E-Mails, Phone Calls, and Web Activity Aimed at Extracting $ From IL Resident Passes Specific Jurisdiction Test – IL First Dist.

In Dixon v. GAA Classic Cars, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 182416, the trial court dismissed the Illinois plaintiff’s suit against a North Carolina car seller on the basis that Illinois lacked jurisdiction over the defendant.

Reversing, the First District answered some important questions concerning the nature and reach of specific jurisdiction under the Illinois long-arm statute as informed by constitutional due process factors.

Since the defendant had no physical presence or office in Illinois, the question was whether the Illinois court had specific jurisdiction [as opposed to general jurisdiction] over the defendant.

Specific jurisdiction requires a plaintiff to allege a defendant purposefully directed its activities at the forum state and that the cause of action arose out of or relates to those contacts.  Even a single act can give rise to specific jurisdiction but the lawsuit must relate specifically to that act. [¶ 12]

In the context of web-based companies, the Court noted that a site that only imparts information [as opposed to selling products or services] does not create sufficient minimum contacts necessary to establish personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  Here, though, the defendant’s site contained a “call to action” that encouraged visitors like the plaintiff to pay the defendant.  [¶ 14]

The court found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant falsely stated that the Bronco’s frame was restored, had new brakes and was frequently driven over the past 12 months [when it hadn’t] were sufficient to allege a material misstatement of fact under Illinois fraud law.  It further held that fraudulent statements in telephone calls are just as actionable as in-person statements and can give an Illinois court jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  [¶ 17]

Viewed in the aggregate, the plaintiff’s allegations of the defendant’s Illinois contacts were enough to confer Illinois long-arm jurisdiction over the defendant.

The plaintiff alleged the defendant (i) advertised the Bronco on a national website, and (ii)  e-mailed and telephoned plaintiff several times at his Illinois residence.

Next, the court considered whetherspecific jurisdiction over the defendant was  consistent with constitutional due process considerations.

The due process prong of the personal jurisdiction inquiry focuses on the nature and quality of a foreign litigant’s acts such that it is reasonable and fair to require him to conduct his defense in Illinois.

Factors the court considers are (1) the burden on the defendant to defend in the forum state, (2) the forum’s interest in adjudicating the dispute, (3) the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining effective relief, (4) the interstate judicial system’s interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of the case, and (5) the shared interests of the several states in advancing fundamental social policies.

Once a plaintiff shows that a defendant purposely directed its activities at the forum state, the burden shifts to the out-of-state defendant to show that litigating in the forum is unreasonable.

The Dixon court held the defendant failed to satisfy this burden and that specific jurisdiction over it was proper.

Next, the Court declined to credit defendant’s Terms & Conditions (“T&C”) – referenced in the Defendant’s on-line registration form and that fixed North Carolina as the site for any litigation.

Generally, one written instrument may incorporate another by reference such that both documents are considered as part of a single contract.  However, parties must clearly show an intent to incorporate a second document.

Here, the court found such a clear intent lacking. Defendant did not argue that it sent the T&C to Plaintiff or referenced them in its multiple e-mail and telephone communications with Plaintiff.

The court also pointed out that defendant’s registration form highlighted several of the T&C’s terms.  However, none of the featured [T&C] terms on the registration form mentioned the North Carolina venue clause.  As a result, the bidder registration form didn’t evince a clear intent to incorporate the T&C into the contract.

Afterwords:

A foreign actor’s phone, e-mail and on-line advertisements directed to Illinois residents can meet the specific jurisdiction test;

Where a Terms and Conditions document contains favorable language to a foreign defendant, it should make it plain that the T&C is a separate document and is to be incorporated into the parties’ contract by using distinctive type-face [or a similar method];

If the defendant fails to sufficiently alert the plaintiff to a separate T&C document, especially if the plaintiff is a consumer, the defendant runs the risk of a court refusing to enforce favorable (to defendant) venue or jurisdiction provisions.

 

 

High-Tech Sports Equipment Plaintiff Alleges Viable Fraud Claim Against Electronic Sensor Supplier (Newspin v. Arrow – Part II)

In Newspin Sports, LLC v. Arrow Electronics, Inc., 2018 WL 6295272, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation claims but upheld its fraud claims.

Under New York law (the contract had a NY choice-of-law provision), a plaintiff alleging negligent misrepresentation must establish (1) a special, privity-like relationship that imposes a duty on the defendant to impart accurate information to the plaintiff, (2) information that was factually inaccurate, and (3) plaintiff’s reasonable reliance on the information.

New York’s economic loss rule softens the negligent misrepresentation theory, however. This rule prevents a plaintiff from recovering economic losses under a tort theory. Since the plaintiff’s alleged negligence damages – money it lost from the flawed electronic components – mirrored its breach of contract damages, the negligent misrepresentation claim was barred by the economic loss rule. [*10]

Plaintiff’s fraud claims fared better.  In New York, a fraud claim will not lie for a simple breach of contract.  That is, where the only “fraud” alleged is a defendant’s broken promise or lack of sincerity in making a promise, the fraud claim merely duplicates the breach of contract one.

To allege a fraud claim separate from a breach of contract, a plaintiff must establish (1) a legal duty separate from the duty to perform under a contract, or (2) demonstrate a misrepresentation collateral or extraneous to the contract, or (3) special damages caused by the misrepresentation that are not recoverable as contract damages. [*11] [32]-[33].

