Lender Lambasted for Loaning Funds to Judgment Debtor’s Related Business – IL Court

The issue on appeal in National Life Real Estate Holdings, LLC v. Scarlato, 2017 IL App (1st) 161943 was whether a judgment creditor could reach loan proceeds flowing from a lender to a judgment debtor’s associated business entity where the debtor himself lacked access to the proceeds.

Answering “yes,” the Court considered some of Illinois post-judgment law’s philosophical foundations and the scope and mechanics of third-party judgment enforcement practice.

The plaintiff obtained a 2012 money judgment of over $3.4M against the debtor and two LLC’s managed by the debtor.   During supplementary proceedings, the plaintiff learned that International Bank of Chicago (“IBC”) loaned $3.5M to two other LLC’s associated with the debtor after plaintiff served a third-party citation on IBC.  The purpose of the loan was to pay for construction improvements on debtor’s industrial property.  And while the debtor wasn’t a payee of the loan, he did sign the relevant loan documents and loan disbursement request.

Plaintiff moved for judgment against IBC in the unpaid judgment amount for violating the third-party citation.  The trial court denied the motion and sided with IBC; it held that since the loan funds were paid to entities other than the debtor, the loan moneys did not belong to the debtor under Code Section 2-1402(f)(1) – the section that prevents a third party from disposing of debtor property in its possession until further order of court.  735 ILCS 5/2-1402(f)(1).

The Plaintiff appealed.  It argued that the debtor sufficiently controlled IBC’s construction loan and the proceeds were effectively, debtor’s property and subject to Plaintiff’s third-party citation.

Reversing, the First District rejected IBC’s two key arguments: first, that the loan proceeds did not belong to the debtor and so were beyond the reach of the third-party citation and second, IBC had set-off rights to the loan proceeds (assuming the funds did belong to debtor) and could set-off the $3.5M loan against debtor’ outstanding, other loan debt.

On the question of whether the post-citation loan was debtor’s property, the Court wrote:

  • Once a citation is served, it becomes a lien for the judgment or balance due on the judgment. Section 2-1402(m);
  • A judgment creditor can have judgment entered against a third party who violates the citation restraining provision by dissipating debtor property or disposing of any moneys belonging to the debtor Section 2-1402(f)(1);
  • Section 2-1402’s purpose is to enable a judgment debtor or third party from frustrating a creditor before that creditor has a chance to reach assets in the debtor’s or third party’s possession. Courts apply supplemental proceedings rules broadly to prevent artful debtors from drafting loan documents in such a way that they elude a citation’s grasp.
  • The only relevant inquiries in supplementary proceedings are (1) whether the judgment debtor is in possession of assets that should be applied to satisfy the judgment, or (2) whether a third party is holding assets of the judgment debtor that should be applied to satisfy the judgment.
  • Section 2-1402 is construed liberally and is the product of a legislative intent to broadly define “property” and whether property “belong[s] to a judgment debtor or to which he or she may be entitled” is an “open-ended” inquiry. (¶¶ 35-36)

The ‘Badges’ of Debtors Control Over the Post-Citation Loan and Case Precedent

In finding the debtor exercised enough control over the IBC loan to subject it to the third-party citation, the Court focused on: (i) the debtor signed the main loan documents including the note, an assignment, the disbursement request and authorization, (ii) the loan funds passed through the bank accounts of two LLC’s of which debtor was a managing member, and (iii) the debtor had sole authority to request advances from IBC.

While conceding the loan funds did end up going to pay for completed construction work and not to the debtor, the Court still believed IBC tried to “game” plaintiff’s citation by making a multi-million dollar loan to businesses allied with the debtor even though the loans never funneled directly to the debtor.

Noting a dearth of Illinois state court case law on the subject, the Court cited with approval the Seventh Circuit’s holding in U.S. v. Kristofic, 847 F.2d 1295 (7th Cir. 1988), a criminal embezzlement case.  There, the appeals court squarely held that loan proceeds do not remain the lender’s property and that a borrower is not a lender’s trustee vis a vis the funds.  Applying the same logic here, the First District found that the loan proceeds were not IBC’s property but were instead, the debtor’s.  Because of this, the loan was subject to the plaintiff’s citation lien.

The Court bolstered its holding with policy arguments.  It opined that if judgment debtors could enter into loan agreements with third parties (like IBC) that restrict a debtor’s access to the loan yet still give a debtor power to direct the loan’s disbursement, it would allow industrious debtors to avoid a judgment. (¶ 39)

The Court also rejected IBC’s set-off argument – that set-off language in other loan documents allowed it to apply the challenged $3.5 loan amount against other loan indebtedness.  Noting that IBC didn’t try to set-off debtor’s other loan obligations with the loan under attack until after it was served with the citation and after the plaintiff filed its motion for judgment, the Court found that IBC forfeited its set-off rights.

