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.

Vague Oral Agreement Dooms Mechanics Lien and Home Repair Act Claims – IL First Dist.

The First District recently examined the quantum of proof necessary to prevail on a breach of oral contract and mechanics lien claim and the factors governing a plaintiff’s request to amend its pleading.

In Link Company Group, LLC v. Cortes, 2018 IL App (1st) 171785-U, the Defendant hired the plaintiff – his former son-in-law – to rehab a residence in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. After a dispute over plaintiff’s construction work and billing issues, the plaintiff sued to foreclose a mechanics lien and for breach of contract. The defendant counter-sued and alleged plaintiff violated the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act (IHRRA) requires, among other things, a contractor to provide certain disclosures in writing to a homeowner client. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s lien and contract claims and denied summary judgment on defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. All parties appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court first took aim at the plaintiff’s breach of contract and mechanics lien claims.

While oral contracts are generally enforceable, they must contain definite and essential terms agreed to by the parties. For an oral contract to be enforceable, it must be so definite and certain in all respects that the court can determine what the parties agreed to.

Here, the substance of the oral contract was vague. When pressed at his deposition, the plaintiff was unable to articulate the basic terms of the parties’ oral construction contract. Since the court was unable to decipher the key contract terms or divine the parties’ intent, the plaintiff’s breach of contract failed.

The plaintiff’s inability to prove-up its oral contract claim also doomed its mechanics lien action. In Illinois, a valid mechanics lien foreclosure suit requires the contractor to prove an enforceable contract and the contractor’s substantial performance of that contract. Since the plaintiff failed to establish a binding oral contract, by definition, it couldn’t prevail on its mechanics lien claim.

The First District also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend its complaint. While amendments to pleadings are generally liberally allowed in Illinois, a court will not rubber stamp a request to amend. Instead, the court engages in a multi-factored analysis of (1) whether the proposed amendment would cure the defective pleading, (2) whether other parties would sustain prejudice by virtue of the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether previous opportunities to amend the pleadings could be identified.

Here, the plaintiff’s proposed implied-in-fact contract was “nearly identical” to the stricken breach of oral contract claim. An implied-in-fact contract is one where contract terms are implicit from the parties’ conduct. Here, the parties conduct was too attenuated to establish definite contract terms. As a result, the proposed implied-in-law contract claim was facially deficient and didn’t cure the earlier, failed pleading.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s failure to allege an enforceable oral agreement also precluded summary judgment on the defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. A valid IHRRA claim presupposes the existence of an enforceable contract. Since there was no written agreement and the parties’ oral agreement was unclear, there was no valid contract on which to hook an IHRRA violation.

Afterwords:

This case cements proposition that a valid oral contract claim requires proof of definite and certain terms. A plaintiff’s failure to allege a clear and definite oral agreement will prevent him from asserting either a mechanics lien or Home Repair Act claim based on the putative oral agreement.

Link Company also illustrates the four factors a litigant must satisfy in order to amend a pleading. If the proposed amended complaint fails to allege a colorable cause of action, a court can properly deny leave to amend despite Illinois’ liberal pleading amendments policy.

Zillow ‘Zestimates’ Not Actionable Value Statements; Homeowner Plaintiffs’ Not Consumers Under IL Consumer Fraud Act – IL ND 2018

Decrying the defendants’ use of “suspect marketing gimmicks” that generate “confusion in the marketplace,” the class action plaintiffs’ allegations in Patel v. Zillow, Inc. didn’t go far enough to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

The Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed the real estate owning plaintiffs’ claims against the defendants, whose Zillow.com website is a popular online destination for property buyers, sellers, lenders and brokers.

The plaintiffs alleged Zillow violated Illinois’s deceptive trade practices and consumer fraud statutes by luring prospects to the site based on fabricated property valuation data, employing “bait and switch” sales tactics and false advertising and giving preferential treatment to brokers and lenders who pay advertising dollars to Zillow.

Plaintiffs took special aim at Zillow’s “Seller Boost” program – through which Zillow provides choice broker leads in exchange for ad dollars – and “Zestimate,” Zillow’s property valuation tool that is based on computer algorithms.

