Appeals Court Gives Teeth to “Good Faith” Requirement of Accord and Satisfaction Defense

A common cautionary tale recounted in 1L contracts classes involves the crafty debtor who secretly short-pays a creditor but notes “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 a marijuana cigarette into the courthouse and forever lost his license after less than 3 hours of practice) the fact pattern neatly illustrates the accord and satisfaction rue. 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.

Bullet-points:

  • 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.

 

 

The (Ruthless?) Illinois Credit Agreements Act

The Illinois Credit Agreements Act, 815 ILCS 160/1, et seq. (the “ICAA”) and its requirement that credit agreements be in writing and signed by both creditor and debtor, recently doomed a borrower’s counterclaim in a multi-million dollar loan default case.

The plaintiff in Contractors Lien Services, Inc. v. The Kedzie Project, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 130617-U, sued to foreclose on a commercial real estate loan and sued various guarantors along with the corporate borrower.

The borrower counterclaimed, arguing that a “side letter agreement” (“SLA”) signed by an officer of the lender established the parties’ intent for the lender to release additional funds to the borrower – funds the borrower claims would have gotten it current or “in balance” under the loan. The trial court disagreed and entered a $14M-plus judgment for the lender plaintiff.  The corporate borrower and two guarantors appealed.

Held: Affirmed

Rules/Reasoning:

The ICAA provides that a debtor cannot maintain an action based on a “credit agreement” unless it’s (1) in writing, (2) expresses an agreement or commitment to lend money or extend credit or (2)(a) delay or forbear repayment of money and (3) is signed by the creditor and the debtor. 815 ILCS 160/2

An ICAA “credit agreement” expansively denotes “an agreement or commitment by a creditor to lend money or extend credit or delay or forbear repayment of money not primarily for personal, family or household purposes, and not in connection with the issuance of credit cards.”  So, the ICAA does not apply to consumer transactions.  It only governs business/commercial arrangements.

The ICAA covers and excludes claims that are premised on unwritten agreements that are even tangentially related to a credit agreement as defined by the ICAA.

The borrower argued that the court should construe the SLA with the underlying loan as a single transaction: an Illinois contract axiom provides that where two instruments are signed as part of the same transaction, they will be read and considered together as one instrument.

The court rejected this single transaction argument.  It found the SLA was separate and unrelated to the loan documents.  The SLA post-dated the loan documents as evidenced by the fact that the  SLA specifically referenced the loan.  Conversely, the loan made no mention of the SLA (since it didn’t exist when the loan documents were signed).

All these facts militated against the court finding the SLA was part-and-parcel of the underlying loan transaction.

Another key factor in the court’s analysis was the defendants admitting that the SLA post-dated the loan (and so was a separate and distinct writing).  The court viewed this as a judicial admission – defined under the law as “deliberate, clear, unequivocal statement by a party about a concrete fact within that party’s knowledge.”

Here, since the SLA was not part of the loan modification, it stood or fell on whether it met the requirements of the ICAA.  It did not since it wasn’t signed by both lender and borrower.  The ICAA dictates that both creditor and debtor sign a credit agreement.  Here, since the debtor didn’t sign the SLA (it was only signed by lender’s agent), the SLA agreement was unenforceable.  As a consequence, the lender’s summary judgment on the counterclaim was proper.

Afterwords:

This case and others like it show that a commercially sophisticated borrower – be it a business entity or an individual – will likely be shown no mercy by a court.  This is especially true where there is no fraud, duress or unequal bargaining power underlying a given loan transaction.

Contractor’s Lien Services also illustrates in stark relief that ICAA statutory signature requirement will be enforced to the letter.  Since the borrower didn’t sign the SLA (which would have arguably cured the subject default), the borrower couldn’t rely on it and the lender’s multi-million dollar judgment was validated on appeal.