‘It Ends When I Say So!’ – Automatically Renewing Contracts in Illinois

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My early experiences with automatic contract renewals were not warm and fuzzy ones. I recall in the early 1980s (can I really be that um, seasoned?) when Columbia House’s ageless pitchman Dick Clark breathlessly hawked offers for “13 tapes for a dollar!” (or was it a penny?)  I’d frantically sign up, the cassettes would soon arrive and – for a little while, at least – Eureka! (this was pre-Nirvana of course.)

But once the novelty wore off, I continued to receive tapes along the lines of Kansas’ Point of Know Return (Kerry Livgren anyone?) or Loverboy’s Get Lucky (remember Mike Reno??) for the next several months even though I never ordered them!  

Then there was that never-ending People magazine subscription.  The time and energy I spent trying to extricate myself from that vice-grip subscription definitely did not justify my fleeting moments of guilty-pleasure fluff-reading. The culprit in both examples: automatically renewing contracts.

The Illinois Automatic Contract Renewal Act, 815 ILCS 601/1 et seq. (the “Act”), is the legislature’s attempt to protect unwitting consumers from being locked into long-term contracts against their will.

The Act only applies to consumer (not business-to-business contracts) entered into after January 1, 2005.  The Act provides that if a contract is subject to automatic renewal, the renewal clause must be clear and conspicuous manner.  815 ILCS 601/10. In addition to the B2B exclusion, the Act also doesn’t apply to contracts involving banks, savings and loan associations or credit unions. 815 ILCS 601/20(c), (d).

 The caselaw interpreting the Act does not specifically define “clear and conspicuous”.  To give content to the clear and conspicuous requirement, courts look to other statutes for guidance.  The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) defines “conspicuous” as “so written, displayed, or presented that a reasonable person against which it is to operate ought to have noticed it.”  810 ILCS 5/1-201(10). 

In the case of a warranty, the court looks to (a) how many times a customer was made aware of the notice, (b) whether it was on the front or the back of the page, (c) whether the language was emphasized in some way (d) whether the notice was set off from the rest of the document so as to draw attention to it; and (e) font size. 

The Seventh Circuit’s clear and conspicuous calculus includes: whether a reasonable person would notice it; how many times a customer was made aware of the notice; whether it was on the front or back of the page; whether the language was emphasized in some way; whether the notice was set off from the rest of the document so as to draw attention to it; and font size.

The issue is not whether the disclaimer (or renewal term) could have been more conspicuous, but whether the term is presented in a manner to draw attention to it.

Illinois courts have enforced contract disclaimers that appear in ALLCAPS, bold-faced and unambiguous and where the term is set apart from the rest of the contract’s text. 

Section 10 of the Act requires a contract party to send written notice of automatic renewal and the consumer’s cancellation rights where (a) the contract’s terms is 12 months or more and (b) the renewal period exceeds one month. The renewal notice must be given within 30-60 days before the contract’s expiration.

Example: If a contract automatically renews on 12/1/13, and the cancellation deadline is 11/1/13 – notice must be issued no earlier than 9/1/13 and no later than 10/1/13.

As for remedies, an Act violation gives rise to a private cause of action under the Consumer Fraud Act.  815 ILCS 601/15.  This is significant because the Consumer Fraud Act provides for prevailing-party attorneys’ fees.  The Act does  provide a safe harbor to a business that violates the Act and takes documented corrective actions.  815 ILCS 601/10(c).

The take-away:  If you’re a business entering into a contract with a consumer, and the contract automatically renews, the caselaw suggests that for the renewal term to be clear and conspicuous, and therefore enforceable, the provision: (1) should not be hidden amid boilerplate legalese,  (2) should be in a type size at least as large (if not larger than) the surrounding language, (3) the term should be in ALLCAPS and preferably in bold type face and (4) should appear on the first page or otherwise set apart from the rest of the contract.

 

Anticipatory Repudiation: Illinois Court Examines Doctrine in Real Estate Distpute

The home sellers’ failure to plead the buyers’ anticipatory repudiation of a real estate contract spelled defeat in Kelly v. Orrico, 2014 IL App (2d)  130002, a recent Second District case. 

In Kelly, the plaintiffs and defendants – who happened to be friends and neighbors (they lived on the same street) – entered into a real estate contract for plaintiffs to sell their house to the defendants for $1.2M.  

When defendants couldn’t sell their home, plaintiffs contracted with another buyer.  That buyer defaulted and plaintiffs eventually sold the house for $200,000 less than the contract price with the defendants.

Plaintiff sued defendants for breach of the real estate sales contract seeking to recover the $200,000 difference between the contract price with defendants ($1.2M) and the sales price to the new buyer ($1M). 

After a bench trial, the court ruled that the defendants anticipatorily repudiated the real estate sales contract and awarded plaintiffs damages of $150,000 (the $200K difference in the underlying contract price and the sales price to the new buyer minus the $50,000 earnest money plaintiffs kept after the first buyer defaulted).  Defendants appealed.

Held: Reversed.

Rules/Reasoning:

Anticipatory repudiation denotes a “party’s clear manifestation of its intent not to perform under a contract.”  The party claiming anticipatory repudiation must show more than an “ambiguous implication” of nonperformance. He has to demonstrate the other party made it very clear he won’t perform.  (¶¶ 29-30).

Here, plaintiffs didn’t plead anticipatory repudiation; they only alleged breach of contract.  This was a mistake because any proof at trial that the defendants repudiated the contract didn’t help the plaintiffs since an anticipatory repudiation claim was absent from the complaint. 

