Vague Oral Agreement Dooms Mechanics Lien and Home Repair Act Claims – IL First Dist.

The First District recently examined the quantum of proof necessary to prevail on a breach of oral contract and mechanics lien claim and the factors governing a plaintiff’s request to amend its pleading.

In Link Company Group, LLC v. Cortes, 2018 IL App (1st) 171785-U, the Defendant hired the plaintiff – his former son-in-law – to rehab a residence in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. After a dispute over plaintiff’s construction work and billing issues, the plaintiff sued to foreclose a mechanics lien and for breach of contract. The defendant counter-sued and alleged plaintiff violated the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act (IHRRA) requires, among other things, a contractor to provide certain disclosures in writing to a homeowner client. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s lien and contract claims and denied summary judgment on defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. All parties appealed.

Affirming, the appeals court first took aim at the plaintiff’s breach of contract and mechanics lien claims.

While oral contracts are generally enforceable, they must contain definite and essential terms agreed to by the parties. For an oral contract to be enforceable, it must be so definite and certain in all respects that the court can determine what the parties agreed to.

Here, the substance of the oral contract was vague. When pressed at his deposition, the plaintiff was unable to articulate the basic terms of the parties’ oral construction contract. Since the court was unable to decipher the key contract terms or divine the parties’ intent, the plaintiff’s breach of contract failed.

The plaintiff’s inability to prove-up its oral contract claim also doomed its mechanics lien action. In Illinois, a valid mechanics lien foreclosure suit requires the contractor to prove an enforceable contract and the contractor’s substantial performance of that contract. Since the plaintiff failed to establish a binding oral contract, by definition, it couldn’t prevail on its mechanics lien claim.

The First District also affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to amend its complaint. While amendments to pleadings are generally liberally allowed in Illinois, a court will not rubber stamp a request to amend. Instead, the court engages in a multi-factored analysis of (1) whether the proposed amendment would cure the defective pleading, (2) whether other parties would sustain prejudice by virtue of the proposed amendment, (3) whether the proposed amendment is timely, and (4) whether previous opportunities to amend the pleadings could be identified.

Here, the plaintiff’s proposed implied-in-fact contract was “nearly identical” to the stricken breach of oral contract claim. An implied-in-fact contract is one where contract terms are implicit from the parties’ conduct. Here, the parties conduct was too attenuated to establish definite contract terms. As a result, the proposed implied-in-law contract claim was facially deficient and didn’t cure the earlier, failed pleading.

Ironically, the plaintiff’s failure to allege an enforceable oral agreement also precluded summary judgment on the defendant’s IHRRA counterclaim. A valid IHRRA claim presupposes the existence of an enforceable contract. Since there was no written agreement and the parties’ oral agreement was unclear, there was no valid contract on which to hook an IHRRA violation.

Afterwords:

This case cements proposition that a valid oral contract claim requires proof of definite and certain terms. A plaintiff’s failure to allege a clear and definite oral agreement will prevent him from asserting either a mechanics lien or Home Repair Act claim based on the putative oral agreement.

Link Company also illustrates the four factors a litigant must satisfy in order to amend a pleading. If the proposed amended complaint fails to allege a colorable cause of action, a court can properly deny leave to amend despite Illinois’ liberal pleading amendments policy.

Contractor ‘Extras’ Claims Versus Quantum Meruit: A Fine-Line Distinction? (IL Case Summary)

Twin contract law axioms include (1) a quasi-contract claim (i.e. quantum meruit) cannot co-exist with one for breach of express contract, and (2) to recover for contract “extras” or out-of-scope work, a plaintiff must show the extra work was necessary through no fault of its own.  While easily parroted, the two principles can prove difficult in their application.

Archon v. U.S. Shelter, 2017 IL App (1st) 153409 tries to reconcile the difference between work that gives rise to quantum meruit recovery and work that falls within an express contract’s general subject matter and defeats a quantum meruit claim.

The subcontractor plaintiff installed a sewer system for a general contractor hired by a city.  The subcontract gave the City final approval of the finished sewer system.  City approval was a condition to payment to the plaintiff.  The subcontract also provided that extra work caused by the plaintiff’s deficiencies had to be done at plaintiff’s expense.

The subcontractor sued the general contractor to recover about $250K worth of repair work required by the City.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the general contractor on both plaintiff’s quantum meruit and extras claim.  On remand from an earlier appeal, the plaintiff dropped its extras claim and went forward solely on its quantum meruit claim.  The trial court again found for the general and the sub appealed.

Result: Summary judgment for general contractor affirmed.  Plaintiff’s quantum meruit claim fails as a matter of law.

Reasons:

To recover for quantum meruit (sometimes referred to as quasi-contract or implied contract), the plaintiff must prove (1) it performed a service to benefit a defendant, (2) it did not perform the service gratuitously, (3) defendant accepted the benefits of plaintiff’s services, and (4) no contract existed to prescribe payment for the service.

A quantum meruit claim cannot co-exist with a breach of express contract one: they are mutually exclusive.

Parties to a contract assume certain risks.  Sometimes, when they realize their contractual expectations aren’t going to be realized, they resort to quantum meruit recovery as a desperation maneuver.  The law doesn’t allow this.  “Quasi-contract is not a means for shifting a risk one has assumed under the contract.” (¶ 34)(citing Industrial Lift Truck Service Corp. v. Mitsubishi International Corp., 104 Ill.App.3d 357).

A contractor’s claim for ‘extras’ requires the contractor to prove that (1) the work for which it seeks compensation was outside the scope of a contract, and (2) the extra work wasn’t caused by the contractor’s fault.  

