Non-shareholder Liable For Chinese Restaurant’s Lease Obligations Where No Apparent Corporate Connection – IL Case Note

fortune-cookiePink Fox v. Kwok, 2016 IL App (1st) 150868-U, examines the corporate versus personal liability dichotomy through the lens of a commercial lease dispute.  There, a nonshareholder signed a lease for a corporate tenant (a Chinese restaurant) but failed to mention the tenant’s business name next to his signature.  This had predictable bad results for him as the lease signer was hit with a money judgment of almost $200K in past-due rent and nearly $20K in attorneys’ fees and court costs.

The restaurant lease had a ten-year term and required the tenant to pay over $13K in monthly rent along with real estate taxes and maintenance costs.  The lease was signed by a non-shareholder of the corporate tenant who was friends with the tenant’s officers.

The non-shareholder and other lease guarantors appealed a bench trial judgment holding them personally responsible for the defunct tenant’s lease obligations.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

The first procedural question was whether the trial court erred when it refused to deem the defendants’ affirmative defenses admitted based on the plaintiff’s failure to respond to the defenses.

Code Section 2-602 requires a plaintiff to reply to an affirmative defense within 21 days.  The failure to reply to an affirmative defense is an admission of the facts pled in the defense.  But the failure to reply only admits the truth of factual matter; not legal conclusions. 

A failure to reply doesn’t admit the validity of the unanswered defense.  The court has wide discretion to allow late replies to affirmative defenses in keeping with Illinois’ stated policy of having cases decided on their merits instead of technicalities.  (¶ 55)

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s allowing the plaintiff’s late reply.  The court noted the defendants had several months to seek a judgment for the plaintiff’s failure to reply to the defenses yet waited until the day of trial to “spring” a motion on the plaintiff.  Since the Illinois Code is to be construed liberally and not in a draconian fashion, the Court found there was no prejudice to the defendants in allowing the plaintiff’s late reply.

The court next considered whether the trial court properly entertained extrinsic evidence to interpret the commercial lease.  The body of the lease stated that the tenant was a corporation yet the signature page indicated that an individual was the tenant.  This textual clash created a lease ambiguity that merited hearing evidence of the parties’ intent at trial.

Generally, when an agent signs a contract in his own name and fails to mention the identity of his corporate principal, the agent remains liable on the contract he signs.  But where an agent signs a document and does note his corporate affiliation, he usually is not personally responsible on the contract.  Where an agent lacks authority to sign on behalf of his corporate employer, the agent will be personally liable.  (¶¶ 76-77)

Since the person signing the lease testified at trial that he did so “out of friendship,” the trial court properly found he was personally responsible for the defunct Chinese restaurant’s lease obligations.

The court also affirmed the money judgment against the lease guarantors and rejected their claim that there was no consideration to support the guarantees.

Under black letter lease guarantee rules, where a guarantee is signed at the same time as the lease, the consideration supporting the lease will also support the guarantee.  In such a case, the guarantor does not need to receive separate or additional consideration from the underlying tenant to be bound by the guarantee.

So long as the primary obligor – here the corporate tenant – receives consideration, the law deems the same consideration as flowing to the guarantor.

Afterwords:

1/ Signing a lease on behalf of a corporate entity without denoting corporate connection is risky business;

2/ If you sign something out of friendship, like the defendant here, you should make sure you are indemnified by the friend/person (individual or corporation) you’re signing for;

3/ Where a guaranty is signed at the same time as the underlying lease, no additional consideration to the guarantor is required.  The consideration flowing to the tenant is sufficient to also bind the guarantor.

 

 

Commercial Tenant’s Promise to Refund Broker Commissions Barred by Statute of Frauds – IL First Dist.

The plaintiff property owner in Peppercorn 1248 LLC v. Artemis DCLP, LLP, 2016 IL App (1st) 143791-U, sued a corporate tenant and its real estate brokers for return of commission payments where the tenant never took possession under a ten-year lease for a Chicago daycare facility.  Shortly after the lease was signed, the tenant invoked a licensing contingency and terminated the lease.

The lease conditioned tenant’s occupancy on the tenant securing the required City zoning and parking permits.  If the tenant was unable to obtain the licenses, it could declare the lease cancelled.  When the tenant refused to take possession, the plaintiff sued to recoup the commission payment.

Affirming summary judgment for the broker defendants, the Court addressed some recurring contract formation and enforcement issues prevalent in commercial litigation along with the “interference” prong of the tortious interference with contract claim.

In Illinois, where a contracting party is given discretion to perform a certain act, he must do so in good faith: the discretion must be exercised “reasonably,” with a “proper motive” and not “arbitrarily, capriciously or in a manner inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the parties.” (73-74)

Here, there was no evidence the tenant terminated the lease in bad faith.  It could not get the necessary permits and so was incapable of operating a daycare business on the site. 

Next, the court found the plaintiff’s claim for breach of oral contract (based on the brokers’ verbal promise to refund the commission payments) unenforceable under the Statute of Frauds’ (“SOF”) suretyship rule. A suretyship exists where one party, the surety, agrees to assume an obligation of another person, the principal, to a creditor of the principal.

The SOF bars a plaintiff’s claim that seeks to hold a third party responsible for another’s debt where the third party did not promise to pay the debt in writing.

An exception to this rule is the “main purpose” defense. This applies where the “main purpose” of an oral promise is to materially benefit or advance the promisor’s business interests.  In such a case, an oral promise to pay another’s debt can be enforced.

The court declined to apply the main purpose exception here.  It noted that the brokers’ commission payments totaled less than $70K on a 10-year lease worth $1.4M. The large disparity between the commission and total lease payments through the ten-year term cut against the plaintiff’s main- purpose argument.

The plaintiff sued the corporate tenant for failing to return the commission payments to the brokers. Since the tenant and the broker defendants were separate parties, any promise by the tenant to answer for the brokers’ debt had to be in writing (by the tenant) to be enforceable.

The court also upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s tortious interference count. (See here for tortious interference elements.)  A tortious interference with contract plaintiff must show, among other things, the defendant actively induced a breach of contract between plaintiff and another party.  However, the mere failure to act – without more – usually will not rise to the level of purposeful activity aimed at causing a breach.

The Court found one of the broker defendant’s alleged failure to help secure business permits for the tenant didn’t rise to the level of  intentional conduct that induced tenant’s breach of lease.  As a result, the plaintiff failed to offer evidence in support of the interference prong of its tortious interference claim sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Afterwords:

1/ A promise to pay another’s debt – a suretyship relationship – must be in writing to be enforceable under the SOF;

2/ A contractual relationship won’t give rise to a duty to disclose in a fraudulent concealment case unless there is demonstrated disparity in bargaining power between the parties;

3/ Tortious interference with contract requires active conduct that causes a breach of contract; a mere failure to act won’t normally qualify as sufficient contractual interference to be actionable.