Filing Lawsuit Doesn’t Meet Conversion Suit ‘Demand for Possession’ Requirement – 7th Cir. (applying IL law)

Conversion, or civil theft, requires a plaintiff to make a demand for possession of the converted property before suing for its return.  This pre-suit demand’s purpose is to give a defendant the opportunity to return plaintiff’s property and avoid unnecessary litigation.

What constitutes a demand though?  The easiest case is where a plaintiff serves a written demand for return of property and the defendant refuses.  But what if the plaintiff doesn’t send a demand but instead files a lawsuit.  Is the act of filing the lawsuit equivalent to sending a demand?

The Seventh Circuit recently answered “no” to the question in Stevens v. Interactive Financial Advisors, Inc., 2016 WL 4056401 (N.D.Ill. 2016)

That case’s plaintiff sued his former brokerage firm for tortious interference and with contract and conversion based when the firm blocked plaintiff’s access to investment client data after the firm fired the plaintiff.  The District Court granted summary judgment on the plaintiff’s tortious interference claim and a jury entered judgment for the defendant on the conversion count.

At trial on the conversion count, the jury submitted this question to the trial judge: “Can we consider [filing] the lawsuit a demand for property?”  The trial judge answered no – under Illinois law, filing a lawsuit does not qualify as a demand for possession.  The jury then found for the defendant and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the jury verdict, the Seventh Circuit addressed if and when impeding access to financial data can give rise to a conversion action in light of Illinois law’s pre-suit demand requirement and various applicable Federal securities laws.

To prove conversion under Illinois law, a plaintiff must show (1) he has a right to personal property, (2) he has an absolute and unconditional right to immediate possession of the property, (3) he made a demand for possession, and (4) defendant wrongfully and without authorization assumed control, dominion, or ownership over the property.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendant investment firm on the plaintiff’s conversion count that sought access to client information for clients plaintiff brought to the firm.

The Court held that since the firm was bound by Federal securities laws prohibiting it from disclosing nonpublic client information to third parties, and the plaintiff had been fired, the plaintiff could not show a right to immediate possession of the client financial information.  The plaintiff did possibly have a right to insurance client information (as opposed to securities clients) and the Court denied summary judgment as to plaintiff’s insurance clients.

The Seventh Circuit upheld the jury verdict on the insurance clients conversion suit based on the plaintiff’s failure to make a demand for possession.  The Court stated the demand requirement’s purpose as trying to motivate the return of property “before a plaintiff is required to submit to unnecessary litigation.”

The plaintiff did not make a demand for return of his insurance client’s data before he filing suit.  And since Illinois courts have never held that the act of suing was tantamount to a demand for possession, the Seventh Circuit found that the District Court correctly instructed the jury that the failure to make a demand for possession before suing defeats a conversion claim.

The Court also nixed the plaintiff’s “demand futility” argument: that a demand for possession would have been pointless given the circumstances of the given case. (Demand futility typically applies where the property has been sold or fundamentally damaged.)

The Seventh Circuit found that the jury properly considered the demand futility question and ruled against the plaintiff and there was no basis to reverse that finding.

Afterwords:

1/ A conversion plaintiff’s right to client data will not trump a Federal securities law that protects the data.  In addition, a pre-suit demand for possession is required to make out a conversion action unless the plaintiff can show that the demand is pointless or futile;

2/ The act of filing a lawsuit will not serve as a proxy for a demand for possession.

3/Conversion plaintiffs should take great care to make a demand for possession before suing.

3-a/ This is true even where the demand is likely to meet resistance.  Otherwise, like the plaintiff experienced here, the risk is too great that the lack of a demand will defeat the conversion claim.

 

Tacking Unsigned Change Orders On To Contractors’ Lien Not Enough For Constructive Fraud – IL Court

Constructive mechanics lien fraud and slander of title are two central topics the appeals court grapples with in Roy Zenere Trucking & Excavating, Inc. v. Build Tech, Inc., 2016 IL App (3d) 140946.  There, a commercial properly developer appealed bench trial judgments for two subcontractor plaintiffs – a paving contractor and an excavating firm – on the basis that the plaintiffs’ mechanics liens were inflated and fraudulent.

The developer argued that since the subcontractors tried to augment the lien by adding unsigned change order work to it – and the contracts required all change orders to be in writing – this equaled that voided the liens.  The trial court disagreed and entered judgment for the plaintiff subcontractors.

Affirming the trial court’s judgment, the appeals court provides a useful summary of the type of proof needed to sustain constructive fraud and slander of title claims in the construction lien setting and when attorneys’ fees can be awarded to prevailing parties under Illinois’ mechanics lien statute, 770 ILCS 60/1 (the Act).

Section 7(a) of the Act provides that no lien shall be defeated to the proper amount due to an error of overcharging unless it is shown that the error or overcharge was made with an “intent to defraud.”  Constructive fraud (i.e., fraud that can’t be proven to be purposeful) can also invalidate a lien but there must be more than a simple overcharge in the lien claim.  The overage must be coupled with other evidence of fraud.

