When The Unconscionability Doctrine Can Void A Contractual Provision – Illinois Law

I recently litigated the enforceability of a contractual arbitration provision contained in an electrical subcontract for work on a high-end residential project in the Chicago suburbs.  The subcontractor fighting arbitration argued that the clause, drafted by the general contractor, was so one-sided against it, that it was unconscionable under Illinois law. [Among other things, the arbitration provision shifted all costs exclusively to the subcontractor.]. The Court disagreed and found that the challenged clause was neither procedurally nor substantively unconscionable.

Two cases – one in Illinois, the other in Arizona [and discussed at length in the Illinois case] – figured prominently in the Court’s granting our motion to enforce the arbitration provision and compel arbitration.  Together, the cases (Kinkel v. Cingular Wireless, LLC, 223 Ill.2d 1 (2006), Maxwell v. Fidelity Financial Services, 907 P.2d 51, 58 (Ariz. 1995) provide a useful gloss on what constitutes procedural and substantive unconscionability in the context of a business-to-business contract.

How many Factors: One, Two or ‘Sliding Scale?’

Earlier case law on unconscionability found that a party had to show both procedural and unconscionability in order to void a contract term.  Other cases apply a “sliding scale” approach – where if a contract term is heavy on substantive unconscionability, it can be light on procedural unconscionability and vice versa.  Kinkel makes clear that either procedural or substantive unconscionability can defeat a given clause.  [The case is silent on whether the sliding scale test is still viable.]

Procedural Unconscionability

The procedural unconscionability question turns on whether the challenged term is so difficult to find or read that the party is essentially unaware of it.  To determine procedural unconscionability, the Court considers, among other things, the disparity in bargaining power between the drafter of the contract and the party contesting a given term, the circumstances surrounding the formation of the contract and whether a clause is “hidden in a maze of fine print.” [Kinkel at 23 citing to Frank’s Maintenance & Engineering, Inc. v. C.A. Roberts Co., 86 Ill.App.3d 980, 989-90 (1stDist. 1980)]

A court’s procedural unconscionability calculus also looks at the conspicuousness of the challenged clause, the negotiations relating to the contract, and whether the parties had an opportunity to understand the terms of the contract.

In our case, the Court found that the Subcontract’s arbitration clause was not hard to find, read or understand and appeared prominently in the contract’s text.  As a result, the Court found ruled that the arbitration clause was not procedurally infirm.

Substantive Unconscionability

Substantive unconscionability occurs where the cost of vindicating a claim is so steep that a plaintiff’s only reasonable cost-effective means of obtaining legal relief is as a member of a class action.  The Court’s substantive unconscionability analysis considers [a] the relative fairness of the obligations assumed, [b] whether terms are so one-sided “as to oppress or unfairly surprise an innocent party,” [c] whether there is “an overall imbalance in the obligations and rights imposed by the bargain, and [d] a significant cost-price disparity.” [Kinkel at 24]

When determining substantive unconscionability, Illinois courts also looks to the secrecy of a contractual arbitration term – that is,  can parties disclose the existence or result of an arbitration proceeding?  Where a party is contractually obligated to keep arbitration results private, it tips the scale towards substantive unconscionability since this ensures that the pro-arbitration litigant can deny its opponents access to precedent.

In addition, courts are more likely to find unconscionability where a consumer is involved, there is a disparity in bargaining power, and the clause is on a pre-printed form.  Moreover, where a party seeks to invalidate an arbitration provision on the ground that the arbitration would be prohibitively expensive, that party has the burden to show the likelihood of incurring those costs.

According to the Seventh Circuit, to meet her burden, the party contesting arbitration must provide some individualized evidence to show she will face prohibitive costs in the arbitration and is financially incapable of meeting those costs. [Livingston v. Associates Finance, Inc., 339 F.3d 553, 557 (7th Cir.2003)]

In our case, the Court did find that the arbitration provision in question was one-sided in our favor and against the opponent. [I disagreed; there were multiple pro-subcontractor provisions in the contract as it was exhaustively negotiated prior to its consummation.]  The Court even said that it would never advise a client to agree to it or even itself assent to it. However, the Court quickly [and rightly] noted that its subjective opinion that a contractual clause is perhaps unwise or risky was not the test for substantive unconscionability.

Instead, the crucial question was whether the provision was oppressive, unfairly surprising to the party contesting the term, portrayed an imbalance in obligations and rights or was cost-prohibitive to enforce.  The Court did not find that any of these substantive unconscionability hallmarks applied and granted our motion to compel arbitration. [The subcontractor’s Motion to Reconsider is pending.]

