Don’t Confuse Joint Tenancy with Tenancy-By-Entirety Ownership – Indiana Court Cautions

Title to real estate is typically held in one of three ways: tenancy in common, joint tenancy and tenancy by the entirety.

The salient characteristic of tenancy in common is that each owner holds a ½ interest in the property and that upon an owner’s death, his/her share passes to his/her heir.

Joint tenancy’s hallmark is its survivorship feature: when a joint tenant dies, his/her share passes to the surviving joint tenant. The deceased’s interest will not pass to an heir.

With tenancy by entirety (“TBE”) ownership, sometimes described as “joint tenancy with marriage,” the property is immune from one spouse’s creditor’s judgment lien. This means the creditor of one spouse cannot foreclose on the TBE property. However, to qualify for TBE protection, the parties must be married and live in the property as a primary residence. If the property owners are married but do not use the home as the marital homestead, TBE won’t shield the property from creditor collection efforts.

In Flatrock River Lodge v. Stout, 130 N.E.2d 96 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019), an Indiana appeals court delved into the joint tenancy vs. TBE dichotomy and how the difference between the two realty title vehicles dramatically impacts a judgment lien’s enforceability.  The trial court denied the creditor’s motion to foreclose a judgment lien because the subject real estate was held in joint tenancy. On appeal, the Court considered whether a judgment creditor could foreclose on joint tenancy property, force its sale, and apply the proceeds against the judgment.

The judgment debtor owned real estate in joint tenancy with his daughter. The debtor died during pendency of the lawsuit and by operation of law, the title to the property vested in the daughter. Before the debtor died, however, the plaintiff/creditor recorded its judgment lien against the property.

The creditor moved to foreclose its judgment lien against the property. The debtor’s daughter argued the property was exempt from execution by Indiana’s tenancy-by-entirety statute (the TBE statute). Indiana Code Section 34-55-10-2(c)(5).  The trial court agreed with debtor’s daughter and denied the creditor’s motion.

Reversing, the Indiana appeals court first rejected the defendants’ argument that since the debtor died, the property escaped plaintiff’s lien. The court noted that the plaintiff’s judgment lien attached from the moment it recorded its judgment against the property – some two years before debtor’s death. As a result, the debtor’s daughter took the property subject to the plaintiff’s lien.

Next, the appeals court rejected the trial court’s finding that the property was immune from the plaintiff’s judgment lien.

In a joint tenancy, each tenant acquires an equal right to share in the enjoyment of the land during their lives. A joint tenant is severed where one joint tenant conveys his/her interest to another and destroys the right to survivorship in the other joint tenant(s). Once a joint tenancy conveys his/her share to another, he/she becomes a tenant in common with the other co-tenant.

Each joint tenant can sell or mortgage his/her interest in property to a third party and most importantly (for this case at least), each joint tenant is subject to a judgment creditor’s execution. [8]

TBE ownership only exists between spouses and is grounded in legal fiction that husband and wife a single unit. A TBE cannot be severed by the unilateral action of one tenant. An attempted transfer of a TBE ownership interest by only one spouse is a legal nullity. The key difference between joint tenancy and TBE is that with the latter, a creditor of only one spouse cannot execute on the jointly owned property

The Court noted that under Indiana Code 34-55-10-2(c)(5), property held in TBE is exempt from execution of a judgment lien. However, this statute applies uniquely to TBE ownership; not to joint tenancy. According to the court, “[h]ad the Indiana legislature intended to exempt from execution real estate owned as joint tenants, it would have done so.” [14]

Take-away:

This case shows in stark relief the perils of conflating joint tenancy and tenants-by-entirety ownership. If a property deed does not specifically state tenancy by the entirety, the property will not be exempt from attachment by only one spouse’s creditor.

Subcontractor’s Failure to Get Certified Mail ‘Green Cards’ into Evidence = Draconian Trial Loss in Lien Spat

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a harsh result against a subcontractor who failed to properly serve a Section 24 notice in accordance with the strictures of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act.

The earth-moving subcontractor recorded a lien against a nascent Starbucks in Chicago’s western suburbs seeking payment for various change orders. It sent its lien notice to the property’s lender by certified mail but not to the property owner.

After a bench trial, the trial judge reluctantly found for the property owner defendants and held that the subcontractor’s lien notice failed to follow the Act.  The subcontractor appealed.

Affirming judgment for the property owner, the Court first emphasized the oft-cited rule that since rights created by the Act are statutory, the statutory technical and procedural requirements are strictly construed. The burden of proving that each requirement of the Act has been satisfied is on the party seeking to enforce its lien – here, the subcontractor.  But where there is no dispute that an owner actually received notice, courts will overlook technical defects.

Section 24 of the Act requires a subcontractor to serve notice of its intent to lien by certified mail or personal delivery to the record owner and lender (if known)within 90 days after completing the work on the property. 770 ILCS 60/24(a).

An exception to this notice requirement is where a general contractor’s sworn statement provides the owner notice of the subcontractor’s work and unpaid amount.

While courts will uphold a lien notice sent only to an owner (and not to the lender) since there is no concern of the owner being prejudiced or having to pay twice, the reverse isn’t true. Citing to half-century-old case law, the Court held that since notice to an owner is the ‘very substance of the basis on which a mechanic’s lien may be predicated,’, the Court refused to excuse the subcontractor’s failure to serve the owner with its lien notice even though the lender was given proper statutory notice.

