Shortened ‘Arb Award’ Rejection Deadline Upheld Against Constitutional Attack – IL Appeals Court

The First District appeals court recently nixed a plaintiff’s constitutional challenge to a local rule’s arbitration rejection deadline.  The opinion’s upshot is clear: when a supreme court rule conflicts with a statute, the rule wins.

The plaintiff in McBreen v. Mercedes-Benz, USA, LLC  argued her equal protection and due process rights were violated when a trial court denied her attempt to tardily reject an arbitration award. The case was decided by a single arbitrator under the auspices of the Cook County Law Division Mandatory Arbitration Program (MAP), a two-year pilot program that sends commercial cases with damage claims between $50,000 and $75,00 to mandatory arbitration.

Among other things, the Law Division MAP provides for hearings before a single arbitrator and requires a losing party to reject the award within seven business days. Cook County Cir. Ct. R. 25.1, 25.5, 25.11.

After an arbitrator found for defendants, the plaintiff didn’t reject the award until 30 days later – 23 days too late. The trial court then granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s case and denied plaintiff’s motion to void the arbitration award or extend the rejection deadline.  The trial court entered judgment on the arbitration award for defendant.

Plaintiff argued on appeal that Rule 25’s compressed rejection period violated her constitutional rights since it conflicted with the  30-day rejection deadline for Municipal Department arbitrations. (The Cook County Municipal Department hears personal injury cases and breach of contract suits where the damage claim is $30,000 or less.)   The plaintiff also claimed the Law Division MAP was unconstitutional since it clashed with the “panel of three” arbitrators rule prevailing in Municipal Department arbitrations.

Affirming the trial court, the Court first considered whether the Illinois Supreme Court had power to establish the Law Division MAP program with its seven-day rejection rule.

The Law Division MAP rejection period conflicts with Cook County’s Municipal Department arbitration scheme – which has a 30-day rejection rule.  (The Municipal arbitration rules, codified in Supreme Court Rules 86-95, were legislatively implemented via Code Sections 2-1001A and 1003A which, respectively, authorize the establishment of an arbitration program where a panel of three arbitrators hears cases involving less than $50,000 in damages. Rule 93(a) contains the 30-day rejection cut-off.)

The First District noted that while the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection period clashes with the Municipal Department’s 30-day period, Illinois courts through the decades consistently recognize the Illinois Supreme Court’s constitutional authority to make rules governing practice and procedure in the lower courts and that where a supreme court rule conflicts with a statute on a judicial procedure matter, the rule wins.

The court also notes the Illinois legislature echoed this inherent power for the Supreme Court to establish court rules in Code Section 1-104(a).  In the end, the Court found that In view of the Illinois Supreme Court’s expansive power in the area of pleadings, practice and procedure, the Law Division MAP’s abbreviated rejection period trumped any conflicting, longer rejection period found in other statutes or rules.  (¶¶ 17-18, 22-23).

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s equal protection argument – that the Law Division MAP program infringed the rights of Municipal court participants by shortening the rejection time span from 30 to seven days.  While allowing that Law Division and Municipal litigants in the arbitration setting share the same objective of taking part in a less-costly alternative to litigation, the Court found the two Programs “qualitatively different:” the Law Division MAP is geared to those seeking damages of between $50,000 and $75,000 while the Municipal plaintiff’s damages are capped at $30,000.

According to the Court, the different damage ceilings involved in Law Division and Municipal cases meant that plaintiffs in the two court systems aren’t similarly situated under the Equal Protection clause. (¶¶ 34-35).

Plaintiff’s final argument, that the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection period violated her due process rights also failed.  Due process requires an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful matter.

The plaintiff argued that the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection cut-off failed to give her a meaningful opportunity to challenge the award.   The Court thought otherwise.  It noted that statutes are presumed constitutional and someone challenging a statute’s constitutionality bears a heavy burden.  It then cited to multiple cases across a wide strata of facts which have upheld time limits of less than 30 days.

Afterwords:

McBreen offers a thorough, triangulated analysis of what happens when a Supreme Court Rule, a county’s local court rule and legislative enactments all speak to the same issue and appear to contradict each other.  The case solidifies the proposition that the Supreme Court’s primacy in the realm of lower court procedure and pleading extends to mandatory arbitration regimes, too.  While the case is silent on what constitutes a sufficient basis to extend the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection deadline, McBreen makes clear that a constitutional challenge will likely ring hollow.

