Archives for November 2015

Property Is Subject to Turnover Order Where Buyer Is ‘Continuation’ of Twice-Removed Seller – Successor Liability in IL

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a trial court’s turnover order based on a finding that a property transfer involving three separate parties was in reality, a single “pre-arranged transfer” involving a “straw purchaser.”

I previously profiled Advocate Financial Group, LLC v. 5434 North Winthrop, 2015 IL App (2d) 150144 (see http://paulporvaznik.com/5485/5485) where the court addressed the “mere continuation” and fraud exceptions to the general rule of no successor liability (a successor corporation isn’t responsible for debts of predecessor) in a creditor’s post- judgment action against an entity twice removed from the judgment debtor.

The plaintiff obtained a breach of contract judgment against the developer defendant (Company 1) who transferred the building twice after the judgment date. The second building transfer was to a third-party (Company 3) who ostensibly had no relation to Company 1. The sale from Company 1 went through another entity – Company 2 – that was unrelated to Company 1.

Plaintiff alleged that Company 1 and Company 3 combined to thwart plaintiff’s collection efforts and sought the turnover of the building so plaintiff could sell it and use the proceeds to pay down the judgment. The trial court granted the turnover motion on the basis that Company 3 was the “continuation” of Company 1 in light of the common personnel between the companies.  The appeals court reversed though.  It found that further evidence was needed on the continuation exception but hinted that the fraud exception might apply instead to wipe out the Company 1-to Company 2- to Company 3 property transfer.

On remand, the trial court found that the fraud exception (successor can be liable for predecessor debts where they fraudulently collude to avoid predecessor’s debts) indeed applied and found the transfer of the building to Company 3 was a sham transfer and again ordered Company 3 to turn the building over to the plaintiff. Company 3 appealed.

Held: affirmed

Reasons:

– A corporation that purchases the assets of another corporation is generally not liable for the debts or liabilities of the transferor corporation. The rule’s purpose is to protect good faith purchasers from unassumed liability and seeks to foster the fluidity of corporate assets;

– The “fraudulent purpose” exception to the rule of no successor liability applies where a transaction is consummated for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s obligations; 

– The mere continuation exception requires a showing that the successor entity “maintains the same or similar management and ownership, but merely wears different clothes.”  The test is not whether the seller’s business operation continues in the purchaser, but whether the seller’s corporate entity continues in the purchaser. 

– The key continuation question is always identity of ownership: does the “before” company and “after” company have the same officers, directors, and stockholders? 

The factual oddity here concerned Company 2 – the intermediary.  It was unclear whether Company 2 abetted Company 1 in its efforts to shake the plaintiff creditor.  The court affirmed the trial court’s factual finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser from Company 1. The court focused on the abbreviated time span between the two transfers – Company 2 sold to Company 3 within days of buying the building from Company 1 – in finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser. The court also pointed to evidence at trial that Company 1 was negotiating the ultimate transfer to Company 3 before the sale to Company 2 was even complete.

Taken together, the court agreed with the trial court that the two transfers (Company 1 to Company 2; Company 2 to Company 3) constituted an integrated, “pre-arranged” attempt to wipe out Company 1’s judgment debt to plaintiff.

Afterwords:  This case illustrates that a court will scrutinize property transfers that utilize middle-men that only hold the property for a short period of times (read: for only a few days).

Where successive property transfers occur within a compressed time window and the ultimate corporate buyer has substantial overlap (in terms of management personnel) with the first corporate seller, a court can void the transaction and deem it as part of a fraudulent effort to evade one of the first seller’s creditors.

 

Homeowner’s Piercing Claim Against Contractor Fails – Delaware Chancery Court

Since Delaware’s storied Chancery Court is widely regarded as the alpha and omega of corporate law venues, this opinion from Halloween eve of this year captured my attention.

The issues addressed in Doberstein v. G-P Industries, Inc. (http://courts.delaware.gov/opinions/download.aspx?ID=231700) concern the scope of the Chancery Court’s jurisdiction and the quantum of pleading specificity needed to state a piercing the corporate veil claim.

Plaintiff, who lived most of the year in Switzerland, sued the defendants for failing to timely construct renovations to her Delaware home.  All told, the plaintiff paid over $500K to the defendant for only about $300K worth of work (according to the plaintiff’s construction expert).  The plaintiff brought legal (fraud, breach of contract) and equitable claims (unjust enrichment, piercing the corporate veil, negligent misrepresentation (i.e. “equitable fraud”) against the corporate and individual defendants.

The Delaware court struck the equitable claims for failure to state a claim and dismissed the ancillary law claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The piercing claim failed because the plaintiff conflated (a) fraudulent conduct by the corporate defendant with (b) abuse of the corporate form by the corporation’s controlling shareholder.  The former is actionable under a fraud theory while the latter scenario gives rise to a piercing the corporate veil of limited liability claim.

