Upon learning that its former CEO stole nearly a million dollars from it, the plaintiff marketing firm in Adgooroo, LLC v. Hechtman, 2016 IL App (1st) 142531-U, sued its accounting firm for failing to discover the multi-year embezzlement scheme.
The accounting firm in turn brought a third-party action against the plaintiff’s bank for not properly monitoring the corporate account and alerting the plaintiff to the ex-CEO’s dubious conduct.
When the bank and plaintiff agreed to settle for zero dollars, the court granted the bank’s motion for a good-faith finding and dismissed the accounting firm’s third-party complaint. The accounting firm appealed. It argued that the bank’s settlement with the plaintiff deprived it (the accounting firm) of its contribution rights against the bank and that the settlement was void on the basis of fraud and collusion.
The appeals court affirmed the trial court and discussed the factors a court considers in deciding whether a settlement is made in good faith and releases a settling defendant from further liability in a lawsuit.
The Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (740 ILCS 100/1 et seq.) tries to promote two policies: (1) encouraging settlements, and (2) ensuring that damages are assigned equitably among joint wrongdoers. The right of contribution exists where 2 or more persons are liable arising from the same injury to person or property. A tortfeasor who settles in good faith with the injured plaintiff is discharged from contribution liability to a non-settling defendant. 740 ILCS 100/2(c).
Here, the underlying torts alleged by the plaintiff were negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and civil conspiracy.
A settlement is deemed not in good faith if there is wrongful conduct, collusion or fraud between the settling parties. However, the mere disparity between a settlement amount and the damages sought in a lawsuit is not an accurate measure of a settlement’s good faith.
Illinois courts note that a small settlement amount won’t necessarily equal bad faith since trial results are inherently speculative and unpredictable. The law is also clear that settlements are designed to benefit non-settling parties. If a non-settling party’s position is worsened by another party’s settlement, then so be it: this is viewed as “the consequence of a refusal to settle.” (¶¶ 22-24).
A settling party bears the initial burden of making a preliminary showing of good faith. Once this showing is made, the burden shifts to the objecting party to show by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e. more likely than not), the absence of good faith. The court applies a fact-based totality of circumstances approach in deciding whether a settlement meets the good faith standard.
For a settlement to meet the good faith test, money doesn’t have to change hands. This is because a promise to compromise a disputed claim or not to sue is sufficient consideration for a settlement agreement.
Here, the fact that plaintiff’s corporate resolutions required it to indemnify the bank against any third-party claims, subjected the plaintiff to liability for the third-party bank’s defense costs. The bank’s possible exposure was a judgment against it for the accounting firm. As a result, the marketing company and bank both benefited from the settlement and there was sufficient consideration supporting their mutual walk-away.
This case sharply illustrates the harsh results that can flow from piecemeal settlement. On its face, the settlement seems unfair to the accounting firm defendant: the plaintiff settled with the third-party defendant who then gets dismissed from the lawsuit for no money. However, under the law, a promise for a promise not to sue is valid consideration in light of the inherent uncertainty connected with litigation.
The case also spotlights broad disclaimer language in account agreements between banks and corporate customers as well as indemnification language in corporate resolutions. It’s clear here that the liability limiting language in the deposit agreement and resolutions doubly protected the bank, giving plaintiff extra impetus to settle.