Applying these principles, the Court noted that the plaintiff alleged the defendant made present-tense factual representations concerning its experience, skill set and that its components met plaintiff’s specifications.  Taken together, these statements – if true – sufficiently pled a legal duty separate from the parties’ contractual relationship to state a colorable fraud claim.

The Court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff’s fraud claims were subject to the UCC’s four-year limitations period governing sales of goods contracts.  Since the plaintiff’s fraud count differed from its breach of contract claim, Illinois’s five-year statute of limitations for common law fraud governed.  See 735 ILCS 5/13-205,  As a result, plaintiff’s 2017 filing date occurred within the five-year time limit and the fraud claim was timely. [*12] [35].

Afterwords:

The economic loss rule will bar a negligent misrepresentation claim where a plaintiff’s pleaded damages simply restate its breach of contract damages;

A fraud claim can survive a pleadings motion to dismiss so long as the predicate allegations go beyond the subject matter of the contract governing the parties’ relationship.

7th Cir. Addresses Guarantor Liability, Ratification Doctrine in Futures Trading Snafu

Straits Financial v. Ten Sleep Cattle, 2018 WL 328767 (N.D.Ill. 2018) examines some signature business litigation issues against the backdrop of a commodities futures and trading account dispute. Among them are the nature and scope of a guarantor’s liability, the ratification doctrine as applied to covert conduct and the reach of the Illinois consumer fraud statute.

The plaintiff brokerage firm sued a Wyoming cattle rancher and his company to recover an approximate $170K deficit in the defendants’ trading account. (The defendants previously opened a non-discretionary account with plaintiff for the purpose of locking in future livestock prices.)

The ranch owner counter-sued, alleging a rogue trader of plaintiff made unauthorized trades with defendants’ money over a three-month period.  Defendants counter-sued for consumer fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and conversion. After a seven-day bench trial, the court entered a money judgment for the defendants and the plaintiff appealed.

In substantially affirming the trial court, the Seventh Circuit first tackled the plaintiff’s breach of guaranty claim.  In Illinois, guarantees are strictly construed and a guarantor’s liability cannot extend beyond that which he has agreed to accept.  A proverbial favorite of the law, a guarantor is given the benefit of any doubts concerning a contract’s enforceability.  A guarantor’s liability is discharged if there is a “material change” in the business dealings between the parties and an increase in risk undertaken by a guarantor.

Here, the speculative trading account (the one where the broker made multiple unauthorized trades) differed vastly in form and substance from the non-discretionary account.

Since the two trading accounts differed in purpose and practice, the Court held that it would materially alter the guarantor’s risk if he was penalized for the plaintiff’s broker’s fraudulent trading spree.  As a result, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial judge’s ruling for the defendant on the guarantee claim.

The Court then rejected plaintiff’s ratification argument: that defendants’ authorized the illegal churned trades by not timely objecting to them
An Illinois agency axiom posits that a person does not have an obligation to repudiate an illegal transaction until he has actual knowledge of all material facts involved in the transaction. Restatement (Third) of Agency, s. 4.06.

Illinois law also allows a fraud victim to seek relief as long as he renounces the fraud promptly after discovering it. A party attempting to undo a fraudulent transaction is excused from strict formalism, too.

Here, the ranch owner defendant immediately contacted the plaintiff’s broker when he learned of the improper trades and demanded the return of all money in the non-discretionary trading account. This, according to the Court, was a timely and sufficient attempt to soften the impact of the fraudulent trading.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s attorneys’ fees award to the defendants on its consumer fraud counterclaim. The Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, 815 ILCS 505/10a(c)(the “CFA”) allows a court to assess attorneys’ fees against the losing party.

The plaintiff argued that the trial judge errored by awarding attorneys’ fees expended by defendants in both CFA and non-CFA claims. Plaintiff contended  the trial judge should have limited his fee award strictly to the CFA claim.

Rejecting this argument, the Seventh Circuit noted that under Illinois law, where statutory fraud (which allow for fees) and common law (which don’t) claims arise from the same operative facts and involve the same evidence at trial, a court can award all fees; even ones involved in prosecuting or defending non-fee claims. And since facts tending to prove fraudulent trading “were woven throughout [the] case and the work done to develop those facts [could] not be neatly separated by claim,” the District court had discretion to allow defendants’ attorneys’ fees claim incurred in all of its counterclaims and defenses.

The Court then reversed the trial judge’s holding that the defendants failed to mitigate their damages by not reading plaintiff’s trading statements or asking about his accounts.  A breach of contract or tort plaintiff normally cannot stand idly by and allow an injury to fester without making reasonable efforts to avoid further loss.

But here, since the plaintiff’s broker committed fraud – an intentional tort – any “contributory negligence” resulting from defendant not reading the mailed statements wasn’t a valid defense to the rogue broker’s fraudulent conduct.

Afterwords:

This case shows the length a court will go to make sure a fraud perpetrator doesn’t benefit from his improper conduct.  Even if a fraud victim is arguably negligent in allowing the fraud to happen or in responding to it, the court will excuse the negligence in order to affix liability to the fraudster.

This case also illustrates how guarantors are favorites of the law and an increase in a guarantor’s risk or a marked change in business dealings between a creditor and a guarantor’s principal will absolve a guarantor from liability.

Finally, Ten Sleep shows that a prevailing party can get attorneys’ fees on mixed fee and non-fee claims where the same core of operative facts underlie them.