‘Substantial Truth’ Defeats Wisconsin Plaintiff’s Tortious Interference Suit – 7th Circuit

In Wesbrook v. Ulrich 2016 WL 6123534, the Seventh Circuit examined the reach of the truth defense to a tortious interference with contract action stemming from a bitter dispute between a prominent Wisconsin medical clinic and one of its high-level employees.

The plaintiff sued a former co-worker and ex-supervisor for tortious interference with contract claiming the two worked in concert to engineer the plaintiff’s firing from the clinic.  The plaintiff claimed the defendants repeatedly made critical statements about him to third parties that resulted in his being ostracized by clinic staff and ultimately let go.  The District Court granted summary judgment for the clinic and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

To prove tortious interference with contract in Wisconsin, the plaintiff must show (1) a valid contract or a prospective contractual relationship with a third party, (2) defendant’s interference with that relationship, (3) interference by the defendant that was intentional, (4) a causal connection between the interference and damages, and (5) the defendant wasn’t justified or privileged to interfere.

To sue a co-worker for tortious interference, the plaintiff must show (1) that the employer did not benefit from the co-worker’s/defendant’s statement, and (2) the co-worker’s act was independently tortious (i.e., fraudulent or defamatory).

Whether conduct or a statement is privileged is a fact-driven question that looks at the nature, type and duration of the conduct and whether the conduct was fair under the circumstances.  But where the challenged statement is true, it is privileged as a matter of law.  There can be no cause of action aimed at a true statement; even one motivated by ill will toward a plaintiff.

The same holds for “substantially true” statements.  Even where a statement isn’t 100% accurate, so long as it’s true in most of its particulars, it’s still privileged and will defeat a tortious interference claim.  Tort law does not demand “artificial precision” in common use of language.

Here, the defendants’ challenged statements concerning plaintiff were substantially true.  Defendants’ verbal and written assertions that plaintiff had an autocratic management style, threatened his subordinates, and that several employees had lodged complaints against him were true enough to defeat plaintiff’s claims.  While there were arguably some factual specifics that were either embellished or omitted from the statements, the Court viewed their substance as sufficiently accurate to negate plaintiff’s tortious interference suit.

The Seventh Circuit also based its decision granting summary judgment for the defendants on policy grounds.  It reasoned that if a plaintiff could sue a co-worker every time he believed that co-worker instigated or contributed to the firing decision, it would swallow up the general rule that at-will employees cannot sue for breach of contract where they are fired without warning or cause.

Afterwords:

1/ An interesting case in that it examines the tortious interference tort in the factually anomalous setting of an at-will employee suing his co-workers instead of his employer after a discharge;

2/ The key holding from the case is that truth is a defense not only to defamation but also to tortious interference with contract under Wisconsin law;

3/ A statement’s truth is construed flexibly: it doesn’t have to be completely accurate.  Even if there are exaggerated aspects of a statement, so long as the statement meets the substantially true test, the speaker will be privileged to tortiously interfere.

Filing Lawsuit Doesn’t Meet Conversion Suit ‘Demand for Possession’ Requirement – 7th Cir. (applying IL law)

Conversion, or civil theft, requires a plaintiff to make a demand for possession of the converted property before suing for its return.  This pre-suit demand’s purpose is to give a defendant the opportunity to return plaintiff’s property and avoid unnecessary litigation.

What constitutes a demand though?  The easiest case is where a plaintiff serves a written demand for return of property and the defendant refuses.  But what if the plaintiff doesn’t send a demand but instead files a lawsuit.  Is the act of filing the lawsuit equivalent to sending a demand?

The Seventh Circuit recently answered “no” to the question in Stevens v. Interactive Financial Advisors, Inc., 2016 WL 4056401 (N.D.Ill. 2016)

That case’s plaintiff sued his former brokerage firm for tortious interference and with contract and conversion based when the firm blocked plaintiff’s access to investment client data after the firm fired the plaintiff.  The District Court granted summary judgment on the plaintiff’s tortious interference claim and a jury entered judgment for the defendant on the conversion count.

At trial on the conversion count, the jury submitted this question to the trial judge: “Can we consider [filing] the lawsuit a demand for property?”  The trial judge answered no – under Illinois law, filing a lawsuit does not qualify as a demand for possession.  The jury then found for the defendant and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the jury verdict, the Seventh Circuit addressed if and when impeding access to financial data can give rise to a conversion action in light of Illinois law’s pre-suit demand requirement and various applicable Federal securities laws.

To prove conversion under Illinois law, a plaintiff must show (1) he has a right to personal property, (2) he has an absolute and unconditional right to immediate possession of the property, (3) he made a demand for possession, and (4) defendant wrongfully and without authorization assumed control, dominion, or ownership over the property.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendant investment firm on the plaintiff’s conversion count that sought access to client information for clients plaintiff brought to the firm.

