Plaintiff Shows Actual and Constructive Fraud in Fraudulent Transfer Suit – IL Court

The plaintiff mortgage lender in Summitbridge Credit Investments II, LLC v. Ahn, 2017 IL App (1st) 162480-U sued the husband and wife borrower defendants for breach of a mortgage loan on two commercial properties in Chicago

Two days after the plaintiff obtained a $360K-plus default judgment, the defendants deeded a third commercial property they owned to their adult children.

The plaintiff caught wind of the post-judgment transfer during citation proceedings and in 2015 filed a fraudulent transfer suit to undo the property transfer.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the lender and voided the defendants’ transfer of property. The defendants appealed.

Affirming, the First District recited and applied the governing standards for actual fraud (“fraud in fact”) and constructive fraud (“fraud in law”) under Illinois’s fraudulent transfer act, 740 ILCS 160/1 et seq. (the “Act”)

The Act allows claims for two species of fraud under the Act – actual fraud and constructive fraud, premised on Act Sections 5(a)(1) and 5(a)(2) and 6(a), respectively.  (Also, see http://paulporvaznik.com/uniform-fraudulent-transfer-act-actual-fraud-constructive-fraud-transfers-insufficient-value-il-law-basics/5646)

Actual Fraud and ‘Badges’ of Fraud

Actual fraud that impels a court to unwind a transfer of property requires clear and convincing evidence that a debtor made a transfer with actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud creditors.

Eleven badges or indicators of fraud are set forth in Section 5(b) of the Act.  The factor the Summitbridge Court particularly homed in on was whether there was an exchange of reasonably equivalent value.  That is, whether the defendants’ children gave anything in exchange for the transferred commercial property.

In analyzing this factor, courts consider four sub-factors including (1) whether the value of what was transferred is equal to the value of what was received, (2) the fair market value of what was transferred and what was received, (3) whether it was an arm’s length transaction, and (4) good faith of the transferee/recipient.  Reasonably equivalent value is measured at the time of transfer.

In opposing the plaintiff’s summary judgment motion, the defendants made only conclusory assertions they lacked fraudulent intent.  Moreover, they failed to come forward with any evidence showing they received consideration for the transfer.

In summary, because there were so many badges of actual fraud present, and the debtors offered no proof of consideration flowing to them in exchange for quitclaiming the property, the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s actual fraud finding.

Constructive Fraud

Unlike actual fraud, constructive fraud (i.e., fraud in law) does not require proof of an intent to defraud.  A transfer made for less than reasonably equivalent value of the thing transferred that leaves a debtor unable to meet its obligations are presumed fraudulent.  A fraudulent transfer plaintiff alleging constructive fraud must prove it by a preponderance of evidence – a lesser burden that the clear and convincing one governing an actual fraud or fraud in fact claim.

Constructive fraud under Act Section 5(a)(2) is shown where a debtor did not receive a reasonably equivalent value for the transfer and the debtor (a) was engaged or was about to engage in a business or transactions for which the debtor’s remaining assets were unreasonably small in relation to the business or transaction, or (b) intended to incur, or believed or reasonably should have believed he would incur, debts beyond his ability to pay as they came due.

Section 6(a) constructive fraud applies specifically to claims arising before a transfer where a debtor doesn’t receive reasonably equivalent value and was insolvent at the time of or resulting from a transfer.

The First District agreed with the lower court that the plaintiff sufficiently proved defendants’ constructive fraud.  It noted that the plaintiff’s money judgment pre-dated the transfer of the property to defendant’s children and there was no record evidence of the debtors receiving anything in exchange for the transfer.

Take-aways:

Summitbridge provides a useful summary of fraud in fact and fraud in law fraudulent transfer factors in the context of a dispositive motion.

Once again, summary judgment is the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up litigation moment: a party opposing summary judgment must do more than make conclusory assertions in an affidavit.  Instead, he/she must produce specific evidence that reveals a genuine factual dispute.

