Truthful Information Can’t Support An Intentional Interference With Employment Suit – IL Court

 

 

The Illinois First District recently discussed the contours of pre-suit discovery requests in cases that implicate fee speech concerns and whether truthful information can ever support an intentional interference with employment claim.

After relocating from another state to take a compliance role with a large bank, the plaintiff in Calabro v. Northern Trust Corporation, 2017 IL App (1st) 163079-U, was fired after only two weeks on the job for failing to disclose his forced removal from a prior compliance position.

When the defendant refused to identify the person who informed it of plaintiff’s prior firing, plaintiff sued to unearth the informant’s identity.  Plaintiff planned to sue that person for intentional interference with plaintiff’s employment contract.

The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s petition for pre-suit discovery and the plaintiff appealed.

Affirming, the Court construed pre-suit discovery request under Supreme Court Rule 224 narrowly.  That rule allows a petitioner to discover the identity of someone who may be responsible in damages to petitioner.

To initiate a request for discovery under Rule 224, the petitioner files a verified petition that names as defendant the person(s) from whom discovery is sought and states why discovery (along with a description of the discovery sought) is necessary.  An order granting a Rule 224 petition is limited to allowing the plaintiff to learn the identity of the responsible party or to at least depose him/her.

To show that discovery is necessary, the petitioner must present sufficient allegations of actionable harm to survive a Section 2-615 motion to dismiss.  That is, the petition must state sufficient facts to state a recognized cause of action.

But Rule 224 limits discovery to the identity of someone who may be responsible to the petitioner.  A petitioner cannot use Rule 224 to engage in a “vague and speculative quest to determine whether a cause of action actually exists.”

Here, the petitioner didn’t know what was actually said by the third party who alerted defendant to petitioner’s prior compliance role ouster.  The Court viewed this as petitioner’s tacit admission he didn’t know whether he possessed a valid interference claim.

The Court then focused on the veracity of the third-party’s statement.  To be actionable, an intentional interference claim requires the supply of false data about a plaintiff.  Accurate and truthful information, no matter how harmful, cannot underlie an intentional interference action. This is because allowing someone to sue another for imparting truthful information would raise First Amendment problems and discourage dissemination of accurate facts.

Truthful statement immunity is also supported by Section 772 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts which makes clear that one who purposely causes another not to perform a contract or enter into a business relationship is not liable for improper interference where that person gives truthful information.  And while the Court pointed out that the Restatement hadn’t been formally adopted the Illinois Supreme Court, appeals courts still looked to the Restatement for guidance on tortious interference questions.  (¶¶ 18-19).

Afterwords:

This case portrays an interesting application of Rule 224 – a device often employed in the personal injury context instead of in the commercial or employment law arenas.  While the rule provides a valuable tool for plaintiffs trying to identify possible defendants, it doesn’t give a petitioner a blank check to engage in wide-ranging, “fishing expedition” requests.  The discovery petitioner must still state a colorable claim as a precondition to obtaining a pre-suit discovery order from the court.

Calabro also vaunts the importance of free speech in our society.  After all, the petitioner’s intentional interference claim was predicated on a true statement – the petitioner was fired from a former compliance role.  The Court makes clear that a valid interference action requires a false statement and that accurate information isn’t actionable interference.

Clearly, the Court viewed the potential for chilling truthful information as more concerning than an individual’s private contract rights with an employer.

 

 

Fraudulent Transfer Action Can Be Brought In Post-Judgment Proceedings – No Separate Lawsuit Required – IL Court

Despite its vintage (over two decades), Kennedy v. Four Boys Labor Service, 664 N.E.2d 1088 (2nd Dist.  1996), is still relevant and instructional for its detailed discussion of Illinois’ fraudulent transfer statute and what post-judgment claims do and don’t fall within a supplementary proceeding to collect a judgment in Illinois.

The plaintiff won a $70K breach of contract judgment against his former employer and issued citations to discover assets to collect the judgment.

