Implied Warranty of Habitability Waiver Doesn’t Bind Second Home Buyer: Deconstructing Fattah v. Bim (IL 1st Dist.)(Part I of II)

Fattah v. Bim, 2015 IL App (1st) 140171 will likely be viewed as a significant victory for homeowners (and a correlative loss for builders) in residential construction disputes.

The plaintiff bought a million-plus dollar home in Chicago’s northern suburbs from the defendant homebuilder “as-is” and subject to an earlier waiver of the implied warranty of habitability signed by a prior purchaser (“Buyer 1”) who sold the house to the plaintiff.

In reversing a bench trial judgment for the defendants, the court answered some important questions concerning the scope and enforceability of disclaimers contained in the sale of real property in Illinois.

Facts:

The sale of the home from defendant to Buyer 1 included a written waiver of the implied warranty of habitability that specifically provided it was binding on the seller, the purchaser, and any successors.

The plaintiff bought the property from Buyer 1 “as is” three years after Buyer 1 bought it.  The contract’s as-is rider provided, among other things, that the seller (Buyer 1) shall not be responsible for “the repair, replacement or modification of any deficiencies, malfunctions or mechanical defects on the Property or to any improvements thereon” and that Buyer 1 makes no representation or warranty to plaintiff concerning the Property’s condition, zoning or suitability for its intended use.

Despite this broad Rider’s language, the contract still required Buyer 1 to disclose known material latent defects.

Four months after plaintiff moved in, the patio collapsed and plaintiff sued the defendant homebuilder.  The trial court found for defendant at trial on the basis that Buyer 1’s implied warranty waiver extended to the plaintiff.  Plaintiff appealed.

Result: Reversed:

Rules/Reasoning:

The appeals court found that the earlier implied warranty of habitability waiver did not bind the plaintiff.  The court’s reasoning:

– the implied warranty of habitability is a creature of public policy that aims to protect innocent purchasers of new houses who discover latent defects in their homes;

– the implied warranty of habitability recognizes that the purchaser, who is generally not knowledgeable in construction practices, has to rely n the integrity and the skill of the builder-vendor, whose business is home building;

– it (the implied warranty of habitability) applies not only to builder-vendors, but also to subcontractors and developer-vendors;

– subsequent home buyers can be protected by the implied warranty of habitability.  This is because a “subsequent purchaser is like the initial purchaser in that neither is knowledgeable in construction practice and must rely on the expertise of the person who built the home to a substantial degree.”

– the warranty of habitability exists independently of a contract between the builder and twice-removed buyer and extends only to “latent defects which manifest themselves within a reasonable time after the purchase of the house.”

– despite the strong public policy reason behind the implied warranty of habitability, a “knowing disclaimer” of the warranty doesn’t violate Illinois public policy;

– one who seeks to benefit from a disclaimer has the weighty burden of establishing that the disclaimer is (1) conspicuous, (2) fully disclosed (along with its consequences) to the buyer, and (3) mutually agreed on by the parties.

(¶¶ 23-25).

With these principles in mind, the court found that Buyer 1’s waiver of the implied warranty of habitability was valid as it appeared prominently in the sales materials and recited the waiver’s impact of the Seller’s rights.

The court then considered whether Buyer 1’s waiver of the implied warranty was binding on plaintiff – a subsequent purchaser who lacked knowledge of the earlier waiver.

Finding that Buyer 1’s waiver did not bind plaintiff, the court noted there was no agreement between plaintiff and defendant and the waiver of the implied warranty of habitability never was brought to plaintiff’s attention.

The court held that an implied warranty of habitability can only be waived where it’s done so “knowingly.”  Here, the plaintiff wasn’t party to Buyer 1’s waiver and testified she wasn’t aware of the waiver when she (plaintiff) bought the house.  Since defendants didn’t refute plaintiff’s testimony, it failed to prove plaintiff knowingly bought the property subject to Buyer 1’s waiver of the implied warranty.  As a result, the waiver didn’t bind the plaintiff.

(¶¶ 28-31)

Take-aways:

1/ The implied warranty of habitability extends to subsequent home purchaser for latent (not overt) defects;

2/ A disclaimer or waiver of an implied warranty offered by a prior buyer won’t bind a subsequent buyer where that later buyer offers evidence that she lacked knowledge of the disclaimer or waiver and that the disclaimer’s importance wasn’t pointed out to her.

No Future Damages Allowed in Wage Payment and Collection Act Claim – IL 2d Dist.

Eakins v. Hanna Cylinders, LLC, 2015 IL App (2d) 140944 is the third in a trio of recent Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 et seq., (“Wage Act”) cases that address an employee’s rights to recover future damages after an employer prematurely terminates a multi-year contract.

(The other two cases – Majmundar v. House of Spices (India), Inc., 2013 IL App (1st) 130292 and Elsener v. Brown, 2013 IL App (2d) 120209 are summarized here and here.)