 

Massive Wind Turbine Tower A Trade Fixture, Not Lienable Property Improvement – IL Second Dist.

AUI Construction Group, LLC v. Vaessen, 2016 IL App (2d) 160009 wrestles with whether a massive wind turbine tower that can be removed only by detonating several bombs at a cost of over half a million dollars qualifies as a lienable property improvement or is a non-lienable trade fixture under Illinois law.

The property owner and turbine seller signed an easement agreement for the seller to install a turbine on defendant’s land for an annual fee.  The easement provided the turbine would remain the seller’s property and that the seller must remove the structure on 90 days’ notice.  The seller also had to remove the turbine when the easement ended.  The turbine seller then contracted with a general contractor to install the turbine who, in turn, subcontracted out various aspects of the installation.

The owner-general contractor agreement and the downstream subcontracts referenced the easement and stated the turbine system remained the seller’s property.

When the plaintiff sub-subcontractor didn’t get paid, he sued its subcontractor, ultimately getting an arbitration award of over $3M.  When that proved uncollectable after the subcontractor’s bankruptcy, the plaintiff sued the property owner to foreclose a mechanics lien it previously recorded to recover the unpaid judgment.  The trial court dismissed the suit on the basis that the turbine was a removable trade fixture that was non-lienable as a matter of law.

Affirming, the Second District first noted that Illinois’ Mechanics Lien Act (770 ILCS 60/0.01 et seq.)(MLA) protects those who furnish material or labor for the improvement of real property.  The MLA allows a claimant to record a lien where its labor, materials or services improves the property’s value. In Illinois, real estate improvements are lienable; trade fixtures are not.

The factors considered in determining whether equipment is lienable includes (1) the nature of attachment to the realty, (2) the equipment’s adaptation to and necessity for the purpose to which the premises are devoted, and (3) whether it was intended that the item in question should be considered part of the realty.  Crane Erectors & Riggers, Inc. v. LaSalle National Bank, 125 Ill.App.3d 658 (1984).

Intent (factor (3)) is paramount.  Even where an item can be removed from land without injuring it, doesn’t mean the item isn’t lienable. So long as the parties manifest an intent to improve the realty, a removable item can still be lienable.  Moreover, parties are free to specify in their contract that title to equipment furnished to property will not pass to the land owner until its fully paid for.

Applying the three-factored fixture test, the court found the  nature of attachment, and necessity of the item for production of wind energy weighed in favor of finding the turbine lienable.   However, the all-important intent factor (factor number 3 above) suggested the opposite.

The easement agreement specified the turbine seller retained its ownership interest in the turbine and could (and had to) remove it at the easement’s end.  The court wrote: “the easement agreement establishes that the tower was a trade fixture.”  (¶ 20)

The Court also found that plaintiff’s “third party” rights were not impacted since plaintiff’s sub-subcontract specifically referenced the easement and prime contract – both of which stated the turbine would remain seller’s property. (¶ 23)

The Court examined additional factors to decide whether the turbine was lienable.  From a patchwork of Illinois cases through the decades, the Court looked at (1) whether the turbine provided a benefit or enhancement to the property, (2) whether the turbine was removable without material damage to the property, (3) whether it was impractical to remove the item, (4) whether the item (turbine) was used to convert the premises from one use to another, and (5) the agreement and relationship between the parties.

The sole factor tilting (no pun intended) in favor of lienability was factor 4 – that the turbine was essential to converting the defendant’s land from farmland to harnessing of wind energy.  All other factors pointed to the turbine being a nonlienable trade fixture.

The Court noted the property owner didn’t derive a benefit from the turbine other than an annual rent payment it received and rent is typically not lienable under the law.  The Court also pointed out that the tower could be removed albeit it through a laborious and expensive process.  Lastly, and most importantly, the parties’ intent was that the turbine was to remain seller’s personal property and for it not to be a permanent property improvement. (¶¶ 38-39)

The Court also rejected the subcontractor’s remaining arguments that (1) the Illinois Property Tax Code evinced a legislative intent to view wind turbines as lienable improvements and (2) it is unfair to disallow the plaintiff’s lien claim since it could not have a security interest in the turbine under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).

On the tax issue, the Court held that Illinois taxes turbines to ensure that wind turbines do not escape taxation and is purely a revenue-generating device.  Taxation of a structure is not a proxy for lienability. (¶¶ 43-44)

The Court agreed with that the subcontractor plaintiff did not have a security interest in the turbine under UCC Section 9-334 since, under that section, security interests do not attach to “ordinary building materials incorporated into an improvement on land.”  Since the turbine was replete with building materials (e.g. concrete, rebar, electrical conduit), the UCC didn’t give the plaintiff a remedy.  The Court allowed that this was a harsh result but the parties’ clear intent that the turbine remain the seller’s personal property trumped the policy arguments.

