Substantial Performance of Asset Purchase Agreement Wins the Day in Pancake House Spat

pancakes-155793_960_720The Second District affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff pancake house (“Restaurant”) seller in a breach of contract action against the Restaurant’s buyer and current operator.  Siding with the seller, the court discussed the contours of the substantial performance doctrine and what kind of evidence a plaintiff must supply to win summary judgment in a contract dispute.

The plaintiff in El and Be, Inc. v. Husain, 2016 IL App (2d) 150011-U, sold the Restaurant for about $500K pursuant to an Asset Purchase Agreement (APA).   The defendant failed to pay the agreed purchase price when it learned the plaintiff had several unpaid vendor bills, utility debts and a lien lawsuit was filed in Texas against Restaurant equipment by a secured creditor of the plaintiff.  The plaintiff sued for breach of contract to recover the APA purchase price and the defendant counterclaimed for fraud and breach of the APA.  The trial court entered summary judgment for the plaintiff on its claims as well as defendants’ counterclaims.

Affirming summary judgment for the plaintiff, the Second District framed the salient issue as whether the plaintiff substantially performed its APA obligations.

Perfect performance isn’t required to enforce a contract.  Instead, a plaintiff must show he substantially performed.  Substantial performance is hard to define and is a fact-based inquiry.  In deciding whether substantial performance has occurred, a court considers whether a defendant received and enjoyed the benefits of the plaintiff’s performance.  Substantial performance allows a plaintiff to win a breach of contract suit; especially where his performance is done in reliance on the parties’ contract.

The court found that the defendant Restaurant buyer clearly benefitted from the plaintiff’s performance.  The buyer gained the Restaurant assets and goodwill and operated the Restaurant continuously for over a year before plaintiff sued to enforce the APA.  The defendant’s operation of the Restaurant during this pre-suit period was a tangible benefit flowing to the defendant from the plaintiff’s APA performance.  (¶¶ 25-27).

Next, the Court rejected the defendant’s fraud counterclaim – premised on plaintiff’s failure to disclose outstanding debts prior to the Restaurant sale.  The defendant claimed this omission exposed the defendant to a future lien foreclosure action and a possible money judgment by plaintiff’s creditors.

In Illinois, a fraud plaintiff must establish (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) the statement maker’s knowledge or belief that the statement was false; (3) an intention to induce the plaintiff to act based on the statement, (4) reasonable reliance on the truth of the statement by the plaintiff, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  A fraud claimant must also prove damages (monetary loss, e.g.) with reasonable certainty.  While mathematical precision isn’t required, fraud damages that are speculative or hypothetical won’t support a fraud suit.

Here, since the defendant made only generalized allegations of possible damages and could not point to actual damages evidence – such as having to defend a lien foreclosure suit or a money judgment – the fraud claim failed.  On summary judgment, a litigant must offer evidence to support its claims.  The defendant’s failure to produce measurable damages evidence stemming from plaintiff’s pre-sale omissions doomed the fraud claim.  (¶¶ 33-36)

Afterwords:

El and Be, Inc. cements the proposition that perfect performance isn’t required to enforce a contract.  Instead, a breach of contract plaintiff must show substantial performance – that he performed to such a level that the defendant enjoyed tangible benefits from the performance.  Where a contract defendant clearly reaps monetary awards from a plaintiff’s contractual duties, the substantial performance standard is met.

The case also makes clear that fraud must be pled and proven with acute specificity and that vague assertions of damages without factual back-up won’t survive summary judgment.

 

Commercial Landlord’s Suit for Rent Damages Accruing After Possession Order Survives Tenant’s Res Judicata Defense

18th Street Property, LLC v. A-1 Citywide Towing & Recovery, Inc., 2015 IL App (1st) 142444-U examines the res judicata and collateral estoppel doctrines in a commercial lease dispute.

The plaintiff landlord obtained a possession order and judgment in late 2012 on a towing shop lease that expired March 31, 2013. 

About six months after the possession order, the lessor sued to recover rental damages through the lease’s March 2013 end date.  The defendant moved to dismiss on the basis of res judicata and collateral estoppel arguing that the landlord’s damage claim could have and should have been brought in the earlier eviction suit.  The trial court agreed, dismissed the suit and the lessor plaintiff appealed.

Held: Reversed.

Q: Why?

A:  Res judicata (claim preclusion) and collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) seek to foster finality and closure by requiring all claims to be brought in the same proceeding instead of filing scattered claims at different times.

Res judicata applies where there is a final judgment on the merits, the same parties are involved in the first and second case, and the same causes of action are involved in the cases.  

Res judicata bars the (later) litigation of claims that could have brought in an earlier case while collateral estoppel prevents a party from relitigating an issue of law or fact that was actually decided in an earlier case.  (¶¶ 20-21, 30)

In Illinois, a commercial landlord’s claim for past-due rent and for future rent on an abandoned lease are different claims under the res judicata test.

This is because the payment of future rent is not a present tenant obligation and a tenant’s breach of lease usually will not accelerate rent (i.e. require the tenant to immediately pay the remaining payments under the lease) unless the lease has a clear acceleration clause.  Each month of unpaid rent gives rise to fresh claims for purposes of res judicata.

