Earned Bonus Is Proper Subject of Employee’s Wage Payment Claim; Reliance on Employer Pre-Hiring Statements Is Reasonable – IL ND

After leaving a lucrative banking position in Florida for a Chicago consulting gig, Simpson v. Saggezza’s (2018 WL 3753431 (N.D.Ill. 2018) plaintiff soon learned the Illinois job markedly differed from what was advertised.

Among other things, the plaintiff discovered that the company’s pre-hiring revenue projections were off as were the plaintiff’s promised job duties, performance goals and bonus structure.

When plaintiff complained, the Illinois employer responded by firing him. Plaintiff sued the defendants – the employer and a company decision maker – for unpaid bonus money under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1, et. seq. (IWPCA) and for other common law claims. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims.

In denying the bulk of the defendants’ motion, the Court discussed the nature and reach of earned bonus liability under the IWPCA in the context of a motion to dismiss.

The IWPCA defines payments as including wages, salaries, earned commissions and earned bonuses pursuant to an employment contract.  820 ILCS 115/12. An earned bonus is defined as “compensation given in addition to the required compensation for services performed.”  Il. Admin. Code, Title 56, s. 300.500.

The IWPCA allows an earned bonus claim only where an employer makes an unequivocal promise; a discretionary or contingent promise isn’t enough.  So as long as the plaintiff alleges both an employer’s unambiguous promise to pay a bonus and the plaintiff’s satisfactory performance of the parties’ agreement, the plaintiff can make out a successful IWPCA claim for an unpaid earned bonus.

Here, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged a meeting of the minds on the bonus issue – the defendant-employer unequivocally promised a $25,000 bonus if plaintiff met a specific sales goal – and that the plaintiff met the goal.

The court then partially granted the employer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s statutory and common law retaliation claims.

IWPCA Section 14(c) prevents an employer from firing an employee in retaliation for the employee lodging a complaint against the employer for unpaid compensation. 820 ILCS 115/14(c).  Since the plaintiff alleged both an agreement for earned bonus payments and that he was fired for requesting payment, this was enough to survive a motion to dismiss.

The court did, however, dismiss plaintiff’s common law retaliatory discharge claim.  To prevail on this claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) he was terminated, (2) in retaliation for plaintiff’s conduct, and (3) the discharge violates a clearly mandated public policy.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that an IWPCA violation was enough to trigger Illinois public policy concerns. The court held that to invoke the public policy prong of the retaliation tort, the dispute “must strike at the heart of a citizen’s social rights, duties and responsibilities.”  And since the Court viewed an IWPCA money dispute to a private, economic matter between employer and employee, the employer’s alleged IWPCA violation didn’t implicate public policy.

Lastly, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s fraud in the inducement claim.  In this count, plaintiff alleged he quit his former Florida job in reliance on factual misstatements made by the defendant about its fiscal health, among other things.

To sufficiently plead fraudulent inducement, a plaintiff must allege (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it, (3) an intent to induce the other party to act, (4) action by the other party in reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.  To be actionable, a factual statement must involve a past or present fact; expression of opinions, expectations or future contingencies cannot support a fraudulent inducement claim.

Where there is a disparity in knowledge or access to knowledge between  two parties, the fraudulent inducement plaintiff can justifiably rely on a representation of fact even if he could have discovered the information’s falsity upon further investigation.

While the defendant argued that the predicate fraud statements were non-actionable embellishments or puffery, the court disagreed.  It found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant made factually false statements about the defendant’s financial state and the plaintiff’s job opportunities were specific enough to state a claim.

The court noted that plaintiff alleged the defendants supplied plaintiff with specific financial figures based on historical financial data as part of their pre-hiring pitch to the plaintiff. Taken in totality, the information was specific and current enough to support a fraud claim.

Afterwords:

Earned bonuses are covered by IWPCA; discretionary or conditional bonuses are not;

The common law retaliation tort has teeth. It’s not enough to assert a statutory violation to implicate the public policy element.  A private payment dispute between an employer and employee – even if it involves a statutory violation – won’t rise to the level of a public policy issue;

An employer’s false representations of a company’s financial status can underlie a plaintiff’s fraud claim since financial data supplied to a prospective hire is information an employer should readily have under its control and at its disposal.

Vague Oral Agreement Dooms Mechanics Lien and Home Repair Act Claims – IL First Dist.

The First District recently examined the quantum of proof necessary to prevail on a breach of oral contract and mechanics lien claim and the factors governing a plaintiff’s request to amend its pleading.

