Five-Year Limitations Period to Sue Dissolved Corporation Applies to Piercing Corporate Veil Suit – IL Court

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Peetom v. Swanson, 334 Ill.App.3d 523 (2nd. Dist. 2002) provides a dated yet instructive recitation of the statute of limitations standards that govern corporate veil piercing actions in Illinois.

The case’s relevant chronology includes: (1) Plaintiff filed a negligence action in 1995 against a corporate defendant for injuries plaintiff suffered in 1993, (2) In May 1997 – the corporate defendant was defaulted; (3) In June 1998, the corporate defendant was involuntarily dissolved by the Illinois Secretary of State for failure to file a report and pay its taxes, (4) In November 1998, a $1M money judgment entered against corporate defendant; and (5) in 2000, plaintiff filed suit against corporate shareholders under a veil piercing theory to enforce the 1998 default judgment.

The trial court dismissed the suit as untimely under the two-year limitations period for personal injury actions and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Reversed.

Q: Why?

A: The case involves the interplay between three limitations periods in the Code of Civil Procedure.  Section 13-202 sets forth a two-year limitations period for personal injury claims, Section 12.80 of the Business Corporation Act requires a claim against a dissolved corporation (or its shareholders and directors) to be brought within five years after dissolution, and Code Section 12-108 provides for a seven-year period to enforce a judgment.  735 ILCS 5/13-202, 815 ILCS 5/12.80, 735 ILCS 5/12-108.

Since piercing the corporate veil is an equitable remedy and not a cause of action, the limitations period applicable to a piercing claim is governed by the nature of the underlying cause of action.  The question is “which underlying action?”  The 1995 negligence suit or the 2000 action to enforce the money judgment against the corporate shareholders?

The court rejected the shareholder defendants’ argument that the 1995 case was the underlying claim and that the two-year period for personal injury suits applied.  The court found that plaintiff’s 2000 piercing action, which sought to affix liability to the shareholder defendants for the $1M money judgment against the corporation, was the underlying claim for purposes of applying the statute of limitations.  The court found that in the 2000 case, Plaintiff was not alleging negligence against the shareholders but was instead trying to enforce the 1998 judgment assessed against the dissolved corporation.  As a result, Plaintiff would normally have seven years – through November 2005 – to sue on the money judgment.

However, since the corporate defendant was dissolved, the five-year period for suing a dissolved corporation and its shareholders based on pre-dissolution debts applied.  Plaintiff’s piercing suit was still timely though.  The judgment entered in 1998 and plaintiff filed suit in 2000 – well within the five-year period.

The other argument the First District rejected was defendant’s claim that the five-year period to sue a defunct corporation didn’t apply since at the time the corporation was dissolved, the plaintiff’s claim hadn’t yet been reduced to judgment and so plaintiff didn’t have an existing claim prior to the dissolution.

The court disagreed and found that since the corporation had been defaulted in 1997 – prior to the 1998 dissolution – the plaintiff’s claim against the corporation had already been deemed valid even though the plaintiff’s money claim wasn’t mathematically certain until after the company dissolved.  As a consequence, plaintiff had a pre-existing claim against the corporation under the Illinois BCA to trigger application of the five-year limitations period.

Afterwords:

An obvious pro-creditor decision.  The case stands for proposition that in a judgment creditor’s action against corporate shareholders to pierce the corporate veil after an earlier, unsatisfied judgment against a corporation, the seven-year limitations period to enforce a judgment applies.  The only reason the five-year period applied here was because of the specific BCA section (815 ILCS 5/12.80) that speaks to suing dissolved corporations.

Still, the plaintiff’s suit was timely as he filed well before the 2003 deadline.  Had the defendant prevailed, the plaintiff’s claim would have been barred if he didn’t sue in 1995 – two years after plaintiff’s underlying personal injury.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Bielski Chapman, Ltd. representing businesses and individuals in business litigation, post-judgment enforcement, collections and real estate litigation.