Corporate Officer Can Owe Fiduciary Duty to Company Creditors – IL Court in ‘Deep Cut’* Case

Five years in, Workforce Solutions v. Urban Services of America, Inc., 2012 IL App (1st) 111410 is still a go-to authority for its penetrating analysis of the scope of post-judgment proceedings, the nature of fraudulent transfer claims and the legal relationship between corporate officers and creditors.

Here are some key questions and answers from the case:

Q1: Is a judgment creditor seeking a turnover order from a third party on theory of fraudulent transfer (from debtor to third party) entitled to an evidentiary hearing?

A1: YES

Q2: Does the denial of a turnover motion preclude that creditor from filing a direct action against the same turnover defendants?

A2: NO.

Q3: Can officer of a debtor corporation owe fiduciary duty to creditor of that corporation?

Q3: YES.

The plaintiff supplier of contract employees sued the defendant in 2006 for breach of contract.  After securing a $1M default judgment in 2008, the plaintiff instituted supplementary proceedings to collect on the judgment.  Through post-judgment discovery, plaintiff learned that the defendant and its officers were operating through a labyrinthine network of related business entities.  In 2010, plaintiff sought a turnover order from several third parties based on a 2008 transfer of assets and a 2005 loan from the debtor to third parties.

That same year (2010), plaintiff filed a new lawsuit against some of the entities that were targets of the motion for turnover order in the 2006 case.

In the 2006 case, the court denied the turnover motion on the basis that the plaintiff failed to establish that the turnover defendants received fraudulent transfers from the judgment debtor and that the fraudulent transfer claims were time-barred.  740 ILCS 160/10 (UFTA claims are subject to four-year limitations period.)

The court in the 2010 case dismissed plaintiff’s claims based on the denial of plaintiff’s turnover motion in the 2006 case.  Plaintiff appealed from both lawsuits.

Section 2-1402 of the Code permits a judgment creditor to initiate supplementary proceedings against a judgment debtor to discover assets of the debtor and apply those assets to satisfy an unpaid judgment

A court has broad powers to compel the application of discovered assets to satisfy a judgment and it can compel a third party to turn over assets belonging to the judgment debtor.

The only relevant inquiries in a supplementary proceeding are (1) whether the judgment debtor is holding assets that should be applied to the judgment; and (2) whether a third-party citation respondent is holding assets of the judgment debtor that should be applied to the judgment. .  If the facts are right, an UFTA claim can be brought in supplementary proceedings

But where there are competing claimants to the same asset pool, they are entitled to a trial on the merits (e.g. an evidentiary hearing) unless they waive the trial and stipulate to have the turnover motion decided on the written papers.

Here, the court disposed of the turnover motion on the bare arguments of counsel.  It didn’t conduct the necessary evidentiary hearing and therefore committed reversible error when it denied the motion.

The defendants moved to dismiss the 2010 case – which alleged breach of fiduciary duty, among other things – on the basis of collateral estoppel.  They argued that the denial of the plaintiff’s motion for turnover order in the 2006 precluded them from pursuing the same claims in the 2010 case.  Collateral estoppel or “issue preclusion” applies where: (1) an issue previously adjudicated is identical to the one in a pending action; (2) a final judgment on the merits exists in the prior case; and (3) the prior action involved the same parties or their privies.

The appeals court found that there was no final judgment on the merits in the 2006 case.  Since the trial court failed to conduct an evidentiary hearing, the denial of the turnover order wasn’t final.  Since there was no final judgment in the 2006 suit, the plaintiff was not barred from filing its breach of fiduciary duty and alter ego claims in 2010.

The Court also reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claims against the corporate debtor’s promoters.  To state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owes him a fiduciary duty; that the defendant breached that duty; and that he was injured as a proximate result of that breach.

The promoter defendants argued plaintiff lacked standing to sue since Illinois doesn’t saddle corporate officers with fiduciary duties to a corporation’s creditors. The Court allowed that as a general rule, corporate officers only owe fiduciary duties to the corporation and shareholders.  “However, under certain circumstances, an officer may owe a fiduciary duty to the corporation’s creditors….specifically, once a corporation becomes insolvent, an officer’s fiduciary duty extends to the creditors of the corporation because, from the moment insolvency arises, the corporation’s assets are deemed to be held in trust for the benefit of its creditors.

