Fraudulent Transfer Action Can Be Brought In Post-Judgment Proceedings – No Separate Lawsuit Required – IL Court

Despite its vintage (over two decades), Kennedy v. Four Boys Labor Service, 664 N.E.2d 1088 (2nd Dist.  1996), is still relevant and instructional for its detailed discussion of Illinois’ fraudulent transfer statute and what post-judgment claims do and don’t fall within a supplementary proceeding to collect a judgment in Illinois.

The plaintiff won a $70K breach of contract judgment against his former employer and issued citations to discover assets to collect the judgment.

While plaintiff’s lawsuit was pending, the employer transferred its assets to another entity that had some of the same shareholders as the employer.  The “new” entity did business under the same name (Four Boys Labor Service) as the predecessor.

Plaintiff obtained an $82K judgment against the corporate officer who engineered the employer’s asset sale and the officer appealed.

Held: Judgment for plaintiff affirmed

Rules/reasons:

The Court applied several principles in rejecting the corporate officer’s main argument that a fraudulent transfer suit had to be filed in a separate action and couldn’t be brought within the context of the post-judgment proceeding.  Chief among them:

– Supplementary proceedings can only be initiated after a judgment has entered;

– The purpose of supplementary proceedings is to assist a creditor in discovering assets of the judgment debtor to apply to the judgment;

– Once a creditor discovers assets belonging to a judgment debtor in the hands of a third party, the court can order that third party to deliver up those assets to    satisfy the judgment;

– A court can authorize a creditor to maintain an action against any person or corporation that owes money to the judgment debtor, for recovery of the debt (See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(c)(6);

– A corporate director who dissolves a company without providing proper notice to known creditors can be held personally liable for corporate debts (805 ILCS 5/8.65, 12.75);

– An action to impose personal liability on a corporate director who fails to give notice of dissolution must be filed as a separate lawsuit and cannot be brought in a post-judgment/supplementary proceeding;

– Where a third party transfers assets of a corporate debtor for consideration and with full knowledge of a creditor’s claim, the creditor may treat the proceeds from the sale of the assets as debtor’s property and recover them under Code Section 2-1402;

– A transfer of assets from one entity to another generally does not make the transferee liable for the transferor’s debts;

– But where the transferee company is a “mere continuation” of the selling entity, the transferee can be held responsible for the seller’s debt.  The key inquiry in determining successor liability under the mere continuation framework is whether there is continuity of shareholder or directors from the first entity to the second one;

– An action brought under the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (FTA), 740 ILCS 160/1, is considered one that directly concerns the assets of the judgment debtor and imposes liability on the recipient/transferee based on the value of the transferred assets;

– A transfer is not voidable against one who takes in good faith and provides reasonably equivalent value.  740 ILCS 160/9;

– A court has discretion to sanction a party that disobeys a court order including by entering a money judgment against the offending party;

(664 N.E.2d at 1091-1093)

Applying these rules, the Court found that plaintiff could properly pursue its FTA claim within the supplementary proceeding and didn’t have to file a separate lawsuit.  This is because an FTA claim does not affix personal liability for a corporate debt (like in a corporate veil piercing or alter ego setting) but instead tries to avoid or undo a transfer and claw back the assets actually transferred.

FTA Section 160/5 sets forth eleven (11) factors that can point to a debtor’s actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud a creditor.   Some of the factors or “badges” of fraud that applied here included the transfer was made to corporate insiders, the failure to inform the plaintiff creditor of the transfer of the defendant’s assets, the transfer occurred after plaintiff filed suit, the transfer rendered defendant insolvent, and all of the defendant’s assets were transferred.  Taken together, this was enough evidence to support the trial court’s summary judgment for the plaintiff on his FTA count.

Take-away: Kennedy’s value lies in its stark lesson that commercial litigators should leave no financial stones unturned when trying to collect judgments.  Kennedy also clarifies that fraudulent transfer actions – where the creditor is trying to undo a transfer to a third party and not hold an individual liable for a corporate debt can be brought within the confines of a supplementary proceeding.

 

Property Subject to Turnover Order Where Buyer Is ‘Continuation’ of Twice-Removed Seller – Corporate Successor Liability in Illinois

Advocate Financial Group, LLC v. 5434 North Winthrop, 2015 IL App (2d) 150144 focuses on the “mere continuation” and fraud exceptions to the general rule of no successor liability – a successor corporation isn’t responsible for debts of predecessor – in a creditor’s efforts to collect a judgment from a business entity that is twice removed from the original judgment debtor.

The plaintiff obtained a breach of contract judgment against the developer defendant (Company 1) who transferred the building twice after the judgment date. The second building transfer was to a third-party (Company 3) who ostensibly had no relation to Company 1. The sale from Company 1 went through another entity – Company 2 – that was unrelated to Company 1.

Plaintiff alleged that Company 1 and Company 3 combined to thwart plaintiff’s collection efforts and sought the turnover of the building so plaintiff could sell it and use the proceeds to pay down the judgment. The trial court granted the turnover motion on the basis that Company 3 was the “continuation” of Company 1 in light of the common personnel between the companies.  The appeals court reversed though.  It found that further evidence was needed on the continuation exception but hinted that the fraud exception might apply instead to wipe out the Company 1-to Company 2- to Company 3 property transfer.

On remand, the trial court found that the fraud exception (successor can be liable for predecessor debts where they fraudulently collude to avoid predecessor’s debts) indeed applied and found the transfer of the building to Company 3 was a sham transfer and again ordered Company 3 to turn the building over to the plaintiff. Company 3 appealed.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment and in doing so, provided a useful summary of the principles that govern when one business entity can be held responsible for another entity’s debts.

