Commercial Tenant’s Promise to Refund Broker Commissions Barred by Statute of Frauds – IL First Dist.

The plaintiff property owner in Peppercorn 1248 LLC v. Artemis DCLP, LLP, 2016 IL App (1st) 143791-U, sued a corporate tenant and its real estate brokers for return of commission payments where the tenant never took possession under a ten-year lease for a Chicago daycare facility.  Shortly after the lease was signed, the tenant invoked a licensing contingency and terminated the lease.

The lease conditioned tenant’s occupancy on the tenant securing the required City zoning and parking permits.  If the tenant was unable to obtain the licenses, it could declare the lease cancelled.  When the tenant refused to take possession, the plaintiff sued to recoup the commission payment.

Affirming summary judgment for the broker defendants, the Court addressed some recurring contract formation and enforcement issues prevalent in commercial litigation along with the “interference” prong of the tortious interference with contract claim.

In Illinois, where a contracting party is given discretion to perform a certain act, he must do so in good faith: the discretion must be exercised “reasonably,” with a “proper motive” and not “arbitrarily, capriciously or in a manner inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the parties.” (73-74)

Here, there was no evidence the tenant terminated the lease in bad faith.  It could not get the necessary permits and so was incapable of operating a daycare business on the site. 

Next, the court found the plaintiff’s claim for breach of oral contract (based on the brokers’ verbal promise to refund the commission payments) unenforceable under the Statute of Frauds’ (“SOF”) suretyship rule. A suretyship exists where one party, the surety, agrees to assume an obligation of another person, the principal, to a creditor of the principal.

The SOF bars a plaintiff’s claim that seeks to hold a third party responsible for another’s debt where the third party did not promise to pay the debt in writing.

An exception to this rule is the “main purpose” defense. This applies where the “main purpose” of an oral promise is to materially benefit or advance the promisor’s business interests.  In such a case, an oral promise to pay another’s debt can be enforced.

The court declined to apply the main purpose exception here.  It noted that the brokers’ commission payments totaled less than $70K on a 10-year lease worth $1.4M. The large disparity between the commission and total lease payments through the ten-year term cut against the plaintiff’s main- purpose argument.

The plaintiff sued the corporate tenant for failing to return the commission payments to the brokers. Since the tenant and the broker defendants were separate parties, any promise by the tenant to answer for the brokers’ debt had to be in writing (by the tenant) to be enforceable.

The court also upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s tortious interference count. (See here for tortious interference elements.)  A tortious interference with contract plaintiff must show, among other things, the defendant actively induced a breach of contract between plaintiff and another party.  However, the mere failure to act – without more – usually will not rise to the level of purposeful activity aimed at causing a breach.

The Court found one of the broker defendant’s alleged failure to help secure business permits for the tenant didn’t rise to the level of  intentional conduct that induced tenant’s breach of lease.  As a result, the plaintiff failed to offer evidence in support of the interference prong of its tortious interference claim sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Afterwords:

1/ A promise to pay another’s debt – a suretyship relationship – must be in writing to be enforceable under the SOF;

2/ A contractual relationship won’t give rise to a duty to disclose in a fraudulent concealment case unless there is demonstrated disparity in bargaining power between the parties;

3/ Tortious interference with contract requires active conduct that causes a breach of contract; a mere failure to act won’t normally qualify as sufficient contractual interference to be actionable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Implied-in-Law Contracts Versus Express Contracts: “Black Letter” Basics

Tsitiridis v. Mahmoud, 2015 IL App (1st) 141599-U pits a taxi medallion owner against a medallion manager in a breach of contract dispute.  Plaintiff pled both express and implied contract theories against the medallion manager based on an oral, year-to-year contract where the plaintiff licensed the medallions to the defendant (who used them in his fleet of cabs) for a monthly fee.  Under the agreement, the defendant also assumed responsibility for all its drivers’ traffic and parking violations and related fines.

When the defendant failed to pay its drivers’ traffic fines, plaintiff covered them by paying the city of Chicago about $60K.  Plaintiff then sued the defendant for reimbursement.

After the trial court dismissed the complaint on the defendant’s motion, the medallion owner plaintiff appealed.

The First District partially agreed and disagreed with the trial court. In doing so, it highlighted the chief differences between express and implied-in-law contracts and the importance of a plaintiff differentiating between the two theories in its Complaint.

A valid contract in Illinois requires an offer, acceptance and consideration (a reciprocal promise or some exchange of value between the parties).

While the medallion contract involved in this case seemed factually unorthodox since it was a verbal, year-to-year contract, the plaintiff alleged that in the cab business, it was an “industry standard” agreement.  Plaintiff alleged that the agreement was a classic quid pro quo: plaintiff licensed the medallions to the defendant who then used the medallions in its fleet of cabs in exchange for a monthly fee to the plaintiff.

Despite the lack of a written agreement, the court noted that in some cases, “industry standards” can explain facially incomplete contracts and save an agreement that would normally be dismissed by a court as indefinite.

The plaintiff’s complaint allegations that the oral medallion contract was standard in the taxicab industry was enough to allege a colorable breach of express contract claim. As a result, the trial court’s dismissal of the breach of oral contract Complaint count was reversed.