Still another factor leading the court to reject our adversary’s substantive unconscionability argument was the freely bargained-for nature of the arbitration clause.  This was illustrated by the Subcontract’s multiple line-outs and handwritten notes.  The presence of multiple, manual changes revealed that the parties heavily negotiated the terms of the contract.

Take-aways:

Kinkel and the cases it relies on – including Maxwell’s substantive unconscionability formulation, collectively stand for the proposition that a party claiming a contract provision is procedurally or substantively unconscionable bears the burden of establishing the existence of either or both.

Where the parties stand on an equal bargaining footing and there is no consumer nexus to the underlying contract, it is all the more difficult for the party challenging a contract term on the basis of unconscionability.

In the business-to-business setting, assuming the contract at issue isn’t hard to find or understand [and therefore not procedurally unconscionable], the best chance a litigant has of vitiating a contractual arbitration provision is to argue substantive unconscionability: that the term is so one-sided in that it portrays a stark imbalance in rights and obligations and is cost-prohibitive for the party challenging to term to enforce it.  An additional plus-factor is where the arbitration clause is subject to non-disclosure such that neither party can reveal the results of arbitration –  depriving future litigants from accessing precedent.

 

Doctor’s Oral Promise to Retire in Future Not Enough To Sustain Healthcare Plaintiff’s Fraud Claims

In Heartland Women’s Healthcare, Ltd. v. Simonton-Smith, 2021 IL App (5th) 200135-U, the appeals court affirmed summary judgment for an obstetrician sued for fraud based on her alleged verbal promise to retire from her practice at the end of a three-year employment term.

The plaintiff claimed the defendant tricked it into buying her practice by promising to retire. The written agreement resulting from the parties’ negotiations contained neither a non-compete term nor a recital that defendant intended to retire at the agreement’s conclusion.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims.  Plaintiff appealed.

Affirming, the Fifth District found that the plaintiff failed to produce evidence to support its misrepresentation claims and specifically, to show defendant hatched a “scheme to defraud” the plaintiff.

In Illinois, to state a colorable fraudulent misrepresentation claim, a plaintiff must allege: (1) a false statement of material facts, (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it, (3) an intent to induce a plaintiff to act, (4) action by the plaintiff in justifiable reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.

A negligent misrepresentation plaintiff must also establish these elements but instead of showing a knowingly false statement, must prove the defendant (i) was careless or negligent in ascertaining the truth of the statement and (ii) owed a duty to the plaintiff to impart accurate information.

In both a fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation claim, the statement must be of an existing or past fact and not merely a promise to do something in the future.  The alleged fraud must also be complete at the time of the challenged statement as opposed to an intention to commit a future fraud.

The ‘Scheme to Defraud’ Exception

Where the false representation of future conduct is the scheme or device employed to accomplish the fraud, a court can restore the parties to the positions they occupied before the fraud was committed.  And while courts make clear that something beyond a lone broken promise is usually required to trigger the scheme exception, that “plus-factor” is still elusive.

Some courts require a plaintiff to allege a sustained pattern of repeated false representations [see HPI Health Care Services, Inc. v. Mt. Vernon Hospital, Inc., 131 Ill.2d 145 (1989)] while others [Roda v. Berko (401 Ill.335 (1948), Vance Pearson, Inc. v. Alexander, 86 Ill.App.3d 1105 (1980)] have held that a single promise can trigger the scheme exception.

In cases that have recognized the exception in the single broken promise setting, the plaintiff must generally produce evidence of a  defendant’s contemporaneous intention not to follow through on the promise.   The cases also make clear that whether a plaintiff is proceeding on a course of conduct scheme theory or one that involves only one promise, it must show the defendant’s fraudulent intent existed at or before the time of the promise. [25]

Here, the plaintiff could not prove the defendant promised to retire while, at the same time, never intending to fulfill that promise at the outset.  For support, the Court quoted both plaintiff’s agent’s and defendant’s deposition testimony.  Both testified that while the defendant’s future retirement was discussed prior to inking the three-year pact, it was never reduced to writing.  The plaintiff also could not pinpoint a definite promise by the defendant to retire when the employment contract lapsed.

As further proof that the defendant never unequivocally promised to retire, the plaintiff’s agent testified he even asked the defendant not to retire and that defendant stay beyondthe employment contract’s end date.  In the end, Plaintiff’s evidence did not go far enough to establish either an oral promise to retire at the agreement’s conclusion or the defendant’s intention not to fulfill that promise.

Afterwords:

In finding for the doctor defendant, the Heartland Women’s Healthcare Court was careful to respect the boundary between contract and tort law damages – a delineation that, in theory at least, prevents every broken promise from undergirding a fraud claim.

