Business Lender States Fraud Claim Versus Corporation But Not Civil Conspiracy One in Loan Default Case – IL 1st Dist.

When a corporate defendant and its key officers allegedly made a slew of verbal and written misstatements concerning the corporation’s financial health to encourage a business loan, the plaintiff lender filed fraud and civil conspiracy claims against various defendants.  Ickert v. Cougar Package Designers, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 151975-U examines the level of specificity required of fraud and conspiracy plaintiffs under Illinois pleading rules.

The plaintiff alleged that corporate officers falsely inflated both the company’s current assets and others in the pipeline to induce plaintiff’s $200,000 loan to the company.  When the company failed to repay the loan, the plaintiff brought fraud and conspiracy claims – the latter based on the theory that the corporate agents conspired to lie about the company’s financial status to entice plaintiff’s loan.

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the fraud and conspiracy claims and the plaintiff appealed.

Partially reversing the trial court, the First District first focused on the pleading elements of common law fraud and the Illinois Code provision (735 ILCS 5/2-606) that requires operative papers to be attached to pleadings that are based on those papers.

Code Section 2-606 states that if a claim or defense is based on a written instrument, a copy of the writing must be attached to the pleading as an exhibit.  However, not every relevant document that a party seeks to introduce as an exhibit at trial must be attached to a pleading.

Here, while part of plaintiff’s fraud claim was predicated on a faulty written financial disclosure document, much of the claim centered on the defendants’ verbal misrepresentations.  As a consequence, the Court found that the plaintiff wasn’t required to attach the written financial disclosure to its complaint.

Sustaining the plaintiff’s fraud count against the corporate officer defendants (and reversing the trial court), the Court noted recited Illinois’ familiar fraud pleading elements: (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) knowledge or belief that the statement was false, (3) an intention to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) reasonable reliance on the truth of the challenged statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.

While silence normally won’t equal fraud, when silence is accompanied by deceptive conduct or suppression of a material fact, this is active concealment and the party concealing given facts is then under a duty to speak.

Fraud requires acute pleading specificity: the plaintiff must allege the who, what, where, and when of the misrepresentation.  Since the plaintiff pled the specific dates and content of various false statements, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged fraud against the corporate officers.

(¶¶ 22-26)

A valid civil conspiracy claim requires the plaintiff to allege (1) an agreement by two or more persons or entities to accomplish by concerted action either an unlawful purpose or a lawful purpose by unlawful means; (2) a tortious act committed in furtherance of that agreement; and (3) an injury caused by the defendant.  The agreement is the central conspiracy element.  The plaintiff must show more than a defendant had “mere knowledge” of fraudulent or illegal actions.  Without a specific agreement to take illegal actions, the conspiracy claim falls.

In the corporate context, a civil conspiracy claim cannot exist between a corporation’s own officers or employees.  This is because corporations can only act through their agents and any acts taken by a corporate employee is imputed to the corporation.

So, for example, if employees 1 and 2 agree to defraud plaintiff, there is no conspiracy since the employees are acting on behalf of the corporation – they are not “two or more persons.”  Since this case’s plaintiff pled the two conspiracy defendants were officers of the same corporate defendant, the trial court properly dismissed the conspiracy count. (¶¶ 29-30)

The appeals court also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint against the corporate defendant.  While the right to amend pleadings is liberally granted by Illinois courts, the right is not absolute.

In deciding whether to allow a plaintiff to amend pleadings, a court considers (1) whether the amendment would cure a defect in the pleadings, (2) whether the other party would be prejudiced or surprised by the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether there were previous opportunities to amend.

Here, since the plaintiff failed multiple opportunities to make his fraud and conspiracy claims stick, the First District held that the trial court properly denied the plaintiff’s fourth attempt to amend his complaint.

Afterwords:

This case provides a useful summary of fraud’s heightened pleading elements under Illinois law.  It also solidifies the proposition that a defendant can’t conspire with itself: a there can be no corporation-corporate officer conspiracy.  They are viewed as one and the same in the context of a civil conspiracy claim.

The case’s procedural lesson is that while parties normally are given wide latitude to amend their pleadings, a motion to amend will be denied where a litigant has had and failed multiple chances to state a viable claim.

 

‘Bankruptcy Planning,’ Alone, Doesn’t Equal Fraudulent Intent to Evade Creditors – IL ND

A Northern District of Illinois bankruptcy judge recently rejected a creditor’s attempt to nix a debtor’s discharge for fraud.  The creditor alleged the debtor tried to escape his creditors by shedding assets before his bankruptcy filing and by not disclosing estate assets in his papers.  Finding for the debtor after a bench trial, the Court in Monty Titling Trust I v. Granrath, 15 AP 00826 illustrates the heavy burden a creditor must meet to successfully challenge a debtor’s discharge based on fraud.

The Court specifically examines the contours of the fraudulent conduct exception to discharge under Code Section 727(a)(2) and Code Section 727(a)(4)’s discharge exception for false statements under oath.

Vehicle Trade-In and Lease

The court found that the debtor’s conduct in trading in his old vehicle and leasing two new ones in his wife’s name in the weeks leading up to the bankruptcy filing was permissible bankruptcy planning (and not fraud).  Since bankruptcy aims to provide a fresh start to a debtor, a challenge to a discharge is construed strictly against the creditor opposing the discharge.  Under the Code, a court should grant a debtor’s discharge unless the debtor “with intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor” transfers, hides or destroys estate property.

Under the Code, a court should grant a debtor’s discharge unless the debtor “with intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor” transfers, hides or destroys property of the debtor within one year of its bankruptcy filing. 11 U.S.C. s. 727(a)(2)(A).  Another basis for the court to deny a discharge is Code Section 727(a)(4) which prevents a discharge where a debtor knowingly and fraudulently makes a false oath or account.

