Corporate Officer Can’t Tortiously Interfere with His Company’s Contract; No Punitives for Breach of Contract – ND IL

In Richmond v. Advanced Pain Consultants, P.C., 2015 WL 4971040 (N.D.Ill. 2015), the plaintiff sued the defendants – two companies that operated suburban (Chicago) pain clinics and their doctor principal – claiming several thousand dollars in unpaid computer and accounting services plaintiff performed at the clinics over a several-month period.  The plaintiff brought claims for overtime under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act and joined companion state law claims for breach of contract, quantum meruit and tortious interference with contract.  The defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims arguing preemption and the failure to state a claim, among other things.

In dismissing some of plaintiff’s claims (and sustaining others), the Northern District stressed some vital pleading rules and substantive law principles that apply in Federal court litigation.

Federal Notice Pleading Requirements

Federal Rule 8(a)(2) requires a “short and plain statement of the claim showing a pleader is entitled to relief.”  The plaintiff must provide enough factual context to rise above a speculative level so that a defendant has “fair notice” of what the plaintiff’s claim is.  However, “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action” are not enough to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal motion.

Preemption and Punitive Damages

The defendant first argued the plaintiff’s common law claims (breach of contract, quantum merit, tortious interference) were preempted by the FLSA.  FLSA preempts common law claims that seek to recover overtime or minimum wage compensation.  But if the plaintiff’s claim seeks something other than overtime or minimum wage payments, those claims aren’t preempted.  Here, several of the plaintiff’s claims were for “regular wages” (not overtime) and so were not preempted by FLSA.

The court next struck plaintiff’s punitive damages claim from his breach of contract suit.  Under Illinois law, contract law’s sole purpose is to compensate the nonbreaching party.  It does not seek to punish the breaching party or give an economic windfall to the plaintiff.  This is true even if the breach is intentional.  Punitive damages can only be allowed in the breach of contract setting where the breach is itself an actionable, independent tort (e.g. a civil conspiracy, fraud, etc.).  Since there was no independent tortious conduct over and above the breach of contract – failure to pay plaintiff for his office services – the court struck plaintiff’s punitive damages claims.

Tortious Interference Against A Single-Member Corporation

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s tortious interference claims against the individual defendant – the sole shareholder of the two corporate defendants.

To state a claim for tortious interference with contract, a plaintiff must allege: (i) the existence of a valid and enforceable contract between a plaintiff and another; (ii) defendant’s awareness of the contractual obligation; (iii) defendant’s intentional and unjustified inducement of a breach of contract; (iv) breach of the contract by the third party caused by the defendant’s wrongful conduct.

A colorable tortious interference claim requires the involvement of at least three entities: (1)-(2) the parties to the contract and (3) the person inducing the breach.

Here, the individual defendant was the sole officer and manager of the two defendant medical offices who had unchallenged authority to make all hiring and firing decisions for the two entities.  The court noted that the two corporate defendants wouldn’t exist without the individual defendant.  There were no other shareholders or parties who had an interest in the corporate defendants.  Since the individual defendant was the only operator and stakeholder in the corporate defendants, he could not tortuously induce a breach of (effectively) his own contract with the plaintiff.

Afterwords:

The case provides some useful damages law reminders including that in a breach of contract suit, punitive damages normally can’t be recovered.  The plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach is itself an intentional tort for a punitive claim possibly to lie.

Advanced Pain Consultants also makes clear that an officer of a corporation cannot tortiously interfere with a contract involving that corporation where that officer is the only shareholder of the corporation and has sole responsibility for the corporation’s business.