Loss of Earning Capacity and The Self-Employed Plaintiff: What Damages Are Recoverable (IL 4th Dist. Case Note)

The plaintiff in Keiser-Long v. Owens, 2015 IL App (4th) 140612, a self-employed cattle buyer, sued for injuries she suffered in a car accident with the defendant.  The defendant admitted negligence and the parties went to trial on damages.

The defendant successfully moved for a directed verdict on plaintiff’s attempt to recover for lost earning capacity at trial and the Plaintiff appealed.

Reversing, the Fourth District appeals court expanded on the potential damages a personal injury claimant can recover where the plaintiff is self-employed and doesn’t draw a formal salary from the business she operates.

Illinois allows a plaintiff in a negligence suit to recover all damages that naturally flow from the commission of a tort.  Impaired earning capacity is a proper element of damages in a personal injury suit.  However, recovery is limited to loss that is reasonably certain to occur.  Lost earning capacity damages are measured by the difference between (a) the amount a plaintiff was capable of earning before her injury; and (b) the amount she is able to earn post-accident.

Lost earning capacity damages focus on an injured person’s ability to earn money instead of what she actually earned before an injury.  That said, a plaintiff pre- and post-accident earnings are relevant to a plaintiff’s damages computation.  ¶ 37.

Where a plaintiff is self-employed, a court can consider the plaintiff’s company’s diminution of profits as evidence of a plaintiff’s monetary damages where the plaintiff’s services are the dominant factor in producing profits.  By contrast, where a self-employed plaintiff’s involvement is passive and she relies on the work of others to make the company profitable, a profits reduction is not a proper damage element in a personal injury action.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for directed verdict since the plaintiff failed to present evidence that she lost income in the form of a salary or bonus from her cattle-buying business.

The appeals court reversed.  It noted that the plaintiff was solely responsible for her company’s profits and was the only one who travelled around the State visiting various cattle auctions and meeting with cattle sellers.  Plaintiff also offered expert testimony that she missed out on the chance to earn some $200,000/year in the years following the accident and that any company profits were labeled “retained earnings” and treated as the plaintiff’s personal retirement plan  ¶¶ 41-43.

The court held that since the plaintiff was the only one whose efforts dictated whether her cattle buying business was profitable or not, her business’s post-accident balance sheet was relevant to her recoverable damages.

The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that since plaintiff’s company was a C corporation (and not an S corp.1), profits and losses did not flow through to the plaintiff, the court should not have considered lost business income as an element of plaintiff’s damages.  The court found that any tax differences between C and S corporations were irrelevant since plaintiff was the cattle company for all intents and purposes.  As a result, any loss suffered by the company was tantamount to monetary loss suffered by the plaintiff.  ¶¶ 45-46.

The court’s final reason for reversing the trial court was a policy one.  Since the plaintiff’s corporation couldn’t sue the defendant, there was no potential for double recovery.  In addition, if the court prevented the plaintiff from recovering just because she didn’t earn a formal salary, this would operate as an unfair windfall for the defendant.  The end result is now the parties must have a retrial on the issue of plaintiff’s lost earning capacity.  ¶¶ 46-47.

Afterwords:

Owens provides a useful synopsis of when impaired earning capacity can be recovered in a personal injury suit.  In the context of a self-employed plaintiff, a plaintiff’s failure to draw a salary per se will not foreclose her from recovering damages; especially where the plaintiff – and not someone working for her – is the one mainly responsible for company profits.  In cases where the plaintiff is self-employed and is singularly responsible for a company’s profits, a loss in business income can be imputed to the defendant and awarded to the business-owner plaintiff.

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A C corporation is taxed at both the corporate level and at the shareholder level.  By contrast, an S corporation is not taxed at the corporate level; it’s only taxed at the shareholder individually. (This is colloquially termed “flow-through taxation.”)

Illinois Agency, Ratification and Alter-Ego Basics: Case Snapshot

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Photo credit: passionateproject.blogspot.com

Several recurring commercial litigation issues are examined in Saletech, LLC v. East Balt, Inc., 2014 IL App (1st) 132639, a case that chronicles a dispute over a written distribution agreement for the sale of bakery products.

The plaintiff entered into the agreement with a Ukranian subsidiary  of various U.S. companies.  The plaintiff sued these U.S. defendants, claiming they were bound by the foreign subsidiary’s breach, that they were alter egos of the subsidiary, or at least ratified the subsidiaries’ conduct.  The trial court granted the U.S. companies’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action on all counts and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Rules/Reasons: Finding for the defendants, the court applied black-letter agency law, ratification and corporate liability rules.

Agency Law and Ratification

– agency is a fiduciary relationship where a principal has the right to control the agent’s conduct and the agent has the power to act on the principal’s behalf;

– an agent’s authority can be actual or apparent.   Actual authority can be (a) express or (b) implied and means that the principal has explicitly granted the agent authority to perform a certain act;

apparent authority arises where (a) the principal holds the agent out as having authority to act on the principal’s behalf and (b) a reasonably prudent person would assume the agent has authority to act in light of the principal’s conduct;

– to show apparent agency, the plaintiff must prove (1) a principal’s consent or knowing acquiescence in the agent’s exercise of authority; (2) the third party’s good-faith belief that the agent possessed such authority; and (3) the third party’s detrimental reliance on the agent’s authority;

– apparent agency must be based on conduct of the principal; not the agent;

ratification applies where a principal manifests an intent to be bound by an agent’s unauthorized act, after the fact;

– ratification can be shown mainly by a principal retaining the benefits of the unauthorized act.

