A commercial guaranty dispute provides the background for the First District’s recent discussion of some signature litigation issues including the voluntary (versus compulsory) payment rule and how that impacts an appeal, the business records hearsay exception, and governing standards for the recovery of attorneys fees.
The lender plaintiff in Northbrook Bank & Trust Co. v. Abbas, 2018 IL App (1st) 162972 sued commercial loan guarantors for about $2M after a loan default involving four properties.
On appeal, the lender argued that the guarantors’ appeal was moot since they paid the judgment. Under the mootness doctrine, courts will not review cases simply to establish precedent or guide future litigation. This rule ensures that an actual controversy exists and that a court can grant effective relief.
A debtor’s voluntary payment of a money judgment prevents the paying party from pursuing an appeal. Compulsory payment, however, will not moot an appeal.
The court found the guarantors’ payment compulsory in view of the lender’s aggressive post-judgment efforts including issuing multiple citations and a wage garnishment and moving to compel the guarantors’ production of documents in the citation proceeding. Faced with these post-judgment maneuvers, the Court found the payment compulsory and refused to void the appeal. (⁋⁋ 24-27)
The First District then affirmed the trial court’s admission of the lender’s business records into evidence over the defendant’s hearsay objection. To admit business records into evidence, the proponent (here, the plaintiff) must lay a proper foundation by showing the records were made (1) in the regular course of business, and (2) at or near the time of the event or occurrence. Illinois Rule of Evidence 803(6) allows “records of regularly conducted activity” into evidence where (I) a record is made at or near the time, (ii) by or from information transmitted by a person with knowledge, (iii) if kept in the regular course of business and (iv) where it was the regular practice of that business activity to make the record as shown by the custodian’s or other qualified witness’s testimony.
The theory on which business records are generally admissible is that their purpose is to aid in the proper transaction of business and the records are useless unless accurate. Because the accuracy of business records is vital to any functioning commercial enterprise, “the motive for following a routine of accuracy is great and motive to falsify nonexistent.” [¶¶ 47-48]
With computer-generated business records, the evidence’s proponent must establish (i) the equipment used is industry standard, (ii) the entries were made in the regular course of business, (iii) at or near the time of the transaction, and (iv) the sources of information, method and time of preparation indicate the entries’ trustworthiness. Significantly, the person offering the business records into evidence (either at trial or via affidavit) isn’t required to have personally entered the data into the computer or even learn of the records before the litigation started. A witness’s lack of personal knowledge concerning the creation of business records affects the weight of the evidence; not its admissibility. [¶ 50]
Here, the plaintiff’s loan officer testified he oversaw defendants’ account, that he personally reviewed the entire loan history as part of his job duties and authenticated copies of the subject loan records. In its totality, the Court viewed the bank officer’s testimony as sufficient to admit the loan records into evidence.
Next, the Court affirmed the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees to the lender plaintiff. Illinois follows the ‘American rule’: each party pays its own fees unless there is a contract or statutory provision providing for fee-shifting. If contractual fee language is unambiguous, the Court will enforce it as written.
A trial court’s attorneys’ fee award must be reasonable based on, among other things, (i) the nature and complexity of the case, (ii) an attorney’s skill and standing, (iii) degree of responsibility required, (iv) customary attorney charges in the locale of the petitioning party, and (v) nexus between litigation and fees charged. As long as the petitioner presents a detailed breakdown of fees and expenses, the opponent has a chance to present counter-evidence, and the court can make a reasonableness determination, an evidentiary hearing isn’t required.
Abbas presents a useful, straightforward summary of the business records hearsay exception, attorneys’ fees standards and how payment of a judgment impacts a later right to appeal that judgment.
The case also illustrates how vital getting documents into evidence in breach of contract cases and the paramount importance of clear prevailing party fee provisions in written agreements.