was no evidence of intentional conduct by him, the contempt sanctions were improper and the contempt order was vacated.

Take-aways:

1/ Out-of-state counsel must familiarize himself with applicable law in the jurisdiction he’s temporarily admitted to practice in and should probably retain local counsel to assist who is more versed in the specifics of the forum/foreign jurisdiction;

2/ A contempt order must specify whether it’s civil or criminal and must explicitly reference the court order that was violated;

3/ Criminal contempt has a due process component: the sanctioned party must be given notice and an opportunity to be heard and the government must prosecute the formal civil contempt proceeding.

Direct Damages, Loss of Use Damages and the Defective A/C System: A Florida Tale

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A prosaic fact pattern involving a busted home air conditioning system sets the stage for a Florida court’s nuanced discussion of the policy reasons that underlie compensatory damages and the differences between direct damages and loss of use (delay) damages.

In Gonzalez v. Barrenechea, 2015 Fla.App.LEXIS 647 (Fla.3d DCA Jan. 21, 2015), the plaintiff homeowner sued the defendant HVAC contractor for installing a defective home air conditioning system.  He sued for damages incurred in paying another contractor to install a new system (direct damages) and also sought loss of use damages for the 20 months it took for the new system to be installed and during which time the homeowner had only sporadic use of the home.

The trial court entered judgment for about $80K in direct damages and denied the plaintiff’s claim for loss of use damages.  Plaintiff appealed.

Held: Direct damages affirmed; trial court reversed on loss of use damages.

Plaintiff sought lost use damages of $15,500 per month – the reasonable rental value of a similar home according to plaintiff’s real estate appraiser expert.  The trial court disallowed the delay damages because the appraiser didn’t factor in plaintiff’s limited use of the home – including storing furniture there, parking cars in the garage, and allowing a family member to intermittently sleep in the home.

Under Florida law, a homeowner who loses the use of a structure because of delay in completion is entitled to damages for lost use.  The measure of damages for delay in completing construction are measured by the rental value of the building under construction during the delay.

Typically, a plaintiff trying to recover loss of use damages must offer expert testimony from a real estate appraiser (or someone similar) who testifies as to the reasonable rental value of the structure in question.  The damages testimony must be reliable. However, where the expert witness’s testimony is based on faulty comparables, the loss of use testimony is unreliable.

Reversing the trial court, the Florida appellate court held that none of the limited uses of the home was significant enough to negate the rental value assigned by plaintiff’s expert.  The court even pointed out that parking cars and storing furniture on the site may have even saved the plaintiff money.

Procedurally, the court held that since plaintiff made out a prima facie case for loss of use damages, the burden shifted to the defendant to establish a set-off to the claimed damages.  And since the defendant didn’t plead set-off in defense of the plaintiff’s complaint, it was barred from doing so on appeal.

There was also a policy reason for the appeals court’s reversal on the loss of use damages.  Acknowledging that failing to offset the delay damages by the limited uses during the 20-month delay period, the court noted that the law favors a “small windfall” for the plaintiff over a “large windfall” to defendants like the sued HVAC contractor.

The dissenting judge found that the trial court properly denied loss of use damages.  Since plaintiff’s expert based his rental value on flawed comparable data (a home that didn’t include the various limited uses made by the plaintiff), his damage evaluation of $15,500 per month was entirely lacking in evidentiary support.

Afterwords:

A troubling result from a defense standpoint and a boon to contract plaintiffs.  The court seems to have reversed the parties’ applicable burden of proof.  The plaintiff clearly failed to meet his burden of establishing the rental value of the home during the 20-month delay period by relying on a deficient “comp” (comparable property).  Because of this, the plaintiff’s delay damages should have been $0.

That aside, this case shows the importance of timely asserting affirmative defenses.  In hindsight, the defendant contractor probably should have asserted a set-off defense: that plaintiff’s loss of use damages should have been reduced by plaintiff’s periodic use of the property over the 20-month time span.  The defendant’s failure to allege a set-off made it impossible for the appeals court to reduce plaintiff’s claimed damages.

 

Unjust Enrichment – For When the Handshake Deal Goes Bad

An imploded business arrangement for importing and then selling Christmas decorations sets the stage for the Northern District’s (IL) analysis of a slew of signature commercial litigation issues in Sunny Handicraft, Inc. v. Envision This!, LLC, 2015 WL 231108. 

While the case only involves a ruling on a 12(b)(6) pleadings motion, it’s still post-worthy for its discussion of some important and recurring issues that arise in breach of contract lawsuits.

The plaintiff ornament maker entered into an agreement with defendants – a buyer (“Buyer”) and end-retailer (“Retailer”) of the decorations, respectively – for about $3.5M worth of Christmas-themed merchandise. Plaintiff sued when the defendants failed to pay.

The Buyer, for its part, counter-sued the plaintiff to recoup unpaid advertising costs and miscellaneous shipping charges. The Retailer moved to dismiss several complaint counts and the plaintiff moved to dismiss the purchaser defendant’s counterclaims.

Granting the Retailer’s motion to dismiss the unjust enrichment count, the court pronounced that unjust enrichment  is a ‘quasi-contract’ theory where a court implies a contract in order to prevent unjust results. 

An unjust enrichment plaintiff must allege that defendant has unjustly retained a benefit to the plaintiff’s detriment and that retention violates fundamental principles of equity, justice and good conscience.

But a party can’t claim unjust enrichment where an express contract governs the parties’ relationship. A plaintiff can, however, plead unjust enrichment as an alternative theory to a breach of contract claim as long as the plaintiff doesn’t incorporate the express contract allegations into its unjust enrichment ones.

Generally, a court will not impose unjust enrichment liability against a third party that receives a benefit from the plaintiff’s agreement with another party. So, if x and y have a contract, x normally won’t be able to sue z just because z happens to benefit from x’s services. 

The only time a third party can be liable for unjust enrichment is where the plaintiff can show that the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of being paid by the third party. *4.

The court granted the Retailer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim and denied the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the Buyer’s unjust enrichment counterclaim.  On the former claim, the plaintiff failed to allege any conduct by the Seller that would lead plaintiff to have a reasonable expectation of being paid by the Seller.

Plaintiff’s conclusory allegation that the Retailer “was aware” that Plaintiff expected payment was too bare to survive dismissal.  The plaintiff was required to plead specific conduct by the Retailer that could lead plaintiff to reasonably expect payment.

The court did allow the Buyer’s unjust enrichment counterclaim to proceed.  The Buyer pled unjust enrichment in the alternative to its breach of contract count and alleged that it conferred a measurable benefit – marketing services and paid shipping expenses – on the plaintiff and that the plaintiff’s retention of the Buyer’s services without paying for them was unfair.

Afterwords:

– Unjust enrichment is viable alternative claim even where there is an express contract that governs;

– A plaintiff can implicate a third party in an unjust enrichment case where he can offer evidence or plead facts that demonstrate the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of being paid by the third party.