Voluntary Payment of Wages Sinks Transit Agency’s Conversion Counterclaim Against Ex-Employees – IL ND

In Laba v. CTA, 2016 WL 147656 (N.D.Ill. 2016), the Court considers the contours of the conversion tort in a dispute involving former Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) employees who lied about their hours worked.

The CTA claimed the employees converted or “stole” paycheck monies by falsifying employee time records in order to get paid by the agency.

The Court dismissed the CTA’s conversion claim based on the involuntary payment doctrine.  Conversion applies where a plaintiff shows (1) a defendant exercised unauthorized control over the plaintiff’s personal property; (2) plaintiff’s right to immediate possession of the property; and (3) a demand for possession of the property.  

A colorable conversion claim must involve specifically identifiable property.  Money can be the subject of  a conversion claim but it must be a specific source of funds.  A general obligation (“John owes me money and so he basically stole from me,” e.g.) isn’t enough for actionable conversion.

A well-established conversion defense is the voluntary payment rule.  This rule posits that where one party voluntarily transfers property to another, even if the transfer is mistaken, there is no conversion.  In such a case, there is a debtor-creditor relationship: the debtor would be the person to whom the funds were paid and the creditor the paying party. 

Here, since the CTA voluntarily paid money to the employees, in the form of regular paychecks, those monies could not be subject to a later conversion suit.  The CTA did not pay the ex-workers under duress.  The fact that the workers may not have earned their pay doesn’t change the analysis.  At most, according to the court, the time sheet embellishments created a “general debt arising from fraudulent conduct.”  The CTA has a remedy to recoup the funds; it’s just not one for conversion. 

Afterwords:

This case presents a creative use of the conversion tort in an unorthodox fact setting.  The case lesson is clear: where an employer pays an employee of the employer’s own volition, the payment will be considered “voluntary” even where it turns out the employee didn’t deserve the payment (i.e. by not working).  In such a case, the employer’s appropriate remedy is one for breach of contract or unjust enrichment.  A civil conversion claim will not apply to voluntarily employer-employee payments.

False Info in Employee Time Records Can Support Common Law Fraud Claim – IL Fed Court

Some key questions the Court grapples with in Laba v. CTA, 2016 WL 147656 (N.D.Ill. 2016) are whether an employee who sleeps on the job or runs personal errands on company time opens himself up to a breach of fiduciary or fraud claim by his employer.  The Court answered “no” (fiduciary duty claim) and “maybe” (fraud claim) in an employment dispute involving the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

Some former CTA employees sued the embattled transit agency for invasion of privacy and illegal search and seizure after learning the CTA implanted Global Positioning System (“GPS”) technology on the plaintiffs’ work-issued cell phones. An audit of those phones revealed the plaintiffs’ regularly engaged in personal frolics during work hours.

The CTA removed the case to Federal court and filed various state law counterclaims to recoup money it paid to the ex-employees including claims for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and conversion. The Northern District granted in part and denied in part the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the CTA’s counterclaims.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Sustaining the CTA’s breach of fiduciary duty claim against the ex-employees’ motion to dismiss, the Court looked to black-letter Illinois law for guidance.  To state a breach of fiduciary duty claim in Illinois, a plaintiff must allege (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty, (2) breach of that duty, and (3) breach of the duty proximately caused damages.  The employer-employee relationship is one the law recognizes as a fiduciary one.

While the extent of an employee’s duty to his employer varies depending on whether the employee is a corporate officer, the law is clear that employees owe duties of loyalty to their employers.  Where an employee engages in self-dealing or misappropriates employer property or funds for the employee’s personal use, it can give rise to a fiduciary suit by the employer.

Here, the Court found that the employees’ conduct, while irresponsible and possibly negligent, didn’t rise to the level of disloyalty under the law.  The Court made it clear that under-par job performance doesn’t equate to conduct that can support a breach of fiduciary duty claim. (**6-7).

Fraudulent Misrepresentation

The Court upheld the CTA’s fraudulent misrepresentation claim – premised on the allegation that the plaintiffs lied to the CTA about the hours they were working in order to induce the CTA to pay them.  Under Illinois law, a fraud plaintiff must show (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the party making the statement, (3) with the intent to induce the statement’s recipient to act, (4) action by the recipient in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage resulting from that reliance.

