Business Lender States Fraud Claim Versus Corporation But Not Civil Conspiracy One in Loan Default Case – IL 1st Dist.

When a corporate defendant and its key officers allegedly made a slew of verbal and written misstatements concerning the corporation’s financial health to encourage a business loan, the plaintiff lender filed fraud and civil conspiracy claims against various defendants.  Ickert v. Cougar Package Designers, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 151975-U examines the level of specificity required of fraud and conspiracy plaintiffs under Illinois pleading rules.

The plaintiff alleged that corporate officers falsely inflated both the company’s current assets and others in the pipeline to induce plaintiff’s $200,000 loan to the company.  When the company failed to repay the loan, the plaintiff brought fraud and conspiracy claims – the latter based on the theory that the corporate agents conspired to lie about the company’s financial status to entice plaintiff’s loan.

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the fraud and conspiracy claims and the plaintiff appealed.

Partially reversing the trial court, the First District first focused on the pleading elements of common law fraud and the Illinois Code provision (735 ILCS 5/2-606) that requires operative papers to be attached to pleadings that are based on those papers.

Code Section 2-606 states that if a claim or defense is based on a written instrument, a copy of the writing must be attached to the pleading as an exhibit.  However, not every relevant document that a party seeks to introduce as an exhibit at trial must be attached to a pleading.

Here, while part of plaintiff’s fraud claim was predicated on a faulty written financial disclosure document, much of the claim centered on the defendants’ verbal misrepresentations.  As a consequence, the Court found that the plaintiff wasn’t required to attach the written financial disclosure to its complaint.

Sustaining the plaintiff’s fraud count against the corporate officer defendants (and reversing the trial court), the Court noted recited Illinois’ familiar fraud pleading elements: (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) knowledge or belief that the statement was false, (3) an intention to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) reasonable reliance on the truth of the challenged statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.

While silence normally won’t equal fraud, when silence is accompanied by deceptive conduct or suppression of a material fact, this is active concealment and the party concealing given facts is then under a duty to speak.

Fraud requires acute pleading specificity: the plaintiff must allege the who, what, where, and when of the misrepresentation.  Since the plaintiff pled the specific dates and content of various false statements, the plaintiff sufficiently alleged fraud against the corporate officers.

(¶¶ 22-26)

A valid civil conspiracy claim requires the plaintiff to allege (1) an agreement by two or more persons or entities to accomplish by concerted action either an unlawful purpose or a lawful purpose by unlawful means; (2) a tortious act committed in furtherance of that agreement; and (3) an injury caused by the defendant.  The agreement is the central conspiracy element.  The plaintiff must show more than a defendant had “mere knowledge” of fraudulent or illegal actions.  Without a specific agreement to take illegal actions, the conspiracy claim falls.

In the corporate context, a civil conspiracy claim cannot exist between a corporation’s own officers or employees.  This is because corporations can only act through their agents and any acts taken by a corporate employee is imputed to the corporation.

So, for example, if employees 1 and 2 agree to defraud plaintiff, there is no conspiracy since the employees are acting on behalf of the corporation – they are not “two or more persons.”  Since this case’s plaintiff pled the two conspiracy defendants were officers of the same corporate defendant, the trial court properly dismissed the conspiracy count. (¶¶ 29-30)

The appeals court also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint against the corporate defendant.  While the right to amend pleadings is liberally granted by Illinois courts, the right is not absolute.

In deciding whether to allow a plaintiff to amend pleadings, a court considers (1) whether the amendment would cure a defect in the pleadings, (2) whether the other party would be prejudiced or surprised by the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether there were previous opportunities to amend.

Here, since the plaintiff failed multiple opportunities to make his fraud and conspiracy claims stick, the First District held that the trial court properly denied the plaintiff’s fourth attempt to amend his complaint.

Afterwords:

This case provides a useful summary of fraud’s heightened pleading elements under Illinois law.  It also solidifies the proposition that a defendant can’t conspire with itself: a there can be no corporation-corporate officer conspiracy.  They are viewed as one and the same in the context of a civil conspiracy claim.

The case’s procedural lesson is that while parties normally are given wide latitude to amend their pleadings, a motion to amend will be denied where a litigant has had and failed multiple chances to state a viable claim.

 

No Fiduciary Duty Owed Lender By Closing Agent in Botched Real Estate Deal

In Edelman v. Belco Title & Escrow, LLC (http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca7/13-2363/13-2363-2014-04-25.html) the plaintiffs sued an escrow agent after investing $3M in a failed real estate deal.

The plaintiffs invested the monies directly with the developers of a mixed-use project.  The plaintiff never met with nor spoke to the defendant escrow agent and there was no document that formalized the relationship between plaintiffs and defendant other than some boilerplate closing forms.

Plaintiffs sued when they lost their entire investment after a prior mortgage lender foreclosed on the subject development, wiping out plaintiffs’ entire investment.

Affirming summary judgment for the escrow agent, the court first addressed a procedural pleading issue.  FRCP 8(b)(6) provides that a complaint allegation is admitted if that allegation isn’t denied.  The purpose of a responsive pleading is to put everyone on notice of what a defendant admits and what it intends to contest.

Here, since defendant answered plaintiff’s earlier versions of the complaint which contained identical allegations to the current version, plaintiffs were on notice of what allegations were admitted and which ones were not.

On the merits, the Court found that the defendant escrow agent didn’t owe a fiduciary duty beyond its specific instructions from the plaintiffs.

In Illinois, a principal and agent stand in a fiduciary relationship as a matter of law.  The agent occupies a position of trust towards the principal and he (the agent) must act in the utmost good faith and apprise his principal of all key facts within the agent’s knowledge that could affect the principal’s legal relationships.

Illinois law is clear that an escrowee, like a trustee, owes a fiduciary duty to act only according to the specific escrow instructions.  No Illinois court has held that an escrowee in defendant’s position is tasked with an obligation to seek additional instructions from parties to a real estate deal.

Here, the plaintiffs and defendant never met nor communicated.  The defendant wasn’t party to the underlying loan agreement that documented plaintiffs’ $3M investment.  The loan agreement parties were the plaintiffs and the developers (who weren’t named as defendants).

Also, the disbursement agreement wasn’t signed and offered no details of the plaintiff-defendant relationship.  The Court also pointed out that the plaintiffs never deposited any funds with the defendant: plaintiffs paid the $3M directly to the developers.

The Seventh Circuit bolstered its no fiduciary duty finding with a policy argument.  It held that escrow transactions would be “destabilized” if an escrow agent like defendant could be legally liable in circumstances like here, where it didn’t know what responsibilities it owed and to whom.

Take-aways:

– an escrowee or closing agent only owe duties spelled out in instructions given him by his lender-principal;

– it will be difficult for a real estate lender to prove a fiduciary duty claim where there is no physical or paper connection between the lender and escrow agent and where the lender doesn’t fund a loan through the escrow agent.