Seventh Circuit Files: Court Voids LLC Member’s Attempt to Pre-empt LLC’s Suit Against That Member

In Carhart v. Carhart – Halaska International, LLC, (http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca7/14-2968/14-2968-2015-06-08.html) the plaintiff LLC member tried to shield himself from a lawsuit filed against him by the LLC by (1) taking an assignment of a third-party’s claim against the LLC; (2) getting and then registering a default judgment against the LLC; (3) seizing the LLC’s lone asset: its lawsuit against the plaintiff; and (4) buying the lawsuit for $10K.  This four-step progression allowed the plaintiff to extinguish the LLC’s claim against him.

Plaintiff was co-owner of the defendant LLC.  After a third-party sued the LLC in Minnesota Federal court (the “Minnesota Federal Case”), Plaintiff paid the third-party $150,000 for an assignment of that case.  Plaintiff then obtained a $240K default judgment against the LLC.

Meanwhile, the LLC, through its other owner, sued the plaintiff in Wisconsin State Court (the “Wisconsin State Case”) for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with plaintiff’s alleged plundering of the LLC.  While the Wisconsin State Case was pending, Plaintiff registered the Minnesota judgment against the LLC in Wisconsin Federal court.

Plaintiff, now a judgment creditor of the LLC, filed suit in Wisconsin Federal Court (the “Wisconsin Federal Case”) to execute on the $240K judgment against the LLC.  The Wisconsin District Court allowed the plaintiff to seize the LLC’s lone asset – the Wisconsin State Case (the LLC’s breach of fiduciary duty claim against plaintiff) – for $10,000.  This immunized the plaintiff from liability in the Wisconsin State Case as there was no longer a claim for the LLC to pursue against the plaintiff.  The LLC appealed.

The Seventh Circuit voided the sale of the Wisconsin State Case finding the sale price disproportionately low.

Under Wisconsin law, a chose in action is normally considered intangible property that can be assigned and seized to satisfy a judgment.  However, the amount paid for a chose in action must not be so low as to shock the conscience of the court.

In this case, the court branded the plaintiff a “troll of sorts”: it noted the plaintiff buying the LLC’s claim (the Wisconsin State Case) at a steep discount: the defendant paid $150,000 for an assignment of a third-party claim against the LLC and then paid only $10,000 for the LLC’s breach of fiduciary duty claim against plaintiff.

The court found that under Wisconsin law, the $10,000 the plaintiff paid for the LLC’s claim against him was conscience-shockingly low compared to the dollar value of the LLC’s claim.  The plaintiff did not purchase the LLC’s lawsuit in good faith.  The Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s validation of plaintiff’s $10K purchase so the LLC could pursue its breach of fiduciary duty claim against the plaintiff in the Wisconsin State Case.

Take-aways:

This seems like the right result.  The court guarded against a litigant essentially buying his way out of a lawsuit (at least it had the appearance of this) by paying a mere fraction of what the suit was possibly worth.  

The case serves as an example of a court looking beneath the surface of a what looks like a routine judgment enforcement tool (seizing assets of a judgment debtor) and adjusting the equities between the parties.  By voiding the sale, the LLC will now have an opportunity to pursue its breach of fiduciary duty claim against the plaintiff in state court. 

Land Trust Beneficial Interest is Personal Property; Related Realty Can’t Be Liened by Creditor (IL Law)

It’s easy to robotically parrot the “beneficial interest in a land trust is personal property” rule but First Clover Leaf Bank v. Bank of Edwarsville, 2014 WL 6612947 (5th Dist. 2014) actually examines the rule’s impact against the factual backdrop of a judgment creditor trying to lien a debtor’s residence.

The creditor plaintiff obtained a $400,000-plus judgment against a husband and wife (the “Shareholders”) on various commercial guaranties they signed.  A corporation that the Shareholders each held a 50% stake in was the beneficiary of a land trust that held title to the Shareholders’ home (the “Property”).

When plaintiff learned that the Shareholders were trying to sell the Property for over $700,000, it recorded a lis pendens based on its earlier breach of guaranty judgment.  The lis pendens filing dissuaded the Property’s contract purchaser from closing and a lender later sued to foreclose on the Property.

The plaintiff then filed suit against the land trust, the corporate beneficiary (the Shareholders’ company) and the Shareholders to impose a constructive trust over the foreclosure sale proceeds.  The trial court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment motion and imposed a constructive trust on the proceeds.  The court also held that the corporate beneficiary was the alter ego of the Shareholders and so plaintiff was entitled to a constructive trust on each Shareholder’s equitable interest in the foreclosure sale proceeds.  The land trust appealed.

