Archives for December 2016

Is It a New Contract Or Modification of an Existing One? Illinois Case Discusses Why It Matters

In business relationships that contemplate a series of reciprocal services, it’s at times unclear if extra services are being offered as a modification to an existing contract or are done as part of a new agreement.  Landmark Engineering v. Holevoet, 2016 IL App (1st) 150723-U examines this sometimes fine-line difference and illustrates in stark relief the importance of honoring contractual provisions that require contract changes to be in writing and signed by the parties.

The defendant hired the plaintiff under a written contract to do some engineering work including a soil study on a parcel of land the defendant was going to sell.  The plaintiff’s work would then be submitted to the governing county officials who would then determine whether the sale could go through.

The contract, drafted by plaintiff, had a merger clause requiring that all contract modifications be in writing and signed by the parties.  When the plaintiff realized the contract’s original scope of work did not satisfy the county’s planning authorities, the plaintiff performed some $50,000 in additional services in order to get county approval.

The plaintiff argued the defendant verbally authorized plaintiff to perform work in a phone conversation that created a separate, binding oral contract.  For her part, the defendant asserted that the extra work modified the original written contract and a writing was required to support the plaintiff’s additional invoices.

The defendant refused to pay plaintiff’s invoices on the basis that the extra work and accompanying invoice far exceeded the agreed-upon contract price.  Plaintiff sued and won a $52,000 money judgment at trial.

Reversing, the appeals court examines not only the reach of a contractual merger clause but also what constitutes a separate or “new” contract as opposed to only a modification of a pre-existing one.

In Illinois, a breach of oral contract claim requires the contract’s terms to be proven with sufficient specificity.  Where parties agree that a future written document will be prepared only to memorialize the agreement, that oral agreement is still binding even though the later document is never prepared or signed.

However, where it’s clear that the parties’ intent is that neither will be legally bound until a formal agreement is signed, no contract comes into existence until the execution and delivery of the written agreement.

Illinois law defines a  contractual “modification” as a change in one or more aspects of a contract that either injects new elements into the contract or cancels others out.  But with a modification, the contract’s essential purpose and effect remains static.  (¶¶ 35-36)

In this case, since the plaintiff submitted a written contract addendum (by definition, a modification of an existing agreement) to the defendant after their telephone conversation (the phone call plaintiff claimed was a new contract), and defendant never signed the addendum, am ambiguity existed concerning the parties intent.  And since plaintiff drafted both the original contract and the unsigned addendum, the ambiguity had to be construed in defendant’s favor under Illinois contract interpretation rules.

Since the unsigned addendum contained the same project name and number as the original contract, the appeals court found that the record evidence supported a finding that the addendum sought to modify the original contract and was not a separate, new undertaking.  And since defendant never signed the addendum, she wasn’t bound by it.

Afterwords:

The case serves as a cautionary tale concerning the perils of not getting the party to be charged to sign a contract.  Where one party fails to get the other to sign it yet still does work anyway, it does so at its peril.

Here, since both the original and unsigned addendum each referenced the same project name, description and number, the court found plaintiff’s extra work was done in furtherance of (and as a modification to) the original contract.  As the contract’s integration clause required all changes to be in writing, the failure of defendant to sign off on the addendum’s extra work doomed the plaintiff’s damage claims.

 

 

 

Non-Parties Can Enforce Franchise Agreement’s Arbitration Clause – IL Court

In a franchise dispute involving a sushi restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, the First District in Kim v. Kim, 2016 IL App (1st) 153296-U examines the scope of contractual arbitration clauses and when arbitration can be insisted on by non-parties to a contract.

The franchisee plaintiff sued the two principals of the franchisor for fraud.  He alleged the defendants tricked him into entering the franchise by grossly inflating the daily sales of the restaurant.  The plaintiff sued for rescission and fraud when the restaurant’s actual sales didn’t match the defendants’ pre-contract projections.  

The court dismissed the suit based on an arbitration clause contained in the franchise agreement and the plaintiff appealed.  He argued that since the defendants were not parties to the franchise agreement (the agreement was between plaintiff and the corporate franchisor), the defendants couldn’t use the arbitration clause as a “sword” and require the plaintiff to arbitrate his claims.

Affirming the case’s dismissal, the appeals court first discussed the burden-shifting machinery of a Section 2-619 motion to dismiss.  With such a motion, the movant must offer affirmative matter appearing on the face of the complaint or that is supported by affidavits.  Once the defendant meets this initial burden, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff who must establish that the affirmative matter is unfounded or requires the resolution of a material fact.  If the plaintiff fails to carry his burden, the motion to dismiss can be granted.  (¶ 23)

The court then zeroed in on whether the defendants – non-parties to the franchise agreement – could enforce the agreement’s arbitration clause against the plaintiff.  Generally, only parties to a contract can enforce its terms.  By contrast, non-parties cannot.  An exception to this rule is equitable estoppel: where a party is estopped or prevented from avoiding a written contract term because the party trying to enforce it isn’t technically a party to it.

