Archives for April 2016

Lien Inflation and “Plus Factors” – Constructive Fraud in Illinois Mechanics Lien Litigation

The contractor plaintiff in Father & Sons Home Improvement II, Inc. v. Stuart, 2016 IL App (1st) 143666 was caught in several lies in the process of recording and trying to foreclose its mechanics lien.  The misstatements resulted in the nullification of its lien and the plaintiff being on the hook for over $40K in opponent attorneys’ fees.

The plaintiff was hired to construct a deck, garage and basement on the defendant owner’s residence.  Inexplicably, the plaintiff recorded its mechanics lien 8 months before it finished its work. This was a problem because the lien contained the sworn testimony of plaintiff’s principal (via affidavit) that stated a completion date that was several months off.

Plaintiff then sued to foreclose the lien; again stating an inaccurate completion date in the complaint.  The owner and mortgage lender defendants filed separate summary judgment motions on the basis that the plaintiff committed constructive fraud by (1) falsely stating the lien completion date and (2) inflating the dollar value of its work in sworn documents (the affidavit and verified complaint).

Affirming summary judgment and separate fee awards for the defendants, the Court distilled the following mechanics lien constructive fraud principles:

  • The purpose of the mechanics lien act (Lien Act) is to require someone with an interest in real property to pay for property improvements or benefits he encouraged by his conduct.  Section 7 of the Lien Act provides that no lien will be defeated because of an error or if it states an inflated amount unless it is shown that the erroneous lien amount was made with “intent to defraud.”  770 ILCS 60/7;
  • The intent to defraud requirement aims to protect the honest lien claimant who simply makes a mistake in computing his lien amount.  But where there is evidence a lien claimant knowingly filed a false lien (either in completion date or amount), the lien claim will be defeated.  (¶¶ 30-31);
  • Where there is no direct proof of a contractor’s intent to defraud, “constructive fraud” can negate a lien where there is an overstated lien amount or false completion date combined with additional evidence;
  • The additional evidence or “plus factor” can come in the form of a false affidavit signed by the lien claimant that falsely states the underlying completion date or the amount of the improvements furnished to the property.  (¶ 35).

Based on the plaintiff’s multiple false statements – namely, a fabricated completion date and a grossly exaggerated lien amount based on the amount of work done – both in its mechanics lien and in its pleadings, the court found that at the very least, the plaintiff committed constructive fraud and invalidated the lien.

Attorneys’ Fees and Rule 137 Sanctions

The court also taxed the property owners’ attorneys’ fees to the losing contractor.  Section 17 of the Lien Act provides that an owner can recover its attorneys’ fees where a contractor files a lien action “without just cause or right.”  The Lien Act also specifies that only the owner – not any other party involved in the chain of contracts or other lienholders – can recover its attorneys’ fees.  A lien claim giving rise to a fee award is one that is “not well grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification or reversal of existing law.”  770 ILCS 60/17(d).

Based on the contractor’s clear case of constructive fraud in filing a lien with a false completion date and in a grossly excessive sum, the court ordered the contractor to pay the owner defendants’ attorneys’ fees.

The lender – who is not the property owner – wasn’t entitled to fees under Section 17 of the Lien Act.  Enter Rule 137 sanctions.  In Illinois, Rule 137 sanctions are awarded to prevent abuse of the judicial process by penalizing those who file vexatious and harassing lawsuit based on unsupported statements of fact or law.  Before assessing sanctions, a court does not engage in hindsight but instead looks at what was objectively reasonable at the time an attorney signed a document or filed a motion.

Because the plaintiff contractor repeatedly submitted false documents in the course of the litigation, the court awarded the mortgage lender its attorneys’ fees incurred in defending the lien suit and in successfully moving for summary judgment.  All told,  the Court sanctioned the contractor to the tune of over $26,000; awarding this sum to the lender defendant.

Afterwords:

This case serves as an obvious cautionary tale for mechanics lien plaintiffs.  Plainly, a lien claimant must state an accurate completion date and properly state the monetary value of improvements.  If the claimant realizes it has made a mistake, it should amend the lien.  And even though an amended lien usually won’t bind third parties (e.g. lenders, other lienholders, etc.), it’s better to correct known lien errors than to risk a hefty fee award at case’s end.

 

 

 

 

Election of Remedies vs. Alternative Pleading In Illinois

The election of remedies doctrine clashes with Illinois alternative pleading rules in Evashank v. Miller Brewing Company, 2013 IL App (1st) 112987-U, a case involving a dispute over a misread beer promotional ticket.

The plaintiff was given a promotional sticker at the Coach’s Corner bar that plaintiff thought read “win a million dollars”.  It actually said “this summer I want to win a million dollars.”  When the plaintiff tried to claim his big bucks prize, the bar and promotional staff said no and plaintiff sued the beer company and promotional group for fraud and breach of contract. 

Before trial, the court made the plaintiff to choose whether he was going to pursue his fraud or breach of contract claims against the bar.  Plaintiff chose the latter.  The court found for the tavern and plaintiff appealed.

Result: Reversed in part.

Election of Remedies

The election of remedies doctrine applies where a plaintiff elects inconsistent remedies for the same injury.  The rule provides that the prosecution of one remedy to judgment bars a second action stemming from the same transaction based on an inconsistent theory.  The prototypical example: a plaintiff can’t seek to recover breach of contract damages while at the same time  (or later) try to rescind that same contract.  The remedies are inconsistent.

Illinois courts confine the election of remedies rule to situations where (1) double compensation for the plaintiff is threatened, (2) defendant has been misled by the plaintiff’s conduct in choosing one remedy over another, or (3) where res judicata applies (final judgment on the merits, same parties, same cause of action). 

