Procuring Cause Real Estate Broker Entitled to Quantum Meruit Commission – IL First Dist.

Halpern v. Titan Commercial, LLC, 2016 IL App (1st) 152129 examines commercial broker’s liens, the procuring cause doctrine and the quantum meruit remedy under Illinois law.

The Plaintiff property buyer sued to remove the defendant’s real estate broker’s lien after plaintiff bought Chicago commercial property from an owner introduced by the broker a few years prior.  Over a two-year span, the broker tried to facilitate plaintiff’s purchase the property by arranging multiple meetings and showings of the site.  The plaintiff ultimately bought the property through a consultant instead of the broker defendant. 

The plaintiff sued to stop the broker from foreclosing its broker’s lien and to quiet title to the parcel.  After the court entered a preliminary injunction for the plaintiff, the broker counterclaimed for breach of contract and quantum meruit.  After a bench trial, the broker was awarded $50,000 on its quantum meruit claim and Plaintiff appealed.

Result: Judgment for broker affirmed.

Rules/reasoning:

The court first upheld the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s claims for attorneys’ fees against the broker based on  Section 10(l) of the Commercial Broker’s Lien Act, 770 ILCS 15/1, et seq. (the “Act”).  This Act section provides that a prevailing party can recover its costs and attorneys’ fees.  A prevailing party is one who obtains “some sort of affirmative relief after [trial] on the merits.”

The appeals court held that the plaintiff wasn’t a prevailing party under the Act simply by obtaining a preliminary injunction.  Since the preliminary injunction is, by definition, a temporary (and preliminary) ruling, there was no final disposition of the validity of the defendant’s broker’s lien.

The court then focused on the procuring cause doctrine and related quantum meruit remedy.  Under the procuring cause rule, where a broker’s efforts ultimately result in a sale of property – even if consummated through a different broker – the first broker is the procuring cause and can recover a reasonable commission.

A broker is the procuring cause where he brings a buyer and seller together or is instrumental in the sale’s completion based on the broker’s negotiations or information it supplies. (¶ 18)

A procuring cause broker is entitled to a commission under a quantum meruit theory where a party receives a benefit from the broker’s services that is unjust for that party to retain – even where there’s no express contract between the parties.

Here, the plaintiff only knew of this off-market property based on defendant showing it to her and introducing her to the property owner.  Had it not been for defendant’s actions, plaintiff would have never known about the property.

What About Broker Abandonment?

A defense to a procuring cause claim is where a broker abandons a deal.  To demonstrate broker abandonment, a purchaser must offer evidence of the broker’s discontinuing its services but also the purchaser’s own abandonment of its intent to buy the property.

Here, neither the purchaser nor the broker exhibited an intention to abandon the deal.  The purchaser eventually bought the property and the broker continued trying to arrange plaintiff’s purchase for two-plus years.

The court credited the broker’s evidence as to a reasonable commission based on the property’s $4.2M sale price.  Two experts testified for the broker that a reasonable commission would be between 1% and 6%.  The trial court’s $50,000 award fell well within that range. (¶¶ 22-24)

Afterwords:

1/ Where a broker introduces a plaintiff to property she ultimately buys or the broker’s information is integral to the plaintiff’s eventual purchase, the broker can recover a reasonable commission even where plaintiff uses another broker (or buys it herself). 

2/ Quantum meruit provides a valuable fall-back remedy where there is no express contract between a broker and a buyer.  The broker can recover a reasonable commission (based on expert testimony, probably) so long as it proves the buyer derived a benefit from the broker’s pre-purchase services.

 

Illinois Real Estate Broker Gets Commission Money Judgment Where She Offers Ready, Willing and Able Home Buyer to Owner – IL 2d Dist.

A home seller’s self-styled ‘sarcastic’ emails and change of heart about whether to sell her home wasn’t enough to escape her obligation to pay her real estate broker’s commission, the Illinois Second District recently ruled.

In Clann Dilis, Ltd. v. Kilroy, 2015 IL App (2d) 15-0421-U, an unpublished case, the plaintiff broker and homeowner defendant signed an exclusive listing agreement to sell the defendant’s home that she co-owned with her ex-husband.  The defendant’s divorce case with her ex was pending at the time the parties’ signed the listing agreement.

After some back and forth concerning the sales price, the broker ultimately found a buyer for the home willing to pay what was in the defendant’s price range.  When the defendant rejected the offer, deciding instead to keep the home, the broker sued to recover her contractual commission – 6% of the sale price to the buyer.

After a bench trial, the circuit court entered a money judgment for the plaintiff of about $13K.  The homeowner defendant appealed on the basis that the prospective buyer lacked financial ability to consummate the home purchase.

Held: affirmed

Q: Why?

A: The proposed buyer located by the plaintiff offered $209,000 for the defendant’s home.  This price was within the range previously authorized by the defendant in emails to the broker.  E-mail evidence at trial showed the plaintiff willing to go as low as $199,000 in marketing the property.  The defendant’s husband moved in the divorce case to compel the defendant to accept the offer and the divorce court granted the motion.  Still, the defendant refused to sell; opting instead to buy out her ex-husband’s interest in the property.

Plaintiff then sued the defendant for breach of contract claiming she procured a suitable buyer for the property at a price assented to by the defendant.

