Anticipatory Repudiation: Illinois Court Examines Doctrine in Real Estate Distpute

The home sellers’ failure to plead the buyers’ anticipatory repudiation of a real estate contract spelled defeat in Kelly v. Orrico, 2014 IL App (2d)  130002, a recent Second District case. 

In Kelly, the plaintiffs and defendants – who happened to be friends and neighbors (they lived on the same street) – entered into a real estate contract for plaintiffs to sell their house to the defendants for $1.2M.  

When defendants couldn’t sell their home, plaintiffs contracted with another buyer.  That buyer defaulted and plaintiffs eventually sold the house for $200,000 less than the contract price with the defendants.

Plaintiff sued defendants for breach of the real estate sales contract seeking to recover the $200,000 difference between the contract price with defendants ($1.2M) and the sales price to the new buyer ($1M). 

After a bench trial, the court ruled that the defendants anticipatorily repudiated the real estate sales contract and awarded plaintiffs damages of $150,000 (the $200K difference in the underlying contract price and the sales price to the new buyer minus the $50,000 earnest money plaintiffs kept after the first buyer defaulted).  Defendants appealed.

Held: Reversed.

Rules/Reasoning:

Anticipatory repudiation denotes a “party’s clear manifestation of its intent not to perform under a contract.”  The party claiming anticipatory repudiation must show more than an “ambiguous implication” of nonperformance. He has to demonstrate the other party made it very clear he won’t perform.  (¶¶ 29-30).

Here, plaintiffs didn’t plead anticipatory repudiation; they only alleged breach of contract.  This was a mistake because any proof at trial that the defendants repudiated the contract didn’t help the plaintiffs since an anticipatory repudiation claim was absent from the complaint. 

While Code Section 2-616(c) allows a party to amend pleadings at any time (even after judgment) to conform the pleadings to the proofs, plaintiff never filed a motion to amend their complaint to allege anticipatory repudiation.

The plaintiffs didn’t substantively prove anticipatory repudiation either.  The Court described anticipatory repudiation as a doctrine not to be taken lightly and where one repudiates a contract – by clearly indicating that he won’t perform – the other party to the contract is excused from performing or he may perform and seek damages for breach. 

The Court found that the defendants actions indicated, at most, ambivalence as to whether they would buy plaintiffs’ house. 

The plaintiffs offered no proof at trial that defendants tried to terminate the contract or indicated they wouldn’t proceed to closing.  Significantly, the Court found that defendants’ failure to respond to plaintiffs’ attorney’s letter declaring defendants in default didn’t constitute a clear manifestation of intent not to buy plaintiffs’ home.  (¶30).

Take-aways:

This case illustrates anticipatory repudiation’s strict pleading and proof elements.

The case’s procedural lesson here is clear: a litigant should move to amend his pleadings when the proofs at trial don’t match up.  Here, it wouldn’t have made a difference though.  The Court found defendants’ actions weren’t definite enough to rise to the level of a clear-cut intention not to proceed to closing.

Election of Remedies vs. Alternative Pleading In Illinois

The election of remedies doctrine clashes with Illinois alternative pleading rules in Evashank v. Miller Brewing Company, 2013 IL App (1st) 112987-U, a case involving a dispute over a misread beer promotional ticket.

The plaintiff was given a promotional sticker at the Coach’s Corner bar that plaintiff thought read “win a million dollars”.  It actually said “this summer I want to win a million dollars.”  When the plaintiff tried to claim his big bucks prize, the bar and promotional staff said no and plaintiff sued the beer company and promotional group for fraud and breach of contract. 

Before trial, the court made the plaintiff to choose whether he was going to pursue his fraud or breach of contract claims against the bar.  Plaintiff chose the latter.  The court found for the tavern and plaintiff appealed.

Result: Reversed in part.

Election of Remedies

The election of remedies doctrine applies where a plaintiff elects inconsistent remedies for the same injury.  The rule provides that the prosecution of one remedy to judgment bars a second action stemming from the same transaction based on an inconsistent theory.  The prototypical example: a plaintiff can’t seek to recover breach of contract damages while at the same time  (or later) try to rescind that same contract.  The remedies are inconsistent.

Illinois courts confine the election of remedies rule to situations where (1) double compensation for the plaintiff is threatened, (2) defendant has been misled by the plaintiff’s conduct in choosing one remedy over another, or (3) where res judicata applies (final judgment on the merits, same parties, same cause of action). 

The election of remedies rule bars a plaintiff from recovering on one theory in a case and then later seeking a different remedy in a second case based on the same facts (as the first case). ¶¶ 50-51

But Illinois law does permit alternative pleading.  Code Sections 2-604 and 2-613 allow a plaintiff to plead inconsistent theories of recovery and allege contradictory facts at the pleading stage.  A plaintiff can also go to trial on inconsistent claims (e.g. fraud and breach of contract).  The proofs at that trial will determine which theory, if any, the plaintiff can recover on.  ¶¶47-49.

Here, there was only one case.  Plaintiff didn’t try to first recover on fraud and then, in a second action, try to recover for breach of contract.  While fraud and breach of contract have different pleading and proof elements and proving one (breach of contract) normally prevents proof of the other (fraud), a plaintiff can still proceed to trial on both legal theories; he just can’t recover damages on both. 

