Promissory Fraud: Sporting Goods Maker Pleads Seller’s Scheme to Defraud – IL ND

Maurice Sporting Goods, Inc. v. BB Holdings, Inc., 2017 WL 2692124, ponders the reach of the promissory fraud rule (a broken promise normally doesn’t equal fraud), how to plead around it, and the law of the case doctrine.

After a multi-year business relationship for the sale of sporting goods imploded, the plaintiff distributor sued the defendant manufacturer for breach of a 2015 buy-back agreement that required the manufacturer to “buy back” unsold inventory.

The manufacturer counterclaimed; it claimed the distributor defrauded it and tampered with the manufacturer’s relationship with a key customer.  Partially granting the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims, the Northern District discussed the factual specificity required of a plaintiff to circumvent the general rule that promissory fraud isn’t actionable.

The Court first addressed the distributor’s law of the case argument – the manufacturer was trying to relitigate its earlier failed estoppel defense (that the distributor’s fraud barred it from recovering damages from the manufacturer).  The court previously nixed the manufacturer’s estoppel defense because it failed to link the plaintiff’s fraud to the buy-back agreement.

The law of the case doctrine (LOC) prevents a court from reopening issues it previously decided in the same case.  LOC is a flexible doctrine, though.  A court will refuse to apply LOC if there is a change in the law, new evidence or compelling circumstances.

The court declined to apply the LOC doctrine here because the manufacturer’s stricken estoppel defense was premised on fraud by the plaintiff distributor related to a separate transaction – the original distributor agreement – that differed from the buy-back agreement that underlay plaintiff’s suit.

Next, the court examined whether defendant sufficiently alleged an exception to promissory fraud under Federal pleading rules.  Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires heightened factual specificity in fraud claims as the Rule tries to discourage litigants from bootstrapping simple breach of contract claims into tort actions with wide-ranging damages.

Promissory fraud is a false representation of intent concerning future conduct where there is no actual intent to do so.  While promissory fraud is generally not actionable, a plaintiff can plead around it by alleging egregious conduct or a pattern of deception or enticements that reasonably induce reliance.  A fraudulent scheme exists where a party alleges a specific and objective pattern of deception including the who, what, where, and when of the misstatements.

Here, the manufacturer was able to point to three different agents of the distributor who made misstatements in three different phone calls in the same month to support the fraud counterclaim.  These allegations that three distributor employees made false promises in order to sabotage defendant’s relationship with a major retailer were definite enough to meet Rule 9’s pleading requirements for fraud.

Afterwords:

While there is some elemental overlap between an estoppel defense and a promissory fraud counterclaim, the defeat of one won’t always cancel out the other where they relate to different transactions and different underlying facts.

To allege actionable fraud based on a broken promise, a plaintiff must plead a scheme to defraud that equates to a measurable pattern of deception or factual misrepresentations.

Broken Promises In Medical Services Agreement Don’t Equal Fraud – IL Court

An Illinois appeals court recently examined the promissory fraud rule in a medical services contract dispute.

The key principle distilled from the court’s unpublished analysis in Advocate Health and Hospitals Corp. v. Cardwell, 2016 IL App (4th) 150312-U is that where fraud claims are based on false promises of future conduct, the claims will fail.

The plaintiff hospital there sued a former staff doctor for breaching a multi-year written services contract. When the doctor prematurely resigned to join a hospital in another state, the plaintiff sued him to recover about $250,000 advanced to the doctor at the contract’s outset.

The doctor counterclaimed, alleging the hospital fraudulently induced him to sign the contract. He claimed the hospital broke promises to elevate him to a Director position and allow him to develop a new perinatology practice group at the hospital.  Since the promises were false, the doctor claimed, the underlying services contract was void.

Siding with the hospital (it granted the hospital’s summary judgment motion), the Court discussed when a defendant’s fraudulent inducement can nullify a written contract.

In Illinois, to establish fraud in the inducement, a plaintiff must show (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) defendant’s knowledge the statement was false, (3) defendant’s intent to induce the plaintiff’s reliance on the statement, (4) plaintiff’s reasonable reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damages resulting from reliance on the statement.

A critical qualification is that the fraud must be based on a misstatement of existing fact; not a future one.  Fraud in the inducement goes beyond a simple breaking of a promise or a prediction that doesn’t come to pass.

