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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Material Changes to Office Lease Insulates Guarantor From Liability For Corporate Tenant Defaults – Illinois Court

The Illinois First District recently examined the reach of a corporate officer’s commercial lease guaranty in a case involving a multi-year and multi-suite office lease.  The office landlord plaintiff in Stonegate Properties, Inc. v. Piccolo, 2016 IL App (1st) 150182, sued to hold a corporate tenant’s CEO and lease guarantor liable for rental damages after the corporate tenant defaulted and declared bankruptcy.

The five-year lease was amended several times through the years – each time by the corporate tenant through its CEO and lease guarantor – culminating in an amended lease for three additional office spaces (compared to the original lease’s two spaces) in nearly triple the monthly rent amount from the original lease.

After the corporate tenant defaulted and filed for bankruptcy protection, the plaintiff landlord sued the guarantor defendant to recover nearly $1.4M in unpaid lease rental payments. The guarantor defendant successfully moved to dismiss on the basis that she was released from the guaranty since the lease parties made material changes to the lease and increased the guarantor’s risk with no additional consideration to the guarantor.

Affirming, the First District examined the scope of guarantor liability when the lease guarantor is also the corporate tenant’s principal officer.

The Court cited and applied these operative contract law principles in siding for the guarantor:

– A lease is a contract between a landlord and tenant, and the general rules of contract construction apply to the construction of leases;

A guaranty is a promise by one or more parties to answer for the debts of another.  A clearly-worded guaranty should be given effect as written;

– A guaranty is considered a separate, independent obligations from the underlying contract.  Where a guaranty is undated, a court will still consider it as drafted contemporaneously with the underlying lease if the guaranty refers to that lease;

– A guaranty signed at the same time as the underlying contract is supported by adequate consideration.  A contractual modification – something that injects new elements into a contract – must be supported by consideration to be valid and binding.  Pre-existing obligations are not sufficient consideration under the law;

– In the context of commercial lease guaranties, a guaranty’s term is only extended if the underlying lease term is also extended in accordance with the lease terms;

– Common guaranty defenses involve changes to the underlying contract that materially increase the guarantor’s financial risk;

– Where the risk originally assumed by a guarantor is augmented by acts of the principal (the person whose debts are being guaranteed), the guarantor is released from his contractual obligations;

– Where a corporate principal signs a lease in her corporate capacity, she is not personally responsible for her corporate employer’s lease obligations.  This is because a corporation is a separate legal entity from its component shareholders.

(¶¶ 40-45, 46-55, 60-62, 65-66)

Applying these principles, the Court sided in favor of the guarantor.  The court noted that the lease addendum materially modified the underlying lease obligations and increased the guarantor’s fiscal risk. In addition, the guaranty was silent on whether it applied to material lease modifications.  Because of this, the court found that the guarantor’s consent to the lease changes was required in order to bind the guarantor to the changes.

Since the guarantor never gave her express consent to the lease changes (broadening the leased premises from two office suites to 5; tripling the monthly rent), she was immunized from further guaranty obligations once the corporate tenant and office landlord signed the lease addendum.

The Court also rejected the office lessor’s attempt to fasten liability to the guarantor under a piercing the corporate veil/alter-ego theory.  Since the plaintiff didn’t sue to pierce the corporate veil (such as under an alter-ego theory), the Court found that the guarantor’s execution of the lease addendum as an agent of the corporate tenant didn’t bind the defendant personally to the corporation’s lease obligations. (¶¶ 72-77).

Afterwords:

Stonegate provides a thorough analysis of the contours of a commercial lease guarantor’s liability.  While a guaranty is construed as written under black-letter contract law principles, if the guarantor’s principal (here, the corporate tenant) changes the underlying lease obligation so that the guarantor’s original risk is increased, the change in lease term will not be binding on the guarantor.  This is so even where the corporate agent who agreed to the material lease amendment is the lease guarantor.

Stipulation In Earlier Case Subjects LLC Member to Unjust Enrichment and Constructive Trust Judgment in Check Cashing Dispute – IL 1st Dist.

In a densely fact-packed case that contains an exhausting procedural history, the First District recently provided guidance on the chief elements of the equitable unjust enrichment and constructive trust remedies.

