As-Is Language In Sales Literature Defeats Fraud Claim Involving ’67 Corvette (Updated April 2017)

In late March 2017, a Federal court in Illinois granted summary judgment for a luxury car auctioneer in a disgruntled buyer’s lawsuit premised on a claimed fake Corvette.

The Corvette aficionado plaintiff in Pardo v. Mecum Auction, Inc., 2017 WL 1217198 alleged the auction company misrepresented that a cobbled-together 1964 Corvette was a new 1967 Corvette – the vehicle plaintiff thought he was buying.  Plaintiff’s suit sounded in common law fraud and breach of contract.  The Court previously dismissed the fraud suit and later granted summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.

The Court dismissed the fraud suit based on “non-reliance” and “as-is” language in the contract.  Since reliance is a required fraud element, the non-reliance clause preemptively gutted the plaintiff’s fraud count.

Denying the plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, the Court noted that an Illinois fraud claimant cannot allege he relied on a false statement when the same writing provides he’s buying something in as-is condition.  The non-reliance/as-is disclaimer also neutralizes a fraud claim based on oral statements and defeats breach of express and implied warranty claims aimed at misstatements concerning a product.

By attaching the contract which contained the non-reliance language, the plaintiff couldn’t prove his reliance as a matter of law.

The Court found for the defendant on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.  The plaintiff’s operative Second Amended Complaint alleged the auction company breached a title processing section of the contract: that it failed to timely deliver title to the vehicle to the plaintiff.

The Court sided with the auction company based on basic contract interpretation rules.  All the contract required was that the defendant “process” the title within 14 business days of the sale.  It didn’t saddle the defendant with an obligation to deliver the title to a specific person.  Since the evidence in the record revealed that the defendant did process and transfer the title to a third party within the 14-day time frame, plaintiff could not prove that defendant breached the sales contract.

The plaintiff also couldn’t prove damages – another indispensable breach of contract element.  That is, even if the auction company failed to process the title, the plaintiff didn’t show that it suffered any damages.  The crux of the plaintiff’s lawsuit was that it was sold a car that differed from what was advertised.  Whether the defendant complied with the 14-day title processing requirement had nothing to do with plaintiff’s alleged damages.

Since the plaintiff could not offer evidence to support its breach and damages components of its breach of contract action, the Court granted summary judgment for the defendant.

Lastly, the Court rejected plaintiff’s rescission remedy argument – that the contract should be rescinded for defendant’s fraud and failure to perform.

The Court’s ruling that the defendant performed in accordance with the title processing language defeated plaintiff’s nonperformance argument.  In addition, the Court prior dismissal of the plaintiff’s fraud claim based on the contractual non-reliance language knocked out the rescission-based-on-fraud argument.

 

Afterwords:

Non-reliance or “as is” contract text will make it hard if not impossible to allege fraud in connection with the sale of personal property;

A breach of contract carries the burden of proof on both breach and damages elements.  The failure to prove either one is fatal to a breach of contract claim.

In hindsight, the plaintiff should have premised its breach of contract claim on the defendant’s failure to deliver a car different from what was promoted. This arguably would have given the plaintiff a “hook” to keep its breach of contract suit alive and survive summary judgment.

 

Homeowner’s Piercing Claim Against Contractor Fails – Delaware Chancery Court

Since Delaware’s storied Chancery Court is widely regarded as the alpha and omega of corporate law venues, this opinion from Halloween eve of this year captured my attention.

The issues addressed in Doberstein v. G-P Industries, Inc. (http://courts.delaware.gov/opinions/download.aspx?ID=231700) concern the scope of the Chancery Court’s jurisdiction and the quantum of pleading specificity needed to state a piercing the corporate veil claim.

Plaintiff, who lived most of the year in Switzerland, sued the defendants for failing to timely construct renovations to her Delaware home.  All told, the plaintiff paid over $500K to the defendant for only about $300K worth of work (according to the plaintiff’s construction expert).  The plaintiff brought legal (fraud, breach of contract) and equitable claims (unjust enrichment, piercing the corporate veil, negligent misrepresentation (i.e. “equitable fraud”) against the corporate and individual defendants.

The Delaware court struck the equitable claims for failure to state a claim and dismissed the ancillary law claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The piercing claim failed because the plaintiff conflated (a) fraudulent conduct by the corporate defendant with (b) abuse of the corporate form by the corporation’s controlling shareholder.  The former is actionable under a fraud theory while the latter scenario gives rise to a piercing the corporate veil of limited liability claim.

 

A piercing plaintiff must do more than formulaically  allege that a corporation is the alter ego of another or of its main shareholder, though. He must instead plead facts that show a corporate shareholder abused the corporate form in order to defraud an innocent third party.

Here, since plaintiff’s piercing claims only alleged fraud by the defendants in connection with charging for construction work they didn’t do, there were no allegations that the corporate form was abused or that the individual defendant siphoned corporate funds.

The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation count. Also called “equitable fraud”, a negligent misrepresentation claim under Delaware law generally requires the existence of a fiduciary relationship and the abuse of that relationship by one of the parties.

A contractual relationship between two sophisticated parties does not equate to a fiduciary one.  As a result, the court found that the plaintiff’s remedy lies in a breach of contract action at law (as opposed to an action in equity).

