Florida Series II: RE Broker Can Assert Ownership Interest in Retained Deposits in Priority Dispute with Condo Developer’s Lenders

Plaza Tower v. 300 South Duval Associates, LLC considers whether a real estate broker or a lender has “first dibs” on earnest money deposits held by a property developer.  After nearly 80% of planned condominium units failed to close (no doubt a casualty of the 2008 crash), the developer was left holding $2.4M of nonrefundable earnest money deposits.  The exclusive listing agreement (“Listing Agreement”) between the developer and the broker plaintiff provided the broker was entitled to 1/3 of retained deposits in the event the units failed to close.

After the developer transferred the deposits to the lender, the broker sued the lender (but not the developer for some reason) asserting claims for conversion and unjust enrichment.

The trial court granted the lenders’ summary judgment motion.  It found that the lenders had a prior security interest in the retained deposits and the broker was at most, a general unsecured creditor of the developer.  The broker appealed.

The issue on appeal was whether the broker could assert an ownership interest in the retained deposits such that it could state a conversion claim against the lenders.

The Court’s key holding was that the developer’s retained deposits comprised an identifiable fund that could underlie a conversion claim.  Two contract sections combined to inform the Court’s ruling.

One contract section provided that the broker’s commission would be “equal to one-third of the amount of the retained deposits.”  The Court viewed this as too non-specific since it didn’t earmark a particular fund.

But another contract section did identify a particular fund; it stated that commission advances to the broker would be offset against commissions paid from the retained deposits.  As a result, the retained deposits were particular enough to sustain a conversion action.  Summary judgment for the developer reversed.

Afterwords: Where a contract provides that a nonbreaching party has rights in a specific, identifiable fund, that party can assert ownership rights to the fund.  Absent a particular fund and resulting ownership rights in them, a plaintiff’s conversion claim for theft or dissipation of the fund will fail.

 

Federal Court Gives Illinois Primer on Personal Property Torts

The plaintiff in Peco Pallet, Inc. v. Northwest Pallet Supply Co., 2016 WL 5405107 sued a recycling company under various theories after their once harmonious business relationship imploded.

The plaintiff, a wooden pallet manufacturer, instituted a program where it offered to pay pallet recyclers like defendant a specific amount per returned pallet.  When the plaintiff announced it was going to cut the per-pallet payment rate, the defendant recycler balked and refused to return several thousand of plaintiff’s pallets.  The plaintiff sued and the defendant filed counterclaims.

In partially dismissing and sustaining the parties’ various claims, the Court offers a useful refresher on both some common and uncommon legal theories that apply to personal property.

Replevin and Detinue

The Illinois replevin statute, 735 ILCS 5/19-101, allows a plaintiff to try to recover goods wrongfully detained by a defendant.  The statute employs a two-step process involving an initial hearing and a subsequent trial.

Once a replevin suit is filed, the court holds a hearing to determine whether to issue a replevin order.  If at the hearing the plaintiff shows he most likely has a superior right to possession of the disputed property and is likely to prevail at trial, the court enters an order of replevin which requires the defendant release the plaintiff’s property pending the trial.  If the plaintiff later wins at trial, he can recover money damages attributable to the defendant’s wrongful detention of the property.

Closely related to replevin, a detinue claim also seeks the recovery of personal property and damages for its wrongful detention.  Unlike replevin however, there is no preliminary hearing in a detinue case pending final judgment.  Possession remains with the defendant until final judgment.

Since the purpose of the replevin and detinue remedies is the return of personal property, where a defendant returns plaintiff its property, the claims are moot.  Here, since the defendant returned the 17,000 pallets that were subjects of the replevin suit, the Court found that the replevin and detinue claims pertaining to the returned pallets were moot.

The court did allow, however, plaintiff to go forward on its detinue claim for damages related to defendant’s failure to account for some 30,000 pallets.

Conversion

A conversion plaintiff must prove (1) a right to property at issue, (2) an absolute and unconditional right to immediate possession of the property, (3) a demand for possession, and (4) that defendant wrongfully and without authorization, assumed control, dominion or ownership over the property.

The essence of conversion is wrongful deprivation, not wrongful acquisition.  This means that even where a defendant initially possesses property lawfully, if that possession later becomes unauthorized, the plaintiff will have a conversion claim.

Here, the plaintiff alleged that it owned the pallets, that it demanded their return and defendant’s refusal to return them.  These allegations were sufficient to plead a cause of action for conversion.

 

Negligence

The Court also sustained the plaintiff’s negligence claim against the motion to dismiss.  In Illinois, a negligence action arising from a bailment requires allegations of (1) an express or implied agreement to create a bailment, (2) delivery of property to the bailee in good condition, (3) bailee’s acceptance of the property, and (4) bailee’s failure to return the property or its returning the property in damaged condition.

The plaintiff sufficiently alleged an implied bailment – that defendant accepted the pallets and failed to return some of the pallets while returning others in a compromised state.  These allegations were enough for the negligence count to survive.

