Discovery Rule Can’t Save Trustee’s Fraud Suit – No ‘Continuing’ Violation Where Insurance Rep Misstates Premium Amount – IL Court

Gensberg v. Guardian, 2017 IL App (1st) 153443-U, examines the discovery rule in the context of common law and consumer fraud as well as when the “continuing wrong” doctrine can extend a statute of limitations.

Plaintiffs bought life insurance from agent in 1991 based in part on the agent’s representation that premiums would “vanish” in 2003 (for a description of vanishing premiums scenario, see here).  When the premium bills didn’t stop in 2003, plaintiff complained and the agent informed it that premiums would cease in 2006.

Plaintiff complained again in 2006 when it continued receiving premium bills.  This time, the agent informed plaintiff the premium end date would be 2013. It was also in this 2006 conversation that the agent, for the first time, informed plaintiff that whether premiums would vanish is dependent on the policy dividend interest rate remaining constant.

When the premiums still hadn’t stopped by 2013, plaintiff had seen (or heard enough) and sued the next year.  In its common law and consumer fraud counts, plaintiff alleged it was defrauded by the insurance agent and lured into paying premiums for multiple years as a result of the agent’s misstatements.

The Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit on the grounds that plaintiff’s fraud claims were time barred under the five-year and three-year statutes of limitation for common law and statutory fraud.

Held: Dismissal Affirmed.

Rules/reasons:

The statute of limitations for common law fraud and consumer fraud is five years and three years, respectively. 735 ILCS 5/13-205, 805 ILCS 505/10a(e). Here, plaintiff sued in 2014.  So normally, its fraud claims had to have accrued in 2009 (common law fraud) and 2011 (consumer fraud) at the earliest for the claims to be timely.  But the plaintiff claimed it didn’t learn it was injured until 2013 under the discovery rule.

The discovery rule, which can forestall the start of the limitations period, posits that the statute doesn’t begin to run until a party knows or reasonably should know (1) of an injury and that (2) the injury was wrongfully caused. ‘Wrongfully caused’ under the discovery rule means there is enough facts for a reasonable person would be put on inquiry notice that he/she may have a cause of action. The party relying on the discovery rule to file suit after a statute of limitations runs has the burden of proving the date of discovery. (¶ 23)

The plaintiff alleged that it wasn’t until 2013 that it first learned that defendant misrepresented the vanishing date for the insurance premiums.
The Court rejected this argument based on the allegations of the plaintiff’s complaint. It held that the plaintiff knew or should have known it was injured no later than 2006 when the agent failed to adhere to his second promised deadline (the first was in 2003 – the original premium end date) for premiums to cease.

Plaintiff stated it complained to the insurance agent in 2003 and again in 2006 that it shouldn’t be continuing to get billed.  The court found that the agent’s failure to comply with multiple promised deadlines for premiums to stop should have put plaintiff on notice that he was injured in 2003 at the earliest and 2006 at the latest. Since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2014 – eight years later – both fraud claims were filed too late.

Grasping at a proverbial straw, the plaintiff argued its suit was saved by the “continuing violation” rule.  This rule can revive a time-barred claim where a tort involves repeated harmful behavior.  In such a case, the statute of limitations doesn’t run until (1) the date of the last injury or (2) when the harmful acts stop. But, where there is a single overt act which happens to spawn repetitive damages, the limitations period is measured from the date of the overt act. (¶ 26).

The court in this case found there was but a single harmful event – the agent’s failure to disclose, until 2006, that whether premiums would ultimately vanish was contingent on dividend interest rates remaining static. As a result, plaintiff knew or should have known it was harmed in 2006 and could not take advantage of the continuing violation rule to lengthen its time to sue.

Take-aways:

1/ Fraud claims are subject to a five-year (common law fraud) and three-year (consumer fraud) limitations period;

2/ The discovery rule can extend the time to sue but will not apply where a reasonable person is put on inquiry notice that he may have suffered an actionable wrong;

3/  “Continuing wrong” doctrine doesn’t govern where there is a single harmful event that has ongoing ramifications. The plaintiff’s time to sue will be measured from the date of the tortious occurrence and not from when damages happen to end.

Plaintiff’s Damage Expert Barred in Tortious Interference Case Where Only Offering ‘Simple Math’ – IL Case Note

An auto body shop plaintiff sued an insurance company for tortious interference and consumer fraud.

The plaintiff in Knebel Autobody Center, Inc. v. Country Mutual Insurance Co., 2017 IL App (4th) 160379-U, claimed the defendant insurer intentionally prepared low-ball estimates to drive its policy holders and plaintiff’s potential customers to lower cost (“cut-rate”) competing body shops.  As a result, plaintiff claimed it lost a sizeable chunk of business.  The trial court granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment and motion to bar plaintiff’s damages expert.

Result: Affirmed.

Reasons: The proverbial “put up or shut up” litigation moment,  summary judgment is a drastic means of disposing of a lawsuit.  The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of production and ultimate burden of persuasion.  A defendant moving for summary judgment can satisfy its burden of production either by (1) showing that some element of plaintiff’s cause of action must be resolved in defendant’s favor or (2) by demonstrating that plaintiff cannot produce evidence necessary to support plaintiff’s cause of action.  Once the defendant meets its burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff who must then present a factual basis that arguably entitles it to a favorable judgment.

