Court Weighs In On Constructive Fraud in Contractor Lien Dispute, Summary Judgment Burdens – IL First Dist.

The First District affirmed partial summary judgment for a restaurant tenant in a contractor’s mechanics lien claim in MEP Construction, LLC v. Truco MP, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 180539.

The contractor sued to foreclose its $250,000-plus mechanics lien for unpaid construction management services furnished under a written contract between the contractor and restaurant lessee.

The lessee moved for summary judgment arguing the contractor completed only about $120,000 worth of work and so the lien was doubly inflated.  The lessee further contended that the majority of the liened work was done by plaintiff’s sub-contractors; not the plaintiff. The trial court sided with the lessee and found the plaintiff’s lien constructively fraudulent.

Affirming, the appeals court first restated the familiar, governing summary judgment standards and the contours of constructive fraud in the mechanics’ lien context.

The “put up or shut up” litigation moment – summary judgment requires the opposing party to come forward with evidence that supports its skeletal pleadings allegations.

Statements in an affidavit opposing summary judgment based on information and belief or that are unsupported conclusions, opinions or speculation are insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

Section 7 of the Illinois mechanics lien act (770 ILCS 60/7) provides that no lien shall be defeated due to an error or overcharging unless the overcharge (or error) is “made with intent to defraud.” Section 7 aims to protect the honest lien claimant who makes a mistake rather than the dishonest claimant who makes a knowingly false statement. Benign mistakes are OK; purposeful lien inflation is not.
An intent to defraud can be inferred from “documents containing overstated lien amounts combined with additional evidence.” The additional evidence or “plus factor” requires more than a bare overcharge on a document: there must be additional evidence at play before a court invalidates a lien as constructively fraudulent.

Affirming the trial court’s constructive fraud ruling, the First District pointed to plaintiff’s president’s sworn statement which indicated plaintiff only performed a fraction of the liened work and that the majority of the lien was from subcontractors who dealt directly with the lessee. Critical to the court’s conclusion was that the plaintiff did not have contractual relationships with its supposed sub-contractors.

Looking to Illinois lien law case precedent, the Court noted that lien overstatements of 38%, 82% and 79% – all substantially less than the more than 100% overstatement here – were all deemed constructively fraudulent by other courts. [⁋ 17]

The Court also affirmed the lower court’s denial of the contractor’s motion for more discovery. (The contractor argued summary judgment was premature absent additional discovery.) Illinois Supreme Court Rule 191(b) allows a party opposing summary judgment to file an affidavit stating that material facts are known only to persons whose affidavits can’t be obtained due to hostility or otherwise. The failure to file a 191(b) motion precludes that party from trying to reverse a summary judgment after-the-fact on the basis of denied discovery. [⁋ 20]

Here, the contractor’s failure to seek additional time to take discovery before responding to the lessee’s summary judgment motion doomed its argument that the court entered judgment for the lessee too soon.

Take-aways:

Constructive fraud requires more than a simple math error. Instead, there must be a substantial overcharge coupled with other evidence. Here, that consisted of the fact the contractor neither performed much of the underlying services nor had contractual relationships with the various subcontractors supposedly working under it.

The case also solidifies the proposition that while there is no magic lien inflation percentage that is per se fraudulent, an overstatement of more than 100% meets the threshold.

Procedurally, the case lesson is for a summary judgment respondent to timely move for more discovery under Rule 191(b) and to specifically identify the material evidence the summary judgment respondent needs to unearth in the requested discovery.

Possible Problematic Lien Notice Starts Limitations Clock in Lawyer ‘Mal’ Case

In Construction Systems, Inc. v. FagelHaber LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 172430, the First District affirmed the time-barring of a legal malpractice suit stemming from a flubbed contractor’s lien filing.

