High-Tech Sports Co.’s Warranty Claims Too Late Says Seventh Circuit (Newspin v. Arrow Electronics – Part I of II)

Newspin Sports, LLC v. Arrow Electronics, Inc., 2018 WL 6295272 (7th Cir. 2018), analyzes the goods-versus-services dichotomy under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and how that difference informs the applicable statute of limitations.

The defendant supplied electronic sensor components for plaintiff’s use in its high-tech sports performance products.  Plaintiff sued when most of the parts were faulty and didn’t meet Plaintiff’s verbal and written requirements.  Plaintiff brought both contract- and tort-based claims against the Plaintiff.

The Breach of Contract Claims

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the contract claims on the basis they were time-barred under the UCC’s four-year limitations period for the sale of goods.

In Illinois, a breach of written contract claimant has ten years to sue measured from when its claim accrues. 735 ILCS 5/13-206.  A claim accrues when the breach occurs, regardless of the non-breaching party’s lack of knowledge of the breach.  For a contract involving the sale of “goods,” a shortened 4-year limitations period applies. 810 ILCS 5/2-102 (goods df.), 810 ILCS 5/2-725(2)(4-year limitations period).

With a mixed contract (an agreement involving the supply of goods and services), Illinois looks at the contract’s “predominant purpose” to determine whether the 10-year or the compressed 4-year limitations period governs.

To apply the predominant purpose test, the court looks at the contract terms and the proportion of goods to services provided for under the contract.  The court then decides whether the contract is mainly for goods with services being incidental or if its principally for services with goods being incidental.

Here, the Court noted the Agreement was a mixed bag: the defendant promised to provide both goods and services.  But various parts of the contract made it clear that the defendant was hired to first provide a prototype product and later, to furnish components pursuant to plaintiff’s purchase orders.  The court found that any services referenced in the agreement were purely tangential to the main thrust of the contract – defendant’s furnishing electronic sensors for plaintiff to attach to its client’s golf clubs.  Support for this finding lay in the fact that the Agreement set out specific quantity and price terms for the goods (the components) but did not so specify for the referenced assembly, manufacturing and procurement services.

Other Agreement features that led to the court ruling the Agreement was one for goods included its warranty, sales tax, “F.O.B. and title passing provisions. The court noted that the warranty only applied to the manufactured products and not to any services and the contract’s sales tax provision – making Plaintiff responsible for sales taxes –  typically applied in goods contracts, not services ones.

Additionally, the Agreement’s F.O.B. (“free on board”) and title passage terms both signaled this was a goods (not a services) deal. See 810 ILCS 5/2-106(1)(sale consists in passing title from seller to buyer for a price). [*5]

Since the plaintiff didn’t sue until more than five years elapsed from the breach date, the Court affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and breach of warranty claims.

The Negligent Misrepresentation Claim

The Seventh Circuit also affirmed dismissal of plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation claim. Under New York law (the contract had a NY choice-of-law provision), a plaintiff alleging negligent misrepresentation must establish (1) a special, privity-like relationship that imposes a duty on the defendant to impart accurate information to the plaintiff, (2) information that was in fact incorrect, and (3) plaintiff’s reasonable reliance on the information.

Like Illinois, New York applies the economic loss rule. This precludes a plaintiff from recovering economic losses under a tort theory. And since the plaintiff’s claimed negligent misrepresentation damages – money it lost based on the component defects – mirrored its breach of contract damages, the economic loss rule defeated plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation count. [*10]

Afterwords:

The case presents a useful summary of the dispositive factors a court looks at when deciding whether a contract’s primary purpose is for goods or services.  Besides looking at an agreement’s end product (or service), certain terms like F.O.B., title-shifting and sales tax provisions are strong indicators of contracts for the sale of goods.

The case also demonstrates the continuing viability of the economic loss rule.  Where a plaintiff’s breach of contract damages are identical to its tort damages, the economic loss rule will likely foreclose a plaintiff’s tort claim.

