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.”

 

 

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.