Kosowski v. Alberts, 2017 IL App (1st) 170622 – U, examines some signature commercial litigation remedies against the factual backdrop of a business loan default.
The plaintiffs, decades-long business partners in the printing and direct mail industry, borrowed money under a written loan agreement that gave the lender wide-ranging remedies upon the borrowers’ default. Plaintiffs quickly fell behind in payments and went out of business within two years. A casualty of the flagging print media business, the plaintiffs not only defaulted on the loan but lost their company collateral – the printing facility, inventory, equipment and accounts receivable -, too.
Plaintiffs sued the bank and one of its loan officers for multiple business torts bottomed on the claim that the bank prematurely declared a loan default and dealt with plaintiffs’ in a heavy-handed way. Plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment for the defendants.
Affirming, the First District dove deep into the nature and reach of the breach of fiduciary duty, consumer fraud, and conversion torts under Illinois law.
The court first rejected the plaintiff’s position that it stood in a fiduciary position vis a vis the bank. A breach of fiduciary duty plaintiff must allege (1) the existence of a fiduciary duty on the part of the defendant, (2) defendant’s breach of that duty, and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach.
A fiduciary relationship can arise as a matter of law (e.g. principal and agent; lawyer-client) or where there is a “special relationship” between the parties (one party exerts influence and superiority over another). However, a basic debtor-creditor arrangement doesn’t rise to the fiduciary level.
Here, the loan agreement explicitly disclaimed a fiduciary arrangement between the loan parties. It recited that the parties stood in an arms’ length posture and the bank owed no fiduciary duty to the borrowers. While another loan section labelled the bank as the borrowers’ “attorney-in-fact,” (a quintessential fiduciary relationship) the Court construed this term narrowly and found it only applied upon the borrower’s default and spoke only to the bank’s duties concerning the disposition of the borrowers’ collateral. On this point, the Court declined to follow a factually similar Arkansas case (Knox v. Regions Bank, 103 Ark.App. 99 (2008)) which found that a loan’s attorney-in-fact clause did signal a fiduciary relationship. Knox had no precedential value since Illinois case authorities have consistently held that a debtor-creditor relationship isn’t a fiduciary one as a matter of law. (¶¶ 36-38)
Next, the Court found that there was no fiduciary relationship as a matter of fact. A plaintiff who tries to establish a fiduciary relationship on this basis must produce evidence that he placed trust and confidence in another to the point that the other gained influence and superiority over the plaintiff. Key factors pointing to a special relationship fiduciary duty include a disparity in age, business acumen and education, among other factors.
Here, the borrowers argued that the bank stood in a superior bargaining position to them. The Court rejected this argument. It noted the plaintiffs were experienced businessmen who had scaled a company from 3 employees to over 350 during a three-decade time span. This lengthy business success undermined the plaintiffs’ disparity of bargaining power argument
Kosowski is useful reading for anyone who litigates in the commercial finance arena. The case solidifies the proposition that a basic debtor-creditor (borrower-lender) relationship won’t rise to the level of a fiduciary one as a matter of law. The case also gives clues as to what constitutes a special relationship and what degree of disparity in bargaining power is required to establish a factual fiduciary duty.
Lastly, the case is also instructive on the evidentiary showing a conversion and consumer fraud plaintiff must make to survive summary judgment in the loan default context.