Since plaintiff should have been allowed to take both his breach of contract and fraud counts to trial, the trial court mistakenly made plaintiff choose his remedy at the pre-trial stage.  And while the First District viewed the plaintiff’s fraud claim as weak, it still reversed the dismissal of that count because the trial court misapplied the election of remedies rule.

The Breach of Contract Claim

The trial court properly directed verdict against plaintiff on the breach of contract count.  There was no meeting of the minds or consideration.  The plaintiff admitted he paid nothing for the “million dollar sticker” and had no expectation of winning a million dollars when he visited the bar.  This precluded a finding that there was an enforceable agreement.  The sticker was misread; plain and simple.  There was no enforceable contract.  ¶¶ 49-52.

Afterwords:

A case that features a deep analysis of some finer procedural points in a “fun” fact pattern.  Some key take-aways include:

1/ An absence of a meeting of minds will prevent enforcement of a contract; especially in the promotional setting;

2/ An advertisement or promotional “offer” is generally construed as an invitation to make an offer – not an offer that invites acceptance.

3/ While Illinois permits alternative pleading, it doesn’t allow recovery on inconsistent remedies (e.g. a plaintiff can’t recover for breach of contract while at same time seek rescission of the contract.);

4/ A plaintiff can’t recover for both fraud and breach of contract (he must choose one or the other), but he doesn’t have to make this choice until after trial.

 

LLC That Pays Itself and Insiders to Exclusion of Creditor Plaintiff Violates Fraudulent Transfer Statute – Illinois Court

Applying Delaware corporate law, an Illinois appeals court in A.G. Cullen Construction, Inc. v. Burnham Partners, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 122538, reversed the dismissal of a contractor’s claim against a LLC and its sole member to enforce an out-of-state arbitration award.  In finding for the plaintiff contractor, the court considered some important and recurring questions concerning the level of protection LLCs provide a lone member and the reach of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 et seq. (“UFTA”), as it applies to commercial disputes.

The plaintiff sued  a Delaware LLC and its principal member, an Illinois LLC, to enforce a $450K Pennsylvania arbitration award against the Delaware LLC.  The plaintiff added UFTA and breach of fiduciary duty claims against the Delaware and Illinois LLCs based on pre-arbitration transfers made by the Delaware LLC of over $3M.

After a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the LLC defendants and plaintiff appealed.

Reversing, the appeals court noted that the thrust of the UFTA claim was that the Delaware LLC enriched itself and its constituents when it wound down the company and paid itself and its member (the Illinois LLC) to the exclusion of plaintiff.

The UFTA was enacted to allow a creditor to defeat a debtor’s transfer of assets to which the creditor was entitled.  The UFTA has two separate schemes of liability: (1) actual fraud, a/k/a “fraud in fact” and (2) constructive fraud or “fraud in law” claims.  To prevail on an actual fraud claim, the plaintiff must prove a defendant’s intent to defraud, hinder or delay creditors.

By contrast, a constructive fraud UFTA claim doesn’t require proof of an intent to defraud.  Instead, the court looks to whether a transfer was made by a debtor for less than reasonably equivalent value leaving the debtor unable to pay any of its debts. (¶¶ 26-27); 740 ILCS 160/5(a)(1)(actual fraud), 160/5(a)(2)(constructive fraud).

When determining whether a debtor had an actual intent to defraud a creditor, a court considers up to eleven (11) “badges”of fraud which, in the aggregate, hone in on when a transfer was made, to whom, and what consideration flowed to the debtor in exchange for the transfer.

The court found that the Delaware LLC’s transfers of over $3M before the arbitration hearing had several attributes of actual fraud. Chief among them were that (i) the transfer was to an “insider” (i.e. a corporate officer and his relative), (ii) the Delaware LLC transferred assets without telling the plaintiff knowing that the plaintiff had a claim against it; (iii) the Delaware LLC received no consideration a $400K “management fee” paid to the Illinois LLC (the Delaware LLC’s sole member); and (iv) the Delaware LLC was insolvent after the  transfers.

Aside from reversing the UFTA judgment, the court also found the plaintiff should have won on its piercing the corporate veil and breach of fiduciary duty claims.  On the former, piercing claim, the court held that the evidence of fraudulent transfers by the Delaware LLC to the Illinois LLC presented a strong presumption of unjust circumstances that would merit piercing.  Under Delaware law (Delaware law governed since the defendant was based there), a court will pierce the corporate veil of limited liability where there is fraud or where a subsidiary is an alter ego of its corporate parent.  (¶ 41)

On the fiduciary duty count, the court held that once the Delaware LLC became insolvent, the Illinois LLC’s manager owed a fiduciary duty to creditors like the plaintiff to manage the Delaware LLC’s assets in the best interest of creditors. (¶¶ 45-46)

Afterwords:

A pro-creditor case in that it cements proposition that a UFTA plaintiff can prevail where he shows the convergence of several suspicious circumstances or “fraud badges” (i.e., transfer to insider, for little or no consideration, hiding the transfer from the creditor, etc.).  The case illustrates a court closely scrutinizing the timing and content of transfers that resulted in a company have no assets left to pay creditors.

Another important take-away lies in the court’s pronouncement that a corporate officer owes a fiduciary duty to corporate creditors upon the company’s dissolution.

Finally, the case shows the analytical overlap between UFTA claims and piercing claims.  It’s clear here at least, that where a plaintiff can show grounds for UFTA liability based on fraudulent transfers, this will also establish a basis to pierce the corporate veil.