In Link Company Group, LLC v. Cortes, 2018 IL App (1st) 171785-U, the Defendant hired the plaintiff – his former son-in-law – to rehab a residence in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. After a dispute over plaintiff’s construction work and billing issues, the plaintiff sued to foreclose a mechanics lien and for breach of contract. The defendant counter-sued and alleged plaintiff violated the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act (IHRRA) requires, among other things, a contractor to provide certain disclosures in writing to a homeowner client. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s lien and contract claims and denied summary judgment on defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. All parties appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court first took aim at the plaintiff’s breach of contract and mechanics lien claims.

While oral contracts are generally enforceable, they must contain definite and essential terms agreed to by the parties. For an oral contract to be enforceable, it must be so definite and certain in all respects that the court can determine what the parties agreed to.

Here, the substance of the oral contract was vague. When pressed at his deposition, the plaintiff was unable to articulate the basic terms of the parties’ oral construction contract. Since the court was unable to decipher the key contract terms or divine the parties’ intent, the plaintiff’s breach of contract failed.

The plaintiff’s inability to prove-up its oral contract claim also doomed its mechanics lien action. In Illinois, a valid mechanics lien foreclosure suit requires the contractor to prove an enforceable contract and the contractor’s substantial performance of that contract. Since the plaintiff failed to establish a binding oral contract, by definition, it couldn’t prevail on its mechanics lien claim.

The First District also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend its complaint. While amendments to pleadings are generally liberally allowed in Illinois, a court will not rubber stamp a request to amend. Instead, the court engages in a multi-factored analysis of (1) whether the proposed amendment would cure the defective pleading, (2) whether other parties would sustain prejudice by virtue of the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether previous opportunities to amend the pleadings could be identified.

Here, the plaintiff’s proposed implied-in-fact contract was “nearly identical” to the stricken breach of oral contract claim. An implied-in-fact contract is one where contract terms are implicit from the parties’ conduct. Here, the parties conduct was too attenuated to establish definite contract terms. As a result, the proposed implied-in-law contract claim was facially deficient and didn’t cure the earlier, failed pleading.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s failure to allege an enforceable oral agreement also precluded summary judgment on the defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. A valid IHRRA claim presupposes the existence of an enforceable contract. Since there was no written agreement and the parties’ oral agreement was unclear, there was no valid contract on which to hook an IHRRA violation.

Afterwords:

This case cements proposition that a valid oral contract claim requires proof of definite and certain terms. A plaintiff’s failure to allege a clear and definite oral agreement will prevent him from asserting either a mechanics lien or Home Repair Act claim based on the putative oral agreement.

Link Company also illustrates the four factors a litigant must satisfy in order to amend a pleading. If the proposed amended complaint fails to allege a colorable cause of action, a court can properly deny leave to amend despite Illinois’ liberal pleading amendments policy.

Business Records Evidence – Getting Them In: Reading List 2018

Today’s reading list highlights some recent civil and criminal cases from State and Federal jurisdictions across the country that address the admissibility of business records (with some public records and ‘residual’ rule cases sprinkled in) in diffuse fact settings.

The cases below examine evidentiary issues involving documents that range from the clandestine (top-secret State Department cables) to the pedestrian (credit card records, loan histories, Post-It ® notes) to the morbid (telephone records in a murder case).

The encapsulated rulings below illustrate that courts generally follows the same authenticity and hearsay rules but there is a marked difference in the in the intensity with which some courts put a plaintiff to its proofs. While some courts liberally allow business record evidence so long as there is a modicum of reliability, others more severely scrutinize the evidence admissibility process.

If nothing else, given the recency of these cases (they are all from this year), what follows will hopefully provide litigators a useful starting point for assessing what factors a court looks at when deciding whether business records evidence passes legal admissibility tests.


Records: Excel spreadsheets printed from a third-party’s servers

Type of Case: Fraud

Did They Get In? Yes

Case: U.S.A. v. Channon, 881 F.3d 806 (10th Cir. 2018)

Facts: Government sued defendants who operated a two-year scam where they cashed in OfficeMax rewards accounts to acquire over $100K in merchandise. Government offers OfficeMax spreadsheets authored and kept by an OM vendor into evidence.

Objections: hearsay, improper summaries

Applicable Rules and Holding:

FRE 1006 – a summary of documents are admissible where the underlying documents are voluminous and can’t be conveniently examined in court. Proponent must make original or duplicate available to the other party. Summary’s underlying documents don’t have to be admitted into evidence with the summary/ies but must still be admissible in evidence.

FRE 1001(d) – “original” electronic document means “any printout – or other output readable by sight – if it accurately reflects the information” housed in a host database.