Here, the Court found that the hospital’s pre-contract statements all involved future events. The promise of a Directorship for the doctor was merely aspirational. It wasn’t a false statement of present fact.   The Court also determined that the hospital’s representations to the doctor about the development of a perinatology program spoke to a hoped-for future event.

Since the entirety of the doctor’s fraud counterclaim rested on the hospital’s promises of future conduct/events, the Court entered summary judgment against the doctor on his fraud in the inducement counter-claim.

Afterwords:

This is another case that sharply illustrates how difficult it is to prove fraud in the inducement; especially where the alleged misstatements refer to contingent events that may or may not happen.  While a broken promise may be a breach of contract, it isn’t fraud.

For a misstatement to be actionable fraud, it has to involve an actual, present state of affairs. Anything prospective/future in nature will likely be swallowed up by the promissory fraud rule.

Retailers’ Sales Forecasts Not Factual Enough to Buttress Fraud In Inducement Claim (IL ND)

The Northern District of Illinois provides a useful synopsis of Federal court summary judgment standards and the scope of some Illinois business torts in a dispute over a canceled advertising contract to sell hand tools.

The plaintiff in Loggerhead Tools, LLC v. Sears Holding Corp., 2016 WL 5111573 (N.D.Ill. 2016) sued Sears when it canceled an agreement to promote the plaintiff’s Bionic Wrench product and instead bought from plaintiff’s competitor.   The plaintiff claimed that after Sears terminated their contract, it was too late for the plaintiff to supply product to competing retailers.  Plaintiff filed a flurry of fraud claims alleging the department store giant made inflated sales forecasts and failed to disclose it was working with  plaintiff’s competitor.  Sears successfully moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims.

Summary Judgment Guideposts

Summary judgment is appropriate where the movant shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Courts deciding summary judgment must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a “genuine” dispute as to those facts.  A genuine fact dispute exists where a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. 

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is important and could potentially affect the outcome of a case.

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is important and could potentially affect the outcome of a case.

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is important and could potentially affect the outcome of a case.

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is so important that it could alter the case’s outcome.

Fraud Analysis:

The crux of Plaintiff’s fraud suit was that Sears strung Plaintiff along by creating the false impression that Sears would market Plaintiff’s products.  Plaintiff alleged that Sears concealed its master plan to work with Plaintiff’s competitor and only feigned interest in Plaintiff until Sears struck a deal with a competing vendor.

An Illinois fraud plaintiff must show:  (1) defendant made a false statement of material fact, (2) defendant knew the statement was false, (3) the defendant intended the statement to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) the plaintiff justifiably relied on the statement’s truth, and (5) plaintiff suffered damages as a result of relying on the statement.

A bare broken promise doesn’t equal fraud.  An exception to this “promissory fraud” rule is where the defendant’s actions are part of a “scheme to defraud:” that is, the defendant’s actions are part of a pattern of deception.  The scheme exception also applies where the plaintiff can show the defendant did not intend to fulfill his promise at the time it was made (not in hindsight).

In determining whether a plaintiff’s reliance on a defendant’s misstatement is reasonable, the court looks at all facts that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of as well as facts the plaintiff may have learned through ordinary prudence.

Here, Sears’ sales forecasts were forward-looking, “promissory” statements of hoped-for sales results.  Sears’ profuse contractual disclaimers that sales forecasts were just “estimates” to be used “for planning purposes” only and “not commitments” prevented the Plaintiff from establishing reasonable reliance on the projections.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s fraudulent concealment claim.  To prevail on a fraud claim premised on concealment of material facts, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty to disclose the material fact.  Such a duty will arise where the parties have a special or fiduciary relationship that gives rise to a duty to speak.  

Parties to a contract are generally not fiduciaries.  Relevant factors to determine whether a fiduciary relationship exists include (1) degree of kinship of the parties, and (2) disparity in age, health, mental condition, education and business experience between the parties.

Here, there was no disparity between the parties.  They were both sophisticated businesses who operated at arms’ length from one another.

Afterwords: This case provides a good distillation of summary judgment rules, promissory fraud and the scheme to defraud exception to promissory fraud not being actionable.  It echoes how difficult it is for a plaintiff to plead and prove fraud – especially in the business-to-business setting where there is equal bargaining power between litigants.

This case provides a good distillation of summary judgment rules, promissory fraud and the scheme to defraud exception to the promissory fraud rule.  The case further illustrates the difficulty of proving fraud – especially in the business-to-business setting where there is equal bargaining power between the parties.