Snow Plower’s Quantum Meruit Claim Fails; Dissent Takes Rule 23 Publishing Standards to Task – IL 1st Dist.

In Snow & Ice, Inc. v. MPR Management, 2017 IL App (1st) 151706-U, a snow removal company brought breach of contract and quantum meruit claims against a property manager and several property owners for unpaid services.

The majority affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and in dissent, Judge Hyman gives a scathing critique of Rule 23, which provides standards for publishing (or not) opinions, including the rule’s penchant for quiet minority voices on an appeals court.

Plaintiff sued to recover about $90K for snow removal services it supplied to nine separate properties managed by the property manager defendant.  After nonsuiting the management company, the plaintiff proceeded against the property owners on breach of contract and quantum meruit claims.

The trial court granted the nine property owners’ motion to dismiss on the basis there was no privity of contract between plaintiff and the owners.  The court dismissed the quantum meruit suit because an express contract between the plaintiff and property manager governed the parties’ relationship and a quantum meruit claim can’t co-exist with a breach of express contract action.

Affirming the Section 2-615 dismissal of the breach of contract claims, the appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the management company contracted with plaintiff on behalf of the property owner defendants.  In Illinois, agency is a question of fact, but the plaintiff still must plead facts which, if proved, could establish an agency relationship.

A conclusory allegation of a principal-agent relationship between property manager and owners is not sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.  Since the plaintiff only alleged the bare conclusion that the property owners were responsible for the management company’s contract, the First District affirmed dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract claims.

The Court also affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s quantum meruit claims against the owners.  A quantum meruit plaintiff must plead (1) that it performed a service to defendant’s benefit, (2) it did not perform the service gratuitously, (3) defendant accepted the service, and (4) no contract existed to prescribe payment for the service.  Quantum meruit is based on an implied promise by a recipient of services or goods to pay for something of value which it received.  (¶¶ 17-18).

Since the properties involved in the lawsuit were commercial (meaning, either vacant or leased), the Court refused to infer that the owners wanted the property plowed.  It noted that if the property was vacant, plaintiff would have to plead facts to show that the owner wanted plaintiff to clear snow from his/her property.  If leased, the plaintiff needed facts tending to show that the owner/lessor (as opposed to the tenant) implicitly agreed to pay for the plaintiff’s plowing services.  As plaintiff’s complaint was bereft of facts sufficient to establish the owners knew of and impliedly agreed to pay plaintiff for its services, the quantum meruit claim failed.

If leased, the plaintiff needed facts tending to show that the owner/lessor (as opposed to the tenant) implicitly agreed to pay for the plaintiff’s plowing services.  As plaintiff’s complaint was bereft of facts sufficient to establish the owners knew of and impliedly agreed to pay plaintiff for its services, the quantum meruit claim failed.

In dissent, Judge Hyman agreed that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was properly dismissed but found that the plaintiff did plead enough facts to sustain a quantum meruit claim.  Hyman’s dissent’s true value, though, lies in its in-depth criticism of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23’s publication guidelines.

Rule 23 provides for an opinion’s publication only where a majority of the panel deems a decision one that “establishes a new rule of law or modifies, explains, or criticizes an existing rule of law” or “resolves, creates, or avoids an apparent conflict of authority within the Appellate Court.” Sup. Ct. R. 23(a).

Hyman’s thesis is that these standards are too arbitrary and the Rule should be changed so that just one justice, instead of a majority of the panel, is all that’s needed to have a decision published.  Hyman then espouses the benefits of dissents and special concurrences; they perform the valuable functions of clarifying, questioning and developing the law.

In its current configuration, Rule 23 arbitrarily allows a majority of judges to squelch lone dissenters and effectively silence criticism.  Judge Hyman advocates for Illinois to follow multiple other courts’ lead and adopt a “one justice” rule (a single judge’s request warrants publication).  By implementing the one justice rule, minority voices on an appeals panel won’t so easily be squelched and will foster legal discourse and allow the competing views to “hone legal theory,

By implementing the one justice rule, minority voices on an appeals panel won’t so easily be squelched and will foster legal discourse and allow the competing views to “hone legal theory, concept and rule.”

 

 

Evidence Rules Interplay – Authenticating Facebook Posts and YouTube Videos

Evidence Rules 901, 803 and 902 respectively govern authentication generally, the foundation rules for business records, and “self-authenticating” documents at trial.

The Fourth Circuit recently examined the interplay between these rules in the context of a Federal conspiracy trial.  In  United States v. Hassan, 742 F.3d 104 (4th Cir. Feb. 4, 2014), the Fourth Circuit affirmed a jury’s conviction of two defendants based in part on inflammatory, jihad-inspired Facebook posts and YouTube training videos attributed to them.

The Court first held that the threshold showing for authenticity under Rule 901 is low.  All that’s required is the offering party must make a prima facie showing that the evidence is what the party claims it is.  FRE 901(a).  In the context of business records, Rule 902(11) self-authenticates these records where they satisfy the strictures of Rule 803(6) based on a custodian’s certification.  Rule 803(6), in turn, requires the offering party to establish that (a) the records were made at or near the time (of the recorded activity) by – or from information transmitted by  – someone with knowledge, (b) that the records were “kept in the course of a regularly conducted activity or business”; and (c) that making the records was a regular practice of the business. FRE 803(6)(a)-(c).