Under Illinois law, a consumer fraud plaintiff must prove damages and a tortious interference plaintiff must show that it lost specific customers as a result of a defendant’s purposeful interference.

Here, since the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of lost customers stemming from the insurer’s acts, it failed to offer enough damages evidence to survive summary judgment on either its consumer fraud or tortious interference claims.

The court also affirmed the trial court’s barring the plaintiff’s damages expert.

In Illinois, expert testimony is admissible if the offered expert is qualified by knowledge, skill, training, or education and the testimony will assist the judge or jury in understanding the evidence.

Expert testimony is proper only where the subject matter is so arcane that only a person with skill or experience in a given area is able to form an opinion. However, “basic math” is common knowledge and does not require expert testimony. 

Illinois Evidence Rules 702 and 703 codify the expert witness admissibility standards.  Rule 702 provides that if “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.”

Rule 703 states that an expert’s opinion may be based on data perceived by or made known to the expert at or before the hearing. If the data is of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in a particular field, the underlying data supplied to the expert doesn’t have to be admissible in evidence.

Here, the plaintiff’s expert merely compared plaintiff’s loss of business from year to year and opined that the defendant’s conduct caused the drop in business.  Rejecting this testimony, the court noted that anyone, not just an expert, can calculate a plaintiff’s annual lost revenues.  Moreover, the plaintiff’s expert failed to account for other factors (i.e. demographic shifts, competing shops in the area, etc.) that may have contributed to plaintiff’s business losses.  As a result, the appeals court found the trial court properly barred plaintiff’s damages expert. (¶¶ 32-33)

Afterwords:

The case underscores the proposition that a tortious interference plaintiff must demonstrate a specific customer(s) stopped doing business with a plaintiff as a direct result of a defendant’s purposeful conduct.  A consumer fraud plaintiff also must prove actual damages resulting from a defendant’s deceptive act.

Another case lesson is that a trial court has wide discretion to allow or refuse expert testimony.  Expert testimony is not needed or allowed for simple math calculations.  If all a damages expert is going to do is compare a company’s earnings from one year to the next, the court will likely strike the expert’s testimony as unnecessary to assist the judge or jury in deciding a case.

 

Food Maker’s Consumer Fraud Claim For Deficient Buttermilk Formula Tossed (IL ND Case Note)

The food company plaintiff in Kraft Foods v. SunOpta Ingredients, Inc., 2016 WL 5341809 sued a supplier of powdered buttermilk for consumer fraud when it learned that for over two decades the defendant had been selling plaintiff a buttermilk compound consisting of buttermilk powder mixed with other ingredients instead of “pure” buttermilk.

Granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the Northern District examines the “consumer nexus” requirement for consumer fraud liability and what conduct by a business entity can still implicate consumer concerns and be actionable under the Consumer Fraud Act, 815 ILCS 505/2 (the “CFA”).

The plaintiff believed it was receiving buttermilk product that wasn’t cut with other ingredients; it relied heavily on a 1996 product specification sheet prepared by defendant’s predecessor that claimed to use only pristine ingredients.

Upon learning that defendant’s buttermilk was not “pure” but was instead a hybrid product composed of buttermilk powder, whey powder, and dried milk, Plaintiff sued.

Dismissing the CFA claim, the Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the ersatz buttermilk implicated consumer concerns since consumers were the end-users of the product and because consumer health and safety was possibly compromised.

The CFA offers broader protection than common law fraud.  Unlike its common law counterpart, the CFA plaintiff does not have to prove it actually relied on an untrue statement.  Instead, the CFA plaintiff must allege (1) a deceptive or unfair act or practice by defendant, (2) defendant’s intent that plaintiff rely on the deception or unfair practice, (3) the unfair or deceptive practice occurred during a course of conduct involving trade or commerce.

As its name suggests, the CFA applies specifically to consumers which it defines as “any person who purchases or contracts for the purchase of merchandise not for resale in the ordinary course of his trade or business but for his use or that of a member of his household.” 815 ILCS 505/1.  Where a CFA plaintiff is a business entity – like in this case – the court applies the “consumer nexus” test.  Under this test, if the defendant’s conduct is addressed to the market generally or otherwise implicates consumer protection concerns, the corporate plaintiff can have standing to sue under the CFA.

A classic example of conduct aimed at a business that still implicates consumer protection concerns is a defendant disparaging a business plaintiff or misleading consumers about that plaintiff.  But the mere fact that consumers are end product users normally isn’t enough to satisfy the consumer nexus test.  Here, defendants’ actions were twice removed from the consumer: Defendant supplied plaintiff with product who, in turn, incorporated defendant’s buttermilk product into its food offerings.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that defendant’s product imperiled “public health, safety or welfare issues.”  Since the plaintiff failed to plead any facts to show that defendant’s conduct affected, much less harmed, consumers, there was no consumer nexus (or connection) and plaintiff’s CFA claim failed.

Take-aways:

Even under relaxed Federal notice pleading standards, a consumer fraud plaintiff must still provide factual specifics in its Complaint.  The case illustrates that the consumer nexus test has some teeth.  Where the plaintiff is a sophisticated commercial entity and isn’t using a product as a consumer would, it will be tough for the plaintiff to show consumer protection concerns are involved.