And while the content and outer reaches of the scheme to defraud exception [to the rule that a false promise is not actionable fraud] is still murky, it seems that something beyond a one-off broken promise is generally required.  A plaintiff invoking the scheme exception has a better chance of surviving a pleadings motion or summary judgment where it can show a defendant’s pattern of repeated broken promises.

Here, the plaintiff alleged only a single misstatement – defendant’s supposed oral promise to retire at the conclusion of the employment contract.  Without evidence of defendant’s contemporaneous intent not to uphold her promise, there wasn’t enough evidence of a scheme to defraud to survive summary judgment.

In hindsight, the Plaintiff should have negotiated and codified both a non-compete provision and defendant’s imminent retirement as material terms of the contract.

 

 

E-Mails, Phone Calls, and Web Activity Aimed at Extracting $ From IL Resident Passes Specific Jurisdiction Test – IL First Dist.

In Dixon v. GAA Classic Cars, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 182416, the trial court dismissed the Illinois plaintiff’s suit against a North Carolina car seller on the basis that Illinois lacked jurisdiction over the defendant.

Reversing, the First District answered some important questions concerning the nature and reach of specific jurisdiction under the Illinois long-arm statute as informed by constitutional due process factors.

Since the defendant had no physical presence or office in Illinois, the question was whether the Illinois court had specific jurisdiction [as opposed to general jurisdiction] over the defendant.

Specific jurisdiction requires a plaintiff to allege a defendant purposefully directed its activities at the forum state and that the cause of action arose out of or relates to those contacts.  Even a single act can give rise to specific jurisdiction but the lawsuit must relate specifically to that act. [¶ 12]

In the context of web-based companies, the Court noted that a site that only imparts information [as opposed to selling products or services] does not create sufficient minimum contacts necessary to establish personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  Here, though, the defendant’s site contained a “call to action” that encouraged visitors like the plaintiff to pay the defendant.  [¶ 14]

The court found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant falsely stated that the Bronco’s frame was restored, had new brakes and was frequently driven over the past 12 months [when it hadn’t] were sufficient to allege a material misstatement of fact under Illinois fraud law.  It further held that fraudulent statements in telephone calls are just as actionable as in-person statements and can give an Illinois court jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  [¶ 17]

Viewed in the aggregate, the plaintiff’s allegations of the defendant’s Illinois contacts were enough to confer Illinois long-arm jurisdiction over the defendant.

The plaintiff alleged the defendant (i) advertised the Bronco on a national website, and (ii)  e-mailed and telephoned plaintiff several times at his Illinois residence.

Next, the court considered whetherspecific jurisdiction over the defendant was  consistent with constitutional due process considerations.

The due process prong of the personal jurisdiction inquiry focuses on the nature and quality of a foreign litigant’s acts such that it is reasonable and fair to require him to conduct his defense in Illinois.

Factors the court considers are (1) the burden on the defendant to defend in the forum state, (2) the forum’s interest in adjudicating the dispute, (3) the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining effective relief, (4) the interstate judicial system’s interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of the case, and (5) the shared interests of the several states in advancing fundamental social policies.

Once a plaintiff shows that a defendant purposely directed its activities at the forum state, the burden shifts to the out-of-state defendant to show that litigating in the forum is unreasonable.

The Dixon court held the defendant failed to satisfy this burden and that specific jurisdiction over it was proper.

Next, the Court declined to credit defendant’s Terms & Conditions (“T&C”) – referenced in the Defendant’s on-line registration form and that fixed North Carolina as the site for any litigation.

Generally, one written instrument may incorporate another by reference such that both documents are considered as part of a single contract.  However, parties must clearly show an intent to incorporate a second document.

Here, the court found such a clear intent lacking. Defendant did not argue that it sent the T&C to Plaintiff or referenced them in its multiple e-mail and telephone communications with Plaintiff.

The court also pointed out that defendant’s registration form highlighted several of the T&C’s terms.  However, none of the featured [T&C] terms on the registration form mentioned the North Carolina venue clause.  As a result, the bidder registration form didn’t evince a clear intent to incorporate the T&C into the contract.

Afterwords:

A foreign actor’s phone, e-mail and on-line advertisements directed to Illinois residents can meet the specific jurisdiction test;

Where a Terms and Conditions document contains favorable language to a foreign defendant, it should make it plain that the T&C is a separate document and is to be incorporated into the parties’ contract by using distinctive type-face [or a similar method];

If the defendant fails to sufficiently alert the plaintiff to a separate T&C document, especially if the plaintiff is a consumer, the defendant runs the risk of a court refusing to enforce favorable (to defendant) venue or jurisdiction provisions.