Q: Can a judgment creditor recover attorneys’ fees incurred in both its post-judgment discovery efforts after a default judgment against a defunct corporation and a subsequent piercing the corporate veil action to enforce the prior judgment where the contract with the defunct entity contains an attorneys’ fees provision?
That’s the salient and nuanced holding from Steiner Electric Company v. Maniscalco, 2016 IL App (1st) 132023, a case that’s a boon to creditor’s rights attorneys and corporate litigators.
There, the First District held in a matter of first impression that a plaintiff could recover fees in a later piercing the corporate veil suit where the underlying contract litigated to judgment in an earlier case against a corporation has an attorneys’ fees provision.
The plaintiff supplied electrical and generator components on credit over several years to a company owned by the defendant. The governing document between the parties was a credit agreement that had a broad attorneys’ fees provision.
When the company defaulted by failing to pay for ordered and delivered equipment, the plaintiff sued and won a default judgment against the company for about $230K. After its post-judgment efforts came up empty, the plaintiff filed a new action to pierce the corporate veil hold the company president responsible for the earlier money judgment.
The trial court pierced the corporate veil and found the company president responsible for the money judgment against his company but declined to award plaintiff its attorneys’ fees generated in litigating the piercing action.
The First District affirmed the piercing judgment and reversed the trial court’s refusal to assess attorneys’ fees against the company President.
The Court first affirmed the piercing judgment on the basis that the company was inadequately capitalized (the company had a consistent negative balance), commingled funds with a related entity and the individual defendant and failed to follow basic corporate formalities (it failed to appoint any officers or document significant financial transactions).
In finding the plaintiff could recover its attorneys’ fees – both in the underlying suit and in the second piercing suit to enforce the prior judgment – the court stressed that piercing is an equitable remedy and not a standalone cause of action. The court further refined its description of the piercing remedy by casting it as a means of enforcing liability on an underlying claim – such as the prior breach of contract action against the defendant’s judgment-proof company.
While a prevailing party in Illinois must normally pay its own attorneys’ fees, the fees can be shifted to the losing party where a statute or contract says so. And there must be clear language in a contract for a court to award attorneys’ fees to a prevailing litigant.
Looking to Illinois (Fontana v. TLD Builders, Inc.), Seventh Circuit (Centerpoint v. Halim) (see write-up here and Colorado (Swinerton Builders v. Nassi) case precedent for guidance, the Court found that since the underlying contract – the Credit Agreement – contained expansive fee-shifting language, the plaintiff could recoup from the defendant the fees expended in both the first breach of contract suit against the company and the second, piercing case against the company president. The Court echoed the Colorado appeals court’s (in Swinerton) depiction of piercing the corporate veil as a “procedural mechanism” to enforce an underlying judgment.
The combination of broad contractual fees language in the credit application and case law from different jurisdictions that fastened fee awards to company officers on similar facts led the First District to reverse the trial court and tax fees against the company president. (¶¶ 74-90)
An important case and one that fee-seeking commercial litigators should look to for support of their recovery efforts. A key lesson of Steiner is that broad, unequivocal attorneys’ fees language in a contract not only applies to an initial breach of contract suit against a dissolved company but also to a second, piercing lawsuit to enforce the earlier judgment against a company officer or controlling shareholder.
For the dominant shareholders of dissolved corporations, the case spells possible trouble since it upends the firmly entrenched principle that fee-shifting language in a contract only binds parties to the contract (not third parties).