Held: summary spreadsheet deemed an “original” where two witnesses testified the spreadsheets reflected same information in the database. Since government made the spreadsheets available to the defendants before trial, they were admissible.

FRE 801, 803(6): hearsay generally; business records exception

Hearsay presupposes a “statement” by a “declarant.” FRE 801. A declarant must be a human being. The Excel spreadsheets at issue here are computer data and not statements of a live person. The spreadsheets are not hearsay.

Even if the spreadsheets are considered hearsay, they are admissible under the business records exception since plaintiff testified that the records were prepared in normal course of business, made at or near the time of the events depicted, and were transmitted by someone who had a duty to accurately convey the information and where there are other badges of reliability.


Records: Credit card records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: Lewis v. Absolute Resolutions VII, LLC, 2018 WL 3261197 (Tex. App. – SA 2018)

Facts: Plaintiff debt buyer of credit card account sues card holder defendant. After summary judgment for plaintiff, defendant appeals on basis that court credited a defective business records affidavit.

Objection: hearsay, plaintiff wasn’t originator of the records.

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Tex. R. Evid. 803(6) – a business record created by one entity that later becomes another entity’s primary record is admissible as a record of regularly conducted activity.

Personal knowledge by the third party of the procedures used in preparing the original documents is not required where the documents are incorporated into the business of a third party, relied on by that party, and there are other indicators of reliability.

Tex. R. Evid. 902(10) – business records are admissible if accompanied by affidavit that satisfies requirements of Rule 902(10).

To introduce business records created by a third party, the proponent must establish (1) the document is incorporated and kept in course of testifying witness’s business, (2) the business typically relies on accuracy of the contents of the document, and (3) the circumstances otherwise indicate the trustworthiness of the document. Summary judgment for successor card issuer affirmed.


Records: Medical Records, Police Reports

Type of Case: Manslaughter (criminal)

Case: People v. McVey, (2018) 24 Cal.App.5th 405

Did They Get In? No.

Facts: Defendant appeals conviction on manslaughter and vandalism charges based on trial court’s improper exclusion of victim’s medical records and police reports which Defendant believed had exculpatory information.

Objection: hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Cal. Code s. 1271 – business records hearsay rule.
Hospital records can be admitted as business records if custodian of records or other duly qualified witness provides proper authentication.

Cal. Code ss. 1560-1561 – compliance with subpoena for documents can dispense with need for live witness if records are attested to by custodian of records with a proper affidavit.

Records custodian affidavit must (1) describe mode of preparation of the records, (2) state that affiant is duly authorized custodian of the records and has authority to certify the records, and (3) state the records were prepared in the ordinary course of business at or near the time of the act, condition, or event recorded.

Police reports are generally not reliable enough for face-value admission at trial. While police reports can be kept in regular course of police “business,” they typically are not created to transact business. Instead, police reports are created primarily for later use at trial.

The hallmarks of reliability – contemporaneous creation, necessity of record’s accuracy for core purpose of business – are missing from police reports.


Records: Prior servicers’ mortgage loan records

Type of Case: Breach of contract, mortgage foreclosure

Did They Get In? Yes

Case: Deutsche Bank v. Sheward, 2018 WL 1832302 (Fla. 2018)

Facts: lender receives money judgment against borrower after bench trial. Borrower appeals on ground that loan payment history was inadmissible hearsay

Objection: hearsay – successor business incompetent to testify concerning predecessor’s records

Applicable Rules and Holding: where a business takes custody of and integrates another entity’s records and treats them as its (the integrating business) own, the acquired records are treated as “made” by acquiring business.

A witness can lay foundation for records of another company. There is no requirement that records custodian have personal knowledge of the manner in which prior servicer maintained and created records

A successor business can establish reliability of former business’s records by “independently confirming the accuracy of third-party’s business records.”

Plaintiff’s trial witness adequately described process that successor entity utilized to vet prior servicer documents.

Also, see Jackson v. Household Finance Corp., III, 236 So.3d 1170 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018)(foundation for prior mortgage loan servicer’s records can be laid by certification or affidavit under Rule 902(11))


Records: Third-Party’s vehicle inspection report containing vehicle ownership data

Did They Get In? No

Type of Case: Personal injury

Case: Larios v. Martinez, 239 So.3d 1041 (La. 2018)

Facts: plaintiff sues hit-and-run driver’s insurer under La. direct action statute. Insurer appeals bench trial verdict in favor of plaintiff.

Objection: hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding:

A witness laying the foundation for admissibility of business records need not have been the preparer of records. Instead, the custodian or qualified witness need only be familiar with record-keeping system of the entity whose records are sought to be introduced.