In dissent, Judge Mikva wrote that since IBC’s loan was earmarked for a specific purpose and to specific payees, the debtor didn’t have enough control over the loan for it to belong to the debtor within the meaning of Section 2-1402.

The dissent also applied Illinois’s collection law axiom that a judgment creditor has no greater rights in an asset than does the judgment debtor.  Since the debtor here could not access the IBC loan proceeds (again, they were earmarked for specific purpose and payable to business entities – not the debtor individually), the plaintiff creditor couldn’t either.  And since the debtor lacked legal access rights to the loan proceeds, they were not property belonging to him under Section 2-1402 and IBC’s loan distribution did not violate the citation. (¶¶ 55-56)

Afterwords

A big victory for creditor’s counsel.   The Court broadly construes “property under a debtor’s control” in the context of a third-party citation under Section 2-1402 and harshly scrutinized a lender’s artful attempts to dodge a citation.

The case reaffirms that loan proceeds don’t remain the lender’s property and that a borrower doesn’t hold loan proceeds in trust for the lender.

The case also makes clear that where loan proceeds are paid to someone other than the debtor, the Court may still find the debtor has enough dominion over funds to subject them to the citation restraining provisions if there are enough earmarks of debtor control over the funds

Finally, in the context of lender set-off rights, Scarlato cautions a lender to timely assert its set-off rights against a defaulting borrower or else it runs the risk of forfeiting its set-off rights against a competing judgment creditor.

 

Paul Versus the Rapper: How YouTube Tutorials and Creative Lawyering Played Key Roles in Recovering Judgment Against Elusive Defendant

In almost two decades of practicing in the post-judgment arena, My clients and I have run the emotional gamut from near-intoxicating highs (the “unicorn” fact patterns where the debtor pays up immediately or, even better, the debtor forgets to empty his bank account and when we freeze it, there’s more than enough funds to satisfy the judgment) to disappointment (when the debtor files bankruptcy and there is a long line of prior creditors) to abject frustration (the debtor appears to have no physical ties anywhere yet profusely broadcasts his life of luxury on all social media channels – think Instagram selfie in tropical locale) to the unnerving (a debtor or two have threatened bodily harm).

But occasionally, I’m faced with a fact pattern that requires both tenacity (they all do) and creative collection efforts. Here’s an example of a recent case that fell into this category. The facts are simple: the debtor – a well-known rapper – failed to show for a scheduled concert in another state and gave no notice. The club promoter filed suit in that state and ultimately got a money judgment for his deposit along with some incidental expenses and attorneys fees.

After I registered the judgment here in Illinois, I began hitting snags in rapid succession. I quickly realized this debtor didn’t fit the normal template: meaning, he didn’t have an official job from which he received regularly scheduled payments, had no bank account and owned no real estate. While the debtor’s social media pages were replete with concert videos and robust YouTube channel offerings, the debtor seemed a ghost.

Add to that, the debtor and his record company used UPS stores as its corporate registered office and the debtor’s entourage ran interference and covered for him at every turn.

Here’s what I did:

(1) Source of Funds: Concerts and Merchandise

I looked at the debtor’s website and social media pages to determine where he would be performing over the next several weeks. Then, I researched the business entities that owned the concert venues and prepared subpoenas to them. For the out-of-state venues, I lined up attorneys there to (1) register the Illinois registration of the foreign judgment, and (2) subpoena the venue owners for contracts with the debtor so I could see what percentage of the “gate” would flow to debtor. My plan was to eventually seek the turnover of funds funneling from venue – to management company – to debtor.

On another front, I tried to identify who was in charge of the debtor’s T-shirt and merchandise sales. Since the website was vague on this, I requested this information from the debtor’s management company through an omnibus citation Rider.

(2) Creating Buzz and a Discovery Dragnet: Getting Others Involved

I then served citations to discover assets on debtor’s management company and booking agent. (I was able to locate these companies through the debtor’s social media pages.) This allowed me to cast a wide net and involve third parties whom I surmised the debtor wasn’t keen on getting dragged into this.

From the management company and booking agent, I sought documents showing payments to the debtor including licensing and royalty fees, tax returns, pay stubs, bank records and any other documents reflecting company-to-debtor payments over the past 12 months.

(3) Licensing and Royalties: Zeroing In On Industry Behemoths

In reviewing the management company’s subpoena response, I noted the debtor was receiving regular royalty payments from ASCAP – the national clearinghouse that distributes public performance royalties to songwriters. Based in New York, ASCAP likely wasn’t going to respond to an Illinois subpoena. So I would have to register the judgment in New York. I lined up a New York attorney to do this and notified debtor’s counsel (by this time, debtor, management company and booking agent hired a lawyer) of my plans to register the judgment in NY and subpoena ASCAP for royalty data. They didn’t like that.

