IL Supreme Court Expands on Shareholder Derivative Suits and Standing Doctrine in Att”y Malpractice Suit

Some minority shareholders in an LLC sued their former counsel for legal malpractice alleging the firm failed to file “obvious” breach of fiduciary claims against the LLC’s corporate counsel.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm in Stevens v. McGuirreWoods, LLP, 2015 IL 118652, the Illinois Supreme Court gives content to the quantum of proof needed to sustain a legal malpractice claim and discusses the type of legal interest that will confer legal standing for a corporate shareholder to sue in his individual capacity.

The plaintiffs’ central claim was that McGuirreWoods (MW) botched the underlying case by not timely suing Sidley Austin, LLP (Sidley) after the LLC’s majority shareholders allegedly looted the company.  Sidley got the underlying case tossed on statute of limitations grounds and because the plaintiffs lacked standing. minority shareholder plaintiffs lacked standing to individually sue Sidley since Sidley’s obligations ran squarely

The trial court in the legal malpractice suit granted summary judgment for MW due to plaintiffs’ lack of standing.  The court held that even if MW had timely sued Sidley, the claim still would have failed because they could not bring claims in their individual capacity when those claims belonged exclusively to the LLC. After the First District appeals court partially reversed on a procedural issue, MW appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Result: Plaintiffs’ lacked standing to assert individual claims against Sidley.  Judgment for MW.

Rules/Reasons:

Some cases describe the legal malpractice suit as a “case-within-a-case.”  This is because the thrust of a legal malpractice claim is that if it wasn’t for an attorney’s negligence in an underlying case, the plaintiff would have won that case and awarded damages.

The legal malpractice plaintiff must prove (1) defendant attorney owed the plaintiff a duty of care arising from the attorney-client relationship, (2) the defendant’s breached that duty, and (3) as a direct and proximate result of the breach, the plaintiff suffered injury.

Injury in the legal malpractice setting means the plaintiff suffered a loss which entitles him to money damages.  Without proof the plaintiff sustained a monetary loss as a result of the lawyer defendant’s negligence, the legal malpractice suit can’t succeed.

The plaintiff must establish that he would have prevailed in the underlying lawsuit had it not been for the lawyer’s negligence.  The plaintiff’s recoverable damages in the legal malpractice case are the damages plaintiff would have recovered in the underlying case. [¶ 12]

Here, the plaintiffs sued Sidley in their individual capacities.  Since Sidley’s obligations flowed strictly to the LLC, the plaintiff’s lacked standing to sue Sidley in their individual capacity.

Under the law, derivative claims belong solely to a corporation on whose behalf the derivative suit is brought.  A plaintiff must have been a shareholder at the time of the transaction of which he complains and must maintain his shareholder status throughout the entire lawsuit.  [¶ 23]

Illinois’ LLC Act codifies this common law derivative suit recovery rule by making clear that any derivative action recovery goes to the LLC.  By contrast, the nominal plaintiff can only recover his attorneys’ fees and expenses.  805 ILCS 180/40-15.

A nominal plaintiff in a derivative suit only benefits indirectly from a successful suit through an increase in share value. The Court held that the plaintiffs’ missing out on increased share value was not something they could sue for individually in a legal malpractice suit.  Had MW timely sued Sidley, any recovery would have gone to the LLC, not to the plaintiffs – even though they were the named plaintiffs.  Since the plaintiffs could not have recovered money damages against Sidley in the earlier lawsuit, they cannot now recover those same damages under the guise of a legal malpractice action.

An added basis for the Court’s decision was that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue by divesting themselves of their LLC interests.  Standing means one has a real interest in the outcome of a controversy and may suffer injury to a legally recognized interest.

Since plaintiffs relinquished their LLC membership interests before suing MW, they lacked standing to pursue derivative claims for the LLC.

Afterwords:

This case illustrates in vivid relief the harsh results flowing from statute of limitations and the standing doctrine as it applies to aggrieved shareholder suits.

The case turned on the nature of the plaintiff’s claims.  Clearly, they were suing derivatively (as opposed to individually) to “champion” the LLC’s rights.  As a result, any recovery in the case against Sidley would flow to the LLC – the entity of which plaintiffs were no longer members.

And while the plaintiffs did maintain their shareholder status for the duration of the underlying Sidley case, their decision to terminate their LLC membership interests before suing MW proved fatal to their legal malpractice claims.

 

Plaintiff’s Damage Expert Barred in Tortious Interference Case Where Only Offering ‘Simple Math’ – IL Case Note

An auto body shop plaintiff sued an insurance company for tortious interference and consumer fraud.

The plaintiff in Knebel Autobody Center, Inc. v. Country Mutual Insurance Co., 2017 IL App (4th) 160379-U, claimed the defendant insurer intentionally prepared low-ball estimates to drive its policy holders and plaintiff’s potential customers to lower cost (“cut-rate”) competing body shops.  As a result, plaintiff claimed it lost a sizeable chunk of business.  The trial court granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment and motion to bar plaintiff’s damages expert.

Result: Affirmed.

Reasons: The proverbial “put up or shut up” litigation moment,  summary judgment is a drastic means of disposing of a lawsuit.  The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of production and ultimate burden of persuasion.  A defendant moving for summary judgment can satisfy its burden of production either by (1) showing that some element of plaintiff’s cause of action must be resolved in defendant’s favor or (2) by demonstrating that plaintiff cannot produce evidence necessary to support plaintiff’s cause of action.  Once the defendant meets its burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff who must then present a factual basis that arguably entitles it to a favorable judgment.

Under Illinois law, a consumer fraud plaintiff must prove damages and a tortious interference plaintiff must show that it lost specific customers as a result of a defendant’s purposeful interference.