Plaintiff failed to introduce the report through a qualified witness. Plaintiff had no knowledge of the inspection report company’s record-keeping practices or methods. The trial court errored by allowing the report into evidence.

Judgment for plaintiff affirmed on other grounds.


Records: Student loan records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: National Collegiate Student Loan Trust v. Villalva, 2018 WL 2979358 (Az. 2018)

Facts: assignee of defaulted student loan sues borrower. Borrower defendant appeals bench trial judgment for plaintiff.

Objection: loan records are inadmissible hearsay and lack foundation

Applicable Rules and Holding: witness for an entity that did not create a loan record can still lay foundational predicate by testifying to creator’s transfer of the business record to custodial entity, and the transferee entity’s maintenance of the records and reliance on the record in the ordinary course of business.

Documents prepared solely for litigation are generally not business records. However, where the litigation documents are “mere reproductions” of regularly-kept records, they are admissible as business records to the same extent as the underlying records.

Plaintiff’s witness laid sufficient evidentiary foundation where witness testified that assignor/originator transferred loan documents to assignee/plaintiff, that the plaintiff integrated the records with its own and that plaintiff had historically purchased records from the assignor.

Documents created “with an eye toward litigation” were still admissible since they were culled from pre-existing loan records kept in the regular course of business. Judgment for plaintiff affirmed.


Records: Halfway house incident report

Type of Case: Criminal escape

Did They Get In? No

Case: Wassillie v. State of Alaska, 411 P.3d 595 (Alaska 2018)

Facts: Defendant charged and convicted of second degree escape for leaving halfway house in which he was sentenced to serve remaining prison term.

Objection: Jury considered inadmissible hearsay document – an incident report prepared by halfway house staff member

Applicable Rules and Holding:

Incident report is missing earmarks of trustworthiness and is inadmissible hearsay. An investigative report raises concerns about the report author’s “motivations to misrepresent.” There is potential for animosity between reporter and subject of report which could lead reporter to hide mistakes or “inflate evidence” in order to further the author’s agenda.

Whether a report is deemed to have been prepared in regular course of business involves a multi-factored analysis of (1) the purpose for which the record was prepared, (2) a possible motive to falsify the record, (3) whether the record is to be used in prospective litigation, (4) how routine or non-routine the challenged record is, and (5) how much reliance the business places on the record for business purposes.

Examples of documents found to be sufficiently routine under Alaska law to merit business records treatment include payroll records , bills of lading, account statements, and social security records are typically admissible as business records.

However, a more subjective document – like a police report or the incident report here – is too susceptible to author’s selective memory and subconscious bias. Conviction reversed.


Records: Cell phone records

Type of Case: Murder

Did They Get In? No.

Case: Baker v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 545 S.W.3d 267 (Ky 2018)

Facts: Defendant convicted of murder. Prosecution relied in part on victim’s cell phone records to tie defendant to victim.

Objection: cell phone records were inadmissible hearsay

Applicable Rules and Holding: prosecution must establish that phone logs are (a) authentic and (b) non-hearsay (or subject to a hearsay exception). Kentucky Evidence Rule 901(b) provides that evidence can be authenticated via witness testimony from a qualified witness. Here, prosecution witness – a detective – established that phone records were authentic: they were what they purported to be.

Once the authenticity hurdle was cleared, prosecution had to defeat hearsay objection. While the call logs constituted regularly conducted activity under KRE 803(6), the prosecution didn’t offer the logs through a custodian or by way of a Rule 902(11) affidavit. As a result, the trial court erred by admitting the call logs.

Note: the admission of the hearsay call logs was “harmless” since there was copious other testimonial and documentary evidence of defendant’s guilt. Conviction affirmed.


Records: Home health nurse’s “sticky” note

Type of Case: Medical malpractice

Did It Get In? Yes.

Case: Arnold v. Grigsby, 417 P.3d 606 (Utah 2018)

Facts: Patient sues doctor and others for malpractice after colonoscopy goes bad. (Ouch.) Nurse and pharmacy employee’s handwritten note on post-it/sticky note on plaintiff’s medical chart introduced to show plaintiff’s knowledge of injury within two years of surgery. Post-it notes contents was basis for Defendant’s statute of limitations defense and jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict.

Objection: sticky note has multiple levels of hearsay and is inadmissible.

Applicable Rules and Holding: hearsay within hearsay is not excluded where each part of combined statements meets exception to rule of exclusion.

Sticky note is classic hearsay: it is being offered to prove truth of matter asserted – that plaintiff had contacted an attorney within days of the surgery. Utah R. Evid. 801(c)(hearsay generally).

