ReMax Franchisor Defeats Tortious Interference Claim With Privilege Defense – IL 4th Dist.

The plaintiffs in Byram v. Danner, 2018 IL App (4th) 170058-U, sued after their planned purchase of a Remax real estate franchise imploded.  The plaintiffs missed an installment payment and the defendants responded by cancelling the agreement. Plaintiffs then filed a flurry of tort claims including fraud and tortious interference with contract.

Plaintiffs’ fraud count alleged the defendants lacked Remax authority to sell the franchise and hid this fact from the plaintiffs. The tortious interference claim asserted defendants bad-mouthed plaintiffs to certain agents, causing them to disassociate from plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs sought to recover their franchise fee, their first installment payment and unpaid commissions earned over a 16-month period. The trial court dismissed all of plaintiffs’ claims under Code Sections 2-615 and 2-619.  Plaintiffs appealed.

In finding the trial court properly jettisoned the fraud claim, the court noted that a valid cause of action for fraud requires (1) a false representation of material fact, (2) by a party who knows or believes it to be false, (3) with the intent to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) action by the plaintiff in reliance on the statement, and (5) injury to the plaintiff as a consequence of the reliance.

However, where a contractual provision negates one of the fraud elements, the fraud claim fails. Here, the underlying contract expressly conditioned defendants’ sale of the franchise on Remax accepting plaintiffs as a franchisee. This qualified language precluded plaintiffs from alleging that defendants misrepresented that they had authority from Remax to sell their franchise. (⁋ 43)

The appeals court also affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ tortious interference with prospective economic advantage claim.  To prevail on this theory, a plaintiff must plead and prove (1) his reasonable expectation of entering into a valid business relationship, (2) the defendant’s knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectancy, (3) purposeful interference by defendant that prevents plaintiff’s legitimate expectation from coming to fruition, and (4) damages to the plaintiff.

The ‘purposeful interference’ prong of the tort requires a showing of more than interference.  The plaintiff must also prove a defendant’s improper conduct done primarily to injure the plaintiff.  Where a defendant acts to protect or enhance his own business interests, he is privileged to act in a way that may collaterally harm another’s business expectancy.  Where a defendant invokes a privilege to interfere with a plaintiff’s business expectancy, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s conduct was unjustified or malicious.  (¶ 46)

The Court found defendants’ actions were done to protect the future success of their real estate franchise and listings.  Since plaintiffs failed to plead any specific facts showing defendants’ intent to financially harm the plaintiffs, dismissal of the tortious interference count was proper.

The Court reversed the dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract claims, however. This was because the affidavit filed in support of defendant’s Section 2-619 motion didn’t qualify as affirmative matter.  An affirmative matter is any defense other than a negation of the essential allegations of the plaintiff’s cause of action.  Affirmative matter is not evidence a defendant expects to contest an ultimate fact alleged in a complaint.

Here, defendants’ Section 2-619 affidavit effectively plaintiffs’ allegations were “not true:” that defendants didn’t owe plaintiffs any commissions.  The Court found that a motion affidavit that simply denies a complaint’s material facts does not constitute affirmative matter. (¶¶ 56-59)

Afterwords:

Byram provides a useful summary of the relevant guideposts and distinctions between section 2-615 and 2-619 motions to dismiss. Where a supporting affidavit merely disputes plaintiff’s factual allegations, it will equate to a denial of the plaintiff’s allegations. Such an affidavit will not constitute proper affirmative matter than wholly defeats a claim.

The case also provides value for its discussion of the Darwinian privilege defense to tortious interference. When a defendant acts to protect herself or her business, she can likely withstand a tortious interference claim by a competitor – even where that competitor is deprived of a remedy.

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.

 

Non-Parties Can Enforce Franchise Agreement’s Arbitration Clause – IL Court

In a franchise dispute involving a sushi restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, the First District in Kim v. Kim, 2016 IL App (1st) 153296-U examines the scope of contractual arbitration clauses and when arbitration can be insisted on by non-parties to a contract.

The franchisee plaintiff sued the two principals of the franchisor for fraud.  He alleged the defendants tricked him into entering the franchise by grossly inflating the daily sales of the restaurant.  The plaintiff sued for rescission and fraud when the restaurant’s actual sales didn’t match the defendants’ pre-contract projections.  

The court dismissed the suit based on an arbitration clause contained in the franchise agreement and the plaintiff appealed.  He argued that since the defendants were not parties to the franchise agreement (the agreement was between plaintiff and the corporate franchisor), the defendants couldn’t use the arbitration clause as a “sword” and require the plaintiff to arbitrate his claims.

Affirming the case’s dismissal, the appeals court first discussed the burden-shifting machinery of a Section 2-619 motion to dismiss.  With such a motion, the movant must offer affirmative matter appearing on the face of the complaint or that is supported by affidavits.  Once the defendant meets this initial burden, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff who must establish that the affirmative matter is unfounded or requires the resolution of a material fact.  If the plaintiff fails to carry his burden, the motion to dismiss can be granted.  (¶ 23)

The court then zeroed in on whether the defendants – non-parties to the franchise agreement – could enforce the agreement’s arbitration clause against the plaintiff.  Generally, only parties to a contract can enforce its terms.  By contrast, non-parties cannot.  An exception to this rule is equitable estoppel: where a party is estopped or prevented from avoiding a written contract term because the party trying to enforce it isn’t technically a party to it.

For equitable estoppel to apply and subject a contracting party to arbitration against a non-party, (1) the signatory must rely on terms of a contract to make its claims (or presumes the existence a written agreement that contains an arbitration provision) against the nonsignatory, (2) the signatory must allege concerted misconduct by the nonparty and one or more contracting parties, and (3) where there is a close nexus between the alleged wrong and the claims against the non-party and where plaintiff’s claims against a defendant are factually intertwined with or based on written contract terms.  (¶¶ 44-45)

Here, the crux of plaintiff’s lawsuit was that the defendants induced him into signing the franchise agreement and related restaurant lease.  Since the plaintiff’s claims were premised on and presumed the franchise agreement’s existence, and the franchise agreement contained a broad arbitration clause, the court held that the plaintiff was subject to the arbitration clause and the defendants could enforce the clause.

Afterwords:

A third party generally cannot enforce contract provisions since the third party, by definition, is not a signatory to the contract.

But where a plaintiff’s claim against a non-party relates to or is factually intertwined with a written contract, the terms of that contract can govern and be enforced by the non-party.