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]

No Future Damages Allowed in Wage Payment and Collection Act Claim – IL 2d Dist.

Eakins v. Hanna Cylinders, LLC, 2015 IL App (2d) 140944 is the third in a trio of recent Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 et seq., (“Wage Act”) cases that address an employee’s rights to recover future damages after an employer prematurely terminates a multi-year contract.

(The other two cases – Majmundar v. House of Spices (India), Inc., 2013 IL App (1st) 130292 and Elsener v. Brown, 2013 IL App (2d) 120209 are summarized here and here.)

The Eakins plaintiff sued after he was fired 14 months into a 24-month contract to serve as a plant manager for the industrial company defendant.  The employment contract was silent on grounds for termination.  The plaintiff sought as damages, compensation for the ten month remaining on the employment contract under a breach of contract theory and he joined a Wage Act claim.  The trial court entered summary judgment for the defendant on both claims and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Breach of contract judgment reversed; Wage Act judgment for employer affirmed.

Q: Why?

A: The appeals court reversed the breach of contract judgment for the defendant employer.  In Illinois, an employment agreement with no fixed duration can be ended at the will of either party.  The contract here was clearly for a fixed term, 24 months, and so wasn’t at will.  By firing the plaintiff 14 months into the contract term, the defendant breached.

The court rejected defendant’s argument that the plaintiff’s failure to meet certain performance metrics (e.g. keep costs down, grow market share, meet sales quotas, etc.) justified defendant’s premature termination of the plaintiff.  The court found that since the contract didn’t specify poor performance (as opposed to outright failure to perform – e.g. by not showing up to work) as a ground for contractual cancellation, the defendant breached by firing plaintiff before the 24 months was up.

Otherwise, according to the court, any employer could transmute a fixed-term contract into an at-will one by claiming the employee didn’t meet the employer’s performance requirements.  The court remanded to the lower court so it could decide plaintiff’s money damages. (¶¶ 23-29).

The court did affirm judgment for the defendant on the Wage Act claim though.  Looking to Majmundar for guidance, the court held that unpaid future compensations coming due under an untimely ended employment contract doesn’t qualify as “final compensation” under the Wage Act.  The reason for this is that once an employee is fired, he no longer performs any services for the employer.  So the employer isn’t receiving anything of value from the employee to support an obligation to make future payments. (¶¶ 31-32).

Take-aways:

Where a contract is for a fixed term and doesn’t provide for “for cause” firing or otherwise spell out grounds for termination, the contract will be enforced as written in the employee’s favor and his failure to meet an employer’s subjective work standards won’t constitute a basis for nullifying the contract;

Future payments due under a fixed-term contract aren’t considered final compensation under the Wage Act since there is no reciprocal exchange (services for wages) once an employee is fired;

Procedurally, the case makes clear that the denial of a summary judgment motion is appealable so long as there are cross-motions for summary judgment filed and the disposition of those motions resolves all issues in a given case.