Court Weighs In On Constructive Fraud in Contractor Lien Dispute, Summary Judgment Burdens – IL First Dist.

The First District affirmed partial summary judgment for a restaurant tenant in a contractor’s mechanics lien claim in MEP Construction, LLC v. Truco MP, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 180539.

The contractor sued to foreclose its $250,000-plus mechanics lien for unpaid construction management services furnished under a written contract between the contractor and restaurant lessee.

The lessee moved for summary judgment arguing the contractor completed only about $120,000 worth of work and so the lien was doubly inflated.  The lessee further contended that the majority of the liened work was done by plaintiff’s sub-contractors; not the plaintiff. The trial court sided with the lessee and found the plaintiff’s lien constructively fraudulent.

Affirming, the appeals court first restated the familiar, governing summary judgment standards and the contours of constructive fraud in the mechanics’ lien context.

The “put up or shut up” litigation moment – summary judgment requires the opposing party to come forward with evidence that supports its skeletal pleadings allegations.

Statements in an affidavit opposing summary judgment based on information and belief or that are unsupported conclusions, opinions or speculation are insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

Section 7 of the Illinois mechanics lien act (770 ILCS 60/7) provides that no lien shall be defeated due to an error or overcharging unless the overcharge (or error) is “made with intent to defraud.” Section 7 aims to protect the honest lien claimant who makes a mistake rather than the dishonest claimant who makes a knowingly false statement. Benign mistakes are OK; purposeful lien inflation is not.
An intent to defraud can be inferred from “documents containing overstated lien amounts combined with additional evidence.” The additional evidence or “plus factor” requires more than a bare overcharge on a document: there must be additional evidence at play before a court invalidates a lien as constructively fraudulent.

Affirming the trial court’s constructive fraud ruling, the First District pointed to plaintiff’s president’s sworn statement which indicated plaintiff only performed a fraction of the liened work and that the majority of the lien was from subcontractors who dealt directly with the lessee. Critical to the court’s conclusion was that the plaintiff did not have contractual relationships with its supposed sub-contractors.

Looking to Illinois lien law case precedent, the Court noted that lien overstatements of 38%, 82% and 79% – all substantially less than the more than 100% overstatement here – were all deemed constructively fraudulent by other courts. [⁋ 17]

The Court also affirmed the lower court’s denial of the contractor’s motion for more discovery. (The contractor argued summary judgment was premature absent additional discovery.) Illinois Supreme Court Rule 191(b) allows a party opposing summary judgment to file an affidavit stating that material facts are known only to persons whose affidavits can’t be obtained due to hostility or otherwise. The failure to file a 191(b) motion precludes that party from trying to reverse a summary judgment after-the-fact on the basis of denied discovery. [⁋ 20]

Here, the contractor’s failure to seek additional time to take discovery before responding to the lessee’s summary judgment motion doomed its argument that the court entered judgment for the lessee too soon.

Take-aways:

Constructive fraud requires more than a simple math error. Instead, there must be a substantial overcharge coupled with other evidence. Here, that consisted of the fact the contractor neither performed much of the underlying services nor had contractual relationships with the various subcontractors supposedly working under it.

The case also solidifies the proposition that while there is no magic lien inflation percentage that is per se fraudulent, an overstatement of more than 100% meets the threshold.

Procedurally, the case lesson is for a summary judgment respondent to timely move for more discovery under Rule 191(b) and to specifically identify the material evidence the summary judgment respondent needs to unearth in the requested discovery.

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.