‘Surviving Partner’ Statute Defeats Fraud Suit in Mobile Home Spat – IL Court

The plaintiff in Jett v. Zeman Homes sued a mobile home seller for fraud and negligence after it failed to disclose a home’s history of mold damage and location in a flood zone.  The plaintiff’s claims were premised mainly on an agent of the defendant mobile home owner who died during the course of the litigation.  Affirming summary judgment for the owner, the court considered and answered some important questions on the applicability of common law and consumer fraud actions to the real estate context and when the death of an agent will immunize a corporate principal for claims based on the deceased agent’s comments.

The plaintiff’s fraud claims alleged that defendant’s agent made material misrepresentations that there was not a mold problem in the mobile home park and that any mold the plaintiff noticed in her pre-purchase walk-through was an isolated occurrence.  Plaintiff also alleged the seller’s agent failed to disclose a history of flooding on the property the mobile home occupied and the home’s lack of concrete foundation which contributed to flooding in the home.

Plaintiff’s negligence count alleged defendant breached duties of disclosure delineated in Section 21 of the Mobile Home Landlord and Tenant Rights Act. 765 ILCS 745/21 (West 2016). Plaintiff alleged defendant breached its duty to her by failing to disclose the home’s history of mold infestation and failure to alleviate the mold problem after plaintiff notified defendant.

The appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s fraud claims based on Illinois Evidence Code Section 301 which provides that a party who contracts with a now-deceased agent of an adverse party is not competent to testify to any admission of the deceased agent unless the admission was made in the presence of other surviving agents of the adverse party. 735 ILCS 5/8-301 (West 2016).  This is an application of the “Dead Man’s Act” (see 735 ILCS 5/8-201) principles to the principal-agent setting.

Applying this surviving agent rule, the Court noted that plaintiff admitted in her deposition that the predicate statements giving rise to both her common law and statutory fraud counts were made solely by the deceased defendant’s agent.  Since plaintiff could not identify any other agents of the defendant who were present when the deceased agent made statements concerning prior mold damage on the home, she could not attribute a materially false statement (a common law fraud element) or a deceptive act or practice (a consumer fraud element) to the defendant.

The appeals court also affirmed summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s negligence count.  An Illinois negligence plaintiff must plead and prove: (1) the existence of a duty of care owed to the plaintiff by the defendant; (2) a breach of that duty, and (3) an injury proximately caused by that breach.

Since the lease agreement attached to plaintiff’s complaint demonstrated that the owner/lessor was someone other than the defendant, the plaintiff could not establish that defendant owed plaintiff a legal duty.

Afterwords:

A fraud plaintiff relying on statements of a deceased agent to hold a principal (e.g. an employer) liable, will have to prove the statement in question was made in the presence of surviving agents.  Otherwise, as this case shows, Illinois’ surviving partner or joint contractor statute will defeat the claim by barring the plaintiff from presenting evidence of the deceased’s statements or conduct.

 

Non-Shareholder Can Be Liable On Alter-Ego and Veil Piercing Theory – IL Bankruptcy Court

Buckley v. Abuzir  will likely be viewed as a watershed in piercing the corporate veil litigation because of its exhaustive analysis of when a non-shareholder can be personally liable for corporate debts.  In that case, the court provides an extensive survey of how nearly every jurisdiction in the country has decided the non-shareholder piercing question.

In re Tolomeo, 2015 WL 5444129 (N.D.Ill. 2015) considers the related question of whether a creditor can pierce the corporate veil of entities controlled by a debtor non-shareholder so that those entities’ assets become part of the debtors’ bankruptcy estate.

The answer: “yes.”  In their complaint, the creditors sought a determination that three companies owned by the debtor’s wife but controlled by the debtor were the debtors’ alter-egos.  The creditors of the debtor also sought to pierce the companies’ corporate veils so that the companies’ assets would be considered part of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.  This would have the salutary effect of providing more funds for distribution to the various creditors.  After striking the debtor’s defenses to the complaint, the court granted the creditors motion for judgment on the pleadings. In doing so, the bankruptcy court applied some fundamental piercing principles to the situation where an individual debtor controls several companies even though he is not a nominal shareholder of the companies.

In Illinois, a corporation is a legal entity separate and distinct from its shareholders. However, this separateness will be disregarded where limited liability would defeat a strong equitable claim of a corporate creditor.

A party who seeks to set aside corporate liability protection on an alter-ego basis must make the two-part showing that (1) the company was so controlled and manipulated that it was a mere instrumentality of another entity or individual; and (2) misuse of the corporate form would promote fraud or injustice.

The mere instrumentality factors include (a) inadequate capitalization, (b) a failure to issue stock, (c) failure to observe corporate formalities, (d) nonpayment of dividends, (e) insolvency of the debtor corporation, (f) nonfunctioning officers or directors, (g) lack of corporate records, (h) commingling of funds, (i) diversion of assets from the corporation by or to a shareholder, (j) failure to maintain arm’s length relationships among related entities; and (k) the corporation being a mere façade for the dominant shareholders.

Promotion of injustice (factor (2) above)), in the veil piercing context, requires less than a showing of fraud but something more than the prospect of an unsatisfied judgment.