The defendants’ affidavit testimony that they lacked fraudulent intent and transferred property to their family members for value rang hollow in the face of a lack of tangible evidence in the record to support those statements.

 

 

 

Tacking Unsigned Change Orders On To Contractors’ Lien Not Enough For Constructive Fraud – IL Court

Constructive mechanics lien fraud and slander of title are two central topics the appeals court grapples with in Roy Zenere Trucking & Excavating, Inc. v. Build Tech, Inc., 2016 IL App (3d) 140946.  There, a commercial properly developer appealed bench trial judgments for two subcontractor plaintiffs – a paving contractor and an excavating firm – on the basis that the plaintiffs’ mechanics liens were inflated and fraudulent.

The developer argued that since the subcontractors tried to augment the lien by adding unsigned change order work to it – and the contracts required all change orders to be in writing – this equaled that voided the liens.  The trial court disagreed and entered judgment for the plaintiff subcontractors.

Affirming the trial court’s judgment, the appeals court provides a useful summary of the type of proof needed to sustain constructive fraud and slander of title claims in the construction lien setting and when attorneys’ fees can be awarded to prevailing parties under Illinois’ mechanics lien statute, 770 ILCS 60/1 (the Act).

Section 7(a) of the Act provides that no lien shall be defeated to the proper amount due to an error of overcharging unless it is shown that the error or overcharge was made with an “intent to defraud.”  Constructive fraud (i.e., fraud that can’t be proven to be purposeful) can also invalidate a lien but there must be more than a simple overcharge in the lien claim.  The overage must be coupled with other evidence of fraud.

Slander of title applies where (1) a defendant makes a false and malicious publication, (2) the publication disparages the plaintiff’s title to property, and (3) damages.  “Malicious” in the slander of title context means knowingly false or that statements were made with a reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.  If a party has reasonable grounds to believe it has a legal or equitable claim to property, even if it’s later proven to be false, this won’t amount to a slander of title.

Here, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that there was no evidence to support a constructive fraud or slander of title claim.  The defendant property owner admitted that the subcontractor plaintiffs performed the contract as well as the extra change order work.

While the Court excluded the unsigned change order work from the lien amount, there was still insufficient constructive fraud or slander of title evidence to sustain the owner’s counterclaims.  Though unsuccessful in adding the change orders to the lien, the Court found the plaintiffs had a reasonable basis to recover the extra work in their lien foreclosure actions based on the parties’ contracting conduct where the owner routinely paid extras without signed change orders.

The Court then examined whether the subcontractors could add their attorneys’ fees to the judgment.  Section 17(b) of the Act allows a court to assess attorneys’ fees against a property owner who fails to pay “without just cause or right.”  This equates to an owner raising a defense not “well grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.”  770 ILCS 60/17(b), (d).

The evidence at trial that the subcontractors substantially performed the paving and excavation work cut in favor of awarding fees to the plaintiffs.  There was no evidence to support the owner defendant’s failure to pay the subcontract amounts.  The Court held that this lack of a colorable basis not to pay the subcontractors was “without just cause or right” under the Act.

Afterwords:

1/ Constructive fraud requires more than a computational error in the lien amount.  There must be other “plus-factor” evidence that combines with the overcharge;

2/ Where a contractor has reasonable basis for lien claim, it will be impossible for plaintiff to meet the malicious publication requirement of a slander of title claim;

3/ This case is pro-contractor as it gives teeth to the Mechanics’ Lien Statute’s fee-shifting section.

 

 

Lien Inflation and “Plus Factors” – Constructive Fraud in Illinois Mechanics Lien Litigation

The contractor plaintiff in Father & Sons Home Improvement II, Inc. v. Stuart, 2016 IL App (1st) 143666 was caught in several lies in the process of recording and trying to foreclose its mechanics lien.  The misstatements resulted in the nullification of its lien and the plaintiff being on the hook for over $40K in opponent attorneys’ fees.