The court found the note admissible under Rule 803(6) business records exception as the note is a record of the pharmacy’s regularly conducted activity and was entered contemporaneously into plaintiff’s electronic medical records.

Note’s statement that “client has been told by her lawyer not to sign any papers indicating she’ll pay” is admissible under Rule 803(3) – the hearsay exception for out of court statements that show a declarant’s state of mind (i.e. his motive, intent, plan, etc.).

Jury verdict for doctor defendants affirmed.


Records: Government reports; state department cables

Type of Case: Statutory claim under Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) (filed by relatives of victims killed by Bolivian Gov”t)

Did They Get In? Yes and No.

Case: Mamani v. Berzain, 2018 WL 2013600 (S.D. Fla 2018)

Facts: relatives of victims killed during civil unrest in Bolivia sued country’s former president and minister of defense under TVPA which allows plaintiffs to sue foreign officials in U.S. courts for torture and killing of a plaintiff’s relatives. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment denied.

Objection: various governmental documents are inadmissible hearsay or unauthenticated.

Applicable Rules and Holding: Public records hearsay exception – FRE 803(8) – and “residual” hearsay exception. FRE 803(7).

The public records hearsay exception applies where (1) the record sets forth the office’s activities, (2) the record concerns a matter observed by someone with a legal duty to report it – but not including a matter observed by law enforcement personnel in a criminal case, or (3) in a civil case or against the government in a criminal case, the record consists of factual findings from a legally authorized investigation.

The party opposing admission of the public record must show the source of or circumstances generating the information lacks basic levels of reliability.

Here, an investigatory report prepared by three prosecutors fit the definition of a record of a public office prepared in conjunction with an authorized investigation.

Under the “residual” hearsay exception, a statement is not excluded if it (1) has equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness, (2) is offered as evidence of a material fact, (3) is more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence the proponent can obtain through reasonable efforts, and (4) admitting it (the statement) will serve the purposes of these rules and interests of justice. FRE 807(a).

The residual hearsay exception is sparingly used and applies only where exceptional guarantees of trustworthiness are present coupled with elevated levels of probativeness and necessity.

Here, military and police records lack indicia of trustworthiness in light of the volatile atmosphere in which the reports were made. And while challenged state department cables do have exceptional guaranties of trustworthiness as they were signed by the then-U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, the defendants failed to establish that the cables were more probative on the point for which they were offered than any other evidence the defendants could have obtained through reasonable efforts.


Records: Accident report

Type of Case: Personal injury

Did It Get In? No.

Case: 76th and Broadway v. Consolidated Edison, 160 A.D.3d 447 (NY 2018)

Facts: plaintiff injured on construction site sues general contractor and owner for negligence. Appeals court reverses trial court and grants summary judgment for defendant.

Objection: accident report offered by plaintiff that stated platform “must have been moved during demolition or trench work by [defendant contractor] is inadmissible.

Applicable Rules and Holding: voluntary statements in accident report authored by someone who is not under a duty to prepare the report is inadmissible hearsay. The report was based on information supplied by unnamed third parties. Because of its speculative nature, the report is inadmissible to create genuine issue of material fact.


Records: Credit card records

Type of Case: Breach of contract

Did They Get In? Yes.

Case: Lewis v. Absolute Resolutions VII, LLC, 2018 WL 3261197 (Tx. App. – SA 2018)

Facts: plaintiff assignee of credit card debt sues to collect. Summary judgment for assignee plaintiff affirmed.

Objection: plaintiff failed to lay proper foundation for original credit card issuer’s (Citibank) business records.

Applicable Rules and Holding: Business records are admissible if accompanied by Rule 902(10) affidavit. A business record created by one entity that later becomes another entity’s primary record is admissible as record of regularly conducted activity. Rule 803(6).

A third party’s (e.g. an assignee, successor, account buyer, etc.) personal knowledge of the specific procedures used by the record creator is not required where the third party incorporates the documents into its own business and regularly relies on the records.

To introduce business records created by a third party predecessor or assignee, the proponent must establish (1) the document is incorporated and kept in the course of the offering party’s business, (2) the business typically relies on the accuracy of the contents of the document, and (3) the circumstances otherwise indicate trustworthiness of the document.

The plaintiff’s Rule 902(10) affidavit explained the manner and circumstances in which plaintiff acquired the defendant’s credit card account and further stated that the plaintiff regularly relies on and incorporates other debt sellers’ business records.

The court was especially swayed by the testimony that the assignor was under a duty to convey accurate information to the plaintiff and risked civil and criminal penalties for providing false information. According to the court, this last factor gave the records an extra layer of protection against falsification.