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R&J Construction v. Javaras, 2011 WL 10069461, an unpublished and dated opinion, still holds practical value for its discussion of the judicial notice rule, breach of contract pleading requirements and a limited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

 

Italian Lawsuit Filed Against Auto Repair Giant Dooms Later Illinois Lawsuit Under ‘Same Parties/Same Cause’ Rule

Where two lawsuits are pending simultaneously and involve the same parties and issues, the later filed case is generally subject to dismissal.  Illinois Code Section 2-619(a)(3) allows for dismissal where “there is another action pending between the same parties for the same cause.”

Midas Intern. Corp. v. Mesa, S.p.A., 2013 IL App (1st) 122048, while dated, gives a useful summary of the same-cause dismissal guideposts in the context of an international franchise dispute.

Midas, the well-known car repair company entered into a written contract with Mesa, an Italian car repairer, to license Midas’s business “System” and related trademarks.  In exchange for licensing Midas’s business model and marks, Mesa paid a multi-million dollar license fee and made monthly royalty payments.  The contract had a mandatory arbitration clause and a separate license agreement incorporated into it that fixed Milan, Italy or Chicago, Illinois as the venues for license agreement litigation.

Mesa sued Midas in an Italian court claiming Midas violated the license agreement by not making capital investments in some of Mesa’s projects.  A month or so later, Midas sued Mesa in Illinois state court for breach of contract and a declaratory judgment that Midas was in compliance with the license agreement and was owed royalties.  The trial court dismissed Midas’ suit based on the pending Italian lawsuit filed by Mesa.  Midas appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

The case turned on whether Mesa’s lawsuit stemmed from the same cause as Midas’s Illinois action.  Dismissal of an action under Code Section 2-619(a)(3) is a “procedural tool designed to avoid duplicative litigation.”  Under this section, actions involve the same cause when the relief sought in two cases rest on substantially the same set of facts.  The test is whether the two actions stem from the same underlying transaction or occurrence; not whether the pled causes of action or legal theories in the two cases are the same or different.

Two cases don’t have to be identical for Section 2-619(a)(3) to apply.  All that’s required is the cases feature a “substantial similarity of issues.”  (¶ 13)

If the same cause and same party requirements are met, the Court can still refuse dismissal if the prejudice to the party whose case is dismissed outweighs the policy against duplicative litigation.  In assessing prejudice caused by dismissal, the court considers issues of comity, prevention of multiplicity of lawsuits, vexation, harassment, likelihood of obtaining complete relief in the foreign forum, and the res judicata effect of a foreign judgment in the local forum (here, Illinois).

Courts also look to which case was filed first; although order of case filing isn’t by itself a dispositive factor.

Rejecting Midas’ argument that the Italian lawsuit was separated in time and topics from the Illinois lawsuit, the Court noted that Mesa’s lawsuit objective was to preemptively defend against Midas’s royalty claims.  Midas Illinois lawsuit, filed only weeks after Mesa’s action, sought damages under a breach of contract theory – that Mesa breached the license agreement by not paying royalties.

Since the outcome in the Mesa (Italian) case will determine the Midas (Illinois) case, the Court found the Illinois case was barred because Mesa’s action involved the same parties and same cause: both cases originated from the same license agreement.

The Court also found that Midas wouldn’t be prejudiced due to the dismissal of the Illinois action. Midas has the resources to file a counterclaim in the Italy case and the license agreement provides that either Milan or Chicago are possible lawsuit venues.  Since Illinois and Italy each had similar interests in and a connection to the dispute (the royalty payments were sent from Italy and received in Illinois), the trial court had discretion to dismiss Midas’ Illinois lawsuit. (¶ 25).

Afterwords:

1/ This case lays out the different factors a court considers when determining whether to dismiss an action under the same cause/same parties Code section;

2/ The timing of the filing of two lawsuits along with each forum’s connection to the dispute are key factors considered by the court when deciding whether avoiding redundancy in litigation trumps a party’s right to have its case heard on the merits.