Statute of Frauds’ ‘Goods Over $500’ Section Dooms Car Buyer’s Oral Contract Claim (IL First Dist.)

I’ve written here before on the Statute of Frauds (SOF) and how it requires certain contracts to be in writing to be enforceable.  I’ve also championed “MYLEGS” as a useful mnemonic device for dissecting a SOF issue.

M stands for ‘Marriage’ (contracts in consideration of marriage), Y for ‘Year’ (contracts that can’t be performed within the space of a year must be in writing), L for ‘Land’ (contracts for sale of interest in land), E for ‘Executorship’ (promises by a executor to pay a decedent’s creditor have to be in writing), G is for ‘Goods’ (contracts to sell goods over $500) and S for ‘Surety’ (a promise to pay another’s debt requires a writing).

The First District recently affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of a breach of contract based on the Uniform Commercial Code’s (UCC) SOF provision governing the sale of goods for over $500 (the “G” in the above MYLEGS scheme).

The plaintiff in Isenbergh v. South Chicago Nissan, 2016 IL App(1st) 153510 went to a car dealer defendant to buy a new Nissan Versa (Versa 1) with specific features (manual transmission, anti-lock brakes, etc.).  When told the requested car wasn’t in stock, the plaintiff opted to rent a used car temporarily until the requested car was available.  But instead of renting a used car, the Plaintiff alleged the dealership convinced him to enter into a verbal “Return Agreement” for a substitute Versa (Versa 2). 

Under the Return Agreement, the dealership promised to sell the plaintiff Versa 2 – which didn’t have plaintiff’s desired features – and then buy it back from Plaintiff when Versa 1 was in stock.  According to Plaintiff, the Return Agreement contemplated Plaintiff’s total payments on Versa 2 would equal only two months of sales contract installment payments.

Plaintiff claimed the dealership refused to honor the Return Agreement and Plaintiff was stuck making monthly payments on Versa 2 (a car he never wanted to begin with) that will eventually eclipse $28,000.  The trial court granted defendant’s Section 2-619 motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s breach of contract action based on the SOF.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

The SOF requires that a contract for the sale of goods for the price of $500 or more be in writing to be enforceable. 810 ILCS 5/2-201.  A “contract for sale” includes both a present sale of goods as well as a contract to sell goods in the future.  A “sale” is the passing of title from seller to buyer for a price. 810 ILCS 5/2-106, 103.  “Goods” under the UCC are all things “movable” at the time of identification to the contract for sale. 810 ILCS 5/2-105.

The Return Agreement’s subject matter, a car, clearly met the UCC’s definitions of “goods” and the substance of the Return Agreement was a transaction for the sale of goods.  (The dealership promised to buy back Versa 2 from the Plaintiff once Versa 1 (the car Plaintiff wanted all along) became available.

Since Versa 2’s sale price was over $26,000 and plaintiff’s two payments under the Versa 2 purchase contract exceeded $1,100, Versa 2 easily met the SOF’s $500 threshold. Because of this, the Court found that the SOF defeated plaintiff’s claim for breach of an oral agreement to buy and sell a car selling for well over $500.

Afterwords:

This case presents a straightforward application of the SOF section governing the sale of goods that retail for at least $500.  Clearly, a motor vehicle is a movable “good” under the UCC and will almost always meet the $500 threshold by definition.

The case also makes clear that even if the contract contemplates a future sale and purchase (as opposed to a present one), the UCC still governs since the statute’s definition of sales contract explicitly speaks to contracts to sell goods in the future.

Finally, the case is a cautionary tale for car buyers and sellers alike as it shows that oral promises likely will not be enforced unless reduced to writing.

Commercial Tenant’s Promise to Refund Broker Commissions Barred by Statute of Frauds – IL First Dist.

The plaintiff property owner in Peppercorn 1248 LLC v. Artemis DCLP, LLP, 2016 IL App (1st) 143791-U, sued a corporate tenant and its real estate brokers for return of commission payments where the tenant never took possession under a ten-year lease for a Chicago daycare facility.  Shortly after the lease was signed, the tenant invoked a licensing contingency and terminated the lease.

The lease conditioned tenant’s occupancy on the tenant securing the required City zoning and parking permits.  If the tenant was unable to obtain the licenses, it could declare the lease cancelled.  When the tenant refused to take possession, the plaintiff sued to recoup the commission payment.

Affirming summary judgment for the broker defendants, the Court addressed some recurring contract formation and enforcement issues prevalent in commercial litigation along with the “interference” prong of the tortious interference with contract claim.

In Illinois, where a contracting party is given discretion to perform a certain act, he must do so in good faith: the discretion must be exercised “reasonably,” with a “proper motive” and not “arbitrarily, capriciously or in a manner inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the parties.” (73-74)

Here, there was no evidence the tenant terminated the lease in bad faith.  It could not get the necessary permits and so was incapable of operating a daycare business on the site. 

Next, the court found the plaintiff’s claim for breach of oral contract (based on the brokers’ verbal promise to refund the commission payments) unenforceable under the Statute of Frauds’ (“SOF”) suretyship rule. A suretyship exists where one party, the surety, agrees to assume an obligation of another person, the principal, to a creditor of the principal.

