Archives for August 2016

Zero Dollars Settlement Still in ‘Good Faith’ In Corporate Embezzlement Case – IL 1st Dist.

Upon learning that its former CEO stole nearly a million dollars from it, the plaintiff marketing firm in Adgooroo, LLC v. Hechtman, 2016 IL App (1st) 142531-U, sued its accounting firm for failing to discover the multi-year embezzlement scheme.

The accounting firm in turn brought a third-party action against the plaintiff’s bank for not properly monitoring the corporate account and alerting the plaintiff to the ex-CEO’s dubious conduct.

When the bank and plaintiff agreed to settle for zero dollars, the court granted the bank’s motion for a good-faith finding and dismissed the accounting firm’s third-party complaint.  The accounting firm appealed.  It argued that the bank’s settlement with the plaintiff deprived it (the accounting firm) of its contribution rights against the bank and that the settlement was void on the basis of fraud and collusion.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court and discussed the factors a court considers in deciding whether a settlement is made in good faith and releases a settling defendant from further liability in a lawsuit.

The Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (740 ILCS 100/1 et seq.) tries to promote two policies: (1) encouraging settlements, and (2) ensuring that damages are assigned equitably among joint wrongdoers.  The right of contribution exists where 2 or more persons are liable arising from the same injury to person or property.  A tortfeasor who settles in good faith with the injured plaintiff is discharged from contribution liability to a non-settling defendant.  740 ILCS 100/2(c).

Here, the underlying torts alleged by the plaintiff were negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and civil conspiracy.

A settlement is deemed not in good faith if there is wrongful conduct, collusion or fraud between the settling parties.  However, the mere disparity between a settlement amount and the damages sought in a lawsuit is not an accurate measure of a settlement’s good faith.

Illinois courts note that a small settlement amount won’t necessarily equal bad faith since trial results are inherently speculative and unpredictable.  The law is also clear that settlements are designed to benefit non-settling parties.  If a non-settling party’s position is worsened by another party’s settlement, then so be it: this is viewed as “the consequence of a refusal to settle.”  (¶¶ 22-24).

A settling party bears the initial burden of making a preliminary showing of good faith.  Once this showing is made, the burden shifts to the objecting party to show by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e. more likely than not), the absence of good faith.  The court applies a fact-based totality of circumstances approach in deciding whether a settlement meets the good faith standard.

For a settlement to meet the good faith test, money doesn’t have to change hands.  This is because a promise to compromise a disputed claim or not to sue is sufficient consideration for a settlement agreement.

Here, the fact that plaintiff’s corporate resolutions required it to indemnify the bank against any third-party claims, subjected the plaintiff to liability for the third-party bank’s defense costs.  The bank’s possible exposure was a judgment against it for the accounting firm.  As a result, the marketing company and bank both benefited from the settlement and there was sufficient consideration supporting their mutual walk-away.

Take-aways:

This case sharply illustrates the harsh results that can flow from piecemeal settlement.  On its face, the settlement seems unfair to the accounting firm defendant: the plaintiff settled with the third-party defendant who then gets dismissed from the lawsuit for no money.  However, under the law, a promise for a promise not to sue is valid consideration in light of the inherent uncertainty connected with litigation.

The case also spotlights broad disclaimer language in account agreements between banks and corporate customers as well as indemnification language in corporate resolutions.  It’s clear here that the liability limiting language in the deposit agreement and resolutions doubly protected the bank, giving plaintiff extra impetus to settle.

 

Condo Buyer’s Illness Not Enough to Make Closing ‘Impossible’ – IL First District

An Illinois appeals court recently followed case precedent and narrowly construed the impossibility of performance and commercial frustration defenses in a failed real estate deal.

The parties in Ury v. DiBari, 2016 IL App (1st) 150277-U contracted for the sale and purchase of a (Chicago) Gold Coast condominium.  The contract called for a $55K earnest money payment and provided that the seller’s sole remedy in the event of buyer breach was retention of the buyer’s earnest money.

The seller sued when the buyer failed to close.  The buyer filed defenses saying it was impossible and commercially impractical for him to consummate the purchase due to a sudden serious illness he suffered right before the scheduled closing.  The Court rejected the defenses and entered summary judgment for the seller.  In doing so, the Court provides guidance on the nature and scope of the impossibility of performance and commercial frustration doctrines.

In the context of contract enforcement, parties generally must adhere to the negotiated contract terms.  Subsequent events – especially ones that are foreseeable – not provided for do not invalidate a contract.  The legal impossibility doctrine operates as an exception to the rule that holds parties to their contract obligations.

Legal impossibility applies where the continued existence of a particular person or thing is so necessary to the performance of the contract, it is viewed as an implied condition of the contract.  Death (of the person) or destruction (of the thing) excuses the other party’s performance.