 

Photo Album Inventor’s Trade Secrets Case Survives Summary Judgment – IL ND

The Northern District recently discussed the reach of the apparent agency doctrine along with trade secret abandonment in a spat over a photo album device.

The plaintiff in Puroon, Inc. v. Midwest Photographic Resource Center, Inc., 2018 WL 5776334 (N.D.Ill. 2018), invented the Memory Book, a “convertible photo frame, album and scrapbook” whose key features included embedded magnet technology (to keep pictures in place) and an interchangeable outside view.

The plaintiff sued the defendant photo-album seller when plaintiff learned the defendant was selling a product similar to the Memory Book. Defendant opposed the suit, claiming it independently created the analogous album product.  Both sides moved for summary judgment motion on multiple claims.

Apparent Agency

The salient agency issue on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was whether a third-party who performed manufacturing services for the defendant and to whom the plaintiff sent some photo book samples was the defendant’s apparent agent If so, defendant was potentially liable on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim which asserted defendant went back on its promise to build Memory Book prototypes.

In Illinois, a statement by a purported agent alone cannot create apparent authority. Instead, for apparent authority to apply, the court looks to statements or actions of the alleged principal, not the agent. Once a litigant establishes that an agent has authority to bind a principal, the agents’ statements are admissible as an agent’s statement made within the scope of the agency. See Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(D)(a statement is not hearsay if offered against opposing party and made by party’s agent or employee on a matter within the scope of that relationship while it existed.) [*5]

Here, there was record evidence that a high-ranking employee of defendant referred to both defendant and the manufacturer as “we” in emails. The court viewed this as creating the impression in a reasonable juror that the manufacturer was an agent of defendant.

Because of this fact question – was the manufacturer the defendant’s agent? – both parties’ summary judgment motions were denied on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.

Trade Secret Misappropriation

The bulk of the opinion focuses on whether the plaintiff sufficiently established that its Memory Book device qualified for trade secret protection and whether there was enough misappropriation evidence to survive summary judgment. The Court answered (a muted) “yes” on both counts.

The court refused to attach trade secret protection to the Memory Book’s embedded magnets feature; the Court noted that magnets had been used extensively in other photo container products.

The Court did, however, afford trade secret protection to plaintiff’s manufacturing specifications.  It found the ‘specs’ secret enough to give plaintiff a competitive advantage.  The Court also noted that plaintiff supplied the specs to defendant only after it signed an NDA.  This was enough for the plaintiff to take its trade secrets claim to a jury and survive summary judgment.

Trade Secret Abandonment

The Court rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff abandoned its trade secrets by sending samples to retailers and presenting Memory Book at trade shows.

It stated that the trade show attendees could not have identified the Memory Book’s manufacturing specifications merely by looking at the device or handling a sample. The court also credited plaintiff’s evidence that the album retailers weren’t provided with the Memory Book’s specs. The court opined that “reasonable steps for a two or three person shop may be different from reasonable steps for a larger company” and concluded that “[g]iven the fact that [Plaintiff] is a small, one-person company, a reasonable jury could find that [its]  efforts . . . were adequate to protect the Memory Book’s secrets.”

Afterwords:

Corporate entities should not too closely align themselves with third party independent contractors if they wish to avoid contractual liability on an agency theory;

Inventors should make liberal use of NDAs when sending prototypes to vendors, partners or retailers;

A smaller company can likely get away with less strenuous efforts to protect trade secrets than its bigger company counterparts.  The larger and more sophisticated the company, the more sedulous its efforts must be to protect its confidential data.

7th Cir. Addresses Guarantor Liability, Ratification Doctrine in Futures Trading Snafu

Straits Financial v. Ten Sleep Cattle, 2018 WL 328767 (N.D.Ill. 2018) examines some signature business litigation issues against the backdrop of a commodities futures and trading account dispute. Among them are the nature and scope of a guarantor’s liability, the ratification doctrine as applied to covert conduct and the reach of the Illinois consumer fraud statute.