The court did affirm dismissal of the implied contract claims, though.   It voiced the differences between implied-in-law and implied-in-fact contracts.

An implied-in-law contract or quasi-contract arises by implication and does not depend on an actual agreement.   It is based on equitable concerns that no one should be able to unjustly enrich himself at another’s expense.

Implied-in-fact contracts, by contrast, are express contracts.  The court looks to the parties’ conduct (instead of the contract’s language) and whether the conduct is congruent with a mutual meeting of the minds concerning the pled contract terms.  If there is a match between alleged contract terms and the acts of the parties, the court will find an implied-in-fact contract exists.

Illinois law is also clear that an implied-in-law contract cannot co-exist with an express contract claim.  They are mutually exclusive.  While Illinois does allow a plaintiff to plead conflicting claims in the alternative, a plaintiff cannot allege a breach of express contract claim and an implied-in-law contract one in the same complaint.

Since the plaintiff here incorporated the same breach of express contract allegations into his implied-in-law contract count, the two counts were facially conflicting and the implied-in-law count had to be dismissed.

Take-away:

Like quantum meruit and unjust enrichment, Implied-in-law contract can serve as a viable fallback theory if there is some factual defect in a breach of express contract action.

However, while Illinois law allows alternative pleading, plaintiffs should take pains to make sure they don’t incorporate their implied contract facts into their express contract ones. If they do, they risk dismissal.

This case also has value for its clarifying the rule that industry standards can sometimes inform a contract’s meaning and supply the necessary “gap fillers” to sustain an otherwise too indefinite breach of contract complaint count.

Rights of First Refusal: Bankruptcy “Infotapes” Titan Wins Michigan Avenue Penthouse Dispute – IL 1st Dist.

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In today’s installment of High Class Problems, I feature Peter Francis Geraci, the Chicago bankruptcy lawyer whose pervasive television presence is doubtlessly familiar to weekday afternoon viewers.  Geraci and his wife recently won their real estate dispute with a company controlled by a foreign investor over rights to a 40th floor penthouse (“Penthouse”) in Chicago’s tony Michigan Avenue (“Magnificent Mile”) shopping district.

Reversing the trial court – who sided with the investor plaintiff- the First District appeals court in First 38, LLC v. NM Project Company, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 142680-U, expands on some recurring contract interpretation principles as applied to a high-dollar real estate dispute.

The plaintiff, a company associated with Mexican mining impresario and billionaire German Larrea, held a right of first refusal (“ROFR”) that required the Penthouse seller defendant to notify the plaintiff of any bona fide offer to buy the Penthouse that was accepted by the owner.  The owner was required to provide a copy of the signed offer (with certain identifying information blacked out) to the plaintiff who then had one (1) business day to match the offer.

When the owner sent the offer with the Geracis’ information redacted and failed to provide a copy of the earnest money check (a cool $860K, approx.), the plaintiff sued to block the sale of the Penthouse to the Geracis claiming the owner failed to adhere to the terms of the ROFR.  The Geracis eventually counter-sued for injunctive relief and specific performance and asked the court to require the owner to sell the Penthouse to them.

After a bench trial, the court ruled in plaintiff’s favor and the Geracis appealed.

Reversing, the First District discussed the operative contract law principles that framed the parties’ dispute.

A right of first refusal is a restraint on alienation and is strictly construed against the holder;

– An Illinois court’s primary goal in interpreting a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent by imputing the plain and ordinary meaning to the contract terms;

– A contract will not be deemed ambiguous just because the parties disagree on its meaning; instead, ambiguity requires words that are reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning;

– When a contract contains an ambiguity, a court may consider evidence of the parties intent (“your honor, this is what we meant….”);

– An “offer” in the context of contract law is a “manifestation of willingness to enter into a bargain made in such a way that another person’s assent to that bargain is invited and will conclude it’;

– An offer must be definite as to its material terms such that the parties are reasonably certain as to what the offer entails;

– A court cannot alter, change or modify terms of a contract or add new ones that the parties didn’t agree to and there is a presumption against provisions that could have easily been included in a contract;

A bona fide offer is one where the purchaser can command the funds necessary to accept an offer.
(¶¶ 47-48, 51-52, 63)

Here, the court found the ROFR’s plain text unambiguous.  It provided that upon defendant notifying the plaintiff of an accepted and bona fide offer, the plaintiff’s ROFR obligations were triggered. (Plaintiff had one day to match the accepted offer.)  By its clear terms, the ROFR did not require the owner defendant to divulge the third-party buyer’s identity nor did it require proof of the third-party’s earnest money deposit.

According to the court, had the parties wished to require more offer specifics, they could have easily done so.  (¶ 54).  As a result, the First District reversed the trial court and held that the owner defendant complied with its ROFR notice requirements.  Since plaintiff failed to match the Geracis’ offer for the Penthouse within one business day of notice, it relinquished its rights to match the offer.

Take-aways:

For such expensive and unique subject matter, the main legal rules relied on by the court are simple.  The court applies basic contract formation and interpretation rules to decipher the ROFR and determine whether the parties adhered to their respective obligations under it.

From a drafting standpoint, the case cautions sophisticated commercial entities to take pains to spell out key contract terms as specifically as possible to avoid future disputes over what the contract says and means.