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  Defendants’ counsel responded by saying “offer withdrawn.”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 Plaintiff was awarded less than half of the withdrawn $700,000 offer.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later, plaintiff did just that: it filed a separate breach of contract action to recover the difference between the withdrawn offer and the personal injury case judgment (about $400,000).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.

 

 

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.