Judgment Creditor and Debtor’s Lawyers Duke It Out Over Equity in Home – ND IL

A law firm’s failure to look closer at its client’s suspiciously timed transfer of residential property to a land trust recently backfired in a pitched priority battle between competing creditors.
Earlier this month (June 2018), the Northern District of Illinois reversed an earlier priority ruling for the law firm (see Radiance v. Accurate Steel, 2018 WL 1394036) for not exhausting its inquiry notice obligations. (The Court’s order is found at ECF No. 82; Case No. 13 C 7481.)

The case centers around a dispute over real estate between the plaintiff – a judgment creditor of the debtor (who defaulted on some promissory notes) – and the aforementioned law firm, who defended the debtor in post-judgment enforcement proceedings.

The Relevant Chronology

August 2013 – Defendant debtor transferred the Property to an irrevocable trust;

March 2014 – Plaintiff’s predecessor recorded its money judgment against defendant;

June 2014 – The law firm agrees to represent defendant if she mortgaged her residence property (the Property) as an advanced payment retainer (retainer funds that immediately become property of the attorney)(see https://www.iardc.org/DowlingFAQs.html).

June 2015 – The law firm records a mortgage against the Property;

March 2018 – The court voids the 2013 transfer of the Property into a land trust as a fraudulent transfer.

The effect of this last order was the Property reverted back to the debtor and was no longer protected by the trust from the debtor’s creditors. The Court later ruled that the law firm lacked actual or constructive notice that the creditor’s prior judgment lien could wipe out the later mortgage. As a result, the Court found the law firm met the criteria for a bona fide purchaser – someone who gives value for something without notice of a competing claimant’s right to the same property.

Reversing itself on plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court first noted that recording a judgment gives the creditor a lien on all real estate owned in a given county by a debtor. 735 ILCS 5/12-101. Illinois follows the venerable “first-in-time, first-in-right” rule which confers priority status on the party who first records its lien.  An exception to the first-in-time priority rule is where a competing claimant is a bona fide purchaser (BFP). A BFP is someone who provides value for something without notice of a prior lien on it.

Here, the law firm unquestionably provided value – legal services – and lacked notice of the bank’s judgment lien since at the time the firm recorded its mortgage, the title to the real estate was held in trust. Where a creditor records a judgment against property held in a land trust, the judgment is not a lien on the real estate. Instead, it only liens the debtor’s beneficial interest in the trust. (See here  and here.) These factors led the Court originally to find that the Firm met the BFP test under the law.

Granting the creditor plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court found the law firm was apprised of enough facts to put it on inquiry notice that the mortgage was vulnerable to being trumped by the plaintiff’s judgment lien. A species of constructive notice, a party is on inquiry notice “when facts or circumstances are present that create doubt, raise suspicions, or engender uncertainty about the true state of title to real estate, the transferee can’t turn a blind eye….but is required to investigate further.” In re Thorpe, 546 B.R. 172, 185 (Bankr. C.D. Ill. 2016)(citing Illinois state court case authorities). A property mortgagee has a responsibility not only to check for prior liens and encumbrances in the chain-of-title, but also to consider “circumstances reasonably engendering suspicions as to title.” Id.

In its reconsideration order, the Court cited the Creditor recording its judgment lien 15 months before the law firm recorded its mortgage, the copious evidence of the debtor’s financial problems and transfer of the Property just as debtor’s creditors were closing in as likely badges of a fraud. The Court found the debtor’s Property transfer after she defaulted on numerous business loans she guaranteed should have put the law firm on notice that the Property was fair game for creditors like plaintiff. In short, the Court found that the law firm was apprised of facts – namely, debtor’s financial problems, aggressive creditors, and valueless transfer of the Property into a land trust – that obligated the law firm to dig deeper into the circumstances surrounding the transfer.

Afterwords:

Radiance and the various briefing that culminated in the Court’s reconsideration order provide an interesting discussion of creditor priority rules, law firm retainer agreements, trust law fundamentals and fraudulent transfer basics, all in a complex fact pattern.

The case reaffirms the proposition that where property is held in trust, a prior judgment lien against a beneficiary will not trump the later recorded judgment against the trust property.

However, where real estate is arguably fraudulently transferred – either intentionally or constructively (no value is received, transferor incurs debts beyond her ability to pay, e.g.) – a creditor of that transferee, like the Law Firm here, should at least think twice before transacting business with a debtor and  further into whether a given property transfer is legitimate.

 

 

IL Supreme Court Expands on Shareholder Derivative Suits and Standing Doctrine in Att”y Malpractice Suit

Some minority shareholders in an LLC sued their former counsel for legal malpractice alleging the firm failed to file “obvious” breach of fiduciary claims against the LLC’s corporate counsel.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm in Stevens v. McGuirreWoods, LLP, 2015 IL 118652, the Illinois Supreme Court gives content to the quantum of proof needed to sustain a legal malpractice claim and discusses the type of legal interest that will confer legal standing for a corporate shareholder to sue in his individual capacity.

