ReMax Franchisor Defeats Tortious Interference Claim With Privilege Defense – IL 4th Dist.

The plaintiffs in Byram v. Danner, 2018 IL App (4th) 170058-U, sued after their planned purchase of a Remax real estate franchise imploded.  The plaintiffs missed an installment payment and the defendants responded by cancelling the agreement. Plaintiffs then filed a flurry of tort claims including fraud and tortious interference with contract.

Plaintiffs’ fraud count alleged the defendants lacked Remax authority to sell the franchise and hid this fact from the plaintiffs. The tortious interference claim asserted defendants bad-mouthed plaintiffs to certain agents, causing them to disassociate from plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs sought to recover their franchise fee, their first installment payment and unpaid commissions earned over a 16-month period. The trial court dismissed all of plaintiffs’ claims under Code Sections 2-615 and 2-619.  Plaintiffs appealed.

In finding the trial court properly jettisoned the fraud claim, the court noted that a valid cause of action for fraud requires (1) a false representation of material fact, (2) by a party who knows or believes it to be false, (3) with the intent to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) action by the plaintiff in reliance on the statement, and (5) injury to the plaintiff as a consequence of the reliance.

However, where a contractual provision negates one of the fraud elements, the fraud claim fails. Here, the underlying contract expressly conditioned defendants’ sale of the franchise on Remax accepting plaintiffs as a franchisee. This qualified language precluded plaintiffs from alleging that defendants misrepresented that they had authority from Remax to sell their franchise. (⁋ 43)

The appeals court also affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ tortious interference with prospective economic advantage claim.  To prevail on this theory, a plaintiff must plead and prove (1) his reasonable expectation of entering into a valid business relationship, (2) the defendant’s knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectancy, (3) purposeful interference by defendant that prevents plaintiff’s legitimate expectation from coming to fruition, and (4) damages to the plaintiff.

The ‘purposeful interference’ prong of the tort requires a showing of more than interference.  The plaintiff must also prove a defendant’s improper conduct done primarily to injure the plaintiff.  Where a defendant acts to protect or enhance his own business interests, he is privileged to act in a way that may collaterally harm another’s business expectancy.  Where a defendant invokes a privilege to interfere with a plaintiff’s business expectancy, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s conduct was unjustified or malicious.  (¶ 46)

The Court found defendants’ actions were done to protect the future success of their real estate franchise and listings.  Since plaintiffs failed to plead any specific facts showing defendants’ intent to financially harm the plaintiffs, dismissal of the tortious interference count was proper.

The Court reversed the dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract claims, however. This was because the affidavit filed in support of defendant’s Section 2-619 motion didn’t qualify as affirmative matter.  An affirmative matter is any defense other than a negation of the essential allegations of the plaintiff’s cause of action.  Affirmative matter is not evidence a defendant expects to contest an ultimate fact alleged in a complaint.

Here, defendants’ Section 2-619 affidavit effectively plaintiffs’ allegations were “not true:” that defendants didn’t owe plaintiffs any commissions.  The Court found that a motion affidavit that simply denies a complaint’s material facts does not constitute affirmative matter. (¶¶ 56-59)

Afterwords:

Byram provides a useful summary of the relevant guideposts and distinctions between section 2-615 and 2-619 motions to dismiss. Where a supporting affidavit merely disputes plaintiff’s factual allegations, it will equate to a denial of the plaintiff’s allegations. Such an affidavit will not constitute proper affirmative matter than wholly defeats a claim.

The case also provides value for its discussion of the Darwinian privilege defense to tortious interference. When a defendant acts to protect herself or her business, she can likely withstand a tortious interference claim by a competitor – even where that competitor is deprived of a remedy.

Secretary of State’s LLC File Detail Report Is Public Record – IL Court (A Deep Cut)

R&J Construction v. Javaras, 2011 WL 10069461, an unpublished and dated opinion, still holds practical value for its discussion of the judicial notice rule, breach of contract pleading requirements and a limited liability company member’s insulation from liability for corporate debts.

The plaintiff sold about $70K worth of construction materials to a concrete company associated with the individual defendant.  The concrete company’s legal name was WS Concrete, LLC, an Illinois limited liability company doing business under the assumed name, West Suburban Concrete.  Defendant was a member of the LLC and point-person who ordered supplies from the plaintiff.

The plaintiff sued the individual and did not name the LLC as a party defendant.

The trial court dismissed the complaint because the plaintiff failed to attach the written contract and there was no evidence the defendant assumed personal responsibility for the contract obligations.  The plaintiff appealed.

Result: Affirmed.

Reasons:

The Court first found the trial court correctly dismissed plaintiff’s suit for failure to attach the operative contract.

Code Section 2-606 requires a plaintiff to attach a written instrument (like a contract) to its pleading where the pleading is based on that instrument.  The exception is where the pleader can’t locate the instrument in which case it must file an affidavit stating the instrument is inaccessible.

Here, the plaintiff alleged a written contract but only attached a summary of various purchase orders and invoices to the complaint.  Since it failed to attach the contract, the appeals court found the complaint deficient and falling short of Section 2-606’s attached-instrument requirement.