The court echoed Buckley and found that the corporate veil can be pierced to reach the assets of an individual even where he is not a shareholder, officer, director or employee.

The key question is whether a person exercises “equitable ownership and control” over a corporation to such an extent that there’s no demarcation between the corporation and the individual.  According to the court, making shareholder status a prerequisite for piercing liability elevates form over substance.

Applying these standards, the court found the circumstances ripe for piercing. The debtor controlled the three entities as he handled the day-to-day operations of the companies. He also freely shifted money between the entities and regularly paid his personal bills from company bank accounts. Finally, the court noted an utter lack of corporate records and threadbare compliance with rudimentary formalities. Taken together, the court found that the factors weighed in favor of finding that the three companies were the debtor’s alter-egos and the three entities should be considered part of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.

Take-aways:

1/ A defendant’s status as a corporate shareholder will not dictate whether or not his assets can be reached in an alter-ego or veil piercing setting.

2/ If non-shareholder sufficiently controls a corporate entity, he can be responsible for the corporate debts assuming other piercing factors are present.

3/ Veil piercing can occur absent actual fraud by a controlling shareholder.  The creditor plaintiff must show more than a mere unpaid debt or unsatisfied judgment, though.  Instead, there must be some element of unfairness present for a court to set aside corporate protection and fasten liability to the individual.

 

 

Lender’s Reliance on Predecessor Bank’s Loan Documents Satisfies Business Records Hearsay Rule – IL First Dist.

A commercial guaranty dispute provides the background for the First District’s recent discussion of some signature litigation issues including the voluntary (versus compulsory) payment rule and how that impacts an appeal, the business records hearsay exception, and governing standards for the recovery of attorneys fees.

The lender plaintiff in Northbrook Bank & Trust Co. v. Abbas, 2018 IL App (1st) 162972 sued commercial loan guarantors for about $2M after a loan default involving four properties.
On appeal, the lender argued that the guarantors’ appeal was moot since they paid the judgment. Under the mootness doctrine, courts will not review cases simply to establish precedent or guide future litigation. This rule ensures that an actual controversy exists and that a court can grant effective relief.

A debtor’s voluntary payment of a money judgment prevents the paying party from pursuing an appeal. Compulsory payment, however, will not moot an appeal.
The court found the guarantors’ payment compulsory in view of the lender’s aggressive post-judgment efforts including issuing multiple citations and a wage garnishment and moving to compel the guarantors’ production of documents in the citation proceeding. Faced with these post-judgment maneuvers, the Court found the payment compulsory and refused to void the appeal. (⁋⁋ 24-27)

The First District then affirmed the trial court’s admission of the lender’s business records into evidence over the defendant’s hearsay objection.  To admit business records into evidence, the proponent (here, the plaintiff) must lay a proper foundation by showing the records were made (1) in the regular course of business, and (2) at or near the time of the event or occurrence. Illinois Rule of Evidence 803(6) allows “records of regularly conducted activity” into evidence where (I) a record is made at or near the time, (ii) by or from information transmitted by a person with knowledge, (iii) if kept in the regular course of business and (iv) where it was the regular practice of that business activity to make the record as shown by the custodian’s or other qualified witness’s testimony.

The theory on which business records are generally admissible is that their purpose is to aid in the proper transaction of business and the records are useless unless accurate. Because the accuracy of business records is vital to any functioning commercial enterprise, “the motive for following a routine of accuracy is great and motive to falsify nonexistent.” [¶¶ 47-48]

With computer-generated business records, the evidence’s proponent must establish (i) the equipment used is industry standard, (ii) the entries were made in the regular course of business, (iii) at or near the time of the transaction, and (iv) the sources of information, method and time of preparation indicate the entries’ trustworthiness. Significantly, the person offering the business records into evidence (either at trial or via affidavit) isn’t required to have personally entered the data into the computer or even learn of the records before the litigation started. A witness’s lack of personal knowledge concerning the creation of business records affects the weight of the evidence; not its admissibility. [¶ 50]

Here, the plaintiff’s loan officer testified he oversaw defendants’ account, that he personally reviewed the entire loan history as part of his job duties and authenticated copies of the subject loan records. In its totality, the Court viewed the bank officer’s testimony as sufficient to admit the loan records into evidence.

Next, the Court affirmed the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees to the lender plaintiff. Illinois follows the ‘American rule’: each party pays its own fees unless there is a contract or statutory provision providing for fee-shifting. If contractual fee language is unambiguous, the Court will enforce it as written.

A trial court’s attorneys’ fee award must be reasonable based on, among other things, (i) the nature and complexity of the case, (ii) an attorney’s skill and standing, (iii) degree of responsibility required, (iv) customary attorney charges in the locale of the petitioning party, and (v) nexus between litigation and fees charged. As long as the petitioner presents a detailed breakdown of fees and expenses, the opponent has a chance to present counter-evidence, and the court can make a reasonableness determination, an evidentiary hearing isn’t required.

Afterwords:

Abbas presents a useful, straightforward summary of the business records hearsay exception, attorneys’ fees standards and how payment of a judgment impacts a later right to appeal that judgment.

The case also illustrates how vital getting documents into evidence in breach of contract cases and the paramount importance of clear prevailing party fee provisions in written agreements.