The plaintiff brokerage firm sued a Wyoming cattle rancher and his company to recover an approximate $170K deficit in the defendants’ trading account. (The defendants previously opened a non-discretionary account with plaintiff for the purpose of locking in future livestock prices.)

The ranch owner counter-sued, alleging a rogue trader of plaintiff made unauthorized trades with defendants’ money over a three-month period.  Defendants counter-sued for consumer fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and conversion. After a seven-day bench trial, the court entered a money judgment for the defendants and the plaintiff appealed.

In substantially affirming the trial court, the Seventh Circuit first tackled the plaintiff’s breach of guaranty claim.  In Illinois, guarantees are strictly construed and a guarantor’s liability cannot extend beyond that which he has agreed to accept.  A proverbial favorite of the law, a guarantor is given the benefit of any doubts concerning a contract’s enforceability.  A guarantor’s liability is discharged if there is a “material change” in the business dealings between the parties and an increase in risk undertaken by a guarantor.

Here, the speculative trading account (the one where the broker made multiple unauthorized trades) differed vastly in form and substance from the non-discretionary account.

Since the two trading accounts differed in purpose and practice, the Court held that it would materially alter the guarantor’s risk if he was penalized for the plaintiff’s broker’s fraudulent trading spree.  As a result, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial judge’s ruling for the defendant on the guarantee claim.

The Court then rejected plaintiff’s ratification argument: that defendants’ authorized the illegal churned trades by not timely objecting to them
An Illinois agency axiom posits that a person does not have an obligation to repudiate an illegal transaction until he has actual knowledge of all material facts involved in the transaction. Restatement (Third) of Agency, s. 4.06.

Illinois law also allows a fraud victim to seek relief as long as he renounces the fraud promptly after discovering it. A party attempting to undo a fraudulent transaction is excused from strict formalism, too.

Here, the ranch owner defendant immediately contacted the plaintiff’s broker when he learned of the improper trades and demanded the return of all money in the non-discretionary trading account. This, according to the Court, was a timely and sufficient attempt to soften the impact of the fraudulent trading.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s attorneys’ fees award to the defendants on its consumer fraud counterclaim. The Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, 815 ILCS 505/10a(c)(the “CFA”) allows a court to assess attorneys’ fees against the losing party.

The plaintiff argued that the trial judge errored by awarding attorneys’ fees expended by defendants in both CFA and non-CFA claims. Plaintiff contended  the trial judge should have limited his fee award strictly to the CFA claim.

Rejecting this argument, the Seventh Circuit noted that under Illinois law, where statutory fraud (which allow for fees) and common law (which don’t) claims arise from the same operative facts and involve the same evidence at trial, a court can award all fees; even ones involved in prosecuting or defending non-fee claims. And since facts tending to prove fraudulent trading “were woven throughout [the] case and the work done to develop those facts [could] not be neatly separated by claim,” the District court had discretion to allow defendants’ attorneys’ fees claim incurred in all of its counterclaims and defenses.

The Court then reversed the trial judge’s holding that the defendants failed to mitigate their damages by not reading plaintiff’s trading statements or asking about his accounts.  A breach of contract or tort plaintiff normally cannot stand idly by and allow an injury to fester without making reasonable efforts to avoid further loss.

But here, since the plaintiff’s broker committed fraud – an intentional tort – any “contributory negligence” resulting from defendant not reading the mailed statements wasn’t a valid defense to the rogue broker’s fraudulent conduct.

Afterwords:

This case shows the length a court will go to make sure a fraud perpetrator doesn’t benefit from his improper conduct.  Even if a fraud victim is arguably negligent in allowing the fraud to happen or in responding to it, the court will excuse the negligence in order to affix liability to the fraudster.

This case also illustrates how guarantors are favorites of the law and an increase in a guarantor’s risk or a marked change in business dealings between a creditor and a guarantor’s principal will absolve a guarantor from liability.

Finally, Ten Sleep shows that a prevailing party can get attorneys’ fees on mixed fee and non-fee claims where the same core of operative facts underlie them.