Held: reversed.  Land trust beneficial interest is personal property; not real property.  As a result, the lis pendens recording didn’t affect the corporate beneficiary’s interest in the Property.

Rules/reasoning:

A beneficiary’s interest in a land trust is personal property and is not considered real estate;

– To create a security interest in personal property, a creditor must look to Article 9 of the UCC;

– Assignment of a beneficial interest in an Illinois land trust transfers an interest in personal property and does not give the assignee a direct interest in the real estate subject to the trust;

– A lien on a beneficial interest is not a lien on the real estate itself;

– A corporation will be deemed an alter ego of a controlling shareholder where the corporation is inadequately capitalized, doesn’t issue stock or observe corporate formalities, fails to pay dividends, is insolvent, has no records and nonfunctioning officers;

– Illinois has a general reluctance to pierce the corporate veil and a party seeking to pierce must make a substantial showing on all these factors;

– A lis pendens notice can only be filed when real estate is involved (735 ILCS 5/2-1901); it is not proper to file in connection with a personal judgment against someone

(¶¶ 15-18)

Here, the Shareholders had no legal interest in the Property.  They were shareholders in a corporation that was a beneficiary of the land trust that held title to the Property.  The corporate beneficiary’s interest in the land trust was personal property.  Because of this, the Shareholders interest in that corporate beneficiary was also personal property.

The net effect: plaintiff could not impress a lien against the Property in efforts to enforce its guaranty judgments against the Shareholders. Instead, Plaintiff should have filed a UCC financing statement (in the Secretary of State’s office) to lien the beneficial interest in the land trust.  Since the shareholders had no definable legal interest in the Property (it was owned by the land trust), plaintiff couldn’t assert a constructive trust against the Property foreclosure sale proceeds.

Take-away:  A factually convoluted and tortured case that illustrates the challenges creditors face trying to untangle complex webs of corporate protection to reach a controlling individual’s assets.  If in the creditor’s position, in addition to filing a UCC statement, I think I would issue third-party citations on the land trust entity and the corporate beneficiary.  Then, I would try to impress a lien or seek a turnover order as to any of the Shareholders interests in either the land trust or the corporate beneficiary.

The Third-Party Citation: How Long Does It Last?

Shipley v. Hoke, 2014 IL App (4th) 130810 provides an exhaustive discussion of Illinois’ post-judgment enforcement rules in the context of a judgment creditor trying to reach debtor assets held by third parties.

It’s key points concerning a citation’s life span include:

– Code Section 2-1402 allows a judgment creditor to prosecute supplementary proceedings for the purposes of examining a judgment debtor and to compel the application of non-exempt assets or income discovered toward the payment of a judgment;

– Section 2-1402(f)(1) contains a “restraining provision” that prohibits any person served with a citation from allowing a transfer of property belonging to a judgment debtor that may be applied to the outstanding judgment amount;

– If someone violates the restraining provision, the Court can punish the violator by holding him in contempt or entering a money judgment against him in the amount of the property he transferred; 

– A third-party citation must be served in the same manner a (“first party”) citation is served (e.g. either by personal service or certified mail);

– Supreme Court Rule 277(f) provides that a citation proceeding automatically terminates six months from the date of the respondent’s first personal appearance unless the court grants an extension of the citation;

– This six-month rule is an affirmative defense that must be raised by a citation respondent or else it’s waived;

-Rule 277(f)’s purpose is to prevent a creditor from harassing a judgment debtor or a third party subject to a citation proceeding and is designed to provide an incentive for creditor’s to diligently work to discover debtor assets;

– While a court can retain jurisdiction over a turnover order entered before but not complied with until after the expiration of the six-months, the court does not maintain jurisdiction to enforce any restraining provision violations past that six-month mark.

– Rule 277 does permit a creditor to request an extension of the six-month limitation period indefinitely to fit the needs of a given case.

(¶¶ 78-81, 92-93).

Take-away: While I often serve bank respondents with third-party citations by certified mail (since banks usually aren’t motivated to evade service),  a judgment creditor should serve any non-bank respondent by personal service; either via county sheriff or a special process server.

In addition, the creditor should keep track of when a judgment debtor first appears in response to a citation.  If it looks like the creditor’s post-judgment case isn’t going to be finished at the six-month mark, he should move to extend the citation for as long as necessary to complete his examination of the debtor and any third-party(ies).