The court next addressed whether the LLC File Detail Report (see above image), culled from the Illinois Secretary of State “cyberdrive” site was admissible on Defendant’s motion to dismiss.  In ruling the Report was admissible, the Court cited to case precedent finding that Secretary of State records are public records subject to judicial notice.  (Judicial notice applies to facts that are readily verifiable and not subject to reasonable dispute.)

Since the LLC Report plainly demonstrated the proper defendant was the LLC (as opposed to its member), and there was no evidence the individual defendant took on personal liability for plaintiff’s invoices, the trial court correctly dismissed the defendant.

Added support for the defendant’s dismissal came via the Illinois Limited Liability Company Act, 805 ILCS 180/1 et seq.  Section 10-10 of the LLC Act provides that an LLC’s contractual obligations belong solely to the LLC and that a member cannot be personally responsible for LLC contracts unless (1) the articles of organization provide for personal liability and (2) the member consents in writing.

The Court next addressed plaintiff’s agent of a disclosed principal argument.  The plaintiff asserted that since the individual defendant is the person who ordered plaintiff’s construction materials and it was unclear who the defendant represented, the defendant was responsible for plaintiff’s unpaid invoices.

The court rejected this argument.  It noted that under Illinois law, where an agent signs a contract by signing his own name and providing his own personal contact information (address, phone number, SS #, etc.) and fails to note his corporate affiliation, he (the agent) can be personally liable on a contract.  In this case, however, there was no documentation showing defendant ordering supplies in his own name.  All invoices attached to the plaintiff’s response brief (to the motion to dismiss) reflected the LLC’s assumed name – “West Suburban Concrete” – as the purchasing entity.

Afterwords:

(1) the case provides a useful analysis of common evidentiary issues that crop up in commercial litigation where a corporate agent enters into an agreement and the corporation is later dissolved;

(2) Both the LLC Act and agency law can insulate an individual LLC member from personal liability for corporate debts;

(3) Secretary of State corporate filings are public records subject to judicial notice.  This is good news for trial practitioners since it alleviates the logistical headache of having a Secretary of State agent give live or affidavit testimony on corporate records at trial.

 

 

Non-Parties Can Enforce Franchise Agreement’s Arbitration Clause – IL Court

In a franchise dispute involving a sushi restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, the First District in Kim v. Kim, 2016 IL App (1st) 153296-U examines the scope of contractual arbitration clauses and when arbitration can be insisted on by non-parties to a contract.

The franchisee plaintiff sued the two principals of the franchisor for fraud.  He alleged the defendants tricked him into entering the franchise by grossly inflating the daily sales of the restaurant.  The plaintiff sued for rescission and fraud when the restaurant’s actual sales didn’t match the defendants’ pre-contract projections.  

The court dismissed the suit based on an arbitration clause contained in the franchise agreement and the plaintiff appealed.  He argued that since the defendants were not parties to the franchise agreement (the agreement was between plaintiff and the corporate franchisor), the defendants couldn’t use the arbitration clause as a “sword” and require the plaintiff to arbitrate his claims.

Affirming the case’s dismissal, the appeals court first discussed the burden-shifting machinery of a Section 2-619 motion to dismiss.  With such a motion, the movant must offer affirmative matter appearing on the face of the complaint or that is supported by affidavits.  Once the defendant meets this initial burden, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff who must establish that the affirmative matter is unfounded or requires the resolution of a material fact.  If the plaintiff fails to carry his burden, the motion to dismiss can be granted.  (¶ 23)

The court then zeroed in on whether the defendants – non-parties to the franchise agreement – could enforce the agreement’s arbitration clause against the plaintiff.  Generally, only parties to a contract can enforce its terms.  By contrast, non-parties cannot.  An exception to this rule is equitable estoppel: where a party is estopped or prevented from avoiding a written contract term because the party trying to enforce it isn’t technically a party to it.

For equitable estoppel to apply and subject a contracting party to arbitration against a non-party, (1) the signatory must rely on terms of a contract to make its claims (or presumes the existence a written agreement that contains an arbitration provision) against the nonsignatory, (2) the signatory must allege concerted misconduct by the nonparty and one or more contracting parties, and (3) where there is a close nexus between the alleged wrong and the claims against the non-party and where plaintiff’s claims against a defendant are factually intertwined with or based on written contract terms.  (¶¶ 44-45)

Here, the crux of plaintiff’s lawsuit was that the defendants induced him into signing the franchise agreement and related restaurant lease.  Since the plaintiff’s claims were premised on and presumed the franchise agreement’s existence, and the franchise agreement contained a broad arbitration clause, the court held that the plaintiff was subject to the arbitration clause and the defendants could enforce the clause.

Afterwords:

A third party generally cannot enforce contract provisions since the third party, by definition, is not a signatory to the contract.

But where a plaintiff’s claim against a non-party relates to or is factually intertwined with a written contract, the terms of that contract can govern and be enforced by the non-party.