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.

 

Constructive Fraud in IL Mechanics’ Lien Suits: A Case Study

ACHere’s one from the vault.  While dated, the case is still relevant for its cogent discussion of important and recurring mechanics’ lien litigation issues.  In Springfield Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. v. 3947-55 King Drive at Oakwood, LLC, 387 Ill App 3d 906 (1st Dist. 2009), the First District examined the concept of constructive fraud and discussed when a subcontractor can bring alternative unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims in a lien suit.

The plaintiff was a subcontractor who installed HVAC materials on a construction project consisting of two adjoining properties  for a total contract sum of about $400,000.  When the general contractor fired it, the plaintiff liened both parcels each for $300,000 – the total amount plaintiff was then due for its HVAC work.  The result was a “blanket lien” on the properties for a total of about $600K – double the proper amount.

The plaintiff sued to foreclose its liens and filed companion (and alternative) claims for quantum meruit and unjust enrichment against the general contractor and owner defendants.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims.  The court held that the lien claim was constructively fraudulent since it was inflated by almost two times the actual lien amount and because the lien wasn’t apportioned among the two property parcels.  The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims because it held that a subcontractor’s only remedy against an owner is a mechanics lien foreclosure action.

Held: Affirmed in part; reversed in part

 Constructive Fraud

The First District found there was no evidence of constructive fraud by the subcontractor; noting that Section 7 of the Lien Act aims to protect honest lien claimants who make a mistake rather than claimants who intentionally make a false statement or who knowingly inflates their lien.  That’s why someone must show an intent to defraud in order to nullify a lien.

While acknowledging that the plaintiff subcontractor’s lien totaled about $600K – nearly double of the amount it was actually owed – the Court looked beyond the liens’ numerical overcharge and found no additional evidence of fraudulent intent. 

This holding amplifies the First District’s Cordeck Sales, Inc. v. Construction Systems, Inc. (382 Ill.App.3d 334(1st. Dist. 2008)) ruling – a case viewed with near-Biblical reverence in Illinois mechanics lien circles – that a mechanics lien won’t be invalidated for constructive fraud simply because its inflated.  There must be an overstatement “in combination” with other record evidence that allows the court to infer fraudulent intent.  Here, there was no additional fraud evidence and the Court reinstated the subcontractor’s lien claim.

Quantum Meruit/Unjust Enrichment

The Court sustained the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s equitable counts of quantum meruit and unjust enrichment.  The general rule is that a subcontractor like plaintiff can’t recover for unjust enrichment where the entire work to be performed by the subcontractor is under a contract with the general contractor.  See Premier Electrical Construction Co. v. La Salle National Bank, 132 Ill. App. 3d 485, 496 (1st Dist. 1985). 

In such a case (no privity between owner and subcontractor), the general contractor has the power to employ whom he chooses and the owner is entitled to presume that any subcontracting work is being done for the contractor; not the owner.  Since there is normally no direct contract between a subcontractor and the owner, a subcontractor can’t claim that its work unjustly enriched the owner.

So, unless the subcontractor proves that it dealt directly with a property owner, its exclusive remedy against an owner is a statutory, mechanics lien suit.  Swansea Concrete Products, Inc. v. Distler, 126 Ill. App. 3d 927, 932 (5th Dist. 1984).  If the subcontractor misses the time deadlines to record its lien (four months, usually) or fails to timely file suit to foreclose the lien (two years post-completion of job), the subcontractor can’t then try to recover against the property owner under quantum meruit or unjust enrichment. 

Here, since the plaintiff’s contract was with the general contractor and not the owner, the plaintiff’s remedy against the general contractor was for breach of contract and its remedy against the owner was a mechanics’ lien suit.  As a result, the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims were properly dismissed.

Afterwords: Even though the case is now several years old, Springfield Heating has continued relevance in construction lien litigation because it is the First District’s most recent word on the showing a property owner must make to prove a subcontractor’s constructive fraud when attempting to defeat a lien on the owner’s property.  Clearly, a numerical overcharge isn’t enough to defeat a lien. 

The owner must show additional “plus factors” which signals  fraudulent intent by the lien claimant.  The case also further supports the black-letter proposition that a subcontractor’s sole remedy against a property owner is a mechanics’ lien suit.  This rule will always apply unless the subcontractor can prove that the owner specifically requested or induced the subcontractor’s labor and materials on the owner’s property.

 

 

Fired Lawyer Can Recover Pre-Firing Fees Under Quantum Meruit – No Evidentiary Hearing is Required – IL Appeals Court

 

The estate of a young woman killed in a car crash hired an attorney (Lawyer 1) to file a personal injury suit against the drivers involved in the crash. The estate representatives entered into a 1/3 contingent fee arrangement with the attorney who placed an attorney’s lien on any recovery by the estate.

About 2 years later, the estate fired Lawyer 1 and hired Lawyer 2.  Lawyer 2 eventually facilitated a settlement for the estate in the amount of $75,000 and filed a motion to adjudicate the Lawyer 1’s attorney lien.

Lawyer 1 claimed he was entitled to $25,000 – 1/3 of the settlement amount.   After considering his affidavit and time records, but without an evidentiary hearing, the trial court awarded Lawyer 1 a fraction (about $14K less) of what he sought on a quantum meruit basis (number of hours times hourly rate).

On appeal, Lawyer 1 argued the trial court denied him due process by not holding a formal hearing and erred by not awarding him more fees given the settlement’s proximity in time to his firing.

That’s the procedural backdrop to Dukovac v. Brieser Construction, 2015 IL App (3d) 14038-U, a recent unpublished Third District decision that addressed whether a fee petition requires an evidentiary hearing and the governing standards that guide a court’s analysis when assessing fees of discharged counsel.

The Third District upheld the trial court’s fee award and in doing so, relied on some well-settled fee award principles.

In Illinois, a client has the right to fire an attorney at any time. Once that happens, any contingency fee agreement signed by the client and attorney is no longer enforceable.

After he is discharged, an attorney’s recovery is limited to quantum meruit recovery for any services rendered before termination.

In situations where a case settles immediately after a lawyer is discharged, the lawyer can recover the full contract price.

In determining a reasonable fee under quantum meruit principles, the court considers several factors including (i) the time and labor required, (ii) the attorney’s skill and standing, (iii) the nature of the case, (iv) t he novelty and difficulty of the subject matter, (v) the attorney’s degree of responsibility in managing the case, (vi) the usual and customary charge for the type of work in the community where the lawyer practices, and (vii) the benefits flowing to the client.

A trial court adjudicating a lawyer’s lien can use its knowledge acquired in the discharge of its professional duties along with any evidence presented at the lien adjudication hearing.

Here, the appeals court that the trial court properly considered discharged Lawyer 1’s time records and affidavit in making its quantum meruit award. Even though there was no evidentiary hearing, the time sheets and affidavit gave the trial court enough to support its fee award.

Afterwords:

This case provides a good synopsis of the governing rules that apply where an attorney is discharged and the case soon after settles. A trial court has wide discretion in fashioning a fee award and doesn’t have to hold an evidentiary hearing with live witness testimony.

A clear case lesson is that a discharged petitioning attorney should be vigilant in submitting detailed time records so that the court has sufficient evidence to go on in making the fee award.