The plaintiffs’ central claim was that McGuirreWoods (MW) botched the underlying case by not timely suing Sidley Austin, LLP (Sidley) after the LLC’s majority shareholders allegedly looted the company.  Sidley got the underlying case tossed on statute of limitations grounds and because the plaintiffs lacked standing. minority shareholder plaintiffs lacked standing to individually sue Sidley since Sidley’s obligations ran squarely

The trial court in the legal malpractice suit granted summary judgment for MW due to plaintiffs’ lack of standing.  The court held that even if MW had timely sued Sidley, the claim still would have failed because they could not bring claims in their individual capacity when those claims belonged exclusively to the LLC. After the First District appeals court partially reversed on a procedural issue, MW appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Result: Plaintiffs’ lacked standing to assert individual claims against Sidley.  Judgment for MW.

Rules/Reasons:

Some cases describe the legal malpractice suit as a “case-within-a-case.”  This is because the thrust of a legal malpractice claim is that if it wasn’t for an attorney’s negligence in an underlying case, the plaintiff would have won that case and awarded damages.

The legal malpractice plaintiff must prove (1) defendant attorney owed the plaintiff a duty of care arising from the attorney-client relationship, (2) the defendant’s breached that duty, and (3) as a direct and proximate result of the breach, the plaintiff suffered injury.

Injury in the legal malpractice setting means the plaintiff suffered a loss which entitles him to money damages.  Without proof the plaintiff sustained a monetary loss as a result of the lawyer defendant’s negligence, the legal malpractice suit can’t succeed.

The plaintiff must establish that he would have prevailed in the underlying lawsuit had it not been for the lawyer’s negligence.  The plaintiff’s recoverable damages in the legal malpractice case are the damages plaintiff would have recovered in the underlying case. [¶ 12]

Here, the plaintiffs sued Sidley in their individual capacities.  Since Sidley’s obligations flowed strictly to the LLC, the plaintiff’s lacked standing to sue Sidley in their individual capacity.

Under the law, derivative claims belong solely to a corporation on whose behalf the derivative suit is brought.  A plaintiff must have been a shareholder at the time of the transaction of which he complains and must maintain his shareholder status throughout the entire lawsuit.  [¶ 23]

Illinois’ LLC Act codifies this common law derivative suit recovery rule by making clear that any derivative action recovery goes to the LLC.  By contrast, the nominal plaintiff can only recover his attorneys’ fees and expenses.  805 ILCS 180/40-15.

A nominal plaintiff in a derivative suit only benefits indirectly from a successful suit through an increase in share value. The Court held that the plaintiffs’ missing out on increased share value was not something they could sue for individually in a legal malpractice suit.  Had MW timely sued Sidley, any recovery would have gone to the LLC, not to the plaintiffs – even though they were the named plaintiffs.  Since the plaintiffs could not have recovered money damages against Sidley in the earlier lawsuit, they cannot now recover those same damages under the guise of a legal malpractice action.

An added basis for the Court’s decision was that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue by divesting themselves of their LLC interests.  Standing means one has a real interest in the outcome of a controversy and may suffer injury to a legally recognized interest.

Since plaintiffs relinquished their LLC membership interests before suing MW, they lacked standing to pursue derivative claims for the LLC.

Afterwords:

This case illustrates in vivid relief the harsh results flowing from statute of limitations and the standing doctrine as it applies to aggrieved shareholder suits.

The case turned on the nature of the plaintiff’s claims.  Clearly, they were suing derivatively (as opposed to individually) to “champion” the LLC’s rights.  As a result, any recovery in the case against Sidley would flow to the LLC – the entity of which plaintiffs were no longer members.

And while the plaintiffs did maintain their shareholder status for the duration of the underlying Sidley case, their decision to terminate their LLC membership interests before suing MW proved fatal to their legal malpractice claims.

 

Zillow ‘Zestimates’ Not Actionable Value Statements; Homeowner Plaintiffs’ Not Consumers Under IL Consumer Fraud Act – IL ND 2018

Decrying the defendants’ use of “suspect marketing gimmicks” that generate “confusion in the marketplace,” the class action plaintiffs’ allegations in Patel v. Zillow, Inc. didn’t go far enough to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

The Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed the real estate owning plaintiffs’ claims against the defendants, whose Zillow.com website is a popular online destination for property buyers, sellers, lenders and brokers.

The plaintiffs alleged Zillow violated Illinois’s deceptive trade practices and consumer fraud statutes by luring prospects to the site based on fabricated property valuation data, employing “bait and switch” sales tactics and false advertising and giving preferential treatment to brokers and lenders who pay advertising dollars to Zillow.