Affirming the trial court’s judgment for plaintiff’s 6% commission, the Second District pronounced some key contract law principles that govern a real estate broker’s claim for a commission.

A breach of contract plaintiff must establish (1) the existence of a valid and enforceable contract, (2) performance by the plaintiff, (3) breach of contract by the defendant, and (4) damages resulting from the breach.  Whether a breach has occurred is a question of fact that is left to the trial court’s decision.  A court’s determination that a defendant breached a contract can’t be overturned unless the breach finding is unreasonable, arbitrary or not based on the evidence presented. (¶ 38.)

In the broker commission context, a broker earns her commission where she produces a ready, willing and able buyer.  A buyer is deemed ready, willing and able if he (1) has agreed to buy the property, and (2) has sufficient funds on hand or is able to secure the necessary funds within the time set by the contract.  A buyer lacks sufficient funds if he is depending on third parties to supply the funds and that third party isn’t legally bound to provide the funds to the buyer.

In addition, the sale to the would-be buyer doesn’t have to be consummated for the broker to be entitled to her commission.  As long as the broker introduces a buyer that is able to buy the property on terms specified in a listing agreement, the broker has a right to her commission.  (¶¶ 39, 49-50.)

Here, the trial court found that the buyer located by the plaintiff was a ready, willing and able one.  The court pointed out that the buyer signed a contract to buy the property for $209,000, the buyer had obtained a preapproval letter from a mortgage lender committing to the purchase funds, and the defendant authorized the plaintiff to sell the property for less than $209,000.  Taken together, these factors supported the trial court’s ruling that the broker furnished an acceptable buyer and was entitled to her commission.

Afterwords:

This case’s simple fact pattern provides a clear illustration of the procuring cause doctrine: so long as a real estate broker provides a ready, willing and able buyer, she can recover her commission; even if the sale falls through.

The case also showcases the factors a court looks at when determining whether a given real estate buyer is financially capable of consummating a purchase.

Finally, from the evidence lens, the Kilroy case highlights the importance of e-mail admissions from a party and how they can often make or break a litigant’s case at trial.

 

Commercial Real Estate Broker’s Judgment Against Property Owner Upheld Where Owner Negotiated Deal Behind Broker’s Back

In AMA v. Kaplan Realty, Inc., 2015 IL App(1st) 143600, the court looked to the common dictionary definitions of “exclusive” and “refer” as they apply to an exclusive real estate listing agreement to find that a commercial real estate broker could recover unpaid commissions from a property owner who negotiated a property sale without the broker’s knowledge.

Here is the relevant chronology: the plaintiff property owner hired the defendant broker to sell a multi-unit apartment building.  The parties signed an exclusive listing agreement running from January 2009 – January 2010 that required the owner to refer all purchase inquiries to the broker and that provided for a 5% commission on the gross sale price from any buyer during the term of the agreement.

About two months before the agreement expired, the owner started dealing directly with a prospective buyer whom the broker had earlier introduced to the owner. The owner and buyer continued to discuss the details of the purchase through the end of the contractual listing period.  Ultimately, some 18 days after the agreement expired, the owner and buyer signed a $6.75M sales contract for the parcel.  After learning of the sale, the broker recorded a lien for 5% of the sale price.

The plaintiff filed a slander of title suit (arguing that the broker lien clouded property title) and the broker filed a breach of contract counterclaim for his 5% commission.

The trial court entered summary judgment for the broker for nearly $500K and the owner appealed.

Affirming, the First District rejected the owner’s argument that since the broker “knew about” the property’s eventual buyer, the owner complied with the listing contract.  The court noted that the contract required the owner to “immediately refer” any prospect who contacted the owner for any reason and there was no exception for prospects known to the broker.

Looking to the Merriam-Webster’s College Dictionary, 11th edition (“MWCD”) “refer” means “to send or direct for treatment, air or information, or decision.”  Under this definition, the owner was obligated to send anyone who contacted the owner about the property to the broker.  MWCD, p. 1045, 11th ed. 2006.

The court also noted that the listing agreement was an exclusive one.  “Exclusive” in the listing contract context denotes “limiting or limited to possession, control or use by a single individual or group.”  MWCD, p. 436 (11th ed. 2006).  Under this definition, the court found that the subject listing agreement gave the broker the sole right to market the property – even to the exclusion of the owner.

Affirming the money judgment for the broker, the court found that the owner’s sustained pattern of excluding the broker from communications with the buyer and failing to apprise the broker of the owner’s contacts with the buyer supported the trial court’s half-million dollar judgment for the broker.

Afterword:

This case represents a straightforward application of contract interpretation principles to merit what the court believes is a fair result for the broker.  The owner’s pattern of bypassing the broker to contact the buyer directly, coupled with the fact that the purchase contract was signed so soon after the listing agreement terminated was a suspicious factor weighing in favor of upholding the money judgment against the owner.

I’m left wondering why the broker didn’t file suit to foreclose his broker’s lien.  As I’ll write in a future post, the Illinois Commercial Real Estate Broker Lien Act, 770 ILCS 15/1 et seq. (“Broker Act”), arms a commercial broker who secures a buyer (or tenant) but isn’t paid with a strong remedy.  The successful Broker Act plaintiff can recover her attorneys’ fees against the owner or buyer, whatever the case may be. 770 ILCS 15/5, 10, 15.