The Eakins plaintiff sued after he was fired 14 months into a 24-month contract to serve as a plant manager for the industrial company defendant.  The employment contract was silent on grounds for termination.  The plaintiff sought as damages, compensation for the ten month remaining on the employment contract under a breach of contract theory and he joined a Wage Act claim.  The trial court entered summary judgment for the defendant on both claims and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Breach of contract judgment reversed; Wage Act judgment for employer affirmed.

Q: Why?

A: The appeals court reversed the breach of contract judgment for the defendant employer.  In Illinois, an employment agreement with no fixed duration can be ended at the will of either party.  The contract here was clearly for a fixed term, 24 months, and so wasn’t at will.  By firing the plaintiff 14 months into the contract term, the defendant breached.

The court rejected defendant’s argument that the plaintiff’s failure to meet certain performance metrics (e.g. keep costs down, grow market share, meet sales quotas, etc.) justified defendant’s premature termination of the plaintiff.  The court found that since the contract didn’t specify poor performance (as opposed to outright failure to perform – e.g. by not showing up to work) as a ground for contractual cancellation, the defendant breached by firing plaintiff before the 24 months was up.

Otherwise, according to the court, any employer could transmute a fixed-term contract into an at-will one by claiming the employee didn’t meet the employer’s performance requirements.  The court remanded to the lower court so it could decide plaintiff’s money damages. (¶¶ 23-29).

The court did affirm judgment for the defendant on the Wage Act claim though.  Looking to Majmundar for guidance, the court held that unpaid future compensations coming due under an untimely ended employment contract doesn’t qualify as “final compensation” under the Wage Act.  The reason for this is that once an employee is fired, he no longer performs any services for the employer.  So the employer isn’t receiving anything of value from the employee to support an obligation to make future payments. (¶¶ 31-32).

Take-aways:

Where a contract is for a fixed term and doesn’t provide for “for cause” firing or otherwise spell out grounds for termination, the contract will be enforced as written in the employee’s favor and his failure to meet an employer’s subjective work standards won’t constitute a basis for nullifying the contract;

Future payments due under a fixed-term contract aren’t considered final compensation under the Wage Act since there is no reciprocal exchange (services for wages) once an employee is fired;

Procedurally, the case makes clear that the denial of a summary judgment motion is appealable so long as there are cross-motions for summary judgment filed and the disposition of those motions resolves all issues in a given case.

 

Ten-Year Statute of Limitations Applies to Demand Promissory Note: Three-Year ‘SOL’ For Negotiable Instruments Does Not

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Advanced Credit, Inc. v. Linares, 2012 IL App (1st) 121574-U is a fairly recent case illustration of what happens when two statutes of limitation with widely varying time lengths potentially govern the same case.

The defendant in Linares signed a promissory note in 2002 that was payable to the defendant “upon demand.”

The plaintiff payee of the note made a demand for payment in 2004 which the defendant ignored.  Plaintiff sued six years later (in 2010) to recover on the note and sought interest, fees and costs.

Defendant moved to dismiss on the basis that the three-year limitations period  governing negotiable instruments time-barred the complaint. (See 810 ILCS 5/3-104, 3-118.)  The plaintiff argued that the ten-year time to sue on demand promissory notes (735 ILCS 5/13-206) applied and so the suit was timely.  The trial court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the suit.  The plaintiff payee appealed.

Held: Reversed.  The ten-year statute, not the three-year one, applies to the demand promissory note.

Rules/Reasoning:

A note that is “payable on demand” is a demand note and is due and payable immediately upon execution.  810 ILCS 5/3-108.  A claim against the maker of a demand note accrues on the date the note is issued.

Code Section 13-206 provides for a ten-year limitations period for promissory notes and for demand notes.  Under this statute, a demand note plaintiff is barred if the note maker pays no note interest or principal for a period of 10 continuous years and no demand is made during that time.

Uniform Commercial Code Section 3-118(g) applies a 3-year limitations period for actions based on, among other things, negotiable instruments (example: a check).

Section 3-104(a) of the UCC defines a negotiable instrument as

(i) an unconditional promise or order to pay a fixed amount of money;

(ii) that’s  payable to order or to bearer at the time it (the instrument) is issued or first comes into possession of a holder;

(iii) is payable on demand or at a definite time; and

(iv) doesn’t state any other undertakings or instructions other than the payment of money.

Where two limitations period govern the same subject matter, the more specific one applies.  Here, since Code Section 13-206 specifically references “demand promissory notes” and UCC Section 3-104 doesn’t, the 10-year statute of limitations (“SOL”) governs.

The Note accrual date was 2004 when the plaintiff made demand for payment.  Since the plaintiff sued in 2010 – some six years later – it was within the 10-year limitations period for demand promissory notes under Section 13-206.

Afterwords:

A pretty straightforward application of conflicting limitations period rules.  The ten-year period for demand notes more specifically applied over the UCC’s three-year catchall provision.

When defending a promissory note case, I look for earmarks of negotiability (payable to order, at specific time, for specific amount) so I can argue the shorter three-year limitations period (of 3-118) applies.  When representing the note plaintiff/payee, I try to show the 10-year SOL applies and particularly look for any reference to “on demand” or “upon demand” in the text of the note.  This language will signal that a demand note is involved and mean the longer SOL governs.