Subcontractor’s Failure to Get Certified Mail ‘Green Cards’ into Evidence = Draconian Trial Loss in Lien Spat

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a harsh result against a subcontractor who failed to properly serve a Section 24 notice in accordance with the strictures of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act.

The earth-moving subcontractor recorded a lien against a nascent Starbucks in Chicago’s western suburbs seeking payment for various change orders. It sent its lien notice to the property’s lender by certified mail but not to the property owner.

After a bench trial, the trial judge reluctantly found for the property owner defendants and held that the subcontractor’s lien notice failed to follow the Act.  The subcontractor appealed.

Affirming judgment for the property owner, the Court first emphasized the oft-cited rule that since rights created by the Act are statutory, the statutory technical and procedural requirements are strictly construed. The burden of proving that each requirement of the Act has been satisfied is on the party seeking to enforce its lien – here, the subcontractor.  But where there is no dispute that an owner actually received notice, courts will overlook technical defects.

Section 24 of the Act requires a subcontractor to serve notice of its intent to lien by certified mail or personal delivery to the record owner and lender (if known)within 90 days after completing the work on the property. 770 ILCS 60/24(a).

An exception to this notice requirement is where a general contractor’s sworn statement provides the owner notice of the subcontractor’s work and unpaid amount.

While courts will uphold a lien notice sent only to an owner (and not to the lender) since there is no concern of the owner being prejudiced or having to pay twice, the reverse isn’t true. Citing to half-century-old case law, the Court held that since notice to an owner is the ‘very substance of the basis on which a mechanic’s lien may be predicated,’, the Court refused to excuse the subcontractor’s failure to serve the owner with its lien notice even though the lender was given proper statutory notice.

And while the plaintiff attached some certified mail green (return) card copies to its written response to Defendant’s directed verdict motion at trial, the plaintiff never authenticated the cards or offered them in evidence at trial. As a result, the appeals court refused to consider the green cards as part of the appellate record. (An appeals court cannot consider documents that were not admitted into evidence at trial.)

In addition, the plaintiff’s trial testimony was conflicting. The Plaintiff’s owner’s testimony conflicted with a 2014 affidavit of mailing prepared by one of Plaintiff’s employees.  This evidentiary dissonance failed to show the owner’s actual notice of the plaintiff’s lien notice.  As a result, the trial court found that the plaintiff failed to carry its burden of proving that it complied with its Act lien notice rules.

The court then rejected the subcontractor’s argument that the owner had actual notice of its work since it saw the plaintiff performing grading work on the property and the plaintiff sent regular invoices to the owner’s agent.  However, under Illinois law, the mere presence of or owner’s knowledge that a contractor on a job is not a valid substitute for the required statutory notice.

The court also nixed the subcontractor’s claim that the owner had actual notice of the subcontractor’s work based on the sworn statements submitted to the owner from the general contractor. While courts have upheld an otherwise deficient subcontractor lien notice where sworn statements in the record plainly show the subcontractor’s identity and amounts owed.  Here, there were no sworn statements in the record. A trial witness may only testify to matters on which he/she has personal knowledge. Ill. R. Evid. 602. Since the plaintiff didn’t call to testify the owner’s construction manager – the only one who supposedly received the GC’s sworn statements (that identified plaintiff) –  there was no competent evidence that the owner received and reviewed any sworn statements that referenced the plaintiff’s work and amounts owed.

Afterwords:

This case shows how unforgiving statutory notice requirements can be in the mechanics lien context.

In hindsight, the subcontractor plaintiff should have introduced certified mail receipts into evidence.

Failing that, it should have called the owner’s construction manager as an adverse agent to lock in testimony that the general contractor furnished the owner with sworn statements and those statements sufficiently identified the subcontractor plaintiff.

Possible Problematic Lien Notice Starts Limitations Clock in Lawyer ‘Mal’ Case

In Construction Systems, Inc. v. FagelHaber LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 172430, the First District affirmed the time-barring of a legal malpractice suit stemming from a flubbed contractor’s lien filing.