¶¶ 14-15, 21

Here, the Court found the plaintiff failed to establish that the foreign subsidiary (who signed the contract) was the agent for the solvent U.S. defendants.  The plaintiff made only naked allegations of a principal-agent relationship between the domestic and foreign entities.

Without allegations that the defendants knew of the subsidiaries’ distributor agreement or that they held out the foreign firm as having actual or apparent authority to bind the defendants, the plaintiff’s agency allegations were too conclusory to survive a motion to dismiss under Illinois fact-pleading rules.

The plaintiff also failed to plead facts to show the defendants ratified any unauthorized conduct of the foreign company.  For example, plaintiff didn’t allege that the defendants accepted benefits from the distributorship contract after plaintiff alerted defendants to the foreign firm’s misconduct.

Alter-Ego

The plaintiff’s alter-ego allegations were also lacking. The plaintiff claimed that the signing foreign company was an alter-ego of the U.S. companies.

The alter ego doctrine affixes liability to a dominant person (or company) that uses a sham entity as a front or “conduit” in order to avoid contractual liability.  An alter ego plaintiff must make a “substantial showing” that one corporation is a dummy or “front” for another.

In breach of contract cases, the required showing for alter ego (piercing) liability is even more stringent than in tort cases.  This is because a party to a contract presumably entered into the contract with another company voluntarily and is presumed to suffer the consequences if the counterpart breaches and has no collectable assets. ¶ 25

The court found that here, the plaintiff failed to plead sufficient facts to demonstrate a unity of interest between the foreign company and the U.S.-based defendants that would permit the court to impute liability to the U.S. defendants.

Additionally, the plaintiff’s bare allegation that the defendants were “commingling funds” in order to defraud creditors lacked factual support and wasn’t enough to state a breach of contract claim predicated on an alter ego theory. ¶¶ 17-18, 22, 29.

Afterwords:

(1) Illinois fact-pleading rules require more than bare parroting elements of a cause of action to survive a motion to dismiss;

(2) Ratification only applies where plaintiff can plead facts showing a principal retained benefits of an improper agent transaction;

(3) Piercing the corporate veil based on alter ego allegations is difficult to prove; especially in breach of contract setting.

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7th Circuit Affirms Fraudulent Transfer and Alter Ego Judgment Against Corporate Officers

The Seventh Circuit affirmed an almost $3M judgment against the defendants under fraudulent transfer, successor liability and alter ego rules in Center Point v. Halim, 2014 WL 697501.

The plaintiff energy company entered into a written contract to supply natural gas to defendants’ 41 Chicago area rental properties.  The individual defendants – a husband and wife – managed the properties through a management company (Company 1).

Over a two-year period, defendants used over $1.2M worth of plaintiff’s gas and didn’t pay for it.  Plaintiff sued Company 1 in state court and got a $1.7M judgment.  When plaintiff discovered that defendants transferred all of Company 1’s assets to Company 2, plaintiff sued Company 2 and the husband and wife in Federal court alleging a fraudulent transfer and successor liability.  The Northern District entered summary judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $2.7M on all claims and defendants appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first found that the defendants’ conduct violated the Illinois Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 (the “Act”).  The Act punishes debtor attempts to avoid creditors through actual fraud or constructive fraud.

Constructive fraud applies where (1) a debtor transfers assets without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer and (2) the debtor intends to incur or reasonably should believe he will incur debts beyond his ability to pay them as they become due.  Halim, *2, 740 ILCS 160/5.

The Court found that the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent. First, the Court noted that during a three-year time span, Company 1 (the state court judgment debtor) transferred almost $11M to the individual defendants; ostensibly to repay loans.

But the Court found it odd there was no documentation of loans or a paper trail showing where the millions of dollars went.  The suspicious timing of defendants’ creation of a new company – Company 2 – coupled with the defendants’ inability to account for the millions’ whereabouts, bolstered the Court’s constructive fraud finding.

Since the individual defendants’ depletion of Company 1’s assets made it impossible for it to pay the state court judgment, the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent under the Act. *3.

The Court also affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff under successor liability and alter ego theories.  In Illinois, the general rule is that a company that purchases assets of another company does not assume the liabilities of the purchased company.

A common exception to this rule is where there is an express assumption (of liability) by the purchasing company.  Here, the record showed that Company 2 assumed all rights, obligations, contracts and employees of Company 1.  As a result, the unsatisfied state court judgment attached to Company 2 under successor liability rules.

The Court also affirmed the judgment under the alter ego doctrine.  Alter ego applies where there is virtually no difference between the business entity and that entity’s controlling shareholders.  That is, the dominant shareholders don’t treat the corporation as a separate entity and fail to follow basic corporate formalities (e.g. minutes, stock issuance, incorporation papers, etc.).

The individual defendants treated Company 1 as their personal piggy bank by commingling their personal assets with the corporate assets.  There were no earmarks of “separateness” between the individual defendants’ assets and Company 1’s corporate assets.  *3-4.

Because of this, the husband and wife defendants were responsible (in the Federal suit) for the unsatisfied state court judgment entered against the defunct Company 1.

Take-away: Halim illustrates that where a judgment debtor corporation or controlling shareholders of that corporation transfer all corporate assets to a new, similarly named (or not) entity shortly after a lawsuit is filed, it will likely look suspicious and can lead to a constructive fraud finding.

The case also underscores the importance of following corporate formalities and keeping corporate assets separate from individual/personal assets – especially where the corporation is controlled by only two individuals.  A failure to treat the corporation as distinct from the dominant individuals, can lead to alter ego liability for those individuals.