The landlord’s remedy where a tenant breaches a lease is to (a) sue for rents as they become due, (b) sue for several accrued monthly installments in one suit, or (c) sue for the entire amount at the end of the lease.

The commercial lease here gave the landlord a wide range of remedies for the tenant’s breach including acceleration of rental payments. 

The tenant defendant argued that since the lessor failed to try to recover future rent payments in the earlier eviction case, it was barred from doing so in the second lawsuit.  The landlord claimed the opposite: that its claims for damages accruing after the possession order were separate and not barred by res judicata or collateral estoppel.

The court held that res judicata did not bar the lessor’s post-possession order damage suit.  It noted that while the lease contained an optional acceleration clause, it was one of many remedies the landlord had if the tenant breached.  The lease did not require the landlord to accelerate rents upon the tenant’s breach. 

The court also noted that the lease required the landlord to notify the tenant in writing if it (the landlord) was going to terminate the lease.  Since terminating the lease was a prerequisite to acceleration, the Court needed more evidence as to whether the lessor terminated the lease.  Without any termination proof, the trial court should not have dismissed the landlord’s suit.

Afterwords:

1/ If a lease does not contain an acceleration clause, a landlord can likely file a damages action after an earlier eviction case without risking a res judicata or collateral estoppel defense.

2/ If a lease contains mandatory acceleration language, the landlord likely must sue for all future damages coming due under the lease or else risk having its damages cut off on the possession order date.

 

 

Economic Loss Rule Requires Reversal of $2.7M Damage Verdict In Furniture Maker’s Lawsuit- 7th Circuit

In a case that invokes Hadley v. Baxendale** – the storied British Court of Exchequer case published just three years after Moby-Dick (“Call me ‘Wikipedia’ guy?”) and is a stalwart of all first year Contracts courses across the land – the Seventh Circuit reversed a multi-million dollar judgment for a furniture maker.

The plaintiff in JMB Manufacturing, Inc. v. Child Craft, LLC, sued the defendant furniture manufacturer for failing to pay for about $90,000 worth of wood products it ordered.  The furniture maker in turn countersued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation versus the wood supplier and its President alleging that the defective wood products caused the furniture maker to go out of business – resulting in millions of dollars in damages.

The trial court entered a $2.7M money judgment for the furniture maker on its counterclaims after a bench trial.

The Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment for the counter-plaintiff based on Indiana’s economic loss rule.  

Indiana follows the economic loss doctrine which posits that “there is no liability in tort for pure economic loss caused unintentionally.”  Pure economic loss means monetary loss that is not accompanied with any property damage (to other property) or personal injury.  The rule is based on the principal that contract law is better suited than tort law to handle economic loss lawsuits.  The economic loss rule prevents a commercial party from recovering losses under a tort theory where the party could have protected itself from those losses by negotiating a contractual warranty or indemnification term.

Recognized exceptions to the economic loss rule in Indiana include claims for negligent misrepresentation, where there is no privity of contract between a plaintiff and defendant and where there is a special or fiduciary relationship between a plaintiff and defendant. 

The court focused on the negligent misrepresentation exception – which is bottomed on the principle that a plaintiff should be protected where it reasonably relies on advice provided by a defendant who is in the business of supplying information. (p. 17).

The furniture maker counter-plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation claim versus the corporate president defendant failed based on the agent of a disclosed principal rule.  Since all statements concerning the moisture content of the wood imputed to the counter-defendant’s president were made in his capacity as an agent of the corporate plaintiff/counter-defendant, the negligent misrepresentation claim failed.

The court also declined to find that there was a special relationship between the parties that took this case outside the scope of the economic loss rule.  Under Indiana law, a garden-variety contractual relationship cannot be bootstrapped into a special relationship just because one side to the agreement has more formal training than the other in the contract’s subject matter.

Lastly, the court declined to find that the corporate officer defendant was in the business of providing information.  Any information supplied to the counter-plaintiff was ancillary to the main purpose of the contract – the supply of wood products.

In the end, the court found that the counter-plaintiff negotiated for protection against defective wood products by inserting a contract term entitling it to $30/hour in labor costs for re-working deficient products.  The court found that the counter-plaintiff’s damages should have been capped at the amount representing man hours expended in reconfiguring the damaged wood times $30/hour – an amount that totaled $11,000. (pp. 9-17, 24).

Take-aways:

1/ This case provides a good statement of the economic loss rule as well as its philosophical underpinnings.  It’s clear that where two commercially sophisticated parties are involved, the court will require them to bargain for advantageous contract terms that protect them from defective goods or other contingencies;

2/ Where a corporate officer acts unintentionally (i.e. is negligent only), his actions will not bind his corporate employer under the agent of a disclosed principal rule;

3/ A basic contractual relationship between two merchants won’t qualify as a “special relationship” that will take the contract outside the limits of Indiana’s economic loss rule.

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** Hadley v. Baxendale is the seminal breach of contract case that involves consequential damages.  The case stands for the proposition that the non-breaching party’s recoverable damages must be foreseeable (ex: if X fails to deliver widgets to Y and Y loses a $1M account as a result, X normally wouldn’t be responsible for the $1M loss (unless Y made it clear to X that if X breached, Y would lose the account, e.g.) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadley_v_Baxendale]