National Union v. DiMucci’s (2015 IL App (1st) 122725) back story centers around an anchor commercial tenant’s (Montgomery Ward) bankruptcy filing and its corporate landlord’s allowed claim for about $640K in defaulted lease payments.  In the bankruptcy case, the landlord assigned its approved claim by written stipulation to its lender whom it owed approximately $16M under a defaulted development loan.

The bankruptcy court paid $640K to the landlord who, instead of assigning it to the lender, pocketed the check.  The lender’s insurer then filed a state court action against the landlord’s officer (who deposited the funds in his personal account) to recover the $640K paid to the landlord in the Montgomery Ward bankruptcy.  After the trial court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff on its unjust enrichment and constructive trust counts, the defendant appealed.

Affirming the trial court’s judgment for the plaintiff, the First District first focused on the importance of the stipulation signed by the landlord in the prior bankruptcy case. The court rejected the landlord’s argument that his attorney in the bankruptcy case lacked authority to stipulate that the landlord would assign its $640K claim to the plaintiff’s insured (the lender). 

A stipulation is considered a judicial admission that cannot be contradicted by a party.  But it is only considered a judicial admission in the case in which it’s filed.  In a later case, the earlier stipulation is an evidentiary admission that can be explained away.

The law is also clear that a party is normally bound by his attorney’s entry into a stipulation on the party’s behalf. This holds true even where the attorney makes a mistake or is negligent.  Where an attorney lacks a client’s express authority, a client is still bound by his attorney’s conduct where the client fails to promptly seek relief from the stipulation. To undo a stipulation entered into by its attorney, a party must make a clear showing that the stipulated matter was untrue. Since the landlord failed to meet this elevated burden of invalidating the stipulation, the court held the landlord to the terms of the stipulation and ruled that it should have turned over the $640K to the plaintiff.

Unjust Enrichment and LLC Act

Next, the court examined the plaintiff’s unjust enrichment count. Unjust enrichment requires a plaintiff to show a defendant retained a benefit to plaintiff’s detriment and that the retention of the benefit violates basic principles of fairness. Where an unjust enrichment claim is based on a benefit being conferred on a defendant by an intermediary (here, the bankruptcy agent responsible for paying claims), the plaintiff must show (1) the benefit should have been given to the plaintiff but was mistakenly given to the defendant, (2) the defendant obtained the benefit from the third party via wrongful conduct, or (3) where plaintiff has a better claim to the benefit than does the defendant. (¶ 67)

Scenario (1) – benefit mistakenly given to defendant – clearly applied here. The bankruptcy court agent paid the landlord’s agent by mistake when the payment should have gone to the plaintiff pursuant to the stipulation.

The court also rejected defendant’s claim that he wasn’t liable under the Illinois LLC Act which immunizes LLC members from company obligations.  805 ILCS 180/10-10.  However, since plaintiff sued the defendant in his individual capacity for his own wrongful conduct (depositing a check in his personal account), the LLC Act didn’t protect the defendant from unjust enrichment liability.

Constructive Trust

The First District then affirmed the trial court’s imposition of a constructive trust on the $640K check.  A constructive trust is an equitable remedy applied to correct unjust enrichment. A constructive trust is generally created where there is fraudulent conduct by a defendant, a breach of fiduciary duty or when duress, coercion or mistake is present. While a defendant’s wrongful conduct is usually required for a court to impose a constructive trust, this isn’t always so. The key inquiry is whether it is unfair to allow a party to retain possession of property – regardless of whether the party has possession based on wrongful conduct or by mistake.

Here, the defendant failed to offer any evidence other than his own affidavit to dispute the fact that he wrongfully deposited funds that should have gone to the plaintiff; the court noting that under Supreme Court Rule 191, self-serving and conclusory affidavits aren’t enough to defeat summary judgment. (¶¶ 75-77)

Take-aways:

This case offers a useful synopsis of two fairly common equitable remedies – unjust enrichment and the constructive trust device – in a complex fact pattern involving multiple parties and diffuse legal proceedings.

The case makes clear that a party will be bound by his attorney’s conduct in signing a stipulation on the party’s behalf and that if a litigant wishes to nullify unauthorized attorney conduct, he carries a heavy burden of proof.