Plaintiffs took special aim at Zillow’s “Seller Boost” program – through which Zillow provides choice broker leads in exchange for ad dollars – and “Zestimate,” Zillow’s property valuation tool that is based on computer algorithms.

The Court first dismissed Plaintiffs’ Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act (IDTPA) claim (815 ILCS 510/1 et seq.). Plaintiffs alleged Zestimate was a “suspect marketing gimmick” designed to lure visitors to Zillow in an effort to increase ad revenue from real estate brokers and lenders, and perpetuated marketplace confusion and disparaged properties by refusing to take down Zestimates that were proven inaccurate. Plaintiffs also alleged Defendants advertise properties for sale they have no intention of actually selling.

The Court found that Zestimates are not false or misleading representations of fact likely to confuse consumers. They are simply estimates of a property’s market value. As Zillow’s disclaimer-laden site says, Zestimates are but “starting points” of a property’s value and no proxy for a professional appraisal. As a result, the Court found Zestimates were nonactionable opinions of value.
Plaintiffs’ allegation that Zestimate creates consumer confusion also fell short. An actionable IDTPA claim premised on likelihood of confusion means a defendant’s use of a given trade name, trademark or other distinctive symbol is likely to mislead consumers as to the source of an advertised product or service. Here, the plaintiffs’ allegations that Zestimate was falsely vaunted as a legitimate valuation tool did not assert confusion between Zillow’s and another’s products or services.

Plaintiffs’ “bait and switch” and commercial disparagement claims fared no better. A bait and switch claim asserts that at a seller advertised one product or service only to “switch” a customer to another, costlier one. A commercial disparagement claim, based on IDPTA Section 510/2(a)(8) prevents a defendant from denigrating the quality of a business’s goods and services through false or misleading statements of fact.

Since plaintiffs did not allege Zillow was enticing consumers with one product or service while later trying to hawk a more expensive item, the bait and switch IDTPA claim failed. The court dismissed the commercial disparagement claim since Zestimates are only opinions of value and not factual statements.

The Court next nixed Plaintiffs’ self-dealing claim: that Zillow secretly tried to enrich itself by funneling For Sale By Owner (FSBO) sellers to premier brokers. While Illinois does recognize that a real estate broker owes a duty of good faith when dealing with buyers, the Court noted that Zillow is not a real estate broker. As a result, Defendants owed plaintiffs no legal duty to abstain from self-dealing.

The glaring absence of likely future harm also doomed the plaintiffs’ IDTPA claim. (The likelihood of future consumer harm is an element of liability under the IDTPA.) The Court found that even if Plaintiffs were confused or misled by Zillow in the past, there was no risk of future confusion. In IDTPA consumer cases, once a plaintiff is aware of potentially deceptive marketing, he can simply refrain from purchasing the offending product or service.

Next, the court jettisoned plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims which alleged Zestimates impeded homeowners efforts to sell their properties. A business (or another non-consumer) can still sue under ICFA where alleges a nexus between a defendant’s conduct and consumer harm. To meet this consumer nexus test, a corporate plaintiff must plead conduct involving trade practices addressed to the market generally or that otherwise implicates consumer protection concerns. If a non-consumer plaintiff cannot allege how defendant’s actions impact consumers other than the plaintiff, the ICFA claim fails.

The plaintiffs’ consumer fraud allegations missed the mark because plaintiffs were real estate sellers, not buyers. Moreover, the Court found that plaintiffs’ requested relief would not serve the interests of consumers since the claimed actual damages were unique to plaintiffs. The plaintiffs attempt to recover costs incidental to their inability to sell their homes, including mortgage payments, taxes, home owner association costs, utilities, and the like were not shared by the wider consumer marketplace. (For example, the Court noted that plaintiffs did not allege prospective consumer buyers will have to pay incidental out-of-pocket expenses related to Zillow’s Zestimate published values.)

Lastly, the Court dismissed plaintiffs’ deceptive practices portion of their ICFA claim. To state such a claim, the plaintiff must allege he suffered actual damages proximately caused by a defendant’s deception. But where a plaintiff isn’t actually deceived, it can’t allege a deceptive practice.

Here, in addition to falling short on the consumer nexus test, plaintiffs could not allege Zillow’s site content deceived them. This is because under Illinois fraud principles, a plaintiff who “knows the truth” can’t make out a valid ICFA deceptive practice claim. In their complaint, the plaintiffs’ plainly alleged they were aware of Zillow’s challenged tactics. Because of this, plaintiffs were unable to establish Zillow as the proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injury.

Afterwords:

Zillow provides a good primer on Federal court pleading standards in the post-Twombly era and gives a nice gloss on the requisite pleading elements required to state a viable cause of action for injunctive and monetary relief under Illinois’s deceptive practices and consumer fraud statutes.