The election of remedies rule bars a plaintiff from recovering on one theory in a case and then later seeking a different remedy in a second case based on the same facts (as the first case). ¶¶ 50-51

But Illinois law does permit alternative pleading.  Code Sections 2-604 and 2-613 allow a plaintiff to plead inconsistent theories of recovery and allege contradictory facts at the pleading stage.  A plaintiff can also go to trial on inconsistent claims (e.g. fraud and breach of contract).  The proofs at that trial will determine which theory, if any, the plaintiff can recover on.  ¶¶47-49.

Here, there was only one case.  Plaintiff didn’t try to first recover on fraud and then, in a second action, try to recover for breach of contract.  While fraud and breach of contract have different pleading and proof elements and proving one (breach of contract) normally prevents proof of the other (fraud), a plaintiff can still proceed to trial on both legal theories; he just can’t recover damages on both. 

Since plaintiff should have been allowed to take both his breach of contract and fraud counts to trial, the trial court mistakenly made plaintiff choose his remedy at the pre-trial stage.  And while the First District viewed the plaintiff’s fraud claim as weak, it still reversed the dismissal of that count because the trial court misapplied the election of remedies rule.

The Breach of Contract Claim

The trial court properly directed verdict against plaintiff on the breach of contract count.  There was no meeting of the minds or consideration.  The plaintiff admitted he paid nothing for the “million dollar sticker” and had no expectation of winning a million dollars when he visited the bar.  This precluded a finding that there was an enforceable agreement.  The sticker was misread; plain and simple.  There was no enforceable contract.  ¶¶ 49-52.

Afterwords:

A case that features a deep analysis of some finer procedural points in a “fun” fact pattern.  Some key take-aways include:

1/ An absence of a meeting of minds will prevent enforcement of a contract; especially in the promotional setting;

2/ An advertisement or promotional “offer” is generally construed as an invitation to make an offer – not an offer that invites acceptance.

3/ While Illinois permits alternative pleading, it doesn’t allow recovery on inconsistent remedies (e.g. a plaintiff can’t recover for breach of contract while at same time seek rescission of the contract.);

4/ A plaintiff can’t recover for both fraud and breach of contract (he must choose one or the other), but he doesn’t have to make this choice until after trial.

 

Fraud Suit Dismissed Where Prior Corporate Dissolution Claim Pending Between Parties – IL Court

Illinois courts aim to foster efficiency and finality in litigation. One way they accomplish this is by protecting people from repetitive lawsuits and requiring plaintiffs to bring all their claims in a single case.  Consolidation of claims is encouraged while piecemeal “claim splitting” is discouraged.

Code Section 2-619(a)(3) is a statutory attempt to streamline litigation. This section that allows for dismissal of a case where there is another action pending between the same parties for the same cause.

Schact v. Lome, 2016 IL App(1st) 141931 provides a recent case illustration of this section in the context of an aborted medical partnership.

The defendant originally filed suit in 2010 against two of his former medical partners to void their attempt to dissolve a medical corporation operated by them. The parties litigated that case for over three years before the plaintiffs (who were the defendants in the 2010 case) filed suit in 2013 for fraud.

The 2013 fraud action alleged the defendant fraudulently induced the plaintiffs to agree to a distribution of the medical corporation’s assets knowing that he (defendant) was going to challenge the corporate dissolution.

According to the plaintiffs, the defendant received almost $50,000 in cash on top of some corporate equipment based on his promise to end the 2010 litigation. Plaintiffs claimed the defendant hoodwinked them into agreeing to the money and property disbursements based on the defendant’s assurance he would dismiss the prior lawsuit.

The trial court dismissed the fraud action based on the same parties, same cause rule.  Affirming dismissal, the appeals court provided content to the “same cause” element of a Section 2-619 motion to dismiss.

  • Illinois Code Section 2-619(a)(3) is a procedural device aimed at avoiding duplicative litigation. It applies where there is a pending case involving the same parties for the same cause.
  • Lawsuits present the same cause when the relief sought is “based on substantially the same set of facts”;
  • The salient inquiry is whether both cases arise from the same transaction or occurrence, not whether the two lawsuits have identical causes of action or legal theories;
  • If the relief requested in each lawsuit relies on substantially the same facts, the “same cause” is met and can present grounds for dismissal.

(¶¶ 35-36)

In finding the same cause test met, the Court noted the 2010 dissolution action and the 2013 fraud suit were “inextricably intertwined.” Both cases involved a challenge to the plaintiffs’ earlier attempted breakup of the medical corporation.  Both cases also centered on the defendant’s conduct in agreeing to a distribution of the corporate assets while at the same time contesting those distributions.  Another commonality between the two suits was the damages claimed by the plaintiffs in the fraud action equaled the defense costs they incurred in the 2010 dissolution action. (¶ 37).

Since both lawsuits involved the same underlying facts, had similar issues and were based on the same conduct by the parties, the 2013 fraud action was properly dismissed since the 2010 dissolution action was still pending when the fraud case was filed.

Take-aways:

Once again, considerations of judicial economy win out over opposing claims that two lawsuits are different enough to proceed on separate tracks.

Schact gives a broad reading to a somewhat nebulous basis for dismissal.  The case stresses that the legal theories advanced in two lawsuits don’t have to be identical to trigger the same cause element of Section 2-619.

Schact’s lesson is clear: Where two lawsuits between the same parties share common issues and stem from substantially similar facts, a defendant will have a strong argument that the later-filed case should be dismissed under the same cause Code section.