Lender Lambasted for Loaning Funds to Judgment Debtor’s Related Business – IL Court

The issue on appeal in National Life Real Estate Holdings, LLC v. Scarlato, 2017 IL App (1st) 161943 was whether a judgment creditor could reach loan proceeds flowing from a lender to a judgment debtor’s associated business entity where the debtor himself lacked access to the proceeds.

Answering “yes,” the Court considered some of Illinois post-judgment law’s philosophical foundations and the scope and mechanics of third-party judgment enforcement practice.

The plaintiff obtained a 2012 money judgment of over $3.4M against the debtor and two LLC’s managed by the debtor.   During supplementary proceedings, the plaintiff learned that International Bank of Chicago (“IBC”) loaned $3.5M to two other LLC’s associated with the debtor after plaintiff served a third-party citation on IBC.  The purpose of the loan was to pay for construction improvements on debtor’s industrial property.  And while the debtor wasn’t a payee of the loan, he did sign the relevant loan documents and loan disbursement request.

Plaintiff moved for judgment against IBC in the unpaid judgment amount for violating the third-party citation.  The trial court denied the motion and sided with IBC; it held that since the loan funds were paid to entities other than the debtor, the loan moneys did not belong to the debtor under Code Section 2-1402(f)(1) – the section that prevents a third party from disposing of debtor property in its possession until further order of court.  735 ILCS 5/2-1402(f)(1).

The Plaintiff appealed.  It argued that the debtor sufficiently controlled IBC’s construction loan and the proceeds were effectively, debtor’s property and subject to Plaintiff’s third-party citation.

Reversing, the First District rejected IBC’s two key arguments: first, that the loan proceeds did not belong to the debtor and so were beyond the reach of the third-party citation and second, IBC had set-off rights to the loan proceeds (assuming the funds did belong to debtor) and could set-off the $3.5M loan against debtor’ outstanding, other loan debt.

On the question of whether the post-citation loan was debtor’s property, the Court wrote:

  • Once a citation is served, it becomes a lien for the judgment or balance due on the judgment. Section 2-1402(m);
  • A judgment creditor can have judgment entered against a third party who violates the citation restraining provision by dissipating debtor property or disposing of any moneys belonging to the debtor Section 2-1402(f)(1);
  • Section 2-1402’s purpose is to enable a judgment debtor or third party from frustrating a creditor before that creditor has a chance to reach assets in the debtor’s or third party’s possession. Courts apply supplemental proceedings rules broadly to prevent artful debtors from drafting loan documents in such a way that they elude a citation’s grasp.
  • The only relevant inquiries in supplementary proceedings are (1) whether the judgment debtor is in possession of assets that should be applied to satisfy the judgment, or (2) whether a third party is holding assets of the judgment debtor that should be applied to satisfy the judgment.
  • Section 2-1402 is construed liberally and is the product of a legislative intent to broadly define “property” and whether property “belong[s] to a judgment debtor or to which he or she may be entitled” is an “open-ended” inquiry. (¶¶ 35-36)

The ‘Badges’ of Debtors Control Over the Post-Citation Loan and Case Precedent

In finding the debtor exercised enough control over the IBC loan to subject it to the third-party citation, the Court focused on: (i) the debtor signed the main loan documents including the note, an assignment, the disbursement request and authorization, (ii) the loan funds passed through the bank accounts of two LLC’s of which debtor was a managing member, and (iii) the debtor had sole authority to request advances from IBC.

While conceding the loan funds did end up going to pay for completed construction work and not to the debtor, the Court still believed IBC tried to “game” plaintiff’s citation by making a multi-million dollar loan to businesses allied with the debtor even though the loans never funneled directly to the debtor.

Noting a dearth of Illinois state court case law on the subject, the Court cited with approval the Seventh Circuit’s holding in U.S. v. Kristofic, 847 F.2d 1295 (7th Cir. 1988), a criminal embezzlement case.  There, the appeals court squarely held that loan proceeds do not remain the lender’s property and that a borrower is not a lender’s trustee vis a vis the funds.  Applying the same logic here, the First District found that the loan proceeds were not IBC’s property but were instead, the debtor’s.  Because of this, the loan was subject to the plaintiff’s citation lien.

The Court bolstered its holding with policy arguments.  It opined that if judgment debtors could enter into loan agreements with third parties (like IBC) that restrict a debtor’s access to the loan yet still give a debtor power to direct the loan’s disbursement, it would allow industrious debtors to avoid a judgment. (¶ 39)

The Court also rejected IBC’s set-off argument – that set-off language in other loan documents allowed it to apply the challenged $3.5 loan amount against other loan indebtedness.  Noting that IBC didn’t try to set-off debtor’s other loan obligations with the loan under attack until after it was served with the citation and after the plaintiff filed its motion for judgment, the Court found that IBC forfeited its set-off rights.

In dissent, Judge Mikva wrote that since IBC’s loan was earmarked for a specific purpose and to specific payees, the debtor didn’t have enough control over the loan for it to belong to the debtor within the meaning of Section 2-1402.