In a prior appeal, the Court found that it wasn’t clear whether the extra work was the result of the plaintiff contractor’s mistake.  As a result, the contractor made a strategic decision to abandon its extras claim and instead proceeded on its quantum meruit suit.

At first blush, an extras claim mirrors quantum meruit’s requirement of work that’s not tied to any express contract term.

However, as the Court emphasized, there’s a definite legal difference between a claim for extra work and one for quantum meruit.  “A claim for quantum meruit lies when the work the plaintiff performed [is] wholly beyond the subject matter of the contract that existed between the parties.” [¶ 39]

The key question is whether an express contract covers the same general subject matter as the challenged work.  If it does, there can be no quantum meruit recovery as a matter of law.  [¶ 45]

Applying these principles, the Court found that the work for which plaintiff sought to recover in quantum meruit – sewer pipe repairs and replacement – involved the same sewer system involved in the underlying express contract.  As a result, plaintiff’s quantum meruit claim failed.

Take-aways:

This case provides an interesting illustration of the fine-line distinction between a contractor’s action to recover for extra, out-of-scope work and services that merit quantum meruit recovery.

Contractors should take pains to make it clear in the contract that if they do perform extra work, there is a mechanism in place (i.e. time and materials terms) that quantifies the extras.  Since the sewer repair work fell within the general subject matter of the underlying sewer installation contract, it was easy for the Court to find that the express contract encompassed the plaintiff’s work and reject the quantum meruit claim.

In hindsight, the plaintiff should have pressed forward with its breach of express contract claim premised on the extra work it claimed it performed.

Snow Plower’s Quantum Meruit Claim Fails; Dissent Takes Rule 23 Publishing Standards to Task – IL 1st Dist.

In Snow & Ice, Inc. v. MPR Management, 2017 IL App (1st) 151706-U, a snow removal company brought breach of contract and quantum meruit claims against a property manager and several property owners for unpaid services.

The majority affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and in dissent, Judge Hyman gives a scathing critique of Rule 23, which provides standards for publishing (or not) opinions, including the rule’s penchant for quiet minority voices on an appeals court.

Plaintiff sued to recover about $90K for snow removal services it supplied to nine separate properties managed by the property manager defendant.  After nonsuiting the management company, the plaintiff proceeded against the property owners on breach of contract and quantum meruit claims.

The trial court granted the nine property owners’ motion to dismiss on the basis there was no privity of contract between plaintiff and the owners.  The court dismissed the quantum meruit suit because an express contract between the plaintiff and property manager governed the parties’ relationship and a quantum meruit claim can’t co-exist with a breach of express contract action.

Affirming the Section 2-615 dismissal of the breach of contract claims, the appeals court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that the management company contracted with plaintiff on behalf of the property owner defendants.  In Illinois, agency is a question of fact, but the plaintiff still must plead facts which, if proved, could establish an agency relationship.

A conclusory allegation of a principal-agent relationship between property manager and owners is not sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.  Since the plaintiff only alleged the bare conclusion that the property owners were responsible for the management company’s contract, the First District affirmed dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract claims.

The Court also affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s quantum meruit claims against the owners.  A quantum meruit plaintiff must plead (1) that it performed a service to defendant’s benefit, (2) it did not perform the service gratuitously, (3) defendant accepted the service, and (4) no contract existed to prescribe payment for the service.  Quantum meruit is based on an implied promise by a recipient of services or goods to pay for something of value which it received.  (¶¶ 17-18).

Since the properties involved in the lawsuit were commercial (meaning, either vacant or leased), the Court refused to infer that the owners wanted the property plowed.  It noted that if the property was vacant, plaintiff would have to plead facts to show that the owner wanted plaintiff to clear snow from his/her property.  If leased, the plaintiff needed facts tending to show that the owner/lessor (as opposed to the tenant) implicitly agreed to pay for the plaintiff’s plowing services.  As plaintiff’s complaint was bereft of facts sufficient to establish the owners knew of and impliedly agreed to pay plaintiff for its services, the quantum meruit claim failed.

If leased, the plaintiff needed facts tending to show that the owner/lessor (as opposed to the tenant) implicitly agreed to pay for the plaintiff’s plowing services.  As plaintiff’s complaint was bereft of facts sufficient to establish the owners knew of and impliedly agreed to pay plaintiff for its services, the quantum meruit claim failed.

In dissent, Judge Hyman agreed that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was properly dismissed but found that the plaintiff did plead enough facts to sustain a quantum meruit claim.  Hyman’s dissent’s true value, though, lies in its in-depth criticism of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23’s publication guidelines.

Rule 23 provides for an opinion’s publication only where a majority of the panel deems a decision one that “establishes a new rule of law or modifies, explains, or criticizes an existing rule of law” or “resolves, creates, or avoids an apparent conflict of authority within the Appellate Court.” Sup. Ct. R. 23(a).

Hyman’s thesis is that these standards are too arbitrary and the Rule should be changed so that just one justice, instead of a majority of the panel, is all that’s needed to have a decision published.  Hyman then espouses the benefits of dissents and special concurrences; they perform the valuable functions of clarifying, questioning and developing the law.

In its current configuration, Rule 23 arbitrarily allows a majority of judges to squelch lone dissenters and effectively silence criticism.  Judge Hyman advocates for Illinois to follow multiple other courts’ lead and adopt a “one justice” rule (a single judge’s request warrants publication).  By implementing the one justice rule, minority voices on an appeals panel won’t so easily be squelched and will foster legal discourse and allow the competing views to “hone legal theory,

By implementing the one justice rule, minority voices on an appeals panel won’t so easily be squelched and will foster legal discourse and allow the competing views to “hone legal theory, concept and rule.”