Here, since the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of lost customers stemming from the insurer’s acts, it failed to offer enough damages evidence to survive summary judgment on either its consumer fraud or tortious interference claims.

The court also affirmed the trial court’s barring the plaintiff’s damages expert.

In Illinois, expert testimony is admissible if the offered expert is qualified by knowledge, skill, training, or education and the testimony will assist the judge or jury in understanding the evidence.

Expert testimony is proper only where the subject matter is so arcane that only a person with skill or experience in a given area is able to form an opinion. However, “basic math” is common knowledge and does not require expert testimony. 

Illinois Evidence Rules 702 and 703 codify the expert witness admissibility standards.  Rule 702 provides that if “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.”

Rule 703 states that an expert’s opinion may be based on data perceived by or made known to the expert at or before the hearing. If the data is of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in a particular field, the underlying data supplied to the expert doesn’t have to be admissible in evidence.

Here, the plaintiff’s expert merely compared plaintiff’s loss of business from year to year and opined that the defendant’s conduct caused the drop in business.  Rejecting this testimony, the court noted that anyone, not just an expert, can calculate a plaintiff’s annual lost revenues.  Moreover, the plaintiff’s expert failed to account for other factors (i.e. demographic shifts, competing shops in the area, etc.) that may have contributed to plaintiff’s business losses.  As a result, the appeals court found the trial court properly barred plaintiff’s damages expert. (¶¶ 32-33)

Afterwords:

The case underscores the proposition that a tortious interference plaintiff must demonstrate a specific customer(s) stopped doing business with a plaintiff as a direct result of a defendant’s purposeful conduct.  A consumer fraud plaintiff also must prove actual damages resulting from a defendant’s deceptive act.

Another case lesson is that a trial court has wide discretion to allow or refuse expert testimony.  Expert testimony is not needed or allowed for simple math calculations.  If all a damages expert is going to do is compare a company’s earnings from one year to the next, the court will likely strike the expert’s testimony as unnecessary to assist the judge or jury in deciding a case.

 

Medical Device Maker Can Recover Lost Profits Against Double-Dipping Salesman – IL Fed. Court

A Federal court examines the pleading and proof elements of several business torts in a medical device company’s lawsuit against its former salesman and a rival firm.  The plaintiff sued when it learned its former employee was selling on the side for a competitor.

Granting summary judgment for most of the plaintiff’s claims, the Court in HSI v. Pappas, 2016 WL 5341804, dives deep into the various employer remedies where an employee surreptitiously works for a competing firm.

The Court upheld the plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claim against the former salesman as well as its aiding and abetting (the breach) claim against the competitor.  In Illinois, a breach of fiduciary duty plaintiff must show (1) existence of a fiduciary duty, (2) the fiduciary duty was breached, and (3) the breach proximately caused plaintiff’s injury.  An employee owes his employer a duty of loyalty.  (Foodcomm Int’l v. Barry, 328 F.3d 300 (7th Cir. 2003).

A third party who aids and abets another’s breach of fiduciary duty can also be liable where the third party (1) knowingly participates in or (2) knowingly accepts the benefits resulting from a breach of fiduciary duty.encourages or induces someone’s breach of duty to his employer.

Since the plaintiff proved that the ex-salesman breached his duty of loyalty by secretly selling for the medical supply rival, the plaintiff sufficiently made out a breach of fiduciary duty claim against the salesman.  The plaintiff also produced evidence that the competitor knew the salesman was employed by the plaintiff and still reaped the benefits of his dual services.  The competitor’s agent admitted in his deposition that he knew the salesman was employed by plaintiff yet continued to make several sales calls with the plaintiff to customers of the competitor.  The court found these admissions sufficient evidence that the competitor encouraged the salesman’s breach of his duties to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff also produced evidence that the competitor knew the salesman was employed by the plaintiff and still profited from his dual services.  The competitor’s representative admitted in his deposition knowing the salesman was employed by plaintiff yet still made several sales calls with the salesman to some of the competitor’s customers.  The court found this admission sufficient evidence that the competitor encouraged the salesman’s breach of his duties to the plaintiff.

With liability against the individual and corporate defendants established, the Court turned its attention to plaintiff’s damages.  Plaintiff sought over $400K in damages which included all amounts plaintiff paid to the defendant during his 10-month employment tenure, the amounts paid by the competitor to the defendant during his time with plaintiff as well as lost profits

An employee who breaches his fiduciary duties to an employer generally must forfeit compensation he receives from the employer.  The breaching employee must also disgorge any profits he gains that flow from the breach.

This is because under basic agency law, an agent is entitled to compensation only on the “due and faithful performance of all his duties to his principal.”  The forfeiture rule is equitable and based on public policy considerations.

Since the evidence was clear that the defendant failed to perform his employment duties in good faith, the Court allowed the plaintiff to recoup the nearly $180K in compensation it paid the defendant.

The plaintiff was not allowed to recover this amount from the competitor, however.  The Court held that since the payments to the salesman never came into the competitor’s possession, plaintiff would get a windfall if it could recover the same $180K from the competitor.

The Court also allowed the plaintiff to recover its lost profits from both the individual and corporate defendants.  In Illinois, lost profits are inherently speculative but are allowable where the evidence affords a reasonable basis for their computation, and the profits can be traced with reasonable certainty to the defendant’s wrongful conduct.

Since the corporate defendant didn’t challenge plaintiff’s projected profits proof, the Court credited this evidence and entered summary judgment for the plaintiff.

Take-aways:

This case serves as a vivid cautionary tale as to what lies ahead for double-dealing employees.  Not only can the employer claw back compensation paid to the employee but it can also impute lost profits damages to the new employer/competitor where it induces a breach or willingly accepts the financial fruits of the breach.

The case also cements proposition that lost profits are intrinsically speculative and that mathematical certainty isn’t required to prove them.