Sensing I may be onto something with the ASCAP angle, I dove deep into the byzantine (to me, at least) world of music licensing law. I learned that while ASCAP (BMI is another public performance royalty conduit) handles performance rights licensing, the pre-eminent agent for “mechanical” licenses (licenses that allow you to put music in CD, record, cassette and digital formats) is the Harry Fox Agency, Inc. or HFA – also based in New York. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this but I found YouTube a treasure trove of music licensing law building blocks.

Armed with my published and video licensing law research, I alerted debtor’s counsel of my plans to subpoena HFA for mechanical royalties in lockstep with my ASCAP subpoena once I registered the judgment in New York.

(4) Settlement: Persistence Pays Off

The combined threat of liening the debtor’s concert and merchandise monies and subpoenaing his public performance and mechanical license royalties was enough to motivate debtor to finally – after months of fighting – come to the table with an acceptable settlement offer. While another creditor beat me to the punch and got to the concert venue owners first, our aggressive actions planted enough of a psychological seed in the debtor that his royalties might be imperiled. This proved critical in getting the debtor’s management company (again, without their involvement, this never would settle) to pay almost the whole judgment amount.

Afterwords: My Younger Self May Have Given Up

This case cemented the lesson I’ve learned repeatedly through the years that as a judgment creditor, you have to be persistent, aggressive and creative – particularly with judgment debtors that don’t neatly fit the 9-to-5-salaried-employee paradigm.

Through persistence, out-of-the-box thinking, internet research and wide use of social media, my client got almost all of its judgment under circumstances where the “old me” (i.e. my less experienced self) may have folded.

 

 

Technically Non-Final Default Judgment Still Final Enough to Support Post-Judgment Enforcement Action – IL Fed Court (From the Vault)

Dexia Credit Local v. Rogan, 629 F.3d 612 (7th Cir. 2011) reminds me of a recent case I handled in a sales commission dispute.  A Cook County Law Division Commercial Calendar arbitrator ruled for our client and against a corporate defendant and found for the individual defendant (an officer of the corporate defendant) against our client on a separate claim.  On the judgment on award (JOA) date, the corporate defendant moved to extend the seven-day rejection period.  The judge denied the motion and entered judgment on the arbitration award.

Inadvertently, the order recited only the plaintiff’s money award against the corporate defendant: it was silent on the “not liable” finding for the individual defendant.  To pre-empt the corporate defendant’s attempt to argue the judgment wasn’t a final order (and not enforceable), we moved to correct the order retroactively or, nunc pro tunc, to the JOA date so that it recited both the plaintiff’s award against the corporation and the corporate officer’s award versus the plaintiff.  This “backdated” clarification to the judgment order permitted us to immediately issue a Citation to Discover Assets to the corporate defendant without risking a motion to quash the Citation.

While our case didn’t involve Dexia’s big bucks or complicated facts, one commonality between our case and Dexia was the importance of clarifying whether an ostensibly final order is enforceable through post-judgment proceedings.

After getting a $124M default judgment against the debtor, the Dexia plaintiff filed a flurry of citations against the judgment debtor and three trusts the debtor created for his adult children’s’ benefit.

The trial court ordered the trustee to turnover almost all of the trust assets (save for some gifted monies) and the debtor’s children appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first discussed the importance of final vs. non-final orders.

The defendants argued that the default judgment wasn’t final since it was silent as to one of the judgment debtor’s co-defendants – a company that filed bankruptcy during the lawsuit.  The defendants asserted that since the judgment didn’t dispose of plaintiff’s claims against all defendants, the judgment wasn’t final and the creditor’s post-judgment citations were premature.

In Illinois, supplementary proceedings like Citations to Discover Assets are unavailable until after a creditor first obtains a judgment “capable of enforcement.”  735 ILCS 5/2-1402.  The debtor’s children argued that the default judgment that was the basis for the citations wasn’t enforceable since it did not resolve all pending claims.   As a result, according to debtor’s children, the citations were void from the start.

The Court rejected this argument as vaunting form over substance.  The only action taken by the court after the default judgment was dismissing nondiverse, dispensable parties – which it had discretion to do under Federal Rule 21.  Under the case law, a court’s dismissal of dispensable, non-diverse parties retroactively makes a pre-dismissal order final and enforceable.

Requiring the plaintiff to reissue post-judgment citations after the dismissal of the bankrupt co-defendant would waste court and party resources and serve no useful purpose.  Once the court dismissed the non-diverse defendants, it “finalized” the earlier default judgment.

Afterwords:

A final order is normally required for post-judgment enforcement proceedings.  However, where an order is technically not final since there are pending claims against dispensable parties, the order can retroactively become final (and therefore enforceable) after the court dismisses those parties and claims.

The case serves as a good example of a court looking at an order’s substance instead of its technical aspects to determine whether it is sufficiently final to underlie supplementary proceedings.

The case also makes clear that a creditor’s request for a third party to turn over assets to the creditor is not an action at law that would give the third party the right to a jury trial.  Instead, the turnover order is coercive or equitable in nature and there is no right to a jury trial in actions that seek equitable relief.