In Illinois, a corporation that purchases the assets of another corporation is generally not liable for the debts or liabilities of the transferor corporation. The rule’s purpose is to protect good faith purchasers from unassumed liability and seeks to foster the fluidity of corporate assets.

The “fraudulent purpose” exception to the rule of no successor liability applies where a transaction is consummated for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s obligations.

The “mere continuation” exception to the nonsuccessor liability rule requires a showing that the successor entity “maintains the same or similar management and ownership, but merely wears different clothes.”  The test is not whether the seller’s business operation continues in the purchaser, but whether the seller’s corporate entity continues in the purchaser.

The key continuation question is always identity of ownership: does the “before” company and “after” company have the same officers, directors, and stockholders?

In Advocate Financial, the factual oddity here concerned Company 2 – the intermediary.  It was unclear whether Company 2 abetted Company 1 in its efforts to shake the plaintiff creditor.  The court affirmed the trial court’s factual finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser from Company 1.

The court focused on the abbreviated time span between the two transfers – Company 2 sold to Company 3 within days of buying the building from Company 1 – in finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser. The court also pointed to evidence at trial that Company 1 was negotiating the ultimate transfer to Company 3 before the sale to Company 2 was even complete.

Taken together, the court agreed with the trial court that the two transfers (Company 1 to Company 2; Company 2 to Company 3) constituted an integrated, “pre-arranged” attempt to wipe out Company 1’s judgment debt to plaintiff.

Afterwords:  This case illustrates that a court will scrutinize property transfers that utilize middle-men that only hold the property for a short period of times (read: for only a few days).

Where successive property transfers occur within a compressed time window and the ultimate corporate buyer has substantial overlap (in terms of management personnel) with the first corporate seller, a court can void the transaction and deem it as part of a fraudulent effort to evade one of the first seller’s creditors.

Corporate Successor Liability: Continuation and Fraud Exceptions (IL Law)

 


NOTE: PLEASE SEE UPDATE AT http://www.davismcgrath.com/#!Property-Is-Subject-to-Turnover-Order-Where-Buyer-Is-‘Continuation’-of-TwiceRemoved-Seller-–-Corporate-Successor-Liability-in-Illinois/cq5o/565ca4a20cf2c000e92858f0

Advocate Financial Group, LLC v. 5434 North Winthrop, LLC, 2014 IL App (2d) 130998 applies the “mere continuation” rule (a successor company that is the continuation of a prior company can be responsible for the prior company’s debts) in a creditor’s post- judgment action against a corporation twice removed from the judgment debtor.

The plaintiff was hired to help the condo developer defendant (Company 1) obtain financing to pay off a defaulted mortgage.  Company 1’s sole asset was a Chicago condo building.  When Company 1 defaulted on its payment obligations to plaintiff, the plaintiff sued and got a $90K money judgment.  After the judgment, Company 1 sold the building to another entity (Company 2) who in turn sold it to another entity (Company 3) – the building’s current owner. 

Plaintiff sought an order requiring Company 3 to convey the building to plaintiff so plaintiff could sell the building and satisfy its judgment with the sale proceeds. The trial court granted the turnover motion and found that Company 3 was the continuation of Company 1.  Company 3 appealed.

Held: Reversed. 

Rules/Reasons:

The trial court misapplied the continuation exception and failed to consider whether the fraud exception (to no successor liability) applied. 

– A corporation that purchases the assets of another corporation is generally not liable for the debts or liabilities of the transferor corporation. The rule’s purpose is to protect good faith purchasers from unassumed liability and seeks to foster the fluidity of corporate assets.  

– The “continuation” and “fraudulent purpose” exceptions to this rule apply where the purchaser is merely the continuation of the seller (continuation rule) and where the transaction is for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s obligations (fraud exception). 

– Mere continuation requires a showing that the successor entity “maintains the same or similar management and ownership, but merely wears different clothes.”  The test is not whether the seller’s business operation continues in the purchaser, but whether the seller’s corporate entity continues in the purchaser. 

– The key continuation question is always identity of ownership: does the “before” company and “after” company have the same officers, directors, and stockholders?  (¶¶ 22-26). 

The trial court held that the continuation exception applied since Company 3 was basically the same (a “corporate clone”) as Company 1.  The two companies shareholders were virtually identical and Company 3 now owned the condo building. 

The appeals court noted that no Illinois court has found that the continuation doctrine applies to facts involving multiple transfers of an asset from a judgment debtor.  The critical issue here was whether Company 2 was a bonafide purchaser of the condo building.  If it was, then plaintiff couldn’t get a turn over order from Company 3. 

Had there been a direct transfer of assets from Company 1 to Company 3, the Court found that the continuation exception would apply and Company 3 would have to dispense with the building.  But the factual anomaly here was that Company 1 first transferred the building to an intermediary – Company 2 – before the building ended up in Company 3’s hands. 

If Company 2 was a “straw buyer”, then the fraud exception to the corporate successor liability rule would apply: Company 3 would be responsible for Company 1’s debt.  Another question the Court wants answered (on remand) is whether Company 2 is a sham buyer.  The record isn’t clear whether Company 2 consciously participated in a concerted plan by Company 1 to dispense with the building so that it ended up in Company 3’s hands.  According to the court, if the facts show that Company 2 was only a conduit from Company 1 to 3, the fraud exception could apply.   (¶¶ 37-39). 

Afterwords:  This case illustrates that while an intervening sale of an asset won’t always immunize the ultimate buyer from a creditor’s reach, the court will still look into the specifics of a middle-man transaction.  If the buyer intemediary has any connection to the debtor in terms of similar management personnel or other suspicious likenesses, a court can void the transaction and deem it a fraudulent effort to evade a creditor.