The dissent also applied Illinois’s collection law axiom that a judgment creditor has no greater rights in an asset than does the judgment debtor.  Since the debtor here could not access the IBC loan proceeds (again, they were earmarked for specific purpose and payable to business entities – not the debtor individually), the plaintiff creditor couldn’t either.  And since the debtor lacked legal access rights to the loan proceeds, they were not property belonging to him under Section 2-1402 and IBC’s loan distribution did not violate the citation. (¶¶ 55-56)

Afterwords

A big victory for creditor’s counsel.   The Court broadly construes “property under a debtor’s control” in the context of a third-party citation under Section 2-1402 and harshly scrutinized a lender’s artful attempts to dodge a citation.

The case reaffirms that loan proceeds don’t remain the lender’s property and that a borrower doesn’t hold loan proceeds in trust for the lender.

The case also makes clear that where loan proceeds are paid to someone other than the debtor, the Court may still find the debtor has enough dominion over funds to subject them to the citation restraining provisions if there are enough earmarks of debtor control over the funds

Finally, in the context of lender set-off rights, Scarlato cautions a lender to timely assert its set-off rights against a defaulting borrower or else it runs the risk of forfeiting its set-off rights against a competing judgment creditor.

 

Corporate Officer Can Owe Fiduciary Duty to Company Creditors – IL Court in ‘Deep Cut’* Case

Five years in, Workforce Solutions v. Urban Services of America, Inc., 2012 IL App (1st) 111410 is still a go-to authority for its penetrating analysis of the scope of post-judgment proceedings, the nature of fraudulent transfer claims and the legal relationship between corporate officers and creditors.

Here are some key questions and answers from the case:

Q1: Is a judgment creditor seeking a turnover order from a third party on theory of fraudulent transfer (from debtor to third party) entitled to an evidentiary hearing?

A1: YES

Q2: Does the denial of a turnover motion preclude that creditor from filing a direct action against the same turnover defendants?

A2: NO.

Q3: Can officer of a debtor corporation owe fiduciary duty to creditor of that corporation?

Q3: YES.

The plaintiff supplier of contract employees sued the defendant in 2006 for breach of contract.  After securing a $1M default judgment in 2008, the plaintiff instituted supplementary proceedings to collect on the judgment.  Through post-judgment discovery, plaintiff learned that the defendant and its officers were operating through a labyrinthine network of related business entities.  In 2010, plaintiff sought a turnover order from several third parties based on a 2008 transfer of assets and a 2005 loan from the debtor to third parties.

That same year (2010), plaintiff filed a new lawsuit against some of the entities that were targets of the motion for turnover order in the 2006 case.

In the 2006 case, the court denied the turnover motion on the basis that the plaintiff failed to establish that the turnover defendants received fraudulent transfers from the judgment debtor and that the fraudulent transfer claims were time-barred.  740 ILCS 160/10 (UFTA claims are subject to four-year limitations period.)

The court in the 2010 case dismissed plaintiff’s claims based on the denial of plaintiff’s turnover motion in the 2006 case.  Plaintiff appealed from both lawsuits.

Section 2-1402 of the Code permits a judgment creditor to initiate supplementary proceedings against a judgment debtor to discover assets of the debtor and apply those assets to satisfy an unpaid judgment

A court has broad powers to compel the application of discovered assets to satisfy a judgment and it can compel a third party to turn over assets belonging to the judgment debtor.

The only relevant inquiries in a supplementary proceeding are (1) whether the judgment debtor is holding assets that should be applied to the judgment; and (2) whether a third-party citation respondent is holding assets of the judgment debtor that should be applied to the judgment. .  If the facts are right, an UFTA claim can be brought in supplementary proceedings

But where there are competing claimants to the same asset pool, they are entitled to a trial on the merits (e.g. an evidentiary hearing) unless they waive the trial and stipulate to have the turnover motion decided on the written papers.

Here, the court disposed of the turnover motion on the bare arguments of counsel.  It didn’t conduct the necessary evidentiary hearing and therefore committed reversible error when it denied the motion.

The defendants moved to dismiss the 2010 case – which alleged breach of fiduciary duty, among other things – on the basis of collateral estoppel.  They argued that the denial of the plaintiff’s motion for turnover order in the 2006 precluded them from pursuing the same claims in the 2010 case.  Collateral estoppel or “issue preclusion” applies where: (1) an issue previously adjudicated is identical to the one in a pending action; (2) a final judgment on the merits exists in the prior case; and (3) the prior action involved the same parties or their privies.

The appeals court found that there was no final judgment on the merits in the 2006 case.  Since the trial court failed to conduct an evidentiary hearing, the denial of the turnover order wasn’t final.  Since there was no final judgment in the 2006 suit, the plaintiff was not barred from filing its breach of fiduciary duty and alter ego claims in 2010.

The Court also reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claims against the corporate debtor’s promoters.  To state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owes him a fiduciary duty; that the defendant breached that duty; and that he was injured as a proximate result of that breach.