While Code Section 2-616(c) allows a party to amend pleadings at any time (even after judgment) to conform the pleadings to the proofs, plaintiff never filed a motion to amend their complaint to allege anticipatory repudiation.

The plaintiffs didn’t substantively prove anticipatory repudiation either.  The Court described anticipatory repudiation as a doctrine not to be taken lightly and where one repudiates a contract – by clearly indicating that he won’t perform – the other party to the contract is excused from performing or he may perform and seek damages for breach. 

The Court found that the defendants actions indicated, at most, ambivalence as to whether they would buy plaintiffs’ house. 

The plaintiffs offered no proof at trial that defendants tried to terminate the contract or indicated they wouldn’t proceed to closing.  Significantly, the Court found that defendants’ failure to respond to plaintiffs’ attorney’s letter declaring defendants in default didn’t constitute a clear manifestation of intent not to buy plaintiffs’ home.  (¶30).

Take-aways:

This case illustrates anticipatory repudiation’s strict pleading and proof elements.

The case’s procedural lesson here is clear: a litigant should move to amend his pleadings when the proofs at trial don’t match up.  Here, it wouldn’t have made a difference though.  The Court found defendants’ actions weren’t definite enough to rise to the level of a clear-cut intention not to proceed to closing.

Constructive Fraud in IL Mechanics’ Lien Suits: A Case Study

ACHere’s one from the vault.  While dated, the case is still relevant for its cogent discussion of important and recurring mechanics’ lien litigation issues.  In Springfield Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. v. 3947-55 King Drive at Oakwood, LLC, 387 Ill App 3d 906 (1st Dist. 2009), the First District examined the concept of constructive fraud and discussed when a subcontractor can bring alternative unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims in a lien suit.

The plaintiff was a subcontractor who installed HVAC materials on a construction project consisting of two adjoining properties  for a total contract sum of about $400,000.  When the general contractor fired it, the plaintiff liened both parcels each for $300,000 – the total amount plaintiff was then due for its HVAC work.  The result was a “blanket lien” on the properties for a total of about $600K – double the proper amount.

The plaintiff sued to foreclose its liens and filed companion (and alternative) claims for quantum meruit and unjust enrichment against the general contractor and owner defendants.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims.  The court held that the lien claim was constructively fraudulent since it was inflated by almost two times the actual lien amount and because the lien wasn’t apportioned among the two property parcels.  The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims because it held that a subcontractor’s only remedy against an owner is a mechanics lien foreclosure action.

Held: Affirmed in part; reversed in part

 Constructive Fraud

The First District found there was no evidence of constructive fraud by the subcontractor; noting that Section 7 of the Lien Act aims to protect honest lien claimants who make a mistake rather than claimants who intentionally make a false statement or who knowingly inflates their lien.  That’s why someone must show an intent to defraud in order to nullify a lien.

While acknowledging that the plaintiff subcontractor’s lien totaled about $600K – nearly double of the amount it was actually owed – the Court looked beyond the liens’ numerical overcharge and found no additional evidence of fraudulent intent. 

This holding amplifies the First District’s Cordeck Sales, Inc. v. Construction Systems, Inc. (382 Ill.App.3d 334(1st. Dist. 2008)) ruling – a case viewed with near-Biblical reverence in Illinois mechanics lien circles – that a mechanics lien won’t be invalidated for constructive fraud simply because its inflated.  There must be an overstatement “in combination” with other record evidence that allows the court to infer fraudulent intent.  Here, there was no additional fraud evidence and the Court reinstated the subcontractor’s lien claim.

Quantum Meruit/Unjust Enrichment

The Court sustained the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s equitable counts of quantum meruit and unjust enrichment.  The general rule is that a subcontractor like plaintiff can’t recover for unjust enrichment where the entire work to be performed by the subcontractor is under a contract with the general contractor.  See Premier Electrical Construction Co. v. La Salle National Bank, 132 Ill. App. 3d 485, 496 (1st Dist. 1985). 

In such a case (no privity between owner and subcontractor), the general contractor has the power to employ whom he chooses and the owner is entitled to presume that any subcontracting work is being done for the contractor; not the owner.  Since there is normally no direct contract between a subcontractor and the owner, a subcontractor can’t claim that its work unjustly enriched the owner.

So, unless the subcontractor proves that it dealt directly with a property owner, its exclusive remedy against an owner is a statutory, mechanics lien suit.  Swansea Concrete Products, Inc. v. Distler, 126 Ill. App. 3d 927, 932 (5th Dist. 1984).  If the subcontractor misses the time deadlines to record its lien (four months, usually) or fails to timely file suit to foreclose the lien (two years post-completion of job), the subcontractor can’t then try to recover against the property owner under quantum meruit or unjust enrichment. 

Here, since the plaintiff’s contract was with the general contractor and not the owner, the plaintiff’s remedy against the general contractor was for breach of contract and its remedy against the owner was a mechanics’ lien suit.  As a result, the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims were properly dismissed.

Afterwords: Even though the case is now several years old, Springfield Heating has continued relevance in construction lien litigation because it is the First District’s most recent word on the showing a property owner must make to prove a subcontractor’s constructive fraud when attempting to defeat a lien on the owner’s property.  Clearly, a numerical overcharge isn’t enough to defeat a lien. 

The owner must show additional “plus factors” which signals  fraudulent intent by the lien claimant.  The case also further supports the black-letter proposition that a subcontractor’s sole remedy against a property owner is a mechanics’ lien suit.  This rule will always apply unless the subcontractor can prove that the owner specifically requested or induced the subcontractor’s labor and materials on the owner’s property.