Afterwords:

This case strikes a blow to contractors who install large structures on real estate. Even something as immense as a multi-piece turbine system, which seemingly has a “death grip”- level attachment to land, can be nonlienable if that’s what the parties intended.

Another case lesson is for contractors to be extra diligent and insist on copies of all agreements referenced in their contracts to ensure their rights are protected in other agreements to which they’re not a party.

The case also portrays some creative lawyering.  The court’s discussion of the taxability of wind turbines, UCC Article 9 and the difference between a lease (which can be lienable) and an easement (which cannot) and how it impacts the lienability question makes for interesting reading.

 

Set-off Is Counterclaim; Not Affirmative Defense – IL Court Rules in Partition Suit

Stadnyk v. Nedoshytko, 2017 IL App (1st) 152103-U views the counterclaim-versus-affirmative defense distinction through the prism of a statutory partition suit involving co-owners of a Chicago apartment building.

The plaintiff sued to declare the parties’ respective ownership rights in the subject property.  After the court issued a partition order finding the plaintiff and defendants had respective 7/8 and 1/8 ownership interests.  After the trial court ordered a partition of the property, the defendants filed affirmative defenses titled unjust enrichment, breach of fiduciary duty and equitable accounting.  Through all the “defenses” defendants sought to recoup property maintenance and repair expenses they made through the years.

The trial court struck defendants’ affirmative defenses on the basis that they were actually counterclaims and not defenses. The court also refused to award statutory attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff.  Each side appealed.

Affirming the trial court’s striking of the defendants’ affirmative defenses, the First District initially considered the difference between an affirmative defense and a counterclaim.

Code Section 2-608 provides that counterclaims in the nature of “setoff, recoupment, cross-claim or otherwise, and whether in tort or contract, for liquidated or unliquidated damages, or for other relief, may be pleaded as a cross claim in any action, and when so pleaded shall be called a counterclaim.” 735 ILCS 5/2-608

Code Section 2-613 governs affirmative defenses and requires the pleader to allege facts supporting a given defense and gives as examples, payment, release, satisfaction, discharge, license, fraud, duress, estoppel, laches, statute of frauds, illegality, contributory negligence, want or failure of consideration. 735 ILCS 5/2-613.

Counterclaims differ from affirmative defenses in that counterclaims seek affirmative relief while affirmative defenses simply seek to defeat a plaintiff’s cause of action.  In this case, the defendants’ did not seek to defeat plaintiff’s partition suit.  Instead, the defendants sought post-partition set-offs against sale proceeds going to plaintiff for defendants’ property maintenance and repair expenses.

A setoff is a counterclaim filed by a defendant on a transaction extrinsic to the subject of plaintiff’s suit.  Since the defendants styled their affirmative defenses as sounding in setoff and accounting – two causes of action (not defenses) – the Court affirmed the trial court’s striking the defenses.

The Court also reversed the trial court’s order refusing to apportion plaintiff’s attorneys fees.  Section 17-125 of the partition statute provides that a partition plaintiff’s attorney can recover his fees apportioned among the various parties since, in theory, the attorney acts for all interested parties.  However, where a party mounts a “good and substantial defense to the complaint,” the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees should not be spread among the litigants. 735 ILCS 5/17-125.

Here, the defendants attempted to raise defenses (setoff and public sale, as opposed to private, was required) but only after the trial court entered the partition order.  Since the defendants didn’t challenge plaintiff’s partition request but instead sought a setoff for defendants’ contributions to the property and a public sale of the property, the trial court correctly concluded the defendants failed to raise good and substantial defenses under the partition statute.  As a consequence, the trial court should have apportioned plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.

Afterwords:

Stadnyk cements the proposition that a counterclaim differs from an affirmative defense and that setoff fits into the former category.  The case also stresses that where a defendant seeks to recover damages from a plaintiff based on a collateral transaction (other than the one underlying the plaintiff’s lawsuit), defendant should file a counterclaim for a setoff rather than attempt to raise the setoff as a defense.

Other critical holdings from the case include that a court of equity lacks power to go against clear statutory language that require a public sale and partition plaintiff attorneys’ fees should only be apportioned where a defendant doesn’t raise a substantial defense to the partition suit.