Illinois Replevin Law: Who Gets to Keep (Broken) Engagement Ring?

cheatin

The (diabolical?) Joey Greco (I think that’s the ‘Cheaters’ Host’s name) would love this one.  In Carroll v. Curry, 912 N.E.2d 273 (2nd Dist. 2009), the plaintiff filed a replevin suit against his ex-fiancée (defendant) seeking the return of an engagement ring that he previously bought.

The couple was engaged to be married for several years until the defendant broke it off after she accused the plaintiff of cheating.  After kicking plaintiff out of their home, the defendant refused to return the ring since plaintiff’s infidelity caused the relationship to end.  Plaintiff filed a replevin suit to get the ring back and eventually moved for summary judgment.  The trial court granted the motion and the defendant appealed.

Held: Affirmed.  Plaintiff gets the ring back.

Siding for the plaintiff, the Court noted that replevin is a strict, statutory proceeding that does not look at the concept of “fault.”  This means a court will not look at the underlying reasons why someone refuses to return an item of personal property.

The primary purpose of the replevin statute is to test the right of possession of personal property and place the successful party in possession of the property.  735 ILCS 5/19-101. 

A replevin plaintiff must prove he is (1) lawfully entitled to possession of property, (2) the defendant wrongfully detains the property and (3) refuses to deliver the possession of the property to the plaintiff.

“Wrongful” in the replevin context doesn’t mean immoral or “bad.”  It’s wrongful in the legal sense; meaning one person has a superior right to an object over the other.

Normally, the replevin plaintiff must make a demand for return of the item.  However, where a demand would be pointless (“demand futility”), the plaintiff is excused from the demand requirement.

The Second District described an engagement ring as a gift in contemplation of marriage.  The plaintiff here bought the ring to induce defendant to marry him.  The gift of the ring was contingent on defendant following through with the marriage.  Since defendant was the one that terminated the engagement, the contingency (marriage) didn’t occur and defendant no longer had a claim to the ring: “the party who fails to perform on the condition of the gift has no right to property acquired under such pretenses.”

The court then rejected the defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s infidelity was the reason for the break-up.  Delving into fault-based inquiries, the court said, would mire it in examining parties’ subjective motivations as opposed to objectively deciding who has a better claim to possession of an object.

Take-aways:

– Replevin is narrowly focused on the question of a party’s right to possession;

– The replevin calculus doesn’t concern itself with questions of who’s at fault or the cause of a dispute;

– Occasionally,  where there is fraud or unjust enrichment, equitable considerations can factor in a replevin case.  Here, however, since the plaintiff paid for the ring, there was no unjust enrichment in allowing him to reclaim it.

Single-Page Spreadsheet Doesn’t Satisfy Business Records Rule (Illinois 2nd Dist.)

In In Re Estate of Good, 2013 IL App (2d) 120875-U,  the Second District strictly construed the business records hearsay exception and held that a single-page spreadsheet (the “Spreadsheet”), prepared specifically for litigation by one of the parties from various print and electronic sources, didn’t satisfy the business records admissibility rules.

Facts: The plaintiff real estate auction company sued its deceased founder’s estate alleging the founder misappropriated company funds totalling about $1.5M over a multi-year period.  Good, ¶ 4.  The Plaintiff’s key piece of evidence – the Spreadsheet – was prepared specifically for the  litigation and supposedly summarized various company financial records and itemized the amounts decedent allegedly took from the  company.

The trial court granted the defendant estate’s summary judgment motion on all complaint counts.

Held: Affirmed.

Q: Why?

A: The Spreadsheet was inadmissible hearsay under the prevailing business records rules:

Evidence which is inadmissible at trial is not admissible in support of or opposition to summary judgment motion;

– Illinois Evidence Rule 803(6) provides that “records of regularly conducted activity” are exceptions to the hearsay rule as long as they consist of a record or data compilation in any form made at or near the time from information transmitted by someone with knowledge if (a) kept in course of regularly conducted business activity and (b) if it was the regular practice of that business activity to make the record or data compilation;

– A business records proponent must also lay a foundation for the records.  To authenticate a document, the party must offer evidence that shows the document is what the party claims it to be;

– A business record’s evidence foundation requires proof that the record (1) was made in regular course of business and (2) made at or near the time of the event or occurrence;

– The foundation for admitting business records can come via affidavit or trial testimony of a records custodian or other person familiar with the business and its mode of operation;

– A summary print-out prepared specifically for trial can satisfy business records rule (and be admissible) IF the underlying data on which the summary is based are (i) kept in regular course of business, (ii) the data was entered contemporaneous to the event, and (iii) there’s nothing to indicate the source of the information is untrustworthy.

