Sometimes in breach of contract suits, I see clients (and attorneys, too!) let visceral considerations cloud their judgment. They let emotions factor into a litigation equation that should purely be about “dollars and cents.” What’s to an objective observer a simple monetary dispute, becomes a complex psychological event when a breach of contract plaintiff views the defendant’s breach as a personal affront – one calling out for revenge. Usually though, a breaching defendant isn’t trying to make the plaintiff’s life miserable. Instead, the defendant typically can’t meet his financial obligations under the agreement or he lets his performance lapse for purely strategic reasons.
One way the law puts a check on emotions dominating a business dispute is by preventing plaintiffs from bootstrapping a breach of contract claim into a fraud claim. Another way is through the firmly entrenched legal principle that punitive damages cannot be recovered for a breach of contract.
The latter rule is at play in David Mizer Enterprises, Inc. v. Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc., 2015 WL 469423 (N.D.Ill. 2015), where a business consultant sued a television broadcasting firm under various legal and equitable theories for wrongfully disclosing plaintiff’s proprietary software and business model to third parties in violation of a written licensing agreement.
The plaintiff alleged that after a three-year license period expired, defendant continued using plaintiff’s secret software and business model without permission.
The plaintiff sought over $330K in damages in its breach of contract suit and sought an award of punitive damages premised on the defendant’s bad faith. The plaintiff also joined a conversion count based on the defendant’s unauthorized use of plaintiff’s software after the license lapsed. Defendant moved to dismiss and to strike plaintiff’s punitive damages allegation.
Result: motion to dismiss denied; motion to strike punitive damages claim granted
Under Illinois law, punitive damages are generally not available for a breach of contract. An exception to this rule applies where the contract breach amounts to an independent tort is done with “malice, wantonness or oppression.” The court looks to a defendant’s motive for its breach in determining whether punitive damages are warranted.
The court struck the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim. The plaintiff failed to allege malice or bad faith conduct by the defendant. Instead, plaintiff’s allegations were consonant with a basic breach of contract action. As a result, punitive damages weren’t warranted.
Next, the court sustained the plaintiff’s conversion claim. Under Illinois law, a conversion plaintiff must establish that he (1) has a right to certain property; (2) has an absolute and unconditional right to the immediate possession of the property; (3) made a demand for possession; and (4) the defendant wrongfully and without authorization assumed control, dominion, or ownership over the property.
Typically, conversion must involve tangible, personal property like computer hardware or a car, for example. Whether conversion applies to intangible property is an open question with cases going each way.
The defendant argued that plaintiff was suing to recover damages based on defendant’s interference with its intangible electronic data. Rejecting this argument, the court found that since the licensing contract specifically mentioned plaintiff’s software and related writings, the lifted property was tangible enough to underpin a conversion claim.
The court held that the plaintiff’s allegation that the defendant deprived Plaintiff of the exclusive benefit of its software and information, stated a valid conversion claim sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.
Punitive damages aren’t recoverable in breach of contract suits. The only exception is where the plaintiff can show the defendant’s breach was done with malice: for the sole purpose of harming the plaintiff;
Whether intangible property (like computer data) can underlie a conversion action is an open question. The more “hard” or concrete property the plaintiff can point to, the better his chances of making out a civil conversion suit.