Earned Bonus Is Proper Subject of Employee’s Wage Payment Claim; Reliance on Employer Pre-Hiring Statements Is Reasonable – IL ND

After leaving a lucrative banking position in Florida for a Chicago consulting gig, Simpson v. Saggezza’s (2018 WL 3753431 (N.D.Ill. 2018) plaintiff soon learned the Illinois job markedly differed from what was advertised.

Among other things, the plaintiff discovered that the company’s pre-hiring revenue projections were off as were the plaintiff’s promised job duties, performance goals and bonus structure.

When plaintiff complained, the Illinois employer responded by firing him. Plaintiff sued the defendants – the employer and a company decision maker – for unpaid bonus money under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1, et. seq. (IWPCA) and for other common law claims. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims.

In denying the bulk of the defendants’ motion, the Court discussed the nature and reach of earned bonus liability under the IWPCA in the context of a motion to dismiss.

The IWPCA defines payments as including wages, salaries, earned commissions and earned bonuses pursuant to an employment contract.  820 ILCS 115/12. An earned bonus is defined as “compensation given in addition to the required compensation for services performed.”  Il. Admin. Code, Title 56, s. 300.500.

The IWPCA allows an earned bonus claim only where an employer makes an unequivocal promise; a discretionary or contingent promise isn’t enough.  So as long as the plaintiff alleges both an employer’s unambiguous promise to pay a bonus and the plaintiff’s satisfactory performance of the parties’ agreement, the plaintiff can make out a successful IWPCA claim for an unpaid earned bonus.

Here, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged a meeting of the minds on the bonus issue – the defendant-employer unequivocally promised a $25,000 bonus if plaintiff met a specific sales goal – and that the plaintiff met the goal.

The court then partially granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s statutory and common law retaliation claims.

IWPCA Section 14(c) prevents an employer from firing an employee in retaliation for the employee lodging a complaint against the employer for unpaid compensation. 820 ILCS 115/14(c).  Since the plaintiff alleged both an agreement for earned bonus payments and that he was fired for requesting payment, this was enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

The court did, however, dismiss plaintiff’s common law retaliatory discharge claim.  To prevail on this claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) he was terminated, (2) in retaliation for plaintiff’s conduct, and (3) the discharge violates a clearly mandated public policy.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that an IWPCA violation was enough to trigger Illinois public policy concerns. The court held that to invoke the public policy prong of the retaliation tort, the dispute “must strike at the heart of a citizen’s social rights, duties and responsibilities.”  And since the Court viewed an IWPCA money dispute to a private, economic matter between employer and employee, the employer’s alleged IWPCA violation didn’t implicate public policy.

Lastly, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s fraud in the inducement claim.  In this count, plaintiff alleged he quit his former Florida job in reliance on factual misstatements made by the defendant about its fiscal health, among other things.

To sufficiently plead fraudulent inducement, a plaintiff must allege (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it, (3) an intent to induce the other party to act, (4) action by the other party in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  To be actionable, a factual statement must involve a past or present fact; expression of opinions, expectations or future contingencies cannot support a fraudulent inducement claim.

Where there is a disparity in knowledge or access to knowledge between  two parties, the fraudulent inducement plaintiff can justifiably rely on a representation of fact even if he could have discovered the information’s falsity upon further investigation.

While the defendant argued that the predicate fraud statements were non-actionable embellishments or puffery, the court disagreed.  It found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant made factually false statements about the defendant’s financial state and the plaintiff’s job opportunities were specific enough to state a claim.

The court noted that plaintiff alleged the defendants supplied plaintiff with specific financial figures based on historical financial data as part of their pre-hiring pitch to the plaintiff. Taken in totality, the information was specific and current enough to support a fraud claim.

Afterwords:

Earned bonuses are covered by IWPCA; discretionary or conditional bonuses are not;

The common law retaliation tort has teeth. It’s not enough to assert a statutory violation to implicate the public policy element.  A private payment dispute between an employer and employee – even if it involves a statutory violation – won’t rise to the level of a public policy issue;

An employer’s false representations of a company’s financial status can underlie a plaintiff’s fraud claim since financial data supplied to a prospective hire is information an employer should readily have under its control and at its disposal.

Creditor (Bank) -Debtor (Borrower) Relationship Not A Fiduciary One – IL First Dist. (I of II)

Kosowski v. Alberts, 2017 IL App (1st) 170622 – U, examines some signature commercial litigation remedies against the factual backdrop of a business loan default.

The plaintiffs, decades-long business partners in the printing and direct mail industry, borrowed money under a written loan agreement that gave the lender wide-ranging remedies upon the borrowers’ default. Plaintiffs quickly fell behind in payments and went out of business within two years. A casualty of the flagging print media business, the plaintiffs not only defaulted on the loan but lost their company collateral – the printing facility, inventory, equipment and accounts receivable -, too.

Plaintiffs sued the bank and one of its loan officers for multiple business torts bottomed on the claim that the bank prematurely declared a loan default and dealt with plaintiffs’ in a heavy-handed way.  Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment for the defendants.

Affirming, the First District dove deep into the nature and reach of the breach of fiduciary duty, consumer fraud, and conversion torts under Illinois law.

The court first rejected the plaintiff’s position that it stood in a fiduciary position vis a vis the bank. A breach of fiduciary duty plaintiff must allege (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty on the part of the defendant, (2) defendant’s breach of that duty, and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach.

A fiduciary relationship can arise as a matter of law (e.g. principal and agent; lawyer-client) or where there is a “special relationship” between the parties (one party exerts influence and superiority over another).  However, a basic debtor-creditor arrangement doesn’t rise to the fiduciary level.

