Business Expectancy Not A Transferrable ‘Asset’ Under IL Fraudulent Transfer Statute [Deconstructing Andersen Law LLC v. 3 Build Construction LLC]

Andersen Law LLC v. 3 Build Construction, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 181575-U, the subject of my most recent post, here , examines the nature and reach of Illinois’s Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 et seq. [“IFTA”] and the ‘continuation’ exception to the successor liability rule.

The Plaintiffs’ IFTA claims were based on allegations that former members of the LLC debtors’ systematically raided company bank accounts and formed a new business entity to evade a money judgment.

A colorable IFTA claim – whether it sounds in actual or constructive fraud – requires a creditor-debtor relationship.  It also requires the plaintiff to allege a transfer of an identifiable asset.

Here, the Court found the Plaintiffs failed to allege either a debtor-creditor relationship between the judgment creditor and the individual LLC members or a transfer of debtor assets.  The Plaintiffs’ failure to allege that the debtor made transfers without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer also doomed their constructive fraud complaint count.

Next, the Court jettisoned the Plaintiffs’ actual fraud claims under IFTA Section 5(a)(1).  In an actual fraud claim, the plaintiff must show a specific intent to defraud a creditor. This Section goes on to list some eleven (11) “badges” of fraud ranging from whether the transfer was concealed, to whether the transferee was a corporate insider to whether a transfer encompassed the bulk of a debtor’s assets.  740 ILCS 160/5(b)

The Plaintiffs’ allegation that the transfers were fraudulent because they occurred within a year of the judgment or went to pay members’ personal expenses were deemed too conclusory to satisfy the pleading requirements for an IFTA actual fraud claim.

The Court then rejected the Plaintiffs’ IFTA Section 6(a) [which governs claims arising before a transfer] claim based on the debtors forming a new corporation and diverting debtors’ business opportunities to that new entity.

An IFTA claim requires a transfer.  “Transfer” is defined as “every mode….of disposing of or parting with an asset or an interest in an asset…” 740 ILCS 160/2(l).

“Asset” is defined as “property of a debtor” while “property,” in turn, means anything that may be the subject of ownership.  740 ILCS 160/2(b), (j) [¶ 84]

But a transfer is not made until the debtor acquires rights in the asset transferred.

The Court held the plaintiffs did not allege an asset or a transfer under the IFTA.  Following Illinois case precedent, the Court found that unfulfilled business opportunities were not transferrable assets under the statute.  [¶¶ 84-85]

Finally, the Court rejected the Plaintiffs’ successor liability claim.  The Plaintiffs alleged the debtors’ members formed a new business entity for the purpose of avoiding the judgment.

The general rule is that a corporation that purchases the assets of another business is not liable for the debts or liabilities of the purchased corporation.  An exception to this rule applies where the purchaser is a mere continuation of the seller. [¶ 95]

To invoke the continuation exception, the plaintiff must show the purchasing corporation maintains the same or similar management and ownership as the purchased entity.

The test is whether there is a continuation of the selling business’s entity; not merely a continuation of the seller’s business.  A commonality among the seller and buyer businesses’ officers, directors, and stock are the key ingredients of a continuation. [¶ 97]

The Court found the plaintiffs’ continuation exception arguments lacking.  The plaintiffs failed to allege a purchase or transfer of the corporate debtors’ assets or stock by/to the new entity.  And while the plaintiffs did allege some common management between the corporate debtors and the new entity, the plaintiffs failed to allege a commonality of stock between the companies.

Afterwords:

A conjectural business expectancy is not tangible enough to constitute a transferable asset under IFTA;

A creditor’s attempt to impute a corporate judgment to individual shareholders is improper in a post-judgment fraudulent transfer case.  Instead, the creditor should file separate action against the individual shareholder(s) for breach of fiduciary duty, usurpation of corporate opportunities, piercing the corporate veil or similar theories;

An identify of ownership between former and successor corporation is key element to invoke continuation exception to rule of no successor liability.

 

 

 

 

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.