 

A piercing plaintiff must do more than formulaically  allege that a corporation is the alter ego of another or of its main shareholder, though. He must instead plead facts that show a corporate shareholder abused the corporate form in order to defraud an innocent third party.

Here, since plaintiff’s piercing claims only alleged fraud by the defendants in connection with charging for construction work they didn’t do, there were no allegations that the corporate form was abused or that the individual defendant siphoned corporate funds.

The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation count. Also called “equitable fraud”, a negligent misrepresentation claim under Delaware law generally requires the existence of a fiduciary relationship and the abuse of that relationship by one of the parties.

A contractual relationship between two sophisticated parties does not equate to a fiduciary one.  As a result, the court found that the plaintiff’s remedy lies in a breach of contract action at law (as opposed to an action in equity).

Finally, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s unjust   enrichment count since there was an express contract between the parties. An unjust enrichment claim cannot co-exist with a breach of express contract one.

The court then found that it lacked jurisdiction over the remaining law counts for breach of contract, fraud and fraudulent concealment.

The Delaware Chancery Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. It has jurisdiction only in three settings: (1) where a party seeks to invoke an equitable right; (2) where the plaintiff lacks an adequate remedy at law; and (3) where there is a statutory delegation of subject matter jurisdiction. The prototypical equitable claims are those involving fiduciary duties that arise in the context of trusts, estates and corporations.

Where a claim contains both legal and equitable features, the Chancery court does have discretion to resolve the legal portions of the controversy. However, where the equitable claims are dismissed and there is no basis for the court to assert jurisdiction over the remaining legal claims, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the legal claims and they will be dismissed.

Here, once the plaintiff’s equitable claims (unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation) were disposed of, there was no “hook” for the court to retain jurisdiction over the legal claims.

Take-aways:

The case solidifies proposition that a plaintiff who seeks to pierce the corporate veil must show fraud in connection with an abuse of the corporate form. If the fraud relates to conduct by the corporation and not to a misuse of the corporate form (i.e. as an alter-ego or instrumentality of the key shareholder), the plaintiff’s remedy is an action at law against the corporation; not the individual corporate agent.

The case also provides a useful summary of what types of claims the Delaware Chancery Court will entertain and when it will handle legal claims that are filed in   conjunction with equitable ones.

 

 

LOI From Hell (?) – It’s Too Illusory For Car Dealership Manager to Enforce – IL 1st Dist.

 

A complicated Letter of Intent (LOI) involving parties to a planned car sales venture lies at the heart of Dicosola v. Ryan, 2015 IL App(1st) 150007, a case that addresses the level of consideration required to support a written contract in Illinois and when a promise is too illusory to be enforced.

The plaintiff alleged that under the LOI, the defendant was to invest $1M with the plaintiff who would, along with her business partner, use those funds to establish and run the dealership.  In return for her investment, the defendant would get a 10% share of the business.  The LOI also called for the defendant to establish a 401(k) account for the benefit of the parties. 

Decried as a “drafting nightmare” by the court for its chaotic structure, the LOI was silent on the timing: it didn’t say when the dealership would be up and running, how plaintiff would utilize defendant’s funds or even what the plaintiff’s and her partner’s roles were once the dealership “went live.”

When the defendant pulled out of the deal, the plaintiff sued for breach of contract and specific performance.  The trial court dismissed the complaint with prejudice and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Dismissal affirmed

Reasons/Rules:

An LOI, like any other contract, must show offer, acceptance, consideration as well as definite and certain terms.

Consideration means a bargained-for exchange of promises or performances and can consist of a promise, an act or a forbearance. Consideration requires one party getting something of value and the other giving something of value.

An “illusory promise” fails the test for consideration.  A promise is illusory where the promisor isn’t really promising to do anything or where his promised performance is optional.

Contractual performance will deemed optional (and illusory) where there is no fixed time or duration for the contemplated services.  Where one parties’ obligations are unclear and can be terminated at his will, this too can signal an illusory promise.

Here, the plaintiff’s promise was illusory since the LOI didn’t specify when she would perform general manager services for the inchoate dealership. Since the LOI lacked a specific start and stop date, it was too indefinite to be enforced.  The lack of clarity on the timing question led the court to conclude there was no consideration to support the plaintiff’s breach of contract claims. (¶¶ 18-20)

Afterwords:

1 – Parties should craft their business agreements with diligence and provide enough specifics for it to be enforced. By only providing aspirational language (“I will do this” or “I plan to do this”) with no specific timing requirements, a contracting party, like the plaintiff here, runs the risk of the contract being deemed illusory and one that won’t hold up in court.

2 – Where one party to a contract’s obligations are to occur in the future, the contract language should provide an end date or duration for those services.