The SOF bars a plaintiff’s claim that seeks to hold a third party responsible for another’s debt where the third party did not promise to pay the debt in writing.

An exception to this rule is the “main purpose” defense. This applies where the “main purpose” of an oral promise is to materially benefit or advance the promisor’s business interests.  In such a case, an oral promise to pay another’s debt can be enforced.

The court declined to apply the main purpose exception here.  It noted that the brokers’ commission payments totaled less than $70K on a 10-year lease worth $1.4M. The large disparity between the commission and total lease payments through the ten-year term cut against the plaintiff’s main- purpose argument.

The plaintiff sued the corporate tenant for failing to return the commission payments to the brokers. Since the tenant and the broker defendants were separate parties, any promise by the tenant to answer for the brokers’ debt had to be in writing (by the tenant) to be enforceable.

The court also upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s tortious interference count. (See here for tortious interference elements.)  A tortious interference with contract plaintiff must show, among other things, the defendant actively induced a breach of contract between plaintiff and another party.  However, the mere failure to act – without more – usually will not rise to the level of purposeful activity aimed at causing a breach.

The Court found one of the broker defendant’s alleged failure to help secure business permits for the tenant didn’t rise to the level of  intentional conduct that induced tenant’s breach of lease.  As a result, the plaintiff failed to offer evidence in support of the interference prong of its tortious interference claim sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Afterwords:

1/ A promise to pay another’s debt – a suretyship relationship – must be in writing to be enforceable under the SOF;

2/ A contractual relationship won’t give rise to a duty to disclose in a fraudulent concealment case unless there is demonstrated disparity in bargaining power between the parties;

3/ Tortious interference with contract requires active conduct that causes a breach of contract; a mere failure to act won’t normally qualify as sufficient contractual interference to be actionable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Statute of Frauds Defeats Seller’s Countersuit for Damages After Property Sale Falls Through (IL 2d Dist.)

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When a deal to sell two industrial buildings collapsed, the would-be buyer sued to recover his $10K earnest money deposit. The seller, thinking the buyer was to blame for the aborted contract, countersued for $300K – the difference between the sale price plaintiff was supposed to pay and for what the seller ultimately sold the buildings to another buyer

Affirming dismissal of the seller’s counterclaim, the appeals court in Pease v. McPike, 2015 IL App (2d) 140881-U examines the contours of the Statute of Frauds (“SOF”) as it applies to commercial real estate transactions.

The plaintiff buyer never signed the contract that the sellers were trying to enforce.  Instead, the buyer signed a cancellation notice that post-dated the failed contract.  The seller argued that the buyer’s signature on the cancellation notice coupled with the allegations in his complaint were enough to satisfy the writing requirement (and that the buyer “signed” the earlier contract) of the SOF.

An Illinois real estate contract cannot be enforced under the SOF unless (1) there is a written memorandum or note on one or more documents; (2) the documents (if there are more than one) collectively contain a description of the property and terms of sale, including price and manner of payment, and (3) the memorandum or note is signed by the party to be charged (here, the plaintiff buyer). 

To satisfy the SOF, the writing itself doesn’t have to be a contract; it just has to be evidence that one (a contract) exists.  The writing doesn’t have to consist of a single page, but the writing signed by the party being sued must contain the essential terms of the contract and, where several writings exist, they must refer to one another or otherwise show a connection between them.  In a case of multiple writings, not all of them have to be signed. However, the writings that are signed must have a connection to the contract.  (¶ 41). 

A written cancellation of a contract can sometimes satisfy the SOF writing requirement and demonstrate to a court that a written contract does in fact exist.  However, the cancellation notice must explicitly refer to the contract and delineate the contract’s key terms. (¶ 48).

Here, there were two contracts – the initial purchase contract (which plaintiff did not sign) and the second “replacement contract” (which plaintiff did sign).  The Court found that the cancellation notice (cancelling the first contract) signed by the plaintiff wasn’t enough to bind him to the first contract (the contract the seller wanted to enforce).  On its face, that contract didn’t mention plaintiff and it wasn’t signed by him.

The court also rejected the seller’s judicial admission argument – that plaintiff’s complaint for the return of his earnest money was a judicial admission that he was party to the first contract.  A judicial admission is binding and conclusive on the party admitting a fact and withdraws that fact from the need to prove it at trial.  (¶ 53).

The court found that while the plaintiff’s complaint wasn’t the most artfully drafted one, it still alleged enough to demonstrate the plaintiff wasn’t a party to the first contract.  At most, plaintiff alleged (“admitted”) that he submitted a contingent offer to buy the buildings and that the offer was ultimately withdrawn.

Afterwords:

1/ Multiple writings, when read together, can satisfy SOF writing requirement;

2/ In a case (like here) where there is a patchwork of writings, the writing must explicitly refer to the underlying contract and show a connection to the contract to satisfy the SOF; and

3/ A complaint allegation can constitute a judicial admission but only if it is a definite, categorical statement.  If it’s vague or a hedging allegation, it likely won’t constitute a judicial admission.