The Court held that since the firm was bound by Federal securities laws prohibiting it from disclosing nonpublic client information to third parties, and the plaintiff had been fired, the plaintiff could not show a right to immediate possession of the client financial information.  The plaintiff did possibly have a right to insurance client information (as opposed to securities clients) and the Court denied summary judgment as to plaintiff’s insurance clients.

The Seventh Circuit upheld the jury verdict on the insurance clients conversion suit based on the plaintiff’s failure to make a demand for possession.  The Court stated the demand requirement’s purpose as trying to motivate the return of property “before a plaintiff is required to submit to unnecessary litigation.”

The plaintiff did not make a demand for return of his insurance client’s data before he filing suit.  And since Illinois courts have never held that the act of suing was tantamount to a demand for possession, the Seventh Circuit found that the District Court correctly instructed the jury that the failure to make a demand for possession before suing defeats a conversion claim.

The Court also nixed the plaintiff’s “demand futility” argument: that a demand for possession would have been pointless given the circumstances of the given case. (Demand futility typically applies where the property has been sold or fundamentally damaged.)

The Seventh Circuit found that the jury properly considered the demand futility question and ruled against the plaintiff and there was no basis to reverse that finding.

Afterwords:

1/ A conversion plaintiff’s right to client data will not trump a Federal securities law that protects the data.  In addition, a pre-suit demand for possession is required to make out a conversion action unless the plaintiff can show that the demand is pointless or futile;

2/ The act of filing a lawsuit will not serve as a proxy for a demand for possession.

3/Conversion plaintiffs should take great care to make a demand for possession before suing.

3-a/ This is true even where the demand is likely to meet resistance.  Otherwise, like the plaintiff experienced here, the risk is too great that the lack of a demand will defeat the conversion claim.

 

7th Circuit Provides Primer on Fraudulent Transfer and Alter Ego Doctrine In Contract Dispute

The Seventh Circuit affirmed an almost $3M judgment against the defendants under fraudulent transfer, successor liability and alter ego rules in Center Point v. Halim, 2014 WL 697501.

The plaintiff energy company entered into a written contract to supply natural gas to defendants’ 41 Chicago area rental properties.  The individual defendants – a husband and wife – managed the properties through a management company (Company 1).

Over a two-year period, defendants used over $1.2M worth of plaintiff’s gas and didn’t pay for it.  Plaintiff sued Company 1 in state court and got a $1.7M judgment.  When plaintiff discovered that defendants transferred all of Company 1’s assets to Company 2, plaintiff sued Company 2 and the husband and wife in Federal court alleging a fraudulent transfer and successor liability.  The Northern District entered summary judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $2.7M on all claims and defendants appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first found that the defendants’ conduct violated the Illinois Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 (the “Act”).  The Act punishes debtor attempts to avoid creditors through actual fraud or constructive fraud.

Constructive fraud applies where (1) a debtor transfers assets without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer and (2) the debtor intends to incur or reasonably should believe he will incur debts beyond his ability to pay them as they become due.  Halim, *2, 740 ILCS 160/5.

The Court found that the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent. First, the Court noted that during a three-year time span, Company 1 (the state court judgment debtor) transferred almost $11M to the individual defendants; ostensibly to repay loans.

But the Court found it odd there was no documentation of loans or a paper trail showing where the millions of dollars went.  The suspicious timing of defendants’ creation of a new company – Company 2 – coupled with the defendants’ inability to account for the millions’ whereabouts, bolstered the Court’s constructive fraud finding.

Since the individual defendants’ depletion of Company 1’s assets made it impossible for it to pay the state court judgment, the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent under the Act. *3.

The Court also affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff under successor liability and alter ego theories.  In Illinois, the general rule is that a company that purchases assets of another company does not assume the liabilities of the purchased company.

A common exception to this rule is where there is an express assumption (of liability) by the purchasing company.  Here, the record showed that Company 2 assumed all rights, obligations, contracts and employees of Company 1.  As a result, the unsatisfied state court judgment attached to Company 2 under successor liability rules.

The Court also affirmed the judgment under the alter ego doctrine.  Alter ego applies where there is virtually no difference between the business entity and that entity’s controlling shareholders.  That is, the dominant shareholders don’t treat the corporation as a separate entity and fail to follow basic corporate formalities (e.g. minutes, stock issuance, incorporation papers, etc.).

The individual defendants treated Company 1 as their personal piggy bank by commingling their personal assets with the corporate assets.  There were no earmarks of “separateness” between the individual defendants’ assets and Company 1’s corporate assets.  *3-4.

Because of this, the husband and wife defendants were responsible (in the Federal suit) for the unsatisfied state court judgment entered against the defunct Company 1.

Take-away: Halim illustrates that where a judgment debtor corporation or controlling shareholders of that corporation transfer all corporate assets to a new, similarly named (or not) entity shortly after a lawsuit is filed, it will likely look suspicious and can lead to a constructive fraud finding.

The case also underscores the importance of following corporate formalities and keeping corporate assets separate from individual/personal assets – especially where the corporation is controlled by only two individuals.  A failure to treat the corporation as distinct from the dominant individuals, can lead to alter ego liability for those individuals.