The Illinois Second District recently reversed a trial court’s imposition of a constructive trust and assessment of punitive damages in a conversion case involving the transfer of real property.
In In re Estate of Yanni, 2015 IL App (2d) 150108, the Public Guardian filed suit on behalf of a disabled property owner (the “Ward”) for conversion and undue influence seeking to recover real estate – the Ward’s home – from the Ward’s son who deeded the home to himself without the Ward’s permission.
The trial court imposed a constructive trust on the property, awarded damages of $150K (the amount the Ward had contributed to the home through the years) and assessed punitive damages against the defendant for wrongful conduct. Defendant appealed.
Reversing, the appeals court held that the trial court should have granted the defendant’s Section 2-615 motion to dismiss since a claim for conversion, by definition, only applies to personal property (i.e. something moveable); not to real estate.
The court first addressed the procedural impact of the defendant answering the complaint after his prior motion to dismiss was denied. Normally, where a party answers a complaint after a court denies his motion to dismiss, he waives any defects in the complaint.
An exception to this rule is where the complaint altogether fails to state a recognized cause of action. If this is the case, the complaint can be attacked at any time and by any means. This is so because “a complaint that fails to state a [recognized] cause of action cannot support a judgment.”
However, this exception allowing complaint attacks at any time doesn’t apply to an incomplete or deficiently pled complaint – such as where a complaint alleges only bare conclusions instead of specific facts in a fraud claim. For a defendant to challenge a complaint after he answers it, the complaint must fail to state a recognized theory of recovery.
Here, the trial court erred because it allowed a judgment for the guardian on a conversion claim where the subject of the action was real property. In Illinois, there is no recognized cause of action for conversion of real property. A conversion claim only applies to personal property.
Conversion is the wrongful and unauthorized deprivation of personal property from the person entitled to its immediate possession. The conversion plaintiff’s right to possess the property must be “absolute” and “unconditional” and he must make a demand for possession as a precondition to suing for conversion. (¶¶ 20-21)
The court rejected the guardian’s argument that the complaint alleged the defendant’s conversion of funds instead of physical realty. The court noted that in the complaint, the guardian requested that the home be returned to the Ward’s estate and the Ward be given immediate possession of it.
The court also pointed to the fact that the defendant didn’t receive any funds or sales proceeds from the transfer that could be attached by a conversion claim. All that was alleged was that the defendant deeded the house to himself and his wife without the Ward’s permission. Since there were no liquid funds traceable to the defendant’s conduct, a conversion claim wasn’t a cognizable theory of recovery.
This case provides some useful reminders about the nature of conversion and the proper timing to attack a complaint.
Conversion only applies to personal property. In an action involving real estate – unless there are specific funds that can be tied to a transfer of the property – conversion is not the right theory of recovery.
In hindsight, if in the plaintiff guardian’s shoes, I think I’d pursue a constructive trust based on equitable claims like a declaratory judgment (that the defendant’s deeding the home to himself is invalid), unjust enrichment and a partition action.