Course of Dealing Leads to Implied-In-Fact Contract Judgment in Construction Spat – IL First Dist.

While a signed agreement is almost always preferable to an oral one, the absence of a writing won’t always doom a breach of contract action.

Trapani v. Elliot Group, Inc., 2016 IL App (1st) 143734, examines what happens when parties don’t sign a contract but still act as if an agreement exists.

In a construction dispute, the First District affirmed a trial court’s finding that an implied-in-fact contract existed between the contractor plaintiff and the real estate developer defendant.  In upholding the $250K-plus judgment for the plaintiff, the Court highlights the nature and scope of implied contracts and discusses the agent-of-a-disclosed-principal rule.

The plaintiff submitted a draft contract that identified the defendant as “owner.”  The defendant, who wasn’t the owner (it was the developer), never signed the contract.

Despite the absence of a signed contract, the plaintiff performed the work contemplated by the draft agreement and was paid over $2M over a several-month period.  Plaintiff sued to recover for its remaining work after the developer refused to pay.  The developer denied responsibility for the plaintiff work: it claimed it merely acted as the owner’s agent and that plaintiff should have looked to the owner for payment.

The trial court entered judgment for the plaintiff.  It found that the plaintiff and developer, while lacking a signed written agreement, had an implied-in-fact contract.  The developer appealed.

Result: affirmed.

Reasons:

Whether an implied in fact contract (or “contract implied in fact”) exists depends on the surrounding facts, circumstances and expressions of the parties demonstrating an intent to be bound.

A contract implied in fact is a classic contract by conduct.  It arises where the court imposes a contractual duty on a party based on the party’s promissory expression that shows an intention to be bound;

The promissory expression can be inferred from the parties’ conduct and an implied in fact contract can be found even where there is no express contract between the parties;

An implied in law contract differs in that it is an equitable remedy based on the principle that no one should unjustly enrich himself at another’s expense;

Acceptance of an implied in fact contract can be shown by conduct of the parties and a course of dealing that demonstrates the parties’ intent to form a binding agreement.

(¶¶ 40-44)

The Court agreed with the trial court that the parties’ conduct supported a finding of an implied in fact contract.  The Court noted that throughout the construction project, the plaintiff communicated regularly with the defendant and provided lien waivers and payment certificates to the defendant.  The defendant also provided project specifications to the Plaintiff and approved multiple change orders over the course of plaintiff’s work on the site.  Significantly, the defendant never rejected plaintiff’s work or demanded that plaintiff stop working at any time during the project.

Next, the Court tackled the developer’s argument that it wasn’t liable to the plaintiff since the developer was acting as the agent of the property owner.  In Illinois, an agent who contracts with a third party generally is not liable so long as he discloses his principal’s identity.  Where the agent fails to identify his principal, it creates an “undisclosed principal” scenario which will make the agent personally liable if the contract is later breached. (¶ 60)

The reason for the undisclosed principal rule is reliance: the third party (here, the plaintiff) relies on the agent’s credit when entering the contract.  As a result, it would be unfair to immunize the agent and have the undisclosed principal shoulder the financial burden when the agent fails to reveal the principal.  The dearth of evidence showing a relationship between the developer (agent) and the owner (principal) led the Court to sustain the trial court’s finding that the developer was responsible for the outstanding amounts owed the plaintiff contractor.

Afterwords:

1/  An implied in fact contract is a valid, enforceable contract, despite a lack of express agreement.  Instead, the parties’ intention to be contractually liable can be shown through course of dealing between parties;

2/ The agent of a disclosed principal is generally immunized from liability.  However, where the agent fails to sufficiently disclose its principal’s identity, the agent remains liable if the plaintiff can show it relied on the agent’s credit and lacked notice of the agent’s principal’s identity.

 

Missing “Course Of Dealing” Evidence Dooms Wedding Dress Seller on Summary Judgment – IL ND

In a Memorandum Opinion and Order that quotes Neil Sedaka and Taylor Swift in its footnotes, the District Court in House of Brides, Inc. v. Angelo, 2016 WL 698093 (N.D.Ill. 2016), examines the quantity and quality of evidence required to win a summary judgment motion. 

The plaintiff sold wedding clothes on-line and in retail stores and the defendant was the plaintiff’s main supplier.  The plaintiff sued the dress maker in state court for breach of contract claiming many of the dresses were defective or shipped later than promised. 

After it removed the case to Federal court, the defendant counter-sued the plaintiff for unpaid invoices. The defendant moved for summary judgment on its counterclaims as well as on plaintiff’s claims.

Partly siding with the defendant, the court discussed some common Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) claims and defenses and the required elements of a summary judgment affidavit.

The UCC governs contracts for the sale of goods and wedding dresses constitute goods under the UCC.  A seller who delivers accepted goods to a buyer can sue the buyer for the price of the goods accepted along with incidental damages where a buyer fails to pay for the goods.  810 ILCS 5/2-709.

In a goods contract, written contract terms can be explained or supplemented by a “course of performance, course of dealing, or usage of trade.” However, written terms cannot be contradicted by evidence of a prior agreement or an oral agreement made at the same time as the written one by the parties.

Here, the plaintiff argued that the course of dealing showed that defendant routinely accepted late payments and so defendant’s “net 30” invoice language was excused.

