Commission Payment Terms in Employment Contract Trump Cable Rep’s ‘Procuring Cause’ Claim in Sales Contract Spat – IL Court

I once represented a client who sued his former employer – an energy company – for unpaid commission and bonuses.  Before he hired me, the client filed a pro se administrative claim with the Illinois Department of Labor (DOL) to recover the monies.  The DOL found in my client’s favor but could not decide on a specific dollar amount. Several months later, I sued to recover under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (Wage Act) and for breach of contract.  In that case, which settled favorably for us, the employer unsuccessfully argued my client’s prior DOL case precluded our civil Wage Act claim.  The trial court rejected this res judicata argument on the basis that the DOL proceeding was not equivalent to a prior adjudication on the merits.

Borum v. Wideopenwest Illinois, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 141482-U, a two-year old, unpublished decision, presents a similar fact pattern and considers whether an ex-employee’s earlier administrative claim prevents a later civil lawsuit against the same employer for the same claim.  The case also spotlights the interplay between an employment agreement’s payment terms and the procuring cause doctrine in a sales commissions dispute.

Defendant hired plaintiff to prospect for cable customers.  It agreed to pay plaintiff a commission based on customers he signed up.  The defendant’s standard employment contract documented the plaintiff’s commission payment rights: plaintiff earned his commission once a customer signed a right-of-entry agreement with the cable supplier.

After lodging an unsuccessful DOL, plaintiff sued the cable company in state court to recover unpaid sales commissions. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss all counts of the plaintiff’s complaint and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the trial court’s dismissal, the Court first considered whether the plaintiff’s DOL proceeding barred his civil suit under res judicata or collateral estoppel principles.  Section 14 of the Wage Act authorizes an employee to file either a DOL claim or a civil action, but not both, to recover underpayment damages along with 2% per month of the underpaid amount.

The DOL ruled against the plaintiff.  It found the right-of-entry agreements were not consummated until signed by both a customer and the defendant employer.)

The Court found the DOL hearing was too informal and not “judicial” or “adjudicatory” enough to defeat plaintiff’s later civil suit under the res judicata rule.

Res judicata requires a final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction.  Collateral estoppel precludes litigation of an issue previously decided in an earlier proceeding.  Res judicata and collateral estoppel can extend to administrative proceedings that are judicial, adjudicatory or quasi-judicial in nature.

So where administrative proceedings involve sworn testimony, are adversarial in nature and include cross-examination of witnesses, they can bar a subsequent civil suit.

Here, since the DOL conducted only an informal hearing with no cross-examination or sworn witnesses, the DOL had no adjudicatory power over the parties and so its finding for defendant had no preclusive effect against the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

The court also rejected plaintiff’s procuring cause argument.  Designed to soften the harsh impact of at-will contracts, the procuring cause doctrine allows a departed salesperson to recover commissions on sales he/she consummated before his/her employment ends even where the money isn’t paid to the employer until after the salesperson departs.  The procuring cause rule is only a gap filler though: it’s a default rule that only applies where a contract is silent on when commissions are paid.

Since plaintiff’s contract with defendant specifically provided plaintiff would be paid commissions earned during (but not after) the period of the employment, the court found this specific enough to vitiate the procuring cause rule.

Lastly, the Court considered whether defendant violated its handbook which stated compensation terms could only be changed on 30 days advance notice.  Plaintiff argued that the defendant made a unilateral change to its compensation policy without giving plaintiff the requisite notice.

The key question for the Court was whether the employee manual was an enforceable contract. For an employee handbook to vest an employee with binding contract rights, (1) the handbook promise must be clear enough that an employee reasonably believes and offer has been made, (2) the handbook offer must be distributed to the employee so that he/she actually receives it or is aware of its contents; the (3) the employee must accept the offer by commencing work after learning of the policy statement.

Since the plaintiff conceded he wasn’t aware of the employee manual until the day he was fired, the court found he couldn’t reasonably show the handbook provided him with enforceable contract rights. (¶¶ 83-85).

Bullet-points:

  • Administrative claims can support a res judicata defense but only where the administrative hearing is adversarial (judicial) in nature; such as where witnesses give sworn testimony that can be tested on cross-examination;
  • The procuring cause rule won’t trump specific contract payment terms;
  • A written employer policy on compensation adjustments isn’t binding against an employer where the aggrieved employee isn’t aware of the policy until on or after he/she’s fired.