Several months after a lender recorded its mortgage on a commercial project, the law firm defendant, then representing the plaintiff contractor, served a Section 24 notice – the Illinois mechanics’ lien act provision that governs subcontractor liens. 770 ILCS 60/24.  While the notice was served on the project owner and general contractor, it didn’t name the lender.  In Illinois, where a subcontractor fails to serve its lien notice on a lender, the lien loses priority against the lender.

After the contractor settled its lien claim with the lender’s successor, it sued the defendant law firm for malpractice. The contractor plaintiff alleged that had the law firm properly perfected the lien, the plaintiff would have recovered an additional $1.3M.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm, the First District agreed with the trial court and held that plaintiff’s legal malpractice suit accrued in early 2005. And since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2009, it was a couple years too late.

The Court based its ruling mainly on a foreboding February 2005 letter from plaintiff’s second counsel describing a “problematic situation” – the lender wasn’t notified of plaintiff’s subcontractor lien. The court also pointed out that plaintiff’s second attorney testified in her deposition that she learned of possible lien defects in February 2005; some four years before plaintiff filed suit.

Code Section 13-214.3(b) provides for a two-year limitations period for legal malpractice claims starting from when a plaintiff “knew or reasonably should have known of the injury for which damages are sought.” [⁋ 20]

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice case normally doesn’t accrue until he/she sustains an adverse judgment, settlement or dismissal. An exception to this rule is where it’s “plainly obvious” a plaintiff has been injured as a result of professional negligence.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it never discovered the lien defect until 2007 when the lender’s successor filed its summary judgment motion (which argued that the lien was defective as to the lender). According to the court “the relevant inquiry is not when [Plaintiff] knew or should have known about the lack of notice as an actual defense, but when [Plaintiff] should have discovered [Defendant’s] failure to serve statutory notice of the mechanic’s lien on [the prior lender] prompting it to further investigate [Defendant’s] performance.” [⁋ 24]

The court again cited the above “problematic situation” letter as proof that February 2005 (when the letter was sent) was the triggering date for plaintiff’s claim. Another key chronological factor was the plaintiff’s 2005 payment of attorneys’ fees.

In Illinois, a malpractice plaintiff must plead and prove damages and the payment of attorneys’ fees can equate to damages when the fees are tied to a former counsel’s neglect. Since plaintiff paid its second counsel’s fees in 2005 for work she performed in efforts to resuscitate the lien’s priority, 2005 was the limitation period’s triggering date. [⁋ 25]

Construction Systems cites Nelson v. Padgitt, 2016 IL App (1st) 160571, for the proposition that a plaintiff does not have to suffer an adverse judgment to sustain legal malpractice injury. In Nelson, an employment contract dispute, the Court held that the plaintiff should have discovered deficiencies in his employment contract (it provided for the loss of salary and commissions in the event of for-cause termination) in 2012 when he sued his former employer, not in 2014 when the employer won summary judgment.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that its damages were unknown until the lien litigation was finally settled and that it couldn’t sue until the lien dispute was resolved. The court held that the extent and existence of damages are different things and that it’s the date a plaintiff learns he/she was damaged, not the amount, that matters.

Lastly, the court nixed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel concern – that plaintiff couldn’t argue the lien was valid in the underlying case while arguing the opposite in the malpractice suit. According to the court, the plaintiff could have entered into a tolling agreement that would suspend the statute of limitations pending the outcome of the underlying case.

Conclusion

Construction Systems reaffirms that a legal malpractice claim can accrue before an adverse judgment is entered or an opponent files a formal pleading that points out claim defects.  Moreover, the payment of attorneys’ fees directly attributable to a former counsel’s neglect is sufficient to meet the damages prong of a legal malpractice case.

This case and others like it also make clear that the limitations period runs from the date a plaintiff learns she has been injured; not when financial harm is specifically quantified.

To preserve a possible malpractice claim while a plaintiff challenges an underlying adverse ruling, practitioners should consider tolling agreements to suspend any statutes of limitation and guard against possible judicial estoppel concerns (taking inconsistent positions in separate lawsuits).