For equitable estoppel to apply and subject a contracting party to arbitration against a non-party, (1) the signatory must rely on terms of a contract to make its claims (or presumes the existence a written agreement that contains an arbitration provision) against the nonsignatory, (2) the signatory must allege concerted misconduct by the nonparty and one or more contracting parties, and (3) where there is a close nexus between the alleged wrong and the claims against the non-party and where plaintiff’s claims against a defendant are factually intertwined with or based on written contract terms.  (¶¶ 44-45)

Here, the crux of plaintiff’s lawsuit was that the defendants induced him into signing the franchise agreement and related restaurant lease.  Since the plaintiff’s claims were premised on and presumed the franchise agreement’s existence, and the franchise agreement contained a broad arbitration clause, the court held that the plaintiff was subject to the arbitration clause and the defendants could enforce the clause.

Afterwords:

A third party generally cannot enforce contract provisions since the third party, by definition, is not a signatory to the contract.

But where a plaintiff’s claim against a non-party relates to or is factually intertwined with a written contract, the terms of that contract can govern and be enforced by the non-party.

 

‘Bankruptcy Planning,’ Alone, Doesn’t Equal Fraudulent Intent to Evade Creditors – IL ND

A Northern District of Illinois bankruptcy judge recently rejected a creditor’s attempt to nix a debtor’s discharge for fraud.  The creditor alleged the debtor tried to escape his creditors by shedding assets before his bankruptcy filing and by not disclosing estate assets in his papers.  Finding for the debtor after a bench trial, the Court in Monty Titling Trust I v. Granrath, 15 AP 00826 illustrates the heavy burden a creditor must meet to successfully challenge a debtor’s discharge based on fraud.

The Court specifically examines the contours of the fraudulent conduct exception to discharge under Code Section 727(a)(2) and Code Section 727(a)(4)’s discharge exception for false statements under oath.

Vehicle Trade-In and Lease

The court found that the debtor’s conduct in trading in his old vehicle and leasing two new ones in his wife’s name in the weeks leading up to the bankruptcy filing was permissible bankruptcy planning (and not fraud).  Since bankruptcy aims to provide a fresh start to a debtor, a challenge to a discharge is construed strictly against the creditor opposing the discharge.  Under the Code, a court should grant a debtor’s discharge unless the debtor “with intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor” transfers, hides or destroys estate property.

Under the Code, a court should grant a debtor’s discharge unless the debtor “with intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor” transfers, hides or destroys property of the debtor within one year of its bankruptcy filing. 11 U.S.C. s. 727(a)(2)(A).  Another basis for the court to deny a discharge is Code Section 727(a)(4) which prevents a discharge where a debtor knowingly and fraudulently makes a false oath or account.

To defeat a discharge under Code Section 727(a)(2), a creditor must show (1) debtor transferred property belonging to the estate, (2) within one year of the filing of the petition, and (3) did so with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor of the estate.  A debtor’s intent is a question of fact and when deciding if a debtor had the requisite intent to defraud a creditor, the court should consider the debtor’s whole pattern of conduct.

To win on a discharge denial under Code Section 727(a)(4)’s false statement rule, the creditor must show (1) the debtor made a false statement under oath, (2) that debtor knew the statement was false, (3) the statement was made with fraudulent intent, and (4) the statement materially related to the bankruptcy case.

Rejecting the creditor’s arguments, the Court found that the debtor and his wife testified in a forthright manner and were credible witnesses.  The court also credited the debtor’s contributing his 401(k) funds in efforts to save his business as further evidence of his good faith conduct.  Looking to Seventh Circuit precedent for support, the Court found that “bankruptcy planning does not alone” satisfy Section 727’s requirement of intent.  As a result, the creditor failed to meet its burden of showing fraudulent conduct by a preponderance of the evidence.

Opening Bank Account Pre-Petition

The Court also rejected the creditor’s assertion that the debtor engaged in fraudulent conduct by opening a bank account in his wife’s name and then transferring his paychecks to that account in violation of a state court citation to discover assets.  

The court noted that the total amount of the challenged transfers was less than $2,000 (since the most that can be attached is 15% gross wages under Illinois’ wage deduction statute) and the debtor’s scheduled assets exceeded $4 million.  Such a disparity between the amount transferred and the estate assets coupled with the debtor’s plausible explanation for why he opened a new bank account in his wife’s name led the Court to find there was no fraudulent intent.

Lastly, the court found that the debtor’s omission of the bank account from his bankruptcy schedules didn’t rise to the level of fraudulent intent.  Where a debtor fails to include a possible asset (here, a bank account) in his bankruptcy papers, the creditor must show the debtor acted with specific intent to harm the bankruptcy estate.  Here, the debtor testified that his purpose in opening the bank account was at the suggestion of his bankruptcy lawyer and not done to thwart creditors.  The court found these bankruptcy planning efforts did not equal fraud.

Afterwords:

1/ Bankruptcy planning does not equate to fraudulent intent to avoid creditors.

2/ Where the amount of debtor’s challenged transfers is dwarfed by scheduled assets and liabilities, the Court is more likely to find that a debtor did not have a devious intent in pre-bankruptcy efforts to insulate debtor assets.