Since plaintiff alleged the corporate defendant was insolvent, that the individual defendants owed plaintiff a duty to manage the corporate assets, and a breach of that duty by making fraudulent transfers to various third parties, this was enough to sustain its breach of fiduciary duty claim against defendants’ motion to dismiss. (¶¶ 83-84).

Afterwords:

1/ A motion for turnover order, if contested, merits a full trial with live witnesses and exhibits.

2/ A denial of a motion for a turnover order won’t have preclusive collateral estoppel effect on a later fraudulent transfer action where there was no evidentiary hearing to decide the turnover motion

3/ Once a corporation becomes insolvent, an officer’s fiduciary duty extends to creditors of the corporation.  This is because once insolvency occurs, corporate assets are deemed held in trust for the benefit of creditors.


* In the rock radio realm, a deep cut denotes an obscure song – a “B-side” – from a popular recording artist or album.  Examples: “Walter’s Walk” (Zeppelin); “Children of the Sea” (Sabbath); “By-Tor And the Snow Dog” (Rush).

Commercial Landlord’s Suit for Rent Damages Accruing After Possession Order Survives Tenant’s Res Judicata Defense

18th Street Property, LLC v. A-1 Citywide Towing & Recovery, Inc., 2015 IL App (1st) 142444-U examines the res judicata and collateral estoppel doctrines in a commercial lease dispute.

The plaintiff landlord obtained a possession order and judgment in late 2012 on a towing shop lease that expired March 31, 2013. 

About six months after the possession order, the lessor sued to recover rental damages through the lease’s March 2013 end date.  The defendant moved to dismiss on the basis of res judicata and collateral estoppel arguing that the landlord’s damage claim could have and should have been brought in the earlier eviction suit.  The trial court agreed, dismissed the suit and the lessor plaintiff appealed.

Held: Reversed.

Q: Why?

A:  Res judicata (claim preclusion) and collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) seek to foster finality and closure by requiring all claims to be brought in the same proceeding instead of filing scattered claims at different times.

Res judicata applies where there is a final judgment on the merits, the same parties are involved in the first and second case, and the same causes of action are involved in the cases.  

Res judicata bars the (later) litigation of claims that could have brought in an earlier case while collateral estoppel prevents a party from relitigating an issue of law or fact that was actually decided in an earlier case.  (¶¶ 20-21, 30)

In Illinois, a commercial landlord’s claim for past-due rent and for future rent on an abandoned lease are different claims under the res judicata test.

This is because the payment of future rent is not a present tenant obligation and a tenant’s breach of lease usually will not accelerate rent (i.e. require the tenant to immediately pay the remaining payments under the lease) unless the lease has a clear acceleration clause.  Each month of unpaid rent gives rise to fresh claims for purposes of res judicata.

The landlord’s remedy where a tenant breaches a lease is to (a) sue for rents as they become due, (b) sue for several accrued monthly installments in one suit, or (c) sue for the entire amount at the end of the lease.

The commercial lease here gave the landlord a wide range of remedies for the tenant’s breach including acceleration of rental payments. 

The tenant defendant argued that since the lessor failed to try to recover future rent payments in the earlier eviction case, it was barred from doing so in the second lawsuit.  The landlord claimed the opposite: that its claims for damages accruing after the possession order were separate and not barred by res judicata or collateral estoppel.

The court held that res judicata did not bar the lessor’s post-possession order damage suit.  It noted that while the lease contained an optional acceleration clause, it was one of many remedies the landlord had if the tenant breached.  The lease did not require the landlord to accelerate rents upon the tenant’s breach. 

The court also noted that the lease required the landlord to notify the tenant in writing if it (the landlord) was going to terminate the lease.  Since terminating the lease was a prerequisite to acceleration, the Court needed more evidence as to whether the lessor terminated the lease.  Without any termination proof, the trial court should not have dismissed the landlord’s suit.