While plaintiff’s lawsuit was pending, the employer transferred its assets to another entity that had some of the same shareholders as the employer.  The “new” entity did business under the same name (Four Boys Labor Service) as the predecessor.

Plaintiff obtained an $82K judgment against the corporate officer who engineered the employer’s asset sale and the officer appealed.

Held: Judgment for plaintiff affirmed

Rules/reasons:

The Court applied several principles in rejecting the corporate officer’s main argument that a fraudulent transfer suit had to be filed in a separate action and couldn’t be brought within the context of the post-judgment proceeding.  Chief among them:

– Supplementary proceedings can only be initiated after a judgment has entered;

– The purpose of supplementary proceedings is to assist a creditor in discovering assets of the judgment debtor to apply to the judgment;

– Once a creditor discovers assets belonging to a judgment debtor in the hands of a third party, the court can order that third party to deliver up those assets to    satisfy the judgment;

– A court can authorize a creditor to maintain an action against any person or corporation that owes money to the judgment debtor, for recovery of the debt (See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(c)(6);

– A corporate director who dissolves a company without providing proper notice to known creditors can be held personally liable for corporate debts (805 ILCS 5/8.65, 12.75);

– An action to impose personal liability on a corporate director who fails to give notice of dissolution must be filed as a separate lawsuit and cannot be brought in a post-judgment/supplementary proceeding;

– Where a third party transfers assets of a corporate debtor for consideration and with full knowledge of a creditor’s claim, the creditor may treat the proceeds from the sale of the assets as debtor’s property and recover them under Code Section 2-1402;

– A transfer of assets from one entity to another generally does not make the transferee liable for the transferor’s debts;

– But where the transferee company is a “mere continuation” of the selling entity, the transferee can be held responsible for the seller’s debt.  The key inquiry in determining successor liability under the mere continuation framework is whether there is continuity of shareholder or directors from the first entity to the second one;

– An action brought under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (FTA), 740 ILCS 160/1, is considered one that directly concerns the assets of the judgment debtor and imposes liability on the recipient/transferee based on the value of the transferred assets;

– A transfer is not voidable against one who takes in good faith and provides reasonably equivalent value.  740 ILCS 160/9;

– A court has discretion to sanction a party that disobeys a court order including by entering a money judgment against the offending party;

(664 N.E.2d at 1091-1093)

Applying these rules, the Court found that plaintiff could properly pursue its FTA claim within the supplementary proceeding and didn’t have to file a separate lawsuit.  This is because an FTA claim does not affix personal liability for a corporate debt (like in a corporate veil piercing or alter ego setting) but instead tries to avoid or undo a transfer and claw back the assets actually transferred.

FTA Section 160/5 sets forth eleven (11) factors that can point to a debtor’s actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor.   Some of the factors or “badges” of fraud that applied here included the transfer was made to corporate insiders, the failure to inform the plaintiff creditor of the transfer of the defendant’s assets, the transfer occurred after plaintiff filed suit, the transfer rendered defendant insolvent, and all of the defendant’s assets were transferred.  Taken together, this was enough evidence to support the trial court’s summary judgment for the plaintiff on his FTA count.

Take-away: Kennedy’s value lies in its stark lesson that commercial litigators should leave no financial stones unturned when trying to collect judgments.  Kennedy also clarifies that fraudulent transfer actions – where the creditor is trying to undo a transfer to a third party and not hold an individual liable for a corporate debt can be brought within the confines of a supplementary proceeding.

 

British Firm’s Multi-Million Dollar Trade Secrets Verdict Upheld Against Illinois Construction Equipment Juggernaut – IL Fed Court

Refusing to set aside a $73-plus million jury verdict for a small British equipment manufacturer against construction giant Caterpillar, Inc., a Federal court recently examined the contours of the Illinois trade secrets statute and the scope of damages for trade secrets violations.

The plaintiff in Miller UK, Ltd. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 2017 WL 1196963 (N.D.Ill. 2017) manufactured a coupler device that streamlined the earthmoving and excavation process.  Plaintiff’s predecessor and Caterpillar entered into a 1999 supply contract where plaintiff furnished the coupler to Caterpillar who would, in turn, sell it under its own name through a network of dealers.