Application:

The Spreadsheet didn’t satisfy the  business records exception.  First, it was mathematically inaccurate: the numbers didn’t match up.  Also, plaintiff’s witnesses admitted in depositions that Spreadsheet was cobbled together from different electronic and printed sources – but they couldn’t specifically identify the sources.  ¶¶ 67-70.

Also, the Spreadsheet wasn’t itself a business record: it was a “one-shot” summary document prepared for the summary judgment motion at the direction of a plaintiff  and was “essentially created from scratch.” ¶ 70.

The Court also held that plaintiff failed to lay a proper foundation for the other financial documents (aside from the Spreadsheet) to support its claims.

The Court pointed to the records custodian’s deposition testimony where he couldn’t specifically identify any documents that supported plaintiff’s damage claims and offered only vague testimony about check requests and invoices that he supposedly reviewed. ¶ 74.

Take-aways:

Good illustrates that numerical accuracy is important when seeking summary judgment on damage claims.

A summary of damages document can meet the business records test – but only if the underlying data is regularly recorded and entered by someone with knowledge of the recorded event.

Good also shows that it’s vital for a deponent (or affiant) to sufficiently identify and explain the underlying data that underlies a damages summary.  It’s clear that the conflicting testimony from plaintiff’s agents concerning the underlying Spreadsheet information played an important rule in the Court excluding plaintiff’s evidence.

 

Illinois Business Records: Getting Them In at Trial

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I’ve learned from painful experience to always have evidentiary foundation and authenticity considerations at the forefront of my trial preparation plan. 

I’ve also found that having a working knowledge of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 236 (SCR 236), as well as Federal and Illinois Evidence Rules 803(6) and 902(11) (hearsay exception and self-authentication rules for business records, respectively) is essential to preparing for and proving my client’s breach of contract case at trial.

Bank of America v. Land, 2013 IL App (5th) 120283 serves as a good case law illustration of the business records rule.  

The plaintiff bank sued to foreclose a mortgage and later moved for summary judgment.  The bank supported its summary judgment motion with a bank officer’s affidavit who testified that she reviewed the bank’s books and records of the mortgage holders, reviewed the borrowers’ payment history and certified a payment history attached to the affidavit. Land, ¶ 5. 

The trial court granted the bank’s motion awarding it money damages of over $100,000 and a judgment of foreclosure.  Land, ¶ 6.  Defendant appealed.

Result: Trial Court affirmed.  The bank’s supporting affidavit meets the requirements of SCR 236.

Reasoning:  The defendant’s chief argument on appeal was that the bank officer’s supporting affidavit was inadmissible hearsay since the underlying mortgage didn’t originate with the plaintiff and because the affidavit relied on a third party’s (another mortgage company) loan records. 

The Court rejected the argument and held that the affidavit met the requirements of SCR 236, which codifies the hearsay exception for business records (a link to the Rule’s text follows this post).

SCR 236 provides that any record of a monetary transaction is admissible as evidence of that transaction if the record is made in the regular course of business and the business’s regular practice was to make a record of a transaction at or near the time of the transaction;

– The rationale for the rule is that business records exist to aid in the proper transaction of business and so records are “useless for that purpose unless accurate.” 

– Lack of personal knowledge by the maker may affect the evidence’s weight, but not its admissibility;

A third party’s records can also be admitted where that third party is authorized to generate the record on behalf of the offering party.

¶ 13.

Applying these rules, the Court found that plaintiff satisfied SCR 236 requirements where the affiant/bank officer testified

(i) that she was familiar with the bank’s business records creation and maintenance practices,

(ii) that the records pertaining to the defendants were made at or near the time of the occurrences giving rise to the records,

(iii) were made by individuals with personal knowledge of the information contained in the business record, and

(iv) the records were kept in the regular course of the bank’s business.  ¶ 13.

Take-aways: Illinois litigants now have a slew of evidence rules – SCR 236, IRE 803(6), IRE 902(11) – at their disposal that streamline the process of getting business records into evidence at trial and eliminate many of the logistical and hearsay headaches that trial practice formerly entailed.  

The case underscores the importance of knowing the rules for business record admissions at trial and on summary judgment.  A key holding of Land is that the business records relied on can be those of a third party; as long as the witness can testify to her familiarity with the records and can establish that the third party records were integral to the witness’s business.  This obviously obviates the need to subpoena a third party to testify concerning the third-party records.