Retailers’ Sales Forecasts Not Factual Enough to Buttress Fraud In Inducement Claim (IL ND)

The Northern District of Illinois provides a useful synopsis of Federal court summary judgment standards and the scope of some Illinois business torts in a dispute over a canceled advertising contract to sell hand tools.

The plaintiff in Loggerhead Tools, LLC v. Sears Holding Corp., 2016 WL 5111573 (N.D.Ill. 2016) sued Sears when it canceled an agreement to promote the plaintiff’s Bionic Wrench product and instead bought from plaintiff’s competitor.   The plaintiff claimed that after Sears terminated their contract, it was too late for the plaintiff to supply product to competing retailers.  Plaintiff filed a flurry of fraud claims alleging the department store giant made inflated sales forecasts and failed to disclose it was working with  plaintiff’s competitor.  Sears successfully moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims.

Summary Judgment Guideposts

Summary judgment is appropriate where the movant shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Courts deciding summary judgment must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a “genuine” dispute as to those facts.  A genuine fact dispute exists where a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. 

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is so important that it could alter the case’s outcome.

Fraud Analysis:

The crux of Plaintiff’s fraud suit was that Sears strung Plaintiff along by creating the false impression that Sears would market Plaintiff’s products.  Plaintiff alleged that Sears concealed its master plan to work with Plaintiff’s competitor and only feigned interest in Plaintiff until Sears struck a deal with a competing vendor.

An Illinois fraud plaintiff must show:  (1) defendant made a false statement of material fact, (2) defendant knew the statement was false, (3) the defendant intended the statement to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) the plaintiff justifiably relied on the statement’s truth, and (5) plaintiff suffered damages as a result of relying on the statement.

A bare broken promise doesn’t equal fraud.  An exception to this “promissory fraud” rule is where the defendant’s actions are part of a “scheme to defraud:” that is, the defendant’s actions are part of a pattern of deception.  The scheme exception also applies where the plaintiff can show the defendant did not intend to fulfill his promise at the time it was made (not in hindsight).

In determining whether a plaintiff’s reliance on a defendant’s misstatement is reasonable, the court looks at all facts that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of as well as facts the plaintiff may have learned through ordinary prudence.

Here, Sears’ sales forecasts were forward-looking, “promissory” statements of hoped-for sales results.  Sears’ profuse contractual disclaimers that sales forecasts were just “estimates” to be used “for planning purposes” only and “not commitments” prevented the Plaintiff from establishing reasonable reliance on the projections.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s fraudulent concealment claim.  To prevail on a fraud claim premised on concealment of material facts, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty to disclose the material fact.  Such a duty will arise where the parties have a special or fiduciary relationship that gives rise to a duty to speak.  

Parties to a contract are generally not fiduciaries.  Relevant factors to determine whether a fiduciary relationship exists include (1) degree of kinship of the parties, and (2) disparity in age, health, mental condition, education and business experience between the parties.

Here, there was no disparity between the parties.  They were both sophisticated businesses who operated at arms’ length from one another.

Afterwords: This case provides a good distillation of summary judgment rules, promissory fraud and the scheme to defraud exception to promissory fraud not being actionable.  It echoes how difficult it is for a plaintiff to plead and prove fraud – especially in the business-to-business setting where there is equal bargaining power between litigants.

This case provides a good distillation of summary judgment rules, promissory fraud and the scheme to defraud exception to the promissory fraud rule.  The case further illustrates the difficulty of proving fraud – especially in the business-to-business setting where there is equal bargaining power between the parties.

 

 

 

Non-reliance Clause Defeats Fraud In Inducement Claim In Employment Agreement Dispute – IL Court

Colagrossi v. Bank of Scotland, 2016 IL (App) 1st 142216 examines fraud in the inducement in an employment dispute involving parent and subsidiary companies and their respective successors.

The key question was whether a non-reliance clause in an employment contract barred a fraud in the inducement claim based on pre-contract statements by a party?  The answer:  “Yes.”

The case features a tortured procedural history and this tedious litigation timeline:

2005 – Plaintiff receives offer letter from Company 1 for plaintiff to perform futures trading services.  The offer letter contains a non-reliance clause that subsumes all oral representations concerning the offer letter’s subject matter.

2006 – Plaintiff enters into employment agreement with Company 2 – Company 1’s successor.  This agreement also has a non-reliance clause.

2006-2007 – Plaintiff contends that while negotiating the offer letter specifics, Company 1’s officer fails to disclose to Plaintiff that Company 1 is about to be sold to Company 2 and had plaintiff known this, he wouldn’t have accepted Company 1’s offer.

2008 – Plaintiff files two lawsuits.  He sues Company 1 for fraud in the inducement and then sues Company 2 under the same legal theories.  Company 2 removes that case to Federal Court (based on diversity of citizenship).

2011 – Plaintiff files a third lawsuit; this time naming Company 3 – Company 1’s parent – and Company 4, the entity that purchased Company 3.

2013 – Summary judgment for Company 1 is entered in the 2008 fraud in inducement case based on non-reliance language of offer letter.

2014 – Federal court grants summary judgment for Company 2 in removed Federal case (the removed 2008 case) based on same non-reliance clause

2014 – Plaintiff’s 2011 lawsuit against Companies 3 and 4 dismissed based on res judicata in that the same issues were already litigated in the 2008 fraud in inducement case against Company 1

Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of the 2011 lawsuit.

Held: Affirmed

Reasons:

Fraud in the inducement  requires a plaintiff to plead and prove (1) a false representation of material fact, (2) made with knowledge or belief in the representation’s falsity, (3) made with the purpose of inducing a plaintiff to act or refrain from acting, and (iv) the plaintiff reasonably relied on the defendant’s representation (or non-representation) to plaintiff’s detriment. (¶¶ 44-45)

Fraud normally is no defense to the enforceability of a written agreement where the party claiming fraud had ample opportunity to discover the fraud by reading the document.

