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.

 

LLC Members Not Liable to Deceased Member’s Estate; Partnership’s Assets Become LLC’s Upon Conversion

The First District recently examined the nature of a limited liability company (LLC) member’s personal liability and the requirements for converting a general partnership to an LLC.

In Daniel v. Ripoli, 2015 IL App (1st) 122607, a case with a labyrinthine fact pattern, an LLC member’s estate sued an accounting company LLC to recover distributions the estate claimed was owed the deceased member under the LLC operating agreement.

The LLC defended by asserting that the deceased’s distribution amount was permanently reduced before he died by an amendment to the operating agreement.  The trial court entered a money judgment of about $200,000 for the plaintiff and the LLC appealed.

Held: reversed.  The operating agreement’s amendment lessened the deceased member’s distribution amounts from the amendment date forward.

Rules/Reasons:

1/ In Illinois a contract can be modified by express agreement or by conduct.  A contractual modification that’s not expressly agreed to can be ratified by acquiescence in a course of conduct consistent with recognizing the modification;

2/ An LLC provides more insulation from liability for its members than does a corporation for its shareholders;

3/ Under Section 10-10(a) of Illinois’ LLC Act, 805 ILCS 180/10-10(a), LLC members aren’t liable for debts of the LLC unless (1) the articles of organization provide for personal liability; and (2) the member has consented in writing to the adoption of a personal liability provision;

3/ The failure of an LLC to observe usual corporate formalities in connection with the operation of its business is not a basis for imposing personal liability on LLC members or managers;

4/ When a general partnership converts to an LLC, all that’s required is each partner vote for the conversion.  The partnership does not need to also transfer all of its assets to the newly formed LLC;

5/ Once the conversion from partnership to LLC is complete, all debts and assets of the partnership automatically become those of the LLC;

7/ An LLC member can sue the LLC or another member for legal or equitable relief with or without an accounting to enforce the member’s rights under the LLC Act, the operating agreement or any other rights of the member;

8/ The death of an LLC member results in the member’s disassociation from the LLC;

9/ The LLC Act does not allow for a deceased member’s estate to sue the LLC or other LLC members on the deceased member’s behalf;

805 ILCS 180/10-10(a), (c), 180/15-20.

The court held that here, once the accounting general partnership converted to an LLC, the LLC members (who were the erstwhile partners) had no liability to non-members like the plaintiff.

Additionally, the parties’ conduct indicated a mutual recognition that the deceased’s distributions were reduced by the deceased member accepting lesser distributions for several years before he died.  The court then reversed the judgment against the LLC.

Afterwords:

A former LLC member’s estate has no standing to sue an LLC absent legislative decision to the contrary;

A partnership’s assets and liabilities become those of an LLC upon conversion to the LLC form;

Basic contract formation principles apply when determining LLC members’ rights and duties under an operating agreement.