Afterwords:

1/ If a lease does not contain an acceleration clause, a landlord can likely file a damages action after an earlier eviction case without risking a res judicata or collateral estoppel defense.

2/ If a lease contains mandatory acceleration language, the landlord likely must sue for all future damages coming due under the lease or else risk having its damages cut off on the possession order date.

 

 

Denial of Motion to Disqualify Counsel Doesn’t Bar Later Legal Malpractice Suit- No Issue Preclusion (IL ND)

Eckert v. Levin, et al., 2015 WL 859530 (N.D.Ill. 2015), a case I featured earlier this week, gives some useful guidance on when collateral estoppel or “issue preclusion” bars a second lawsuit between two parties after a judgment entered against one of them in an earlier case.

The case’s tortured history included the plaintiff getting hit with a $1 million dollar judgment in 2012 as part of  a state court lawsuit after he breached a 2010 written settlement agreement orchestrated by the defendants – the lawyers who represented plaintiff’s opponent in the state court case.

In the state court case, the plaintiff moved to disqualify the lawyer defendant and later, to vacate the $1 million judgment.  Both motions were denied.

In the 2014 Federal suit, the defendants (the individual lawyer and his Firm) moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s legal malpractice claim.  They argued that the state court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to disqualify defendants as counsel was a tacit ruling that the defendants didn’t commit malpractice.  Defendants contended that the plaintiff was collaterally estopped from bringing a legal malpractice claim in the 2014 Federal case since he lost his earlier state court motion to disqualify defendants as counsel for the plaintiff’s opponent.

The court disagreed and denied the motion to dismiss.  It held that issue preclusion didn’t apply since a motion to disqualify involves different issues than a legal malpractice claim.

Issue Preclusion, Legal Malpractice, and Motions to Disqualify

Issue preclusion applies if (1) the issues decided in the before and after cases are identical; (2) there was a final judgment on the merits in the first case; (3) the party against whom estoppel is asserted was a party or in privity with a party to the first case; prior and (4) a decision on the issue must have been necessary for the judgment in the first case.

Collateral estoppel also requires the person to be bound must have actually litigated the issue in the first suit.  Like res judicata, the rationale for the issue preclusion rule is to bring lawsuits to an end at some point and avoid relitigation of the same issues ad nauseum.

In Illinois, to prevail on a legal malpractice suit, a plaintiff must show: (1) an attorney-client relationship giving rise to a duty on the attorney’s part; (2) a negligent act or omission by the attorney amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) proximate cause establishing that but for the attorney’s negligence, the plaintiff would have prevailed in the underlying action; and (4) actual damages.

A motion to disqualify counsel has different elements than a malpractice claim.  A disqualification motions require a two-step analysis: the court must consider (1) whether an ethical violation has occurred, and (2) if disqualification is the appropriate remedy.  The main rules of professional conduct that usually underlie motions to disqualify are Rules 1.7, 1.9 (conflict of interests to current and former clients) and 3.7 (lawyer-as-witness rule).

The court held that since the elements of a legal malpractice claim and a motion to disqualify don’t overlap, plaintiff’s legal malpractice wasn’t barred by the earlier motion to disqualify denial.

Non-Reliance Clause in Settlement Agreement

The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the 2010 settlement agreement’s non-reliance clause (which provided that plaintiff wasn’t relying on any representations in connection with signing the agreement) defeated the legal malpractice case.  The reason was mainly chronological: the plaintiff’s central legal malpractice allegations stemmed from the attorney defendant’s conduct that occurred after the 2010 settlement agreement.  As a result, the non-reliance clause couldn’t apply to events occurring after the agreement was signed.

Afterwords:

– Issue preclusion doesn’t apply where two claims have different pleading and proof elements;

– a motion to disqualify an attorney for unethical conduct differs from the key allegations needed to sustain a legal malpractice suit;

– a non-reliance clause in a settlement agreement won’t apply to conduct occurring after the agreement is signed.