Apparent Agency Binds Roofing Company to Acts of Third-Party Marketing Firm; Liable Under Illinois Wage Act – IL Court

In Thomas v. Weatherguard Construction Company, 2015 IL App (1st) 142785, the First District provides a thorough analysis of Illinois agency law as it applies to breach of contract claims for unpaid commissions. The court also discusses the parameters of the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (“Wage Act”) and the universe of damages available under it.

The Plaintiff sued to recover about $50K in commissions from a company that repairs weather-damaged homes for customers signed up by the plaintiff.

The arrangement involved plaintiff soliciting business for the defendant by targeting homeowners who suffered weather damage to their homes. Once the homeowner’s insurer approved the repair work, defendant would do the repairs and get paid by the homeowner’s insurer.  The defendant would then pay plaintiff a 20% commission based on the total repair contract price on all deals originated by the plaintiff.

At trial, the defendant argued that plaintiff wasn’t its employee.  It claimed the plaintiff was employed by a third-party marketing company whom defendant contracted with to solicit repair orders for the defendant.

The trial court entered a money judgment for the plaintiff for less than $10,000 and denied plaintiff’s claims for attorneys’ fees under the Wage Act.  Both sides appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court discussed agency law, the elements of an enforceable oral contract, and recoverable damages under the Wage Act.

Agency Law Analysis

Under the apparent agency rule, a principal (here, the defendant) is bound by the authority it appears to give an agent.   Once a principal creates an appearance of authority, he cannot later deny that authority to an innocent third party who relies on the appearance of authority.

The apparent agency claimant must show (1) the principal acted in a manner that would lead a reasonable person to believe the individual at fault was an employee or agent of the principal; (2) the principal had knowledge of or acquiesced in the agent’s acts; (3) the injured party (here, the plaintiff) acted in reliance on the principal’s conduct.  But, someone dealing with an agent has to exercise reasonable diligence and prudence in determining the reach of an agent’s authority.  (¶¶ 48-49, 51)

Here, there were multiple earmarks of authority flowing from the defendant to the marketing company who hired the plaintiff.  The marketing firm used the defendant’s uniforms, logo, business cards, and shared defendant’s office space and staff.  Viewing these factors holistically, the First District agreed with the trial court that it was reasonable for the plaintiff to assume the marketing firm was affiliated with defendant and was authorized to hire the plaintiff on defendant’s behalf.  (¶ 50)

Breach of Oral Contract

Rejecting the defendant’s claim that the plaintiff’s commission contract was too uncertain, the court found there was an enforceable oral contract even though certain price terms were unclear.  An oral contract’s existence and terms are questions of fact and a trial court’s determination that an oral contract does or doesn’t exist is entitled to deference by the appeals court.  In addition, damages are an essential element of a breach of contract claim the failure to prove damages spells defeat for the breach of contract plaintiff.

The Court agreed with the trial court that plaintiff sufficiently established an oral contract for defendant to pay plaintiff a 20% commission on the net proceeds (not gross) earned by the defendant on a given home repair job. (¶¶ 55-59)

The Wage Act

Part II of this post examines the court’s analysis of whether the Wage Act’s 2011 amendments that provide for attorneys’ fees and interest provisions apply retroactively (plaintiff filed suit in 2007).

Afterwords:

Agency law issues come up all the time in my practice.  In the breach of contract setting, the key question usually is whether an individual or entity has actual or apparent authority to act on behalf of a solvent or “deeper pocketed” defendant (usually a corporation or LLC).  Cases like Thomas show how risky it is for defendants to allow unrelated third parties to use a corporate defendant’s trade dress (logo, e.g.), facilities, staff or name on marketing materials.

A clear lesson from the case is that if a company does let an intermediary use the company’s brand and brand trappings, the company should at least have indemnification and hold-harmless agreements in place so the company has some recourse against the middleman if a plaintiff sues the company for the middleman’s conduct.

 

Apparent Agency Questions Defeat Summary Judgment in Guaranty Dispute – IL ND

The Northern District of Illinois recently examined the nature of apparent agency liability in the context of a breach of guaranty dispute involving related limited liability companies (LLCs).  The plaintiff in Hepp v. Ultra Green Energy Services, LLC, 2015 WL 1952685 (N.D.Ill. 2015) sued to enforce a written guaranty signed by the defendant company in connection with a $250K-plus promissory note signed by a company owned by the defendant’s managing member.

The court denied the plaintiff’s summary judgment motion.  It found there were material and triable fact issues as to whether the person signing the guaranty had legal authority to do so.

The court first addressed whether the guaranty was supported by consideration.  Consideration is “bargained-for exchange” where the promisor receives something of benefit (or the promisee suffers detriment) in exchange for the promise.  A guaranty’s boiler-plate provision that says “For Value Received” creates a presumption (but one that can be rebutted) of valid consideration.

Where the guaranty is signed at the same time as the underlying note, the consideration for the note transfers to the guaranty.  But where the guaranty is signed after the note, additional consideration (beyond the underlying loan) needs to flow to the guarantor.  A payee’s agreement to forbear from suing can be sufficient consideration.

Here, the plaintiff agreed to extend the deadline for repayment of the note by thirty days.  According to the court, this was sufficient consideration for the plaintiff to enforce the guaranty.  **3-4.

Next, the court shifted to its agency analysis and considered whether the LLC manager who signed the guaranty had authority to bind the LLC.  Answer – maybe not.

Apparent agency arises where (1) the principal or agent acts in a manner that would lead a reasonable person to believe the actor is an agent of the principal, (2) the principal knowingly acquiesces to the acts of the agent, and (3) the plaintiff reasonably relies on the acts of the purported agent.

When considering whether a plaintiff has shown apparent agency, the focus is on the acts of the principal (here, the LLC), and whether the principal took actions that could reasonably lead a third party to believe the agent is authorized to perform the act in question (here, signing the guaranty on the LLC’s behalf).

The scope of an apparent agent’s authority is determined by the authority that a reasonable person might believe the agent has based on the principal’s actions.  Also, a third party dealing with an agent has an obligation to verify the fact and extent of an agent’s authority.  **5-6.

The court found there material questions of disputed fact as to whether the plaintiff reasonably relied on the LLC manager’s representation that he had authority to sign the guaranty for the LLC.  The court noted that this was an unusual transaction that was beyond the ordinary course of the LLC’s business (since it implicated a possible conflict of interest (the manager who signed the guaranty was an officer of the corporate borrower) and it resulted in a pledge of the LLC’s assets), and culminated in the LLC taking on another $125,000 in debt in exchange for a short repayment time extension.  * 7.

The anomalous nature of the transaction coupled with the affidavit testimony of several LLC members who said they had no knowledge of the manager signing the guaranty, created too many unresolved facts to be decided on summary judgment.

Take-aways:

1/ A guaranty signed after the underlying note requires additional consideration running to the guarantor;

2/ Great care should go into drafting an Operating Agreement (OA).  Here, because the OA specifically catalogued numerous actions that required unanimous written consent of all members, the LLC defendant had ammunition to avoid the plaintiff’s summary judgment motion.

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.