Business Expectancy Not A Transferrable ‘Asset’ Under IL Fraudulent Transfer Statute [Deconstructing Andersen Law LLC v. 3 Build Construction LLC]

Andersen Law LLC v. 3 Build Construction, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 181575-U, the subject of my most recent post, here , examines the nature and reach of Illinois’s Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 et seq. [“IFTA”] and the ‘continuation’ exception to the successor liability rule.

The Plaintiffs’ IFTA claims were based on allegations that former members of the LLC debtors’ systematically raided company bank accounts and formed a new business entity to evade a money judgment.

A colorable IFTA claim – whether it sounds in actual or constructive fraud – requires a creditor-debtor relationship.  It also requires the plaintiff to allege a transfer of an identifiable asset.

Here, the Court found the Plaintiffs failed to allege either a debtor-creditor relationship between the judgment creditor and the individual LLC members or a transfer of debtor assets.  The Plaintiffs’ failure to allege that the debtor made transfers without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer also doomed their constructive fraud complaint count.

Next, the Court jettisoned the Plaintiffs’ actual fraud claims under IFTA Section 5(a)(1).  In an actual fraud claim, the plaintiff must show a specific intent to defraud a creditor. This Section goes on to list some eleven (11) “badges” of fraud ranging from whether the transfer was concealed, to whether the transferee was a corporate insider to whether a transfer encompassed the bulk of a debtor’s assets.  740 ILCS 160/5(b)

The Plaintiffs’ allegation that the transfers were fraudulent because they occurred within a year of the judgment or went to pay members’ personal expenses were deemed too conclusory to satisfy the pleading requirements for an IFTA actual fraud claim.

The Court then rejected the Plaintiffs’ IFTA Section 6(a) [which governs claims arising before a transfer] claim based on the debtors forming a new corporation and diverting debtors’ business opportunities to that new entity.

An IFTA claim requires a transfer.  “Transfer” is defined as “every mode….of disposing of or parting with an asset or an interest in an asset…” 740 ILCS 160/2(l).

“Asset” is defined as “property of a debtor” while “property,” in turn, means anything that may be the subject of ownership.  740 ILCS 160/2(b), (j) [¶ 84]

But a transfer is not made until the debtor acquires rights in the asset transferred.

The Court held the plaintiffs did not allege an asset or a transfer under the IFTA.  Following Illinois case precedent, the Court found that unfulfilled business opportunities were not transferrable assets under the statute.  [¶¶ 84-85]

Finally, the Court rejected the Plaintiffs’ successor liability claim.  The Plaintiffs alleged the debtors’ members formed a new business entity for the purpose of avoiding the judgment.

The general rule is that a corporation that purchases the assets of another business is not liable for the debts or liabilities of the purchased corporation.  An exception to this rule applies where the purchaser is a mere continuation of the seller. [¶ 95]

To invoke the continuation exception, the plaintiff must show the purchasing corporation maintains the same or similar management and ownership as the purchased entity.

The test is whether there is a continuation of the selling business’s entity; not merely a continuation of the seller’s business.  A commonality among the seller and buyer businesses’ officers, directors, and stock are the key ingredients of a continuation. [¶ 97]

The Court found the plaintiffs’ continuation exception arguments lacking.  The plaintiffs failed to allege a purchase or transfer of the corporate debtors’ assets or stock by/to the new entity.  And while the plaintiffs did allege some common management between the corporate debtors and the new entity, the plaintiffs failed to allege a commonality of stock between the companies.

Afterwords:

A conjectural business expectancy is not tangible enough to constitute a transferable asset under IFTA;

A creditor’s attempt to impute a corporate judgment to individual shareholders is improper in a post-judgment fraudulent transfer case.  Instead, the creditor should file separate action against the individual shareholder(s) for breach of fiduciary duty, usurpation of corporate opportunities, piercing the corporate veil or similar theories;

An identify of ownership between former and successor corporation is key element to invoke continuation exception to rule of no successor liability.

 

 

 

 

E-Mails, Phone Calls, and Web Activity Aimed at Extracting $ From IL Resident Passes Specific Jurisdiction Test – IL First Dist.

In Dixon v. GAA Classic Cars, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 182416, the trial court dismissed the Illinois plaintiff’s suit against a North Carolina car seller on the basis that Illinois lacked jurisdiction over the defendant.

Reversing, the First District answered some important questions concerning the nature and reach of specific jurisdiction under the Illinois long-arm statute as informed by constitutional due process factors.

Since the defendant had no physical presence or office in Illinois, the question was whether the Illinois court had specific jurisdiction [as opposed to general jurisdiction] over the defendant.

Specific jurisdiction requires a plaintiff to allege a defendant purposefully directed its activities at the forum state and that the cause of action arose out of or relates to those contacts.  Even a single act can give rise to specific jurisdiction but the lawsuit must relate specifically to that act. [¶ 12]

In the context of web-based companies, the Court noted that a site that only imparts information [as opposed to selling products or services] does not create sufficient minimum contacts necessary to establish personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  Here, though, the defendant’s site contained a “call to action” that encouraged visitors like the plaintiff to pay the defendant.  [¶ 14]

The court found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant falsely stated that the Bronco’s frame was restored, had new brakes and was frequently driven over the past 12 months [when it hadn’t] were sufficient to allege a material misstatement of fact under Illinois fraud law.  It further held that fraudulent statements in telephone calls are just as actionable as in-person statements and can give an Illinois court jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  [¶ 17]

Viewed in the aggregate, the plaintiff’s allegations of the defendant’s Illinois contacts were enough to confer Illinois long-arm jurisdiction over the defendant.