Slander of title applies where (1) a defendant makes a false and malicious publication, (2) the publication disparages the plaintiff’s title to property, and (3) damages.  “Malicious” in the slander of title context means knowingly false or that statements were made with a reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.  If a party has reasonable grounds to believe it has a legal or equitable claim to property, even if it’s later proven to be false, this won’t amount to a slander of title.

Here, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that there was no evidence to support a constructive fraud or slander of title claim.  The defendant property owner admitted that the subcontractor plaintiffs performed the contract as well as the extra change order work.

While the Court excluded the unsigned change order work from the lien amount, there was still insufficient constructive fraud or slander of title evidence to sustain the owner’s counterclaims.  Though unsuccessful in adding the change orders to the lien, the Court found the plaintiffs had a reasonable basis to recover the extra work in their lien foreclosure actions based on the parties’ contracting conduct where the owner routinely paid extras without signed change orders.

The Court then examined whether the subcontractors could add their attorneys’ fees to the judgment.  Section 17(b) of the Act allows a court to assess attorneys’ fees against a property owner who fails to pay “without just cause or right.”  This equates to an owner raising a defense not “well grounded in fact and warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.”  770 ILCS 60/17(b), (d).

The evidence at trial that the subcontractors substantially performed the paving and excavation work cut in favor of awarding fees to the plaintiffs.  There was no evidence to support the owner defendant’s failure to pay the subcontract amounts.  The Court held that this lack of a colorable basis not to pay the subcontractors was “without just cause or right” under the Act.

Afterwords:

1/ Constructive fraud requires more than a computational error in the lien amount.  There must be other “plus-factor” evidence that combines with the overcharge;

2/ Where a contractor has reasonable basis for lien claim, it will be impossible for plaintiff to meet the malicious publication requirement of a slander of title claim;

3/ This case is pro-contractor as it gives teeth to the Mechanics’ Lien Statute’s fee-shifting section.

 

 

Ill. Wage Payment and Collection Act Doesn’t Apply to NY and Cal. Corps. With Only Random Ill. Contacts

As worker mobility increases and employees working in one state and living in another almost an afterthought, questions of court jurisdiction over intrastate workplace relationships come to the fore.  Another issue triggered by a geographically nimble workforce is whether a non-resident can invoke the protections of another state’s laws.

Illinois provides a powerful remedial scheme for employees who are stiffed by their employers in the form of the Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 (“Wage Act”).  See (here).  The Wage Act allows an employee to sue an employer for unpaid wages, bonuses or commissions where an employer breaches a written or oral employment contract.

The focal point of Cohan v. Medline Industries, Inc., 2016 WL 1086514 (N.D.Ill. 2016) is whether non-residents of Illinois can invoke the Wage Act against an Illinois-based employer for unpaid sales commissions.  The plaintiffs there, New York and California residents, sued their Illinois employer, for breach of various employment contract commission schedules involving the sale of medical devices.

The Northern District of Illinois held that the salespeople plaintiffs could not sue under Illinois’ Wage Act where their in-person contacts with Illinois were scarce.  The plaintiffs only entered Illinois for a few days a year as part of their employer’s mandatory sales training protocol.  All of the plaintiffs’ sales work was performed in their respective home states.

Highlights from the Court’s opinion include:

  •  The Wage Act doesn’t have “extraterritorial reach;” It’s purpose is to protect Illinois employees from being shorted compensation by their employers;
  • The Wage Act does protect non-Illinois residents who perform work in Illinois for an Illinois employer;
  • A plaintiff must perform “sufficient” work in Illinois to merit Wage Act protection;
  • There is no mechanical test to decide what is considered “sufficient” Illinois work to trigger the Wage Act protections;
  • The Wage Act only applies where there is an agreement – however informal – between an employer and employee;
  • The agreement required to trigger the Wage Act’s application doesn’t have to be formal or in writing. So long as there is a meeting of the minds, the Court will enforce the agreement;
  • The Wage Act does not cover employee claims to compensation outside of a written or oral agreement

Based on the plaintiffs’ episodic (at best) contacts with Illinois, the Court found that the Wage Act didn’t cover the plaintiffs’ unpaid commission claims.
Substantively, the Court found the Wage Act inapplicable as there was nothing in the various written employment agreements that supported the plaintiff’s damage calculations.  The plaintiffs’ relationship with the Illinois employer was set forth in multiple contracts that contained elaborate commission schedules.  Since the plaintiff’s claims sought damages beyond the scope of the written schedules, the Wage Act didn’t govern.
Take-aways:

1/ The Illinois Wage Act will apply to a non-resident of Illinois if he/she performs a sufficient quantum of work in Illinois;

2/ Scattered contacts with Illinois that are unrelated to a plaintiff’s job are not sufficient enough to qualify for a viable Wage Act lawsuit;

3/ While an agreement supporting a Wage Act claim doesn’t have to be in writing, there must be some agreement – no matter how unstructured or loose – for a plaintiff to have standing to sue for a Wage Act violation.