The plaintiff was hired to construct a deck, garage and basement on the defendant owner’s residence.  Inexplicably, the plaintiff recorded its mechanics lien 8 months before it finished its work. This was a problem because the lien contained the sworn testimony of plaintiff’s principal (via affidavit) that stated a completion date that was several months off.

Plaintiff then sued to foreclose the lien; again stating an inaccurate completion date in the complaint.  The owner and mortgage lender defendants filed separate summary judgment motions on the basis that the plaintiff committed constructive fraud by (1) falsely stating the lien completion date and (2) inflating the dollar value of its work in sworn documents (the affidavit and verified complaint).

Affirming summary judgment and separate fee awards for the defendants, the Court distilled the following mechanics lien constructive fraud principles:

  • The purpose of the mechanics lien act (Lien Act) is to require someone with an interest in real property to pay for property improvements or benefits he encouraged by his conduct.  Section 7 of the Lien Act provides that no lien will be defeated because of an error or if it states an inflated amount unless it is shown that the erroneous lien amount was made with “intent to defraud.”  770 ILCS 60/7;
  • The intent to defraud requirement aims to protect the honest lien claimant who simply makes a mistake in computing his lien amount.  But where there is evidence a lien claimant knowingly filed a false lien (either in completion date or amount), the lien claim will be defeated.  (¶¶ 30-31);
  • Where there is no direct proof of a contractor’s intent to defraud, “constructive fraud” can negate a lien where there is an overstated lien amount or false completion date combined with additional evidence;
  • The additional evidence or “plus factor” can come in the form of a false affidavit signed by the lien claimant that falsely states the underlying completion date or the amount of the improvements furnished to the property.  (¶ 35).

Based on the plaintiff’s multiple false statements – namely, a fabricated completion date and a grossly exaggerated lien amount based on the amount of work done – both in its mechanics lien and in its pleadings, the court found that at the very least, the plaintiff committed constructive fraud and invalidated the lien.

Attorneys’ Fees and Rule 137 Sanctions

The court also taxed the property owners’ attorneys’ fees to the losing contractor.  Section 17 of the Lien Act provides that an owner can recover its attorneys’ fees where a contractor files a lien action “without just cause or right.”  The Lien Act also specifies that only the owner – not any other party involved in the chain of contracts or other lienholders – can recover its attorneys’ fees.  A lien claim giving rise to a fee award is one that is “not well grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification or reversal of existing law.”  770 ILCS 60/17(d).

Based on the contractor’s clear case of constructive fraud in filing a lien with a false completion date and in a grossly excessive sum, the court ordered the contractor to pay the owner defendants’ attorneys’ fees.

The lender – who is not the property owner – wasn’t entitled to fees under Section 17 of the Lien Act.  Enter Rule 137 sanctions.  In Illinois, Rule 137 sanctions are awarded to prevent abuse of the judicial process by penalizing those who file vexatious and harassing lawsuit based on unsupported statements of fact or law.  Before assessing sanctions, a court does not engage in hindsight but instead looks at what was objectively reasonable at the time an attorney signed a document or filed a motion.

Because the plaintiff contractor repeatedly submitted false documents in the course of the litigation, the court awarded the mortgage lender its attorneys’ fees incurred in defending the lien suit and in successfully moving for summary judgment.  All told,  the Court sanctioned the contractor to the tune of over $26,000; awarding this sum to the lender defendant.

Afterwords:

This case serves as an obvious cautionary tale for mechanics lien plaintiffs.  Plainly, a lien claimant must state an accurate completion date and properly state the monetary value of improvements.  If the claimant realizes it has made a mistake, it should amend the lien.  And even though an amended lien usually won’t bind third parties (e.g. lenders, other lienholders, etc.), it’s better to correct known lien errors than to risk a hefty fee award at case’s end.