Applying these rules, the Court held that certifications from Google’s and Facebook’s records custodians established the foundation for the Facebook “wall” posts and YouTube terror training videos.  In addition, the Court found that the prosecution sufficiently connected the two conspiracy defendants to the Facebook posts and YouTube videos by tracing them to internet protocol addresses that linked both defendants to the particular Facebook and YouTube accounts that generated the posts.

Notes: For a more detailed discussion of Hassan as well as an excellent resource on social media evidence developments, see the Federal Evidence Review (http://federalevidence.com/blog/2014/february/authenticating-facebook-and-google-records)

 

Facebook Not Subject to Illinois Long-Arm Jurisdiction For Its Photo “Tagging” Feature – IL ND

Surely something as culturally pervasive as Facebook, arguably the Alpha and Omega of social media, is subject to personal jurisdiction in Illinois (or anywhere else for that matter). Wouldn’t it? After all, with over a billion monthly users1 and some 350 million photos uploaded to it daily 2, Facebook’s electronic reach is virtually limitless (pardon the pun).

Wrong – says an Illinois Federal court.  In what will be welcome news to on-line merchants the world over, the Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed a privacy lawsuit filed against the social media titan by an Illinois resident for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The plaintiff in Gullen v. Facebook, Inc., 15 C 7681 3 , http://cases.justia.com/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2015cv07681/314962/37/0.pdf?ts=1453468909 sued under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”), 740 ILCS 14/1 et seq.   The plaintiff claimed Facebook’s “tag suggestion” feature which culls uploaded photos for facial identifiers, invaded plaintiff’s BIPA privacy rights.

Granting Facebook’s motion to dismiss, the Court gives a useful primer on what a plaintiff must allege to establish an arguable basis for personal jurisdiction over a nonresident corporate defendant.

Federal courts sitting in diversity may exercise personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant only if the forum-state court could do so.  Illinois courts can exercise jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant on any basis sanctioned by the Illinois Constitution or the U.S. Constitution;

– For a court to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant, the court looks to whether the defendant has minimum contacts with the forum State and if those contacts create a substantial connection with the forum State;

– In addition, the contacts with the forum must be initiated by the defendant itself and the mere fact that a defendant’s conduct affected a plaintiff who has a connection to the forum isn’t enough for jurisdiction over the nonresident defendant;

– In an intentional tort case, the court looks at whether the defendant (1) engaged in intentional conduct, (2) expressly aimed at the forum state, and (3) had knowledge that the effects of his conduct would be felt in the forum state;

– With intentional torts, the fact that a plaintiff is injured in Illinois can be relevant on the jurisdiction  question but only if the defendant has “reached out and touched” Illinois: if the defendant’s conduct does not connect him with Illinois in a meaningful way, jurisdiction over a non-resident won’t lie in Illinois.

– A website’s interactivity however, is a “poor proxy” for adequate in-state contacts.  So just because a website happens to be accessible to anyone with an Internet connection (basically, every person on the planet) doesn’t open the website operator to personal jurisdiction in every point of the globe where its site can be accessed.4

In arguing that Facebook’s electronic ubiquity subjected it to Illinois jurisdiction (A Federal court sitting in diversity looks at whether the forum state (Illinois) would have jurisdiction over the non-resident defendant)), the plaintiff catalogued the social media Goliath’s contacts with Illinois: (1) Facebook was registered to do business here, (2) it had an Illinois sales and advertising office, and (3) Facebook applied its facial recognition technology to millions of photo users who are Illinois residents.

The court rejected each of these three contacts as sufficient to confer Illinois jurisdiction over Facebook for the plaintiff’s privacy-based claims.  For contacts (1) and (2), the lawsuit didn’t involve either Facebook’s status as an Illinois-registered entity or its Illinois sales and advertising office.  With respect to contact (3) – that Facebook collected biometric information from Illinois residents – the Court found this allegation false.

The Court noted that since Plaintiff alleged that Facebook used the recognition technology in all photos – not just in those uploaded by Illinois users – Facebook’s global use of the technology was not enough to subject Facebook to Illinois court jurisdiction.

Afterwords:

Gullen’s fact-pattern is one most of the world can relate to.  It intersects with and implicates popular culture and national (if not global) privacy concerns in the context of an ever-present and seemingly innocuous photo tagging feature.  The case presents a thorough application of “law school” territorial jurisdiction principles to a definitely post-modern factual context.  This case and others like it to come, cement the proposition that wide-spread access to a Website isn’t enough to subject the site operator to personal jurisdiction where it doesn’t specifically focus its on-line activity in a particular state.

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1 http://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

2 http://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-350-million-photos-each-day-2013-9

3 http://cases.justia.com/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2015cv07681/314962/37/0.pdf?ts=1453468909

4. See Tamburo v. Dworkin, 601 F.3d 693 (7th Cir. 2010), Walden v. Fiore, 134 S.Ct. 1115 (2014).