The plaintiff sued when Caterpillar terminated the agreement and began marketing its own coupler – the Center-Lock – which bore an uncanny resemblance to plaintiff’s coupler design.

After a multi-week trial, the jury found for the plaintiff on its trade secrets claim and for Caterpillar’s on its defamation counterclaim for $1 million – a paltry sum dwarfed by the plaintiff’s outsized damages verdict.

The Court first assessed whether the plaintiff’s three-dimensional computerized drawings deserved trade secrets protection.

The Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1, defines a trade secret as encompassing information, technical or non-technical data, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, drawing, process, financial data, or list of actual or potential customers that (1) is sufficiently secret to derive economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (2) is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy or confidentiality.

Misappropriation means “disclosure” or “use” of a trade secret by someone who lacks express or implied consent to do so and where he/she knows or should know that knowledge of the trade secret was acquired under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain its secrecy or limit its use.  Intentional conduct, howver, isn’t required: misappropriation can result from a defendant’s negligent or unintentional conduct.

Recoverable trade secret damages include actual loss caused by the misappropriation and unjust enrichment enjoyed by the misappropriator.  Where willful and malicious conduct is shown, the plaintiff can also recover punitive damages.  765 ILCS 1065/4.

In agreeing that the plaintiff’s coupler drawings were trade secrets, the Court noted plaintiff’s expansive use of confidentiality agreements when they furnished the drawings to Caterpillar and credited plaintiff’s trial testimony that the parties’ expectation was for the drawings to be kept secret.

The Court also upheld its trial rulings excluding certain evidence offered by Caterpillar.  One item of evidence rejected by the court as hearsay was a slide presentation prepared by Caterpillar to show how its coupler differed from plaintiff’s and didn’t utilize plaintiff’s confidential data.

Hearsay prevents a litigant from using out-of-court statements to prove the truth of the matter asserted.  An exception to the hearsay rule applies where an out-of-court statement (1) is consistent with a declarant’s trial testimony, (2) the party offering the statement did so to rebut an express or implied charge of recent fabrication or improper motive against the declarant, (3) the statement was made before the declarant had a motive for fabrication, and (4) the declarant testifies at trial and is subject to cross-examination.

Since the slide show was made as a direct response to plaintiff’s claim that Caterpillar used plaintiff’s confidential information, the statement (the slide show) was made after Caterpillar had a motive to fabricate the slide show.

The Court then affirmed the jury’s $1M verdict on Caterpillar’s defamation counter-claim based on plaintiff’s falsely implying that Caterpillar’s coupler failed standard safety tests in written and video submissions sent to Caterpillar’s equipment dealers.  The plaintiff’s letter and enclosed DVD showed a Caterpillar coupler bucket breaking apart and decapitating a life-size dummy. (Ouch!)  The obvious implication being that Caterpillar’s coupler is unsafe.

The Court agreed with the jury that the plaintiff’s conduct was actionable as per se defamation.  A quintessential defamation per se action is one alleging a plaintiff’s lack of ability or integrity in one’s business.  With per se defamation, damages are presumed – meaning, the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove mathematical (actual) monetary loss.

Instead, all that’s required is the damages assessed “not be considered substantial.”  Looking to an earlier case where the court awarded $1M for defamatory statements in tobacco litigation, the Court found that the jury’s verdict against the plaintiff coupler maker here was proper.

Afterwords:

The wide use of confidentiality agreements and evidence of oral pledges of secrecy can serve as sufficient evidence of an item’s confidential nature for purposes of trade secrets liability.  Trade secrets damages can include actual profits lost by a plaintiff, the amount the defendant (the party misappropriating the trade secrets) was unjustly enriched through the use of plaintiff’s trade secrets and, in some egregious cases, punitive damages.

The case also shows that a jury has wide latitude to fashion general damage awards in per se defamation suits.  This is especially so in cases involving deep-pocketed defendants.