A common cautionary tale recounted in 1L contracts classes involves the crafty debtor who secretly short-pays a creditor by noting “payment in full” on his check. According to the classic “gotcha” vignette, the debtor’s devious conduct forever bars the unwitting creditor from suing the debtor.
Whether apocryphal or not (like the one about the newly minted lawyer who accidentally brought weed into the courthouse and forever lost his license after less than 3 hours of practice) the fact pattern neatly illustrates the accord and satisfaction rule.
Accord and satisfaction applies where a creditor and debtor have a legitimate dispute over amounts owed on a note (or other payment document) and the parties agree on an amount (the “accord”) the debtor can pay (the “satisfaction”) to resolve the disputed claim.
Piney Ridge Associates v. Ellington, 2017 IL App (3d) 160764-U reads like a first year contracts “hypo” come to life as it reflects the perils of creditor’s accepting partial payments where the payor recites “payment in full” on a check.
Piney Ridge’s plaintiff note buyer sued the defendant for defaulting on a 1993 promissory note. The defendant moved to dismiss because he wrote “payment in full” under the check endorsement line. The trial court agreed with the defendant that plaintiff’s acceptance of the check was an accord and satisfaction that defeated plaintiff’s suit.
The 3rd District appeals court reversed; it stressed that a debtor’s duplicitous conduct won’t support an accord and satisfaction defense.
Under Illinois law, an accord and satisfaction is a contractual method of discharging a debt: the accord is the parties’ agreement; the satisfaction is the execution of the agreement.
In deciding whether a transaction amounts to an accord and satisfaction, the court focuses on the parties’ intent.
Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code (which applies to negotiable instruments) a debtor who relies on the accord and satisfaction defense must prove (1) he/she tendered payment in good faith as full satisfaction of a claim, (2) the amount of the claim was unliquidated or subject to a bona fide dispute; and (3) the claimant obtained payment from the debtor. 810 ILCS 5/3-311(a).
Good faith means honesty in fact and observing “reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” The debtor must also provide the creditor with a conspicuous statement that the debtor’s payment is tendered in full satisfaction of a claim. (⁋12)(810 ILCS 5/3-311(a), (b)). Without an honest dispute, there is no accord and satisfaction. (⁋ 14)
A debtor who fails to act in good faith cannot bind a creditor to an accord and satisfaction. Case examples of a court refusing to find an accord and satisfaction include defendants who, despite clearly marking their payment as “in full”, paid less than 10% of a workers’ compensation lien in one case, and in another, paid less than half the plaintiff’s total invoice amount and lied to the plaintiff’s agent about past payments. (⁋⁋ 13, 14)(citing to Fremarek v. John Hancock Mutual Life Ins. Co., 272 Ill.App.3d 1067 (1995); and McMahon Food Corp. v. Burger Dairy Co., 103 F.3d 1307 (7th Cir. 1996).
Applying this good faith requirement, the Court noted that the defendant paid $354 to the plaintiff at the time the defendant admittedly owed over $10,000 (defendant sent a pre-suit letter to the prior noteholder conceding he owed $10,000 on the note). The Court held that this approximately $7,600 shortfall clearly did not meet accord and satisfaction’s good faith component.
- Accord and satisfaction requires good faith on the payor’s part and a court won’t validate debtor subterfuge.
- Where the amount paid “in full” is dwarfed by the uncontested claim amount, the Court won’t find an accord and satisfaction.
- Where there is no legitimate dispute concerning a debt’s existence and amount, there can be no accord and satisfaction.