And while the plaintiff attached some certified mail green (return) card copies to its written response to Defendant’s directed verdict motion at trial, the plaintiff never authenticated the cards or offered them in evidence at trial. As a result, the appeals court refused to consider the green cards as part of the appellate record. (An appeals court cannot consider documents that were not admitted into evidence at trial.)

In addition, the plaintiff’s trial testimony was conflicting. The Plaintiff’s owner’s testimony conflicted with a 2014 affidavit of mailing prepared by one of Plaintiff’s employees.  This evidentiary dissonance failed to show the owner’s actual notice of the plaintiff’s lien notice.  As a result, the trial court found that the plaintiff failed to carry its burden of proving that it complied with its Act lien notice rules.

The court then rejected the subcontractor’s argument that the owner had actual notice of its work since it saw the plaintiff performing grading work on the property and the plaintiff sent regular invoices to the owner’s agent.  However, under Illinois law, the mere presence of or owner’s knowledge that a contractor on a job is not a valid substitute for the required statutory notice.

The court also nixed the subcontractor’s claim that the owner had actual notice of the subcontractor’s work based on the sworn statements submitted to the owner from the general contractor. While courts have upheld an otherwise deficient subcontractor lien notice where sworn statements in the record plainly show the subcontractor’s identity and amounts owed.  Here, there were no sworn statements in the record. A trial witness may only testify to matters on which he/she has personal knowledge. Ill. R. Evid. 602. Since the plaintiff didn’t call to testify the owner’s construction manager – the only one who supposedly received the GC’s sworn statements (that identified plaintiff) –  there was no competent evidence that the owner received and reviewed any sworn statements that referenced the plaintiff’s work and amounts owed.

Afterwords:

This case shows how unforgiving statutory notice requirements can be in the mechanics lien context.

In hindsight, the subcontractor plaintiff should have introduced certified mail receipts into evidence.

Failing that, it should have called the owner’s construction manager as an adverse agent to lock in testimony that the general contractor furnished the owner with sworn statements and those statements sufficiently identified the subcontractor plaintiff.

Limitation of Damages Clause Doesn’t Bar Trade Secrets, Copyright Claims – IL ND

A Federal district court in Illinois recently addressed the scope of a limitation of damages provision in a dispute over automotive marketing software. The  developer plaintiff in Aculocity, LLC v. Force Marketing Holdings, LLC, 2019 WL 764040 (N.D. Ill. 2019), sued the marketing company defendant for breach of contract – based on the defendant’s failure to pay for plaintiff’s software – and joined statutory copyright and trade secrets claims – based on the allegation that the defendant disclosed plaintiff’s software source code to third parties.

The defendant moved for partial summary judgment that plaintiff’s claimed damages were foreclosed by the contract’s damage limitation provision. The court denied as premature since no discovery had been taken on plaintiff’s claimed damages.

The agreement limited plaintiff’s damages to the total amount the software developer plaintiff was to be paid under the contract and broadly excluded recovery of any “consequential, incidental, indirect, punitive or special damages (including loss of profits, data, business or goodwill).”  The contractual damage limitation broadly applied to all contract, tort, strict liability, breach of warranty and failure of essential purpose claims.

In Illinois, parties can limit remedies and damages for a contractual breach if the agreement provision is unambiguous and doesn’t violate public policy.

Illinois law recognizes a distinction between direct damages and consequential damages. The former, also known as “general damages” are damages that the law presumes flow from the type of wrong complained of.

Consequential damages, by contrast, are losses that do not flow directly and immediately from a defendant’s wrongful act but result indirectly from the act. Whether lost profits are considered direct damages depends on their (the lost profits) degree of foreseeability. In one oft-cited case, Midland Hotel Corp. v. Reuben H. Donnelley Corp., 515 N.E.2d 61, 67 (Ill.1987), the Illinois Supreme Court held that a plaintiff’s lost profits were direct damages where the publisher defendant failed to include plaintiff’s advertisement in a newly published directory.

The District Court in Aculocity found that whether the plaintiff’s lost profits claims were direct damages (and therefore outside the scope of the consequential damages disclaimer) couldn’t be answered at the case’s pleading stage.  And while the contract specifically listed lost profits as an example of barred consequential damages, this disclaimer did not apply to direct lost profits. As a result, the Court denied the defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment on this point. [*3]

The Court also held that the plaintiff’s statutory trade secrets and copyright claims survived summary judgment. The Court noted that the contract’s damage limitation clause spoke only to tort claims and contractual duties. It was silent on whether the limitation applied to statutory claims – claims the court recognized as independent of the contract. [*4] Since the clause didn’t specifically mention statutory causes of action, the Court refused to expand the limitation’s reach to plaintiff’s copyright and trade secrets Complaint counts.

Take-aways:

Aculocity and cases like it provide an interesting discussion of the scope of consequential damage limitations in the context of a lost profits damages claim. While lost profits are often quintessential consequential damages (and therefore defeated by a damage limitation provision), where a plaintiff’s lost profits are foreseeable and arise naturally from a breach of contract, the damages will be considered general, direct damages that can survive a limitation of damages provision.