Under the Federal pleading rules, a fraud claimant must plead the “who, what, where when and how” of the fraud but the allegation of a defendant’s intent or knowledge can be alleged generally.

Here, the Court found that the CTA sufficiently alleged a fraudulent scheme by the employees to misrepresent the hours they worked in exchange for their paychecks.  This was enough, under Illinois fraud law, to survive the employees’ motion to dismiss.  See FRCP 9(b); (*7).

Take-aways:

1/ While an employee owes an employer fiduciary duties of loyalty, his sub-par job performance doesn’t equate to a breach of fiduciary duty.  There must be self-dealing or intentional conduct by the employee for him to be vulnerable to an employer’s fiduciary duty suit;

2/ An employee misrepresenting hours work can underlie a common law fraud claim if the employer can show it paid in reliance on the truth of the employee’s hour reporting;

 

 

 

Real Estate Not Subject To Conversion Claim – IL 2nd Dist.

The Illinois Second District recently reversed a trial court’s imposition of a constructive trust and assessment of punitive damages in a conversion case involving the transfer of real property.

In In re Estate of Yanni, 2015 IL App (2d) 150108, the Public Guardian filed suit on behalf of a disabled property owner (the “Ward”) for conversion and undue influence seeking to recover real estate – the Ward’s home – from the Ward’s son who deeded the home to himself without the Ward’s permission.

The trial court imposed a constructive trust on the property, awarded damages of $150K (the amount the Ward had contributed to the home through the years) and assessed punitive damages against the defendant for wrongful conduct. Defendant appealed.

Reversing, the appeals court held that the trial court should have granted the defendant’s Section 2-615 motion to dismiss since a claim for conversion, by definition, only applies to personal property (i.e. something moveable); not to real estate.

The court first addressed the procedural impact of the defendant answering the complaint after his prior motion to dismiss was denied. Normally, where a party answers a complaint after a court denies his motion to dismiss, he waives any defects in the complaint.

An exception to this rule is where the complaint altogether fails to state a recognized cause of action. If this is the case, the complaint can be attacked at any time and by any means. This is so because “a complaint that fails to state a [recognized] cause of action cannot support a judgment.”

However, this exception allowing complaint attacks at any time doesn’t apply to an incomplete or deficiently pled complaint – such as where a complaint alleges only bare conclusions instead of specific facts in a fraud claim. For a defendant to challenge a complaint after he answers it, the complaint must fail to state a recognized theory of recovery.

Here, the trial court erred because it allowed a judgment for the guardian on a conversion claim where the subject of the action was real property.  In Illinois, there is no recognized cause of action for conversion of real property. A conversion claim only applies to personal property.

Conversion is the wrongful and unauthorized deprivation of personal property from the person entitled to its immediate possession. The conversion plaintiff’s right to possess the property must be “absolute” and “unconditional” and he must make a demand for possession as a precondition to suing for conversion. (¶¶ 20-21)

The court rejected the guardian’s argument that the complaint alleged the defendant’s conversion of funds instead of physical realty.  The court noted that in the complaint, the guardian requested that the home be returned to the Ward’s estate and the Ward be given immediate possession of it.

The court also pointed to the fact that the defendant didn’t receive any funds or sales proceeds from the transfer that could be attached by a conversion claim. All that was alleged was that the defendant deeded the house to himself and his wife without the Ward’s permission. Since there were no liquid funds traceable to the defendant’s conduct, a conversion claim wasn’t a cognizable theory of recovery.

Afterwords:

This case provides some useful reminders about the nature of conversion and the proper timing to attack a complaint.

Conversion only applies to personal property. In an action involving real estate – unless there are specific funds that can be tied to a transfer of the property – conversion is not the right theory of recovery.

In hindsight, if in the plaintiff guardian’s shoes, I think I’d pursue a constructive trust based on equitable claims like a declaratory judgment (that the defendant’s deeding the home to himself is invalid), unjust enrichment and a partition action.