Earned Bonus Is Proper Subject of Employee’s Wage Payment Claim; Reliance on Employer Pre-Hiring Statements Is Reasonable – IL ND

After leaving a lucrative banking position in Florida for a Chicago consulting gig, Simpson v. Saggezza’s (2018 WL 3753431 (N.D.Ill. 2018) plaintiff soon learned the Illinois job markedly differed from what was advertised.

Among other things, the plaintiff discovered that the company’s pre-hiring revenue projections were off as were the plaintiff’s promised job duties, performance goals and bonus structure.

When plaintiff complained, the Illinois employer responded by firing him. Plaintiff sued the defendants – the employer and a company decision maker – for unpaid bonus money under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1, et. seq. (IWPCA) and for other common law claims. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims.

In denying the bulk of the defendants’ motion, the Court discussed the nature and reach of earned bonus liability under the IWPCA in the context of a motion to dismiss.

The IWPCA defines payments as including wages, salaries, earned commissions and earned bonuses pursuant to an employment contract.  820 ILCS 115/12. An earned bonus is defined as “compensation given in addition to the required compensation for services performed.”  Il. Admin. Code, Title 56, s. 300.500.

The IWPCA allows an earned bonus claim only where an employer makes an unequivocal promise; a discretionary or contingent promise isn’t enough.  So as long as the plaintiff alleges both an employer’s unambiguous promise to pay a bonus and the plaintiff’s satisfactory performance of the parties’ agreement, the plaintiff can make out a successful IWPCA claim for an unpaid earned bonus.

Here, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged a meeting of the minds on the bonus issue – the defendant-employer unequivocally promised a $25,000 bonus if plaintiff met a specific sales goal – and that the plaintiff met the goal.

The court then partially granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s statutory and common law retaliation claims.

IWPCA Section 14(c) prevents an employer from firing an employee in retaliation for the employee lodging a complaint against the employer for unpaid compensation. 820 ILCS 115/14(c).  Since the plaintiff alleged both an agreement for earned bonus payments and that he was fired for requesting payment, this was enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

The court did, however, dismiss plaintiff’s common law retaliatory discharge claim.  To prevail on this claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) he was terminated, (2) in retaliation for plaintiff’s conduct, and (3) the discharge violates a clearly mandated public policy.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that an IWPCA violation was enough to trigger Illinois public policy concerns. The court held that to invoke the public policy prong of the retaliation tort, the dispute “must strike at the heart of a citizen’s social rights, duties and responsibilities.”  And since the Court viewed an IWPCA money dispute to a private, economic matter between employer and employee, the employer’s alleged IWPCA violation didn’t implicate public policy.

Lastly, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s fraud in the inducement claim.  In this count, plaintiff alleged he quit his former Florida job in reliance on factual misstatements made by the defendant about its fiscal health, among other things.

To sufficiently plead fraudulent inducement, a plaintiff must allege (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it, (3) an intent to induce the other party to act, (4) action by the other party in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  To be actionable, a factual statement must involve a past or present fact; expression of opinions, expectations or future contingencies cannot support a fraudulent inducement claim.

Where there is a disparity in knowledge or access to knowledge between  two parties, the fraudulent inducement plaintiff can justifiably rely on a representation of fact even if he could have discovered the information’s falsity upon further investigation.

While the defendant argued that the predicate fraud statements were non-actionable embellishments or puffery, the court disagreed.  It found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant made factually false statements about the defendant’s financial state and the plaintiff’s job opportunities were specific enough to state a claim.

The court noted that plaintiff alleged the defendants supplied plaintiff with specific financial figures based on historical financial data as part of their pre-hiring pitch to the plaintiff. Taken in totality, the information was specific and current enough to support a fraud claim.

Afterwords:

Earned bonuses are covered by IWPCA; discretionary or conditional bonuses are not;

The common law retaliation tort has teeth. It’s not enough to assert a statutory violation to implicate the public policy element.  A private payment dispute between an employer and employee – even if it involves a statutory violation – won’t rise to the level of a public policy issue;

An employer’s false representations of a company’s financial status can underlie a plaintiff’s fraud claim since financial data supplied to a prospective hire is information an employer should readily have under its control and at its disposal.