 

 

 

 

:

One Man’s ‘Outrage’ Is Another’s Petty Annoyance: Federal Court Tackles Promissory Fraud and Intentional Infliction Tort in Law Firm-Associate Spat

img_2052-3An Illinois Federal court expands on the contours of the IWPCA, promissory fraud, the employee vs. independent contractor dichotomy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) tort in Lane Legal Services v. Le Brocq, 2016 WL 5955536,

The plaintiff law firm (“Firm”) sued a former associate (“Associate”) when he left to open his own law shop.  The Firm claimed the Associate stole firm business records, hacked into Firm computers and breached a written employment agreement.  The Associate fired back with multiple counterclaims against the Firm including ones for unpaid compensation under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1 et seq., fraud, and IIED.

IWPCA Claim

The Court denied the Firm’s motion to dismiss the Associate’s IWPCA count.  The IWPCA requires an employer to pay final compensation to a separated employee no later than the next regularly scheduled payday.  Independent contractors, in contrast to employees, aren’t covered by the IWPCA.

The key question when deciding whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor is the level of control exerted over the plaintiff.  The more autonomy a plaintiff has in performing his job functions, the more likely he is deemed an independent contractor and not subject to the IWPCA.

Associate attorneys are generally considered employees under the IWPCA.  While the Associate here had a unique relationship with the Firm in the sense he was entitled to a share of the Firm’s fees, the Court ultimately found the Associate was an employee under the statute as the Firm could still dictate the details of the Associate’s legal work. 

‘Promissory’ Fraud

The Court found the Associate alleged enough facts for his fraud counterclaim to survive the Firm’s motion to dismiss.  In Illinois, a common law plaintiff must plead (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) knowledge or belief by the speaker that a statement is false, (3) intent to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) action by the plaintiff in reliance on the statement, and (5) damages.

Where fraud is predicated on forward-looking/future statements, the claim is a non-actionable “promissory fraud.”  An exception to this rule lies where the fraudulent conduct is part of a scheme to defraud – an exception that governs where there is a pattern of deceptive conduct by a defendant.  As few as two broken promises can amount to a scheme of defraud although that is not the norm. (**6-7).

The court found that the Associate’s allegations that the firm falsely stated it supported him “leaving the nest” and starting his own firm knowing it would later retaliate against him for doing so was factual enough to beat the Firm’s motion to dismiss.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

The Court dismissed the associate’s intentional infliction claims finding that the Firm’s conduct, while possibly vindictive, still wasn’t objectively extreme and outrageous enough to sustain an IIED action.

An IIED plaintiff must show: (1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) the defendant’s intent to inflict severe emotional distress or knowledge that there was a high probability his conduct would inflict such distress, and (3) the conduct caused severe emotional distress.  Whether conduct rises to the level of extreme and outrageous is judged on an objective standard based on the facts of a given case and must be more than insults, threats, indignities, annoyances or petty trivialities.  To be actionable, the conduct must be “unendurable by a reasonable person.”

Illinois courts especially disfavor applying the IIED tort to employment settings since nearly every employee could conceivably have a claim based on everyday work stressors.

The Court found that the Firm’s challenged actions – filing a frivolous suit and bad-mouthing the associate to regulatory bodies – while inappropriate and bothersome, didn’t amount to extreme and outrageous conduct that would be unbearable to a reasonable person.  As a result, the Court dismissed the associate’s IIED claim.

Take-aways:

(1) A plaintiff can qualify as an employee under the IWPCA even where he shares in company profits and performs some management functions.  If the employer sufficiently controls the manner and method of plaintiff’s work, he likely meets the employee test;

(2) While promissory fraud normally is not actionable, if the alleged fraud is part of a pattern of misstatements, a plaintiff may have a viable fraud claim – even where there is as few as two broken promises;

(3) A colorable intentional infliction claim requires a showing of extreme and outrageous conduct that go beyond harsh business tactics or retaliatory conduct.  If the conduct doesn’t demonstrate an overt intention to cause mental anguish, it won’t meet the objective outrage standard.

 

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.