Promissory Estoppel

The Court found that the defendant sufficiently pled an alternative promissory estoppel counterclaim.  Promissory estoppel applies where defendant makes a promise that the plaintiff relies on to its detriment.  The pleading elements of promissory estoppel are (1) an unambiguous promise, (2) plaintiff’s reliance on the promise, (3) plaintiff’s reliance was expected and foreseeable by defendant, (4) plaintiff relied on the promise to its detriment.

A promissory estoppel claim can’t co-exist with a breach of express contract claim: it only applies where there is no contractual consideration.  Here, the defendant/counter-plaintiff alleged there was no express contract.  Instead, it claimed that plaintiff’s promise to pay anyone who returned the pallets motivated defendant to return thousands of them.  The court viewed these allegations as factual enough for a colorable promissory estoppel claim.

Tortious Interference with Contract and Business Expectancy

The court dismissed the defendant’s tortious interference counterclaims.  Each tort requires a plaintiff to point to defendant’s conduct directed at a third party that results in a breach of a contract.  Here, the defendant’s counterclaim focused on plaintiff’s own actions in unilaterally raising prices and altering terms of its earlier pallet return program.  Since defendant didn’t allege any conduct by the plaintiff aimed at a third party (someone other than counter-claimant, e.g.), the tortious interference claims failed.

Take-aways:

1/ Conversion action can be based on defendant’s possession that was initially lawful but that later becomes wrongful;

2/ A Promissory estoppel claim can provide a viable fall-back remedy when there is no express contract;

3/ Tortious interference claim must allege defendant’s conduct directed toward a third party (someone other than plaintiff);

4/Where personal property is wrongfully detained and ultimately returned, the property owner can still have valid detinue claim for damages.

Filing Lawsuit Doesn’t Meet Conversion Suit ‘Demand for Possession’ Requirement – 7th Cir. (applying IL law)

Conversion, or civil theft, requires a plaintiff to make a demand for possession of the converted property before suing for its return.  This pre-suit demand’s purpose is to give a defendant the opportunity to return plaintiff’s property and avoid unnecessary litigation.

What constitutes a demand though?  The easiest case is where a plaintiff serves a written demand for return of property and the defendant refuses.  But what if the plaintiff doesn’t send a demand but instead files a lawsuit.  Is the act of filing the lawsuit equivalent to sending a demand?

The Seventh Circuit recently answered “no” to the question in Stevens v. Interactive Financial Advisors, Inc., 2016 WL 4056401 (N.D.Ill. 2016)

That case’s plaintiff sued his former brokerage firm for tortious interference and with contract and conversion based when the firm blocked plaintiff’s access to investment client data after the firm fired the plaintiff.  The District Court granted summary judgment on the plaintiff’s tortious interference claim and a jury entered judgment for the defendant on the conversion count.

At trial on the conversion count, the jury submitted this question to the trial judge: “Can we consider [filing] the lawsuit a demand for property?”  The trial judge answered no – under Illinois law, filing a lawsuit does not qualify as a demand for possession.  The jury then found for the defendant and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the jury verdict, the Seventh Circuit addressed if and when impeding access to financial data can give rise to a conversion action in light of Illinois law’s pre-suit demand requirement and various applicable Federal securities laws.

To prove conversion under Illinois law, a plaintiff must show (1) he has a right to personal property, (2) he has an absolute and unconditional right to immediate possession of the property, (3) he made a demand for possession, and (4) defendant wrongfully and without authorization assumed control, dominion, or ownership over the property.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendant investment firm on the plaintiff’s conversion count that sought access to client information for clients plaintiff brought to the firm.

The Court held that since the firm was bound by Federal securities laws prohibiting it from disclosing nonpublic client information to third parties, and the plaintiff had been fired, the plaintiff could not show a right to immediate possession of the client financial information.  The plaintiff did possibly have a right to insurance client information (as opposed to securities clients) and the Court denied summary judgment as to plaintiff’s insurance clients.

The Seventh Circuit upheld the jury verdict on the insurance clients conversion suit based on the plaintiff’s failure to make a demand for possession.  The Court stated the demand requirement’s purpose as trying to motivate the return of property “before a plaintiff is required to submit to unnecessary litigation.”

The plaintiff did not make a demand for return of his insurance client’s data before he filing suit.  And since Illinois courts have never held that the act of suing was tantamount to a demand for possession, the Seventh Circuit found that the District Court correctly instructed the jury that the failure to make a demand for possession before suing defeats a conversion claim.

The Court also nixed the plaintiff’s “demand futility” argument: that a demand for possession would have been pointless given the circumstances of the given case. (Demand futility typically applies where the property has been sold or fundamentally damaged.)

The Seventh Circuit found that the jury properly considered the demand futility question and ruled against the plaintiff and there was no basis to reverse that finding.

Afterwords:

1/ A conversion plaintiff’s right to client data will not trump a Federal securities law that protects the data.  In addition, a pre-suit demand for possession is required to make out a conversion action unless the plaintiff can show that the demand is pointless or futile;

2/ The act of filing a lawsuit will not serve as a proxy for a demand for possession.

3/Conversion plaintiffs should take great care to make a demand for possession before suing.

3-a/ This is true even where the demand is likely to meet resistance.  Otherwise, like the plaintiff experienced here, the risk is too great that the lack of a demand will defeat the conversion claim.