To defeat a discharge under Code Section 727(a)(2), a creditor must show (1) debtor transferred property belonging to the estate, (2) within one year of the filing of the petition, and (3) did so with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor of the estate.  A debtor’s intent is a question of fact and when deciding if a debtor had the requisite intent to defraud a creditor, the court should consider the debtor’s whole pattern of conduct.

To win on a discharge denial under Code Section 727(a)(4)’s false statement rule, the creditor must show (1) the debtor made a false statement under oath, (2) that debtor knew the statement was false, (3) the statement was made with fraudulent intent, and (4) the statement materially related to the bankruptcy case.

Rejecting the creditor’s arguments, the Court found that the debtor and his wife testified in a forthright manner and were credible witnesses.  The court also credited the debtor’s contributing his 401(k) funds in efforts to save his business as further evidence of his good faith conduct.  Looking to Seventh Circuit precedent for support, the Court found that “bankruptcy planning does not alone” satisfy Section 727’s requirement of intent.  As a result, the creditor failed to meet its burden of showing fraudulent conduct by a preponderance of the evidence.

Opening Bank Account Pre-Petition

The Court also rejected the creditor’s assertion that the debtor engaged in fraudulent conduct by opening a bank account in his wife’s name and then transferring his paychecks to that account in violation of a state court citation to discover assets.  

The court noted that the total amount of the challenged transfers was less than $2,000 (since the most that can be attached is 15% gross wages under Illinois’ wage deduction statute) and the debtor’s scheduled assets exceeded $4 million.  Such a disparity between the amount transferred and the estate assets coupled with the debtor’s plausible explanation for why he opened a new bank account in his wife’s name led the Court to find there was no fraudulent intent.

Lastly, the court found that the debtor’s omission of the bank account from his bankruptcy schedules didn’t rise to the level of fraudulent intent.  Where a debtor fails to include a possible asset (here, a bank account) in his bankruptcy papers, the creditor must show the debtor acted with specific intent to harm the bankruptcy estate.  Here, the debtor testified that his purpose in opening the bank account was at the suggestion of his bankruptcy lawyer and not done to thwart creditors.  The court found these bankruptcy planning efforts did not equal fraud.

Afterwords:

1/ Bankruptcy planning does not equate to fraudulent intent to avoid creditors.

2/ Where the amount of debtor’s challenged transfers is dwarfed by scheduled assets and liabilities, the Court is more likely to find that a debtor did not have a devious intent in pre-bankruptcy efforts to insulate debtor assets.

 

‘Integration’ Versus ‘Non-Reliance’ Clause: A ‘Distinction Without a Difference?’ (Hardly)

Two staples of sophisticated commercial contracts are integration (aka “merger” or “entire agreement”) clauses and non-reliance (aka “no-reliance” or “anti-reliance”) clauses. While sometimes used interchangeably in casual conversation, and while having some functional similarities, there are important differences between the two clauses.

An integration clause prevents parties from asserting or challenging a contract based on statements or agreements reached during the negotiation stage that were never reduced to writing.

A typical integration clause reads:

This Agreement , encompasses the entire agreement of the parties, and supersedes all previous understandings and agreements between the parties, whether oral or written. The parties hereby acknowledge and represent that they have not relied on any representation, assertion, guarantee, or other assurance, except those set out in this Agreement, made by or on behalf of any other party prior to the execution of this Agreement. 

Integration clauses protect against attempts to alter a contract based on oral statements or earlier drafts that supposedly change the final contract product’s substance.  In litigation, integration/merger clauses streamline issues for trial and avoid distracting courts with arguments over ancillary verbal statements or earlier contract drafts.here integration clauses predominate in contract disputes,

Where integration clauses predominate in contract disputes, non-reliance clauses typically govern in the tort setting.  In fact, an important distinction between integration and non-reliance clauses lies in the fact that an integration clause does not bar a fraud (a quintessential tort) claim when the alleged fraud is based on statements not contained in the contract (i.e,. extra-contractual statements). *1, 2

A typical non-reliance clause reads:

Seller shall not be deemed to make to Buyer any representation or warranty other than as expressly made in this agreement and Seller makes no representation or warranty to Buyer with respect to any projections, estimates or budgets delivered to or made available to Buyer or its counsel, accountants or advisors of future revenues, expenses or expenditures or future financial results of operations of Seller.  The parties to the contract warrant they are not relying on any oral or written representations not specifically incorporated into the contract.”  

No-reliance language precludes a party from claiming he/she was duped into signing a contract by another party’s fraudulent misrepresentation.  Unlike an integration clause, a non-reliance clause can defeat a fraud claim since “reliance” is one of the elements a fraud plaintiff must show: that he relied on a defendant’s misstatement to the plaintiff’s detriment.  To allege fraud after you sign a non-reliance clause is a contradiction in terms.

Afterwords:

Lawyers and non-lawyers alike should be leery of integration clauses and non-reliance clauses in commercial contracts.  The former prevents a party from relying on agreements reached during negotiations that aren’t reduced to writing while the latter (non-reliance clauses) will defeat one side’s effort to assert fraud against the other.

An integration clause will not, however, prevent a plaintiff from suing for fraud.  If a plaintiff can prove he was fraudulently induced into signing a contract, an integration clause will not automatically defeat such a claim.

Sources:

  1. Vigortone Ag Prods. v. AG Prods, 316 F.3d 641 (7th Cir. 2002).
  2. W.W. Vincent & Co. v. First Colony Life Ins. Co., 351 Ill.App.3d 752 (1st Dist. 2004)