The promoter defendants argued plaintiff lacked standing to sue since Illinois doesn’t saddle corporate officers with fiduciary duties to a corporation’s creditors. The Court allowed that as a general rule, corporate officers only owe fiduciary duties to the corporation and shareholders.  “However, under certain circumstances, an officer may owe a fiduciary duty to the corporation’s creditors….specifically, once a corporation becomes insolvent, an officer’s fiduciary duty extends to the creditors of the corporation because, from the moment insolvency arises, the corporation’s assets are deemed to be held in trust for the benefit of its creditors.

Since plaintiff alleged the corporate defendant was insolvent, that the individual defendants owed plaintiff a duty to manage the corporate assets, and a breach of that duty by making fraudulent transfers to various third parties, this was enough to sustain its breach of fiduciary duty claim against defendants’ motion to dismiss. (¶¶ 83-84).

Afterwords:

1/ A motion for turnover order, if contested, merits a full trial with live witnesses and exhibits.

2/ A denial of a motion for a turnover order won’t have preclusive collateral estoppel effect on a later fraudulent transfer action where there was no evidentiary hearing to decide the turnover motion

3/ Once a corporation becomes insolvent, an officer’s fiduciary duty extends to creditors of the corporation.  This is because once insolvency occurs, corporate assets are deemed held in trust for the benefit of creditors.


* In the rock radio realm, a deep cut denotes an obscure song – a “B-side” – from a popular recording artist or album.  Examples: “Walter’s Walk” (Zeppelin); “Children of the Sea” (Sabbath); “By-Tor And the Snow Dog” (Rush).

7th Circuit Provides Primer on Fraudulent Transfer and Alter Ego Doctrine In Contract Dispute

The Seventh Circuit affirmed an almost $3M judgment against the defendants under fraudulent transfer, successor liability and alter ego rules in Center Point v. Halim, 2014 WL 697501.

The plaintiff energy company entered into a written contract to supply natural gas to defendants’ 41 Chicago area rental properties.  The individual defendants – a husband and wife – managed the properties through a management company (Company 1).

Over a two-year period, defendants used over $1.2M worth of plaintiff’s gas and didn’t pay for it.  Plaintiff sued Company 1 in state court and got a $1.7M judgment.  When plaintiff discovered that defendants transferred all of Company 1’s assets to Company 2, plaintiff sued Company 2 and the husband and wife in Federal court alleging a fraudulent transfer and successor liability.  The Northern District entered summary judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $2.7M on all claims and defendants appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first found that the defendants’ conduct violated the Illinois Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 (the “Act”).  The Act punishes debtor attempts to avoid creditors through actual fraud or constructive fraud.

Constructive fraud applies where (1) a debtor transfers assets without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer and (2) the debtor intends to incur or reasonably should believe he will incur debts beyond his ability to pay them as they become due.  Halim, *2, 740 ILCS 160/5.

The Court found that the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent. First, the Court noted that during a three-year time span, Company 1 (the state court judgment debtor) transferred almost $11M to the individual defendants; ostensibly to repay loans.

But the Court found it odd there was no documentation of loans or a paper trail showing where the millions of dollars went.  The suspicious timing of defendants’ creation of a new company – Company 2 – coupled with the defendants’ inability to account for the millions’ whereabouts, bolstered the Court’s constructive fraud finding.

Since the individual defendants’ depletion of Company 1’s assets made it impossible for it to pay the state court judgment, the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent under the Act. *3.

The Court also affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff under successor liability and alter ego theories.  In Illinois, the general rule is that a company that purchases assets of another company does not assume the liabilities of the purchased company.

A common exception to this rule is where there is an express assumption (of liability) by the purchasing company.  Here, the record showed that Company 2 assumed all rights, obligations, contracts and employees of Company 1.  As a result, the unsatisfied state court judgment attached to Company 2 under successor liability rules.

The Court also affirmed the judgment under the alter ego doctrine.  Alter ego applies where there is virtually no difference between the business entity and that entity’s controlling shareholders.  That is, the dominant shareholders don’t treat the corporation as a separate entity and fail to follow basic corporate formalities (e.g. minutes, stock issuance, incorporation papers, etc.).

The individual defendants treated Company 1 as their personal piggy bank by commingling their personal assets with the corporate assets.  There were no earmarks of “separateness” between the individual defendants’ assets and Company 1’s corporate assets.  *3-4.

Because of this, the husband and wife defendants were responsible (in the Federal suit) for the unsatisfied state court judgment entered against the defunct Company 1.

Take-away: Halim illustrates that where a judgment debtor corporation or controlling shareholders of that corporation transfer all corporate assets to a new, similarly named (or not) entity shortly after a lawsuit is filed, it will likely look suspicious and can lead to a constructive fraud finding.

The case also underscores the importance of following corporate formalities and keeping corporate assets separate from individual/personal assets – especially where the corporation is controlled by only two individuals.  A failure to treat the corporation as distinct from the dominant individuals, can lead to alter ego liability for those individuals.