Property Subject to Turnover Order Where Buyer Is ‘Continuation’ of Twice-Removed Seller – Corporate Successor Liability in Illinois

Advocate Financial Group, LLC v. 5434 North Winthrop, 2015 IL App (2d) 150144 focuses on the “mere continuation” and fraud exceptions to the general rule of no successor liability – a successor corporation isn’t responsible for debts of predecessor – in a creditor’s efforts to collect a judgment from a business entity that is twice removed from the original judgment debtor.

The plaintiff obtained a breach of contract judgment against the developer defendant (Company 1) who transferred the building twice after the judgment date. The second building transfer was to a third-party (Company 3) who ostensibly had no relation to Company 1. The sale from Company 1 went through another entity – Company 2 – that was unrelated to Company 1.

Plaintiff alleged that Company 1 and Company 3 combined to thwart plaintiff’s collection efforts and sought the turnover of the building so plaintiff could sell it and use the proceeds to pay down the judgment. The trial court granted the turnover motion on the basis that Company 3 was the “continuation” of Company 1 in light of the common personnel between the companies.  The appeals court reversed though.  It found that further evidence was needed on the continuation exception but hinted that the fraud exception might apply instead to wipe out the Company 1-to Company 2- to Company 3 property transfer.

On remand, the trial court found that the fraud exception (successor can be liable for predecessor debts where they fraudulently collude to avoid predecessor’s debts) indeed applied and found the transfer of the building to Company 3 was a sham transfer and again ordered Company 3 to turn the building over to the plaintiff. Company 3 appealed.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment and in doing so, provided a useful summary of the principles that govern when one business entity can be held responsible for another entity’s debts.

In Illinois, a corporation that purchases the assets of another corporation is generally not liable for the debts or liabilities of the transferor corporation. The rule’s purpose is to protect good faith purchasers from unassumed liability and seeks to foster the fluidity of corporate assets.

The “fraudulent purpose” exception to the rule of no successor liability applies where a transaction is consummated for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s obligations.

The “mere continuation” exception to the nonsuccessor liability rule requires a showing that the successor entity “maintains the same or similar management and ownership, but merely wears different clothes.”  The test is not whether the seller’s business operation continues in the purchaser, but whether the seller’s corporate entity continues in the purchaser.

The key continuation question is always identity of ownership: does the “before” company and “after” company have the same officers, directors, and stockholders?

In Advocate Financial, the factual oddity here concerned Company 2 – the intermediary.  It was unclear whether Company 2 abetted Company 1 in its efforts to shake the plaintiff creditor.  The court affirmed the trial court’s factual finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser from Company 1.

The court focused on the abbreviated time span between the two transfers – Company 2 sold to Company 3 within days of buying the building from Company 1 – in finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser. The court also pointed to evidence at trial that Company 1 was negotiating the ultimate transfer to Company 3 before the sale to Company 2 was even complete.

Taken together, the court agreed with the trial court that the two transfers (Company 1 to Company 2; Company 2 to Company 3) constituted an integrated, “pre-arranged” attempt to wipe out Company 1’s judgment debt to plaintiff.

Afterwords:  This case illustrates that a court will scrutinize property transfers that utilize middle-men that only hold the property for a short period of times (read: for only a few days).

Where successive property transfers occur within a compressed time window and the ultimate corporate buyer has substantial overlap (in terms of management personnel) with the first corporate seller, a court can void the transaction and deem it as part of a fraudulent effort to evade one of the first seller’s creditors.

Homeowners’ Operation of Home-Based Daycare Business Doesn’t Violate Restrictive Covenant Requiring Residence Use – IL Third Dist.

The plaintiff homeowner’s association in Neufairfield Homeonwers Ass’n v. Wagner, 2015 IL App (3d) 140775, filed suit against two sets of homeowners claiming they violated restrictive covenants in the development’s declaration by operating daycare businesses from their homes.

The association based their suit on a declaration covenant that required all lots to be used for “Single Family Dwellings.”

The declaration allowed an exception for home-based businesses but only if they were operated in conformance with City ordinances and if there were no vehicles with business markings parked overnight in the development.  A further qualification to the home-based business rule prohibited activities that encouraged customers or members of the public to “frequent” the development.

The association sued when several homeowners complained that the daycare businesses resulted in increased vehicular traffic in the development and was a nuisance to the residents.

The association supported their case with an affidavit from the property manager and a homeowner – both of whom testified that the two daycares resulted in multiple non-residents entering and exiting the subdivision on a daily basis and that several residents had similar complaints.

Affirming summary judgment for the homeowner defendants, the appeals court provides a primer on the enforceability of restrictive covenants and the governing contract interpretation principles affecting them. It wrote:

-Restrictive covenants affecting land rights will be enforced according to their (the covenants) plain and unambiguous language;

–  In interpreting a restrictive covenant, the court’s objective is to give effect to the parties’ actual intent when the covenant was made;

– A condominium declaration is strong evidence of a developer’s intent and it will be construed against the developer where the declaration’s text is unclear;

– Undefined words in a declaration are given their “ordinary and commonly understood meanings” and a court will freely use a dictionary as a resource to decipher a word’s ordinary and popular meaning.

(¶¶ 16-20).

Here, the key declaration word was “frequent” – that is, did the defendants’ daycare businesses result in customers or members of the public “frequenting” the subdivision?

The declaration didn’t define the verb “frequent” but the dictionary did as to do something “habitually” or “persistently.”  Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 909 (1981); (¶ 20).

The plaintiff’s supporting affidavit established that, at most, 7 or 8 cars entered and exited the subdivision on a daily basis – supposedly to patronize the daycare businesses.  The court viewed this amount of traffic wasn’t persistent or habitual enough to meet the dictionary definition of “frequent” under the declaration.

As a result, the association’s declaratory judgment suit failed and the court affirmed summary judgment for the property owners.

Afterwords:

1/ Courts will construe declarations and restrictive covenants as written and will do so under standard contract interpretation rules (e.g. unambiguous language will be construed under plain language test and without resort to outside evidence).

2/ Where a term isn’t defined, a court can look to dictionary to inform a word’s ordinary and popular meaning.

3/ A court will construe a restrictive covenant in favor of free use of residential property and where a declaration specifically allows home-based businesses, a court will scrutinize association attempts to curtail a property owner’s use of his property.