Several months after a lender recorded its mortgage on a commercial project, the law firm defendant, then representing the plaintiff contractor, served a Section 24 notice – the Illinois mechanics’ lien act provision that governs subcontractor liens. 770 ILCS 60/24.  While the notice was served on the project owner and general contractor, it didn’t name the lender.  In Illinois, where a subcontractor fails to serve its lien notice on a lender, the lien loses priority against the lender.

After the contractor settled its lien claim with the lender’s successor, it sued the defendant law firm for malpractice. The contractor plaintiff alleged that had the law firm properly perfected the lien, the plaintiff would have recovered an additional $1.3M.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm, the First District agreed with the trial court and held that plaintiff’s legal malpractice suit accrued in early 2005. And since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2009, it was a couple years too late.

The Court based its ruling mainly on a foreboding February 2005 letter from plaintiff’s second counsel describing a “problematic situation” – the lender wasn’t notified of plaintiff’s subcontractor lien. The court also pointed out that plaintiff’s second attorney testified in her deposition that she learned of possible lien defects in February 2005; some four years before plaintiff filed suit.

Code Section 13-214.3(b) provides for a two-year limitations period for legal malpractice claims starting from when a plaintiff “knew or reasonably should have known of the injury for which damages are sought.” [⁋ 20]

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice case normally doesn’t accrue until he/she sustains an adverse judgment, settlement or dismissal. An exception to this rule is where it’s “plainly obvious” a plaintiff has been injured as a result of professional negligence.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it never discovered the lien defect until 2007 when the lender’s successor filed its summary judgment motion (which argued that the lien was defective as to the lender). According to the court “the relevant inquiry is not when [Plaintiff] knew or should have known about the lack of notice as an actual defense, but when [Plaintiff] should have discovered [Defendant’s] failure to serve statutory notice of the mechanic’s lien on [the prior lender] prompting it to further investigate [Defendant’s] performance.” [⁋ 24]

The court again cited the above “problematic situation” letter as proof that February 2005 (when the letter was sent) was the triggering date for plaintiff’s claim. Another key chronological factor was the plaintiff’s 2005 payment of attorneys’ fees.

In Illinois, a malpractice plaintiff must plead and prove damages and the payment of attorneys’ fees can equate to damages when the fees are tied to a former counsel’s neglect. Since plaintiff paid its second counsel’s fees in 2005 for work she performed in efforts to resuscitate the lien’s priority, 2005 was the limitation period’s triggering date. [⁋ 25]

Construction Systems cites Nelson v. Padgitt, 2016 IL App (1st) 160571, for the proposition that a plaintiff does not have to suffer an adverse judgment to sustain legal malpractice injury. In Nelson, an employment contract dispute, the Court held that the plaintiff should have discovered deficiencies in his employment contract (it provided for the loss of salary and commissions in the event of for-cause termination) in 2012 when he sued his former employer, not in 2014 when the employer won summary judgment.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that its damages were unknown until the lien litigation was finally settled and that it couldn’t sue until the lien dispute was resolved. The court held that the extent and existence of damages are different things and that it’s the date a plaintiff learns he/she was damaged, not the amount, that matters.

Lastly, the court nixed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel concern – that plaintiff couldn’t argue the lien was valid in the underlying case while arguing the opposite in the malpractice suit. According to the court, the plaintiff could have entered into a tolling agreement that would suspend the statute of limitations pending the outcome of the underlying case.

Conclusion

Construction Systems reaffirms that a legal malpractice claim can accrue before an adverse judgment is entered or an opponent files a formal pleading that points out claim defects.  Moreover, the payment of attorneys’ fees directly attributable to a former counsel’s neglect is sufficient to meet the damages prong of a legal malpractice case.

This case and others like it also make clear that the limitations period runs from the date a plaintiff learns she has been injured; not when financial harm is specifically quantified.

To preserve a possible malpractice claim while a plaintiff challenges an underlying adverse ruling, practitioners should consider tolling agreements to suspend any statutes of limitation and guard against possible judicial estoppel concerns (taking inconsistent positions in separate lawsuits).

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.