The court rejected this argument.  It held that avoiding the 30-day payment deadline was a material change that would have to be in writing since the Statute of Frauds governs contracts for the sale of goods exceeding $500 and the dresses involved in this suit easily eclipsed that value.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s set-off defense against the defendant’s breach of contract counterclaim since a set-off must relate to the same contract being sued on (the court’s example: a seafood buyer can’t set off the price of frogs’ legs because the seller previously sent bad fish in a previous order)

Next, the court struck the plaintiff’s affidavit in support of its breach of implied warranty of merchantability claim on the basis of hearsay. 

In Federal court, an affidavit in support of or opposing summary judgment must be based on personal knowledge, show the witness’s competence and constitute admissible evidence.  Conclusory statements or affidavit testimony based on hearsay is inadmissible on summary judgment.  

The plaintiff’s affidavit testimony that there were dress defects that required refunds was too vague to survive defendant’s summary judgment motion.  This was because no employee stated that he/she personally issued any refunds or had first-hand knowledge of any dress defects that warranted a refund. 

What’s more, the seller failed to offer any authenticated business records that showed either the claimed dress defects or the refund amounts.  Without admissible evidence, the plaintiff seller failed to challenge the defendant’s breach of contract claim and the court awarded summary judgment to the defendant.

Afterwords:

1/ This case shows importance of furnishing admissible evidence when challenging summary judgment;

2/ Hearsay evidence in a summary judgment affidavit will be rejected;

3/ Course of performance or course of dealing can augment or explain written contract terms but cannot contradict them;

4/ A set-off defense must pertain to contract being sued on instead of a separate agreement;

 

 

 

No Course of Dealing In Trucking Dispute – Attorneys’ Fees Language in Invoice Not Binding On Transport Co. (IL ND)

C&K Trucking, LLC v. AGL, LLC, 2015 WL 6756282, features a narcotic fact pattern and this legal issue: Can boilerplate “legalese” in an invoice create binding contract rights against the invoice recipient?

Whether the mere mention of this topic is sleep inducing will depend on the person.  But what I can say is that the question is a pertinent one from a commercial litigation standpoint since it continues to crop up pretty regularly in practice.

I’ve represented parties trying to enforce favorable invoice language while at other times, defended against one-sided invoice terms.  The main issue there, like in today’s featured case, is whether there was a meeting of the minds on the disputed invoice language.

The plaintiff transportation broker in C&K Trucking sued to recover damages for unpaid cargo brokerage services. The broker’s damages action was based on invoices that provided it could recover unpaid amounts in addition to interest and attorneys’ fees.

The problem was that the broker didn’t send its invoices until after it performed under a series of oral contracts with the trucking firm defendants.

The contracting chronology went like this: plaintiff broker verbally hired the defendant to transport cargo for the plaintiff’s clients.  Once the defendants delivered the cargo and was paid by the broker’s clients, the broker sent the defendants invoices that contained the disputed fee-shifting terms.

Defendants moved for summary judgment that the invoice attorneys’ fees provision weren’t enforceable since they (defendants) never agreed to fee-shifting at the outset.  The Northern District agreed and granted defendants’ summary judgment motion.  In doing so, the court relied on some fundamental contract formation principles and reiterated the quantum of evidence needed to survive a summary judgment motion.

In Federal court, the summary judgment movant must show the court that a trial is pointless – that there’s no disputed issue of fact. Once the movant meets this burden, the non-moving party must then show that the affidavits, depositions and admissions on file do in fact show there are “material” disputed facts that should be resolved at trial.

A disputed fact is material where it might affect the outcome of the suit. But a metaphysical doubt isn’t enough. If the evidence doesn’t show a true factual dispute, a summary judgment will be granted.

To establish the formation of a valid contract in Illinois, the plaintiff must prove there was an offer, an acceptance and valuable consideration.  The plaintiff must also establish that the contract’s main terms were definite and certain.

Any one-sided attempt to change terms of a contract by sending an invoice with additional terms that were never discussed by the parties will normally fail to create an enforceable contract. 

An exception to this applies where there is a course of dealing between the parties.  A course of dealing is defined as a continuous relationship between parties over time that, based on the parties’ conduct, reflects a mutual understanding of each party’s rights and duties concerning a particular transaction.  A course of dealing under contract law can inform or qualify written contract language.

In this case, the plaintiff argued that the defendants’ years-long pattern of accepting and paying plaintiff’s invoices established a course of dealing and evinced defendant’s implied acceptance of the invoice contents.  The court rejected this argument since there was no evidence that defendants ever paid the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees through the life of the verbal contracts.  The court also pointed to the fact that defendants disputed many of plaintiff’s invoices as additional proof that there was no tacit acknowledgement by defendants that it was responsible for plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.

Afterwords:

The key lesson from the factually unsexy C&K Trucking case is that boilerplate fee-shifting invoice terms sent after the contract is performed generally aren’t enforceable. There must be a meeting of the minds at the contract formation stage to allow fee-shifting.

A course of dealing based on the parties’ past conduct can sometimes serve as a proxy for explicit contract terms or a party’s acceptance of those terms.  However, where the parties’ prior transactions do not clearly show mutual assent to disputed language, the breach of contract plaintiff cannot rely on the course of dealing rule to prove a defendant’s implied acceptance.