Colagrossi v. Bank of Scotland, 2016 IL (App) 1st 142216 examines fraud in the inducement in an employment dispute involving parent and subsidiary companies and their respective successors.
The key question was whether a non-reliance clause in an employment contract barred a fraud in the inducement claim based on pre-contract statements by a party? The answer: “Yes.”
The case features a tortured procedural history and this tedious litigation timeline:
2005 – Plaintiff receives offer letter from Company 1 for plaintiff to perform futures trading services. The offer letter contains a non-reliance clause that subsumes all oral representations concerning the offer letter’s subject matter.
2006 – Plaintiff enters into employment agreement with Company 2 – Company 1’s successor. This agreement also has a non-reliance clause.
2006-2007 – Plaintiff contends that while negotiating the offer letter specifics, Company 1’s officer fails to disclose to Plaintiff that Company 1 is about to be sold to Company 2 and had plaintiff known this, he wouldn’t have accepted Company 1’s offer.
2008 – Plaintiff files two lawsuits. He sues Company 1 for fraud in the inducement and then sues Company 2 under the same legal theories. Company 2 removes that case to Federal Court (based on diversity of citizenship).
2011 – Plaintiff files a third lawsuit; this time naming Company 3 – Company 1’s parent – and Company 4, the entity that purchased Company 3.
2013 – Summary judgment for Company 1 is entered in the 2008 fraud in inducement case based on non-reliance language of offer letter.
2014 – Federal court grants summary judgment for Company 2 in removed Federal case (the removed 2008 case) based on same non-reliance clause
2014 – Plaintiff’s 2011 lawsuit against Companies 3 and 4 dismissed based on res judicata in that the same issues were already litigated in the 2008 fraud in inducement case against Company 1
Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of the 2011 lawsuit.
Fraud in the inducement requires a plaintiff to plead and prove (1) a false representation of material fact, (2) made with knowledge or belief in the representation’s falsity, (3) made with the purpose of inducing a plaintiff to act or refrain from acting, and (iv) the plaintiff reasonably relied on the defendant’s representation (or non-representation) to plaintiff’s detriment. (¶¶ 44-45)
Fraud normally is no defense to the enforceability of a written agreement where the party claiming fraud had ample opportunity to discover the fraud by reading the document.
Here, the plaintiff admitted that he read the 2005 offer letter and 2006 employment contract and signed them after reviewing with his attorney. In addition, the two agreements each spelled out that plaintiff had not relied on any oral or written representations of the parties in signing the agreements.
The Court held that the clear non-reliance language prevented plaintiff from establishing justifiable reliance on any oral statements made by Company 1 to induce plaintiff to sign the offer letter or on Company 2 statements before signing the employment agreement. (¶ 47)
The next question for the Court was whether summary judgment for Company 1 in the 2008 case was res judicata to the 2011 case against Companies 3 and 4. Again, Company 3 was Company 1’s corporate parent and Company 4 purchased Company 3’s assets.
In Illinois, res judicata applies where (1) there is an identity of parties or their privies, (2) identity of causes of action, and (3) final judgment on the merits.
For the first, identity of parties prong, to apply, the parties don’t have to identical. All that’s required is their interest must be sufficiently similar. Under Illinois law, a corporate parent and its subsidiaries can be deemed sufficiently similar for res judicata purposes as can successor and predecessor companies. When the only difference between a predecessor and a successor (like between Company 2 and 3 here) is a name change, “obvious privity” is present. (¶¶ 53-54)
Since the two 2008 cases and the 2011 case all stemmed from the same underlying facts, involved the same employment contract and same corporate principals, summary judgment for Company 1 and 2 in the 2008 cases barred plaintiff from repackaging the same facts and claims against Companies 3 and 4 in the 2011 case.
This case and others like it make clear that for a fraud in the inducement plaintiff to establish reliance in the breach of written contract setting, he should show he was deprived of a chance to read the contract. Otherwise, the rule against allowing fraud claims by one who fails to read a document will defeat the claim.
Another important case holding is that the ‘same parties’ res judicata element applies where parent and subsidiary (or predecessor and successor) companies are sufficiently connected so they sufficiently represents the other’s legal interests in two separate lawsuits.