Finally, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s unjust   enrichment count since there was an express contract between the parties. An unjust enrichment claim cannot co-exist with a breach of express contract one.

The court then found that it lacked jurisdiction over the remaining law counts for breach of contract, fraud and fraudulent concealment.

The Delaware Chancery Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. It has jurisdiction only in three settings: (1) where a party seeks to invoke an equitable right; (2) where the plaintiff lacks an adequate remedy at law; and (3) where there is a statutory delegation of subject matter jurisdiction. The prototypical equitable claims are those involving fiduciary duties that arise in the context of trusts, estates and corporations.

Where a claim contains both legal and equitable features, the Chancery court does have discretion to resolve the legal portions of the controversy. However, where the equitable claims are dismissed and there is no basis for the court to assert jurisdiction over the remaining legal claims, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the legal claims and they will be dismissed.

Here, once the plaintiff’s equitable claims (unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation) were disposed of, there was no “hook” for the court to retain jurisdiction over the legal claims.

Take-aways:

The case solidifies proposition that a plaintiff who seeks to pierce the corporate veil must show fraud in connection with an abuse of the corporate form. If the fraud relates to conduct by the corporation and not to a misuse of the corporate form (i.e. as an alter-ego or instrumentality of the key shareholder), the plaintiff’s remedy is an action at law against the corporation; not the individual corporate agent.

The case also provides a useful summary of what types of claims the Delaware Chancery Court will entertain and when it will handle legal claims that are filed in   conjunction with equitable ones.

 

 

Fraudulent Concealment In Illinois – Podiatry School Might Be On Hook for Omissions in School Catalog

A podiatry school alum may have a viable fraudulent concealment claim against the school for failing to warn him of evaporating job prospects in the foot doctor field.

That’s the key take-away from the Second District’s recent opinion in Abazari v. Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, 2015 IL App (2d) 140952, a case that considers what lengths an educational institution must go to in disclosing job placement rates and whether it can be held liable for failing to provide accurate data.

The plaintiff alleged he enrolled in the defendant’s podiatry program based on written representations contained in school brochures as well as oral statements made by high-ranking school officials.  Plaintiff claimed that the school failed to mention in its course catalog that there were too many students for available residency openings.  He also alleged that a school admissions officer misrepresented the school’s graduates’ loan default rates.  Plaintiff claimed both statements played a pivotal role in inducing plaintiff to enroll in the school.

Plaintiff’s fraud, negligent misrepresentation and fraudulent concealment claims were all dismissed with prejudice by the trial court.  Plaintiff appealed.

Partially reversing the dismissal of the fraudulent concealment claim, the Court stated the governing Illinois fraud rules that attach to student suits against higher education providers. These include:

To claim fraudulent concealment, a plaintiff must show (1) defendant concealed a material fact under circumstances that created a duty to speak, (2) defendant intended to induce a false belief, (3) the plaintiff could not have discovered the truth through reasonable inquiry or inspection, or was prevented from making a reasonable inquiry, (4) plaintiff was justified in relying on defendant’s silence as a representation that a fact did not exist; (5) the concealed information was such that the plaintiff would have acted differently had he been aware of it; and (6) the plaintiff’s reliance resulted in damages.

Like a fraud claim, fraudulent concealment must involve an existing or past state of affairs; projections of future events will not support a fraud claim.  In addition, a party cannot fraudulently conceal something it doesn’t know.

A statement that is partially or “technically” true (a half-truth) can be fraudulent where it omits qualifying information – like the fact that successful completion of the podiatry program was no guarantee of a post-graduate residency. 

While a person may not enter into a transaction “with eyes closed” to available information, a failure to investigate is excused where his inquiries are impeded by someone creating a false sense of security as to a statement’s validity.

A duty to speak arises where the parties are in a fiduciary relationship or where one party occupies a position of superiority or influence over the other.  (¶¶ 27-30, 33, 37)

The Illinois Administrative Code played an important part in the court’s decision.  Under the Code, postsecondary institutions liked the defendant must accurately describe degree programs, tuition, fees, refund policies and “such other material facts concerning the institution and the program or course of instruction as are likely to affect the decision of the student to enroll.”  23 Ill. Adm. Code S. 1030.60(a)(7).

The Court held that since the school voluntarily mentioned how crucial it was for graduates to secure podiatric residency positions.  A shortage of residencies could be material to a prospective student’s enrollment decision.  As a result, the court found that plaintiff could possibly state a fraudulent concealment claim based on the school’s failure to disclose the existing shortfall in available residencies.  The court held that the plaintiff should be able to amend his fraudulent concealment claim to supply additional facts.  (¶¶ 37-38).

Afterwords:

The plaintiff’s claim is alive but it’s on life support.  The court did not decide that the plaintiff’s fraud claim had merit.  It instead found that the plaintiff could maybe make out a fraudulent concealment case if he can show the defendant college failed to disclose key jobs or residency data.

Still, this case should give pause not just to podiatric purveyors but to higher educational institutions across the board since it shows a court’s willingness to scrutinize the content of schools’ recruitment materials.  The case’s lesson is that if post-graduate job placement is a material concern (which it doubtlessly is), and if a school is able to keep student’s in the dark about future job prospects, then a student might have grounds for a fraud suit against his alma mater where it hides bleak post-graduate jobs stats from him.