Here, the loan agreement explicitly disclaimed a fiduciary arrangement between the loan parties.  It recited that the parties stood in an arms’ length posture and the bank owed no fiduciary duty to the borrowers.  While another loan section labelled the bank as the borrowers’ “attorney-in-fact,” (a quintessential fiduciary relationship) the Court construed this term narrowly and found it only applied upon the borrower’s default and spoke only to the bank’s duties concerning the disposition of the borrowers’ collateral.  On this point, the Court declined to follow a factually similar Arkansas case (Knox v. Regions Bank, 103 Ark.App. 99 (2008)) which found that a loan’s attorney-in-fact clause did signal a fiduciary relationship.  Knox had no precedential value since Illinois case authorities have consistently held that a debtor-creditor relationship isn’t a fiduciary one as a matter of law. (¶¶ 36-38)

Next, the Court found that there was no fiduciary relationship as a matter of fact.  A plaintiff who tries to establish a fiduciary relationship on this basis must produce evidence that he placed trust and confidence in another to the point that the other gained influence and superiority over the plaintiff.  Key factors pointing to a special relationship fiduciary duty include a disparity in age, business acumen and education, among other factors.

Here, the borrowers argued that the bank stood in a superior bargaining position to them.  The Court rejected this argument.  It noted the plaintiffs were experienced businessmen who had scaled a company from 3 employees to over 350 during a three-decade time span.  This lengthy business success undermined the plaintiffs’ disparity of bargaining power argument

Take-aways:

Kosowski is useful reading for anyone who litigates in the commercial finance arena. The case solidifies the proposition that a basic debtor-creditor (borrower-lender) relationship won’t rise to the level of a fiduciary one as a matter of law. The case also gives clues as to what constitutes a special relationship and what degree of disparity in bargaining power is required to establish a factual fiduciary duty.

Lastly, the case is also instructive on the evidentiary showing a conversion and consumer fraud plaintiff must make to survive summary judgment in the loan default context.

 

Binding LLC to Operating Agreement A Substantive Change in Illinois Law; No Retroactive Effect – IL Court

The summer of 2017 ushered in a slew of changes, to Illinois’ limited liability company statute, 805 ILCS 180/15-1 et seq. (the “Act”).  Some of the key Act amendments included clarifying LLC member rights to access company records, explaining if and when a member or manager’s fiduciary duties can be eliminated or reduced, tweaking the Act’s judgment creditor remedies section, and changing the Act’s conversion (e.g. partnership to LLC or vice versa) and domestication rules.

Q Restaurant Group Holdings, LLC v. Lapidus, 2017 IL App (2d) 170804-U, examines another statutory change – one that binds an LLC to an operating agreement (OA) even where the LLC doesn’t sign it. See 805 ILCS 180/15-5.

The OA is the LLC’s governing document that sets forth each member’s (or manager’s) respective rights and obligations concerning contribution, distribution, voting rights and the like. The OA’s signing parties are typically the LLC members/managers – not the LLC itself.  Legally, this is significant because under privity of contract principles – only a party to a written agreement can sue to enforce it.

2017’s LLC Act changes make it clear that the LLC entity has standing to sue and be sued under the OA regardless of whether or not the LLC signed it.

The plaintiff in Lapidus sued the defendant for various business torts including conversion and tortious interference with contract. The defendant moved to dismiss the suit based on mandatory arbitration language in the OA.  Denying defendant’s Section 2-619 motion, the Court held that since the amended Section 15-5 of the Act worked a substantive change to the former LLC Act section, it didn’t apply retroactively. (The OA in Lapidus preceded the 2017 amendments.)

Rules/reasoning:

Affirming the trial court, the First District examined the dichotomy between procedural and substantive changes to legislation.  Where a statutory amendment is enacted after a lawsuit is filed, the Court looks to whether the legislature specified the reach (i.e. does it apply retroactively?) of the amendment.  Where new legislation is silent on its scope, the Court determines whether a given amendment is procedural or substantive.  If procedural, the amendment has retroactive effect.  If the change is substantive, however, it will only apply prospectively.

A procedural change is one that “prescribes the method of enforcing rights or obtaining redress” such as pleadings, evidence and practice.  A substantive change, by contrast, is one that establishes, creates or defines legal rights.  (¶¶ 15-16; citing to Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 280 (1994); 5 ILCS 70/4 (Illinois’s Statute on Statutes))

In finding that amended Section 15-5 was a substantive change to Illinois’ LLC Act (and therefore couldn’t be applied retroactively) the court noted the amended statute “established a contractual right” by binding the LLC to an OA it never signed.

Since the plaintiff LLC in Lapidus never signed the OA, the Court couldn’t require the plaintiff to follow the OA’s arbitration clause without substantially altering the LLC’s contract rights.  As a result, the Court held that amended Section 15-5 did not apply to the pre-amendment OA and the plaintiff didn’t have to adhere to the arbitration clause.t have to adhere to the OA’s arbitration provisions. (¶¶ 18-19).

Afterwords:

I. To decide if a statutory amendment applies retroactively (as opposed to only being forward-looking), the court considers whether the change is procedural or substantive.

II. While the distinction between procedural and substantive isn’t always clear, Lapidus stands for proposition a change in the law that alters a parties basic contract rights (such as by making a non-party a party to an operating agreement) is substantive and will only apply in the future.

III.  And though the case is unpublished, Lapidus still makes for interesting reading in light of Illinois’ manifold LLC Act changes.  With so many recent statutory changes (see here_for example), this case likely augurs an uptick in cases interpreting the 2017 LLC Act amendments.