Appeals Court Gives Teeth to “Good Faith” Requirement of Accord and Satisfaction Defense

A common cautionary tale recounted in 1L contracts classes involves the crafty debtor who secretly short-pays a creditor but notes “payment in full” on his check. According to the classic “gotcha” vignette, the debtor’s devious conduct forever bars the unwitting creditor from suing the debtor.

Whether apocryphal or not (like the one about the newly minted lawyer who accidentally brought a marijuana cigarette into the courthouse and forever lost his license after less than 3 hours of practice) the fact pattern neatly illustrates the accord and satisfaction rue. Accord and satisfaction applies where a creditor and debtor have a legitimate dispute over amounts owed on a note (or other payment document) and the parties agree on an amount (the “accord”) the debtor can pay (the “satisfaction”) to resolve the disputed claim.

Piney Ridge Associates v. Ellington, 2017 IL App (3d) 160764-U reads like a first year contracts “hypo” come to life as it reflects the perils of creditor’s accepting partial payments where the payor recites “payment in full” on a check.

Piney Ridge’s plaintiff note buyer sued the defendant for defaulting on a 1993 promissory note. The defendant moved to dismiss because he wrote “payment in full” under the check endorsement line. The trial court agreed with the defendant that plaintiff’s acceptance of the check was an accord and satisfaction that defeated plaintiff’s suit.

The 3rd District appeals court reversed; it stressed that a debtor’s duplicitous conduct won’t support an accord and satisfaction defense.

Under Illinois law, an accord and satisfaction is a contractual method of discharging a debt: the accord is the parties’ agreement; the satisfaction is the execution of the agreement.

In deciding whether a transaction amounts to an accord and satisfaction, the court focuses on the parties’ intent.

Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code (which applies to negotiable instruments) a debtor who relies on the accord and satisfaction defense must prove (1) he/she tendered payment in good faith as full satisfaction of a claim, (2) the amount of the claim was unliquidated or subject to a bona fide dispute; and (3) the claimant obtained payment from the debtor. 810 ILCS 5/3-311(a).

Good faith means honesty in fact and observing “reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” The debtor must also provide the creditor with a conspicuous statement that the debtor’s payment is tendered in full satisfaction of a claim. (⁋12)(810 ILCS 5/3-311(a), (b)). Without an honest dispute, there is no accord and satisfaction. (⁋ 14)

A debtor who fails to act in good faith cannot bind a creditor to an accord and satisfaction. Case examples of a court refusing to find an accord and satisfaction include defendants who, despite clearly marking their payment as “in full”, paid less than 10% of a workers’ compensation lien in one case, and in another, paid less than half the plaintiff’s total invoice amount and lied to the plaintiff’s agent about past payments. (⁋⁋ 13, 14)(citing to Fremarek v. John Hancock Mutual Life Ins. Co., 272 Ill.App.3d 1067 (1995); and McMahon Food Corp. v. Burger Dairy Co., 103 F.3d 1307 (7th Cir. 1996).

Applying this good faith requirement, the Court noted that the defendant paid $354 to the plaintiff at the time the defendant admittedly owed over $10,000 (defendant sent a pre-suit letter to the prior noteholder conceding he owed $10,000 on the note). The Court held that this approximately $7,600 shortfall clearly did not meet accord and satisfaction’s good faith component.

Bullet-points:

  • Accord and satisfaction requires good faith on the payor’s part and a court won’t validate debtor subterfuge.
  • Where the amount paid “in full” is dwarfed by the uncontested claim amount, the Court won’t find an accord and satisfaction.
  • Where there is no legitimate dispute concerning a debt’s existence and amount, there can be no accord and satisfaction.

 

 

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

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My early experiences with automatic contract renewals weren’t warm and fuzzy ones.  Growing up, I recall Columbia House’s ageless pitchman Dick Clark breathlessly hawking “13 tapes for a dollar!” (or was it a penny?) offers across the pre-cable television airscape. I’d frantically sign up, the cassettes would soon arrive and – for a 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!  [My favorite Kansas songs you ask? (humor me), those would be “What’s On My Mind,” “Portrait,” “Miracles Out of Nowhere,” and “Hold On” (from the post-Steve Walsh era)]  

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.