The First District recently discussed the reach of the discovery rule in the course of dismissing a plaintiff’s fraud claims on statute of limitations grounds.
The plaintiff in Cox v. Jed Capital, LLC, 2016 IL App (1st) 153397-U, brought a slew of business tort claims when he claimed his former employer understated its value in an earlier buy-out of the plaintiff’s LLC interest.
Plaintiff’s 2007 lawsuit settled a year later and was the culmination of settlement discussions in which the defendants (the former employer’s owner and manager) produced conflicting financial statements. The plaintiff went forward with the settlement anyway and released the defendants for a $15,000 payment.
In 2014, after reading a Wall Street Journal article that featured his former firm, plaintiff learned the company was possibly worth much more than was previously disclosed to him. Plaintiff sued in 2015 for fraud in the inducement, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract.
The trial court dismissed the claims on the basis they were time-barred by the five-year limitations period and the plaintiff appealed. He argued that the discovery rule tolled the limitations period and saved his claims since he didn’t learn the full extent of his injuries until he read the 2014 article.
Result: Dismissal of plaintiff’s claims affirmed.
A: A fraud claim is subject to Illinois’ five-year statute of limitations codified at Section 13-205 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Since the underlying financial documents were provided to the plaintiff in 2008 and plaintiff sued seven years later in 2015. As a result, plaintiff’s claim was time-barred unless the discovery rule applies.
In Illinois, the discovery rule stops the limitations period from running until the injured party knows or reasonably should know he has been injured and that his injury was wrongfully caused.
A plaintiff who learns he has suffered from a wrongfully caused injury has a duty to investigate further concerning any cause of action he may have. The limitations period starts running once a plaintiff is put on “inquiry notice” of his claim. Inquiry notice means a party knows or reasonably should know both that (a) an injury has occurred and (b) it (the injury) was wrongfully caused. (¶ 34)
Fraud in the inducement occurs where a defendant makes a false statement, with knowledge of or belief in its falsity, with the intent to induce the plaintiff to act or refrain from acting on the falsity of the statement, plaintiff reasonably relied on the false statement and plaintiff suffered damages from that reliance.
Plaintiff alleged the defendants furnished flawed financial statements to induce plaintiff’s consent to settle an earlier lawsuit for a fraction of what he would have demanded had he known his ex-employer’s true value. The Court held that since the plaintiff received the conflicting financial reports from defendants in 2008 and waited seven years to sue, his fraud in the inducement claim was untimely and properly dismissed.
This case paints a vivid portrait of the unforgiving nature of statutes of limitation. A plaintiff has the burden of establishing that the discovery rule preserves otherwise stale claims. If a plaintiff is put on inquiry notice that it may have been harmed (or lied to as the plaintiff said here), it has a duty to investigate and file suit as quickly as possible. Otherwise, a plaintiff risks having the court reject its claims as too late.