Here, the plaintiff admitted that he read the 2005 offer letter and 2006 employment contract and signed them after reviewing with his attorney.  In addition, the two agreements each spelled out that plaintiff had not relied on any oral or written representations of the parties in signing the agreements. 

The Court held that the clear non-reliance language prevented plaintiff from establishing justifiable reliance on any oral statements made by Company 1 to induce plaintiff to sign the offer letter or on Company 2 statements before signing the employment agreement. (¶ 47)

The next question for the Court was whether summary judgment for Company 1 in the 2008 case was res judicata to the 2011 case against Companies 3 and 4.  Again, Company 3 was Company 1’s corporate parent and Company 4 purchased Company 3’s assets.

In Illinois, res judicata applies where (1) there is an identity of parties or their privies, (2) identity of causes of action, and (3) final judgment on the merits.

For the first, identity of parties prong, to apply, the parties don’t have to identical.  All that’s required is their interest must be sufficiently similar.  Under Illinois law, a corporate parent and its subsidiaries can be deemed sufficiently similar for res judicata purposes as can successor and predecessor companies.  When the only difference between a predecessor and a successor (like between Company 2 and 3 here) is a name change, “obvious privity” is present.  (¶¶ 53-54)

Since the two 2008 cases and the 2011 case all stemmed from the same underlying facts, involved the same employment contract and same corporate principals, summary judgment for Company 1 and 2 in the 2008 cases barred plaintiff from repackaging the same facts and claims against Companies 3 and 4 in the 2011 case.

Afterwords:

This case and others like it make clear that for a fraud in the inducement plaintiff to establish reliance in the breach of written contract setting, he should show he was deprived of a chance to read the contract.  Otherwise, the rule against allowing fraud claims by one who fails to read a document will defeat the claim.

Another important case holding is that the ‘same parties’ res judicata element applies where parent and subsidiary (or predecessor and successor) companies are sufficiently connected so they sufficiently represents the other’s legal interests in two separate lawsuits.

Hotel Titan Escapes Multi-Million Dollar Fla. Judgment Where No Joint Venture in Breach of Contract Case

In today’s featured case, the plaintiff construction firm contracted with a vacation resort operator in the Bahamas partly owned by a Marriott hotel subsidiary. When the resort  breached the contract, the plaintiff sued and won a $7.5M default judgment in a Bahamas court. When that judgment proved uncollectable, the plaintiff sued to enforce the judgment in Florida state court against Marriott – arguing it was responsible for the judgment since it was part of a joint venture that owned the resort company.  The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and against Marriott who then appealed.

Reversing the judgment, the Florida appeals court first noted that under Florida law, a joint venture is an association of persons or legal entities to carry out a single enterprise for profit.

In addition to proving the single enterprise for profit, the joint venture plaintiff must demonstrate (i) a community of interest in the performance of the common purpose, (ii) joint control or right to control the venture; (iii) a joint proprietary interest in the subject matter of the venture; (4) the right to share in the profits; and (5) a duty to share in any losses that may be sustained.

All elements must be established. If only one is absent, there’s no joint venture – even if the parties intended to form a joint venture from the outset.

The formation of a corporation almost always signals there is no joint venture. This is because joint ventures generally follow partnership law which follows a different set of rules than do corporations. So, by definition, corporate shareholders cannot be joint venturers by definition.

Otherwise, a plaintiff could “have it both ways” and claim that a given business entity was both a corporation and a joint venture. This would defeat the liability-limiting function of the corporate form.

A hallmark of joint control in a joint venture context is mutual agency: the ability of one joint venturer to bind another concerning the venture’s subject matter.  The reverse is also true: where one party cannot bind the other, there is no joint venture.

Here, none of the alleged joint venturers had legal authority to bind the others within the scope of the joint venture. The plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of joint control over either the subject of the venture or the other venturers’ conduct.

There was also no proof that one joint venture participant could bind the others. Since Marriott was only a minority shareholder in the resort enterprise, the court found it didn’t exercise enough control over the defaulted resort to subject it (Marriott) to liability for the resort’s breach of contract.

The court also ruled in Marriott’s favor on the plaintiff’s fraudulent inducement claim premised on Marriott’s failure to disclose the resort’s precarious economic status in order to  entice the plaintiff to contract with the resort.

Under Florida law, a fraud in the inducement claim predicated on a failure to disclose material information requires a plaintiff to prove a defendant had a duty to disclose information. A duty to disclose can be found (1) where there is a fiduciary duty among parties; or (2) where a party partially discloses certain facts such that he should have to divulge the rest of the related facts known to it.

Here, neither situation applied. Marriott owed no fiduciary duty to the plaintiff and didn’t transmit incomplete information to the plaintiff that could saddle the hotel chain with a duty to disclose.

Take-aways:

A big economic victory for Marriott. Clearly the plaintiff was trying to fasten liability to a deep-pocketed defendant several layers removed from the breaching party. The case shows how strictly some courts will scrutinize a joint venture claim. If there is no joint control or mutual agency, there is no joint venture. Period.

The case also solidifies business tort axiom that a fraudulent inducement by silence claim will only prevail if there is a duty to disclose – which almost always requires the finding of a fiduciary relationship. In situations like here, where there is a high-dollar contract between sophisticated commercial entities, it will usually be impossible to prove a fiduciary relationship.

Source: Marriott International, Inc. v. American Bridge Bahamas, Ltd., 2015 WL 8936529