The plaintiff alleged the defendant (i) advertised the Bronco on a national website, and (ii)  e-mailed and telephoned plaintiff several times at his Illinois residence.

Next, the court considered whetherspecific jurisdiction over the defendant was  consistent with constitutional due process considerations.

The due process prong of the personal jurisdiction inquiry focuses on the nature and quality of a foreign litigant’s acts such that it is reasonable and fair to require him to conduct his defense in Illinois.

Factors the court considers are (1) the burden on the defendant to defend in the forum state, (2) the forum’s interest in adjudicating the dispute, (3) the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining effective relief, (4) the interstate judicial system’s interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of the case, and (5) the shared interests of the several states in advancing fundamental social policies.

Once a plaintiff shows that a defendant purposely directed its activities at the forum state, the burden shifts to the out-of-state defendant to show that litigating in the forum is unreasonable.

The Dixon court held the defendant failed to satisfy this burden and that specific jurisdiction over it was proper.

Next, the Court declined to credit defendant’s Terms & Conditions (“T&C”) – referenced in the Defendant’s on-line registration form and that fixed North Carolina as the site for any litigation.

Generally, one written instrument may incorporate another by reference such that both documents are considered as part of a single contract.  However, parties must clearly show an intent to incorporate a second document.

Here, the court found such a clear intent lacking. Defendant did not argue that it sent the T&C to Plaintiff or referenced them in its multiple e-mail and telephone communications with Plaintiff.

The court also pointed out that defendant’s registration form highlighted several of the T&C’s terms.  However, none of the featured [T&C] terms on the registration form mentioned the North Carolina venue clause.  As a result, the bidder registration form didn’t evince a clear intent to incorporate the T&C into the contract.

Afterwords:

A foreign actor’s phone, e-mail and on-line advertisements directed to Illinois residents can meet the specific jurisdiction test;

Where a Terms and Conditions document contains favorable language to a foreign defendant, it should make it plain that the T&C is a separate document and is to be incorporated into the parties’ contract by using distinctive type-face [or a similar method];

If the defendant fails to sufficiently alert the plaintiff to a separate T&C document, especially if the plaintiff is a consumer, the defendant runs the risk of a court refusing to enforce favorable (to defendant) venue or jurisdiction provisions.

 

 

Collateral Attack on Order Nixing Attempt to Enforce $700K Settlement Offer Fails – IL 1st Dist.

The First District appeals court recently examined the collateral attack doctrine – which immunizes a court’s judgment from challenge in a separate judicial proceeding – in a case flowing from failed settlement talks.

The defendants in Tielke v. Auto Owners Insurance Company, 2019 IL App(1st) 181756, four years after a 2013 personal injury suit was filed, made an eve-of-trial verbal offer to settle for $700,000.

The plaintiff’s counsel verbally accepted the offer the next day before trial started.  Defendants’ counsel responded by saying “offer withdrawn.”

After plaintiff’s motion to enforce the settlement offer was denied by the personal injury case trial judge, the case proceeded to trial. Plaintiff was awarded less than half of the withdrawn $700,000 offer.  The trial judge told the plaintiff’s counsel he should file a breach of contract action at a later date.

A few weeks later, plaintiff did just that: it filed a separate breach of contract action to recover the difference between the withdrawn offer and the personal injury case judgment (about $400,000). The theory was that defendant breached an enforceable agreement to settle the personal injury suit.

The trial court dismissed the breach of contract action on defendant’s Section 2-619 motion.  The basis for the motion was that the breach of contract suit was an improper collateral attack on an order (the one denying the motion to enforce settlement) entered in the 2013 personal injury suit.

Affirming, the First District held that under the collateral attack doctrine, a court’s final judgment can only be attacked through direct appeal or a post-judgment motion to reconsider or to vacate the judgment.  735 ILCS 5/2-1203, 2-1301, 2-1401, etc.

The collateral attack rule bars later lawsuits that would effectively modify a former adjudication in another lawsuit. Both final and interlocutory (non-final) orders are immune from collateral attack. [¶31]

The appeals court found that by filing a separate breach of contract action, the plaintiff was trying to end-run the order denying her motion to enforce the settlement agreement in the 2013 personal injury suit.  Plaintiff failed to either move to reconsider the denial of her motion to enforce the settlement (which she could have done under Code Section 2-1203) or file a notice of appeal (pursuant to Rule 303).

By failing to file a motion to vacate the personal injury case court’s order denying the settlement motion or to appeal from the order, plaintiff failed to preserve the issue (whether the motion to enforce was properly denied) for review.  This precluded a later challenge to the order in subsequent litigation.

The court also rejected plaintiff’s argument premised on the personal injury case judge’s erroneous advice: that the plaintiff should proceed with the trial and later file a breach of contract action. The appeals court cited Illinois Supreme Court precedent that held “a party should not be excused from following rules intended to preserve issues for review by relying on a trial court’s erroneous belief.” [¶ 43], citing to Bonhomme v. St. James, 2012 IL 112393, 26 (2012).

Afterwords:

Tielke illustrates in sharp relief how crucial it is for litigants to properly preserve issues for review and to exhaust all avenues to challenge a trial court’s order.  Here, the plaintiff should have either moved to reconsider the personal injury judge’s denial of the motion to enforce the oral settlement agreement or directly appealed the order. In the same case.

Instead, by following the trial court’s flawed advice and filing a subsequent lawsuit, the plaintiff’s claim was barred by the collateral attack doctrine.