The impossibility defense is applied sparingly and requires that a party’s performance be objectively impossible; not a subjective inconvenience or hardship.  Objective impossibility equates to “this can’t be done” while subjective impossibility is personal (“I cannot do this”) to the promisor.  A successful impossibility defense also requires the party to show it ” tried all practical alternatives available to permit performance.” (¶¶ 21-24, 29)

The defendant’s illness failed the law’s stringent test for objective impossibility.  His sickness was unique to him and therefore made closing only subjectively impossible.  The court pointed out that the condominium property was not destroyed and was still capable of being sold.

Another factor the court considered in rejecting the impossibility defense was that the defendant never tried to extend the closing date or sought accommodation for his illness.

The Court also discarded the defendant’s commercial frustration defense.  A party asserting commercial frustration must show that its performance under a contract is rendered meaningless due to an unforeseen change in circumstances.  Specifically, the commercially frustrated party has to demonstrate (1) the frustrating event was not reasonably foreseeable, and (2) the value of the party’s performance is totally destroyed by the frustrating cause.

Like with the failed impossibility defense, the claimed frustrating event – the buyer’s sickness – was foreseeable and did not destroy the subject matter of the contract.  Since the defendant’s weakened condition did not make the property worthless, there was no unforeseen frustrating event to give color to the buyer’s defense.

Afterwords:

1/ Impossibility of performance and commercial frustration are valid defenses but only in limited circumstances;

2/ Objective impossibility (“this can’t be done”) can relieve a party from contractual performance while subjective impossibility (“I can’t do this”) will not;

3/ Commercial frustration generally requires the contract’s subject matter be destroyed or rendered financially valueless to excuse a party from performance.

 

Judgment Creditor Can Recover Attorneys’ Fees Spent Pursuing Successful Veil Piercing Suit Versus Corporate Officers

Q:           Can a judgment creditor recover attorneys’ fees incurred in both its post-judgment discovery efforts after a default judgment against a defunct corporation and a subsequent piercing the corporate veil action to enforce the prior judgment where the contract with the defunct entity contains an attorneys’ fees provision?

A:            Yes.

That’s the salient and nuanced holding from Steiner Electric Company v. Maniscalco, 2016 IL App (1st) 132023, a case that’s a boon to creditor’s rights attorneys and corporate litigators.

There, the First District held in a matter of first impression that a plaintiff could recover fees in a later piercing the corporate veil suit where the underlying contract litigated to judgment in an earlier case against a corporation has an attorneys’ fees provision.

The plaintiff supplied electrical and generator components on credit over several years to a company owned by the defendant.  The governing document between the parties was a credit agreement that had a broad attorneys’ fees provision.

When the company defaulted by failing to pay for ordered and delivered equipment, the plaintiff sued and won a default judgment against the company for about $230K. After its post-judgment efforts came up empty, the plaintiff filed a new action to pierce the corporate veil hold the company president responsible for the earlier money judgment.

The trial court pierced the corporate veil and found the company president responsible for the money judgment against his company but declined to award plaintiff its attorneys’ fees generated in litigating the piercing action.

The First District affirmed the piercing judgment and reversed the trial court’s refusal to assess attorneys’ fees against the company President.

The Court first affirmed the piercing judgment on the basis that the company was inadequately capitalized (the company had a consistent negative balance), commingled funds with a related entity and the individual defendant and failed to follow basic corporate formalities (it failed to appoint any officers or document significant financial transactions).

In finding the plaintiff could recover its attorneys’ fees – both in the underlying suit and in the second piercing suit to enforce the prior judgment – the court stressed that piercing is an equitable remedy and not a standalone cause of action.  The court further refined its description of the piercing remedy by casting it as a means of enforcing liability on an underlying claim – such as the prior breach of contract action against the defendant’s judgment-proof company.

While a prevailing party in Illinois must normally pay its own attorneys’ fees, the fees can be shifted to the losing party where a statute or contract says so.  And there must be clear language in a contract for a court to award attorneys’ fees to a prevailing litigant.

Looking to Illinois (Fontana v. TLD Builders, Inc.), Seventh Circuit (Centerpoint v. Halim) (see write-up here and Colorado (Swinerton Builders v. Nassi) case precedent for guidance, the Court found that since the underlying contract – the Credit Agreement – contained expansive fee-shifting language, the plaintiff could recoup from the defendant the fees expended in both the first breach of contract suit against the company and the second, piercing case against the company president.  The Court echoed the Colorado appeals court’s (in Swinerton) depiction of piercing the corporate veil as a “procedural mechanism” to enforce an underlying judgment.

The combination of broad contractual fees language in the credit application and case law from different jurisdictions that fastened fee awards to company officers on similar facts led the First District to reverse the trial court and tax fees against the company president. (¶¶ 74-90)

Afterwords:

An important case and one that fee-seeking commercial litigators should look to for support of their recovery efforts.  A key lesson of Steiner is that broad, unequivocal attorneys’ fees language in a contract not only applies to an initial breach of contract suit against a dissolved company but also to a second, piercing lawsuit to enforce the earlier judgment against a company officer or controlling shareholder.

For the dominant shareholders of dissolved corporations, the case spells possible trouble since it upends the firmly entrenched principle that fee-shifting language in a contract only binds parties to the contract (not third parties).