The Court first dismissed Plaintiffs’ Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act (IDTPA) claim (815 ILCS 510/1 et seq.). Plaintiffs alleged Zestimate was a “suspect marketing gimmick” designed to lure visitors to Zillow in an effort to increase ad revenue from real estate brokers and lenders, and perpetuated marketplace confusion and disparaged properties by refusing to take down Zestimates that were proven inaccurate. Plaintiffs also alleged Defendants advertise properties for sale they have no intention of actually selling.

The Court found that Zestimates are not false or misleading representations of fact likely to confuse consumers. They are simply estimates of a property’s market value. As Zillow’s disclaimer-laden site says, Zestimates are but “starting points” of a property’s value and no proxy for a professional appraisal. As a result, the Court found Zestimates were nonactionable opinions of value.
Plaintiffs’ allegation that Zestimate creates consumer confusion also fell short. An actionable IDTPA claim premised on likelihood of confusion means a defendant’s use of a given trade name, trademark or other distinctive symbol is likely to mislead consumers as to the source of an advertised product or service. Here, the plaintiffs’ allegations that Zestimate was falsely vaunted as a legitimate valuation tool did not assert confusion between Zillow’s and another’s products or services.

Plaintiffs’ “bait and switch” and commercial disparagement claims fared no better. A bait and switch claim asserts that at a seller advertised one product or service only to “switch” a customer to another, costlier one. A commercial disparagement claim, based on IDPTA Section 510/2(a)(8) prevents a defendant from denigrating the quality of a business’s goods and services through false or misleading statements of fact.

Since plaintiffs did not allege Zillow was enticing consumers with one product or service while later trying to hawk a more expensive item, the bait and switch IDTPA claim failed. The court dismissed the commercial disparagement claim since Zestimates are only opinions of value and not factual statements.

The Court next nixed Plaintiffs’ self-dealing claim: that Zillow secretly tried to enrich itself by funneling For Sale By Owner (FSBO) sellers to premier brokers. While Illinois does recognize that a real estate broker owes a duty of good faith when dealing with buyers, the Court noted that Zillow is not a real estate broker. As a result, Defendants owed plaintiffs no legal duty to abstain from self-dealing.

The glaring absence of likely future harm also doomed the plaintiffs’ IDTPA claim. (The likelihood of future consumer harm is an element of liability under the IDTPA.) The Court found that even if Plaintiffs were confused or misled by Zillow in the past, there was no risk of future confusion. In IDTPA consumer cases, once a plaintiff is aware of potentially deceptive marketing, he can simply refrain from purchasing the offending product or service.

Next, the court jettisoned plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims which alleged Zestimates impeded homeowners efforts to sell their properties. A business (or another non-consumer) can still sue under ICFA where alleges a nexus between a defendant’s conduct and consumer harm. To meet this consumer nexus test, a corporate plaintiff must plead conduct involving trade practices addressed to the market generally or that otherwise implicates consumer protection concerns. If a non-consumer plaintiff cannot allege how defendant’s actions impact consumers other than the plaintiff, the ICFA claim fails.

The plaintiffs’ consumer fraud allegations missed the mark because plaintiffs were real estate sellers, not buyers. Moreover, the Court found that plaintiffs’ requested relief would not serve the interests of consumers since the claimed actual damages were unique to plaintiffs. The plaintiffs attempt to recover costs incidental to their inability to sell their homes, including mortgage payments, taxes, home owner association costs, utilities, and the like were not shared by the wider consumer marketplace. (For example, the Court noted that plaintiffs did not allege prospective consumer buyers will have to pay incidental out-of-pocket expenses related to Zillow’s Zestimate published values.)

Lastly, the Court dismissed plaintiffs’ deceptive practices portion of their ICFA claim. To state such a claim, the plaintiff must allege he suffered actual damages proximately caused by a defendant’s deception. But where a plaintiff isn’t actually deceived, it can’t allege a deceptive practice.

Here, in addition to falling short on the consumer nexus test, plaintiffs could not allege Zillow’s site content deceived them. This is because under Illinois fraud principles, a plaintiff who “knows the truth” can’t make out a valid ICFA deceptive practice claim. In their complaint, the plaintiffs’ plainly alleged they were aware of Zillow’s challenged tactics. Because of this, plaintiffs were unable to establish Zillow as the proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injury.

Afterwords:

Zillow provides a good primer on Federal court pleading standards in the post-Twombly era and gives a nice gloss on the requisite pleading elements required to state a viable cause of action for injunctive and monetary relief under Illinois’s deceptive practices and consumer fraud statutes.