Possible Problematic Lien Notice Starts Limitations Clock in Lawyer ‘Mal’ Case

In Construction Systems, Inc. v. FagelHaber LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 172430, the First District affirmed the time-barring of a legal malpractice suit stemming from a flubbed contractor’s lien filing.

Several months after a lender recorded its mortgage on a commercial project, the law firm defendant, then representing the plaintiff contractor, served a Section 24 notice – the Illinois mechanics’ lien act provision that governs subcontractor liens. 770 ILCS 60/24.  While the notice was served on the project owner and general contractor, it didn’t name the lender.  In Illinois, where a subcontractor fails to serve its lien notice on a lender, the lien loses priority against the lender.

After the contractor settled its lien claim with the lender’s successor, it sued the defendant law firm for malpractice. The contractor plaintiff alleged that had the law firm properly perfected the lien, the plaintiff would have recovered an additional $1.3M.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm, the First District agreed with the trial court and held that plaintiff’s legal malpractice suit accrued in early 2005. And since plaintiff didn’t sue until 2009, it was a couple years too late.

The Court based its ruling mainly on a foreboding February 2005 letter from plaintiff’s second counsel describing a “problematic situation” – the lender wasn’t notified of plaintiff’s subcontractor lien. The court also pointed out that plaintiff’s second attorney testified in her deposition that she learned of possible lien defects in February 2005; some four years before plaintiff filed suit.

Code Section 13-214.3(b) provides for a two-year limitations period for legal malpractice claims starting from when a plaintiff “knew or reasonably should have known of the injury for which damages are sought.” [⁋ 20]

A plaintiff’s legal malpractice case normally doesn’t accrue until he/she sustains an adverse judgment, settlement or dismissal. An exception to this rule is where it’s “plainly obvious” a plaintiff has been injured as a result of professional negligence.

The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it never discovered the lien defect until 2007 when the lender’s successor filed its summary judgment motion (which argued that the lien was defective as to the lender). According to the court “the relevant inquiry is not when [Plaintiff] knew or should have known about the lack of notice as an actual defense, but when [Plaintiff] should have discovered [Defendant’s] failure to serve statutory notice of the mechanic’s lien on [the prior lender] prompting it to further investigate [Defendant’s] performance.” [⁋ 24]

The court again cited the above “problematic situation” letter as proof that February 2005 (when the letter was sent) was the triggering date for plaintiff’s claim. Another key chronological factor was the plaintiff’s 2005 payment of attorneys’ fees.

In Illinois, a malpractice plaintiff must plead and prove damages and the payment of attorneys’ fees can equate to damages when the fees are tied to a former counsel’s neglect. Since plaintiff paid its second counsel’s fees in 2005 for work she performed in efforts to resuscitate the lien’s priority, 2005 was the limitation period’s triggering date. [⁋ 25]

Construction Systems cites Nelson v. Padgitt, 2016 IL App (1st) 160571, for the proposition that a plaintiff does not have to suffer an adverse judgment to sustain legal malpractice injury. In Nelson, an employment contract dispute, the Court held that the plaintiff should have discovered deficiencies in his employment contract (it provided for the loss of salary and commissions in the event of for-cause termination) in 2012 when he sued his former employer, not in 2014 when the employer won summary judgment.

The Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that its damages were unknown until the lien litigation was finally settled and that it couldn’t sue until the lien dispute was resolved. The court held that the extent and existence of damages are different things and that it’s the date a plaintiff learns he/she was damaged, not the amount, that matters.

Lastly, the court nixed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel concern – that plaintiff couldn’t argue the lien was valid in the underlying case while arguing the opposite in the malpractice suit. According to the court, the plaintiff could have entered into a tolling agreement that would suspend the statute of limitations pending the outcome of the underlying case.

Conclusion

Construction Systems reaffirms that a legal malpractice claim can accrue before an adverse judgment is entered or an opponent files a formal pleading that points out claim defects.  Moreover, the payment of attorneys’ fees directly attributable to a former counsel’s neglect is sufficient to meet the damages prong of a legal malpractice case.

This case and others like it also make clear that the limitations period runs from the date a plaintiff learns she has been injured; not when financial harm is specifically quantified.

To preserve a possible malpractice claim while a plaintiff challenges an underlying adverse ruling, practitioners should consider tolling agreements to suspend any statutes of limitation and guard against possible judicial estoppel concerns (taking inconsistent positions in separate lawsuits).

High-Tech Sports Co.’s Warranty Claims Too Late Says Seventh Circuit (Newspin v. Arrow Electronics – Part I of II)

Newspin Sports, LLC v. Arrow Electronics, Inc., 2018 WL 6295272 (7th Cir. 2018), analyzes the goods-versus-services dichotomy under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and how that difference informs the applicable statute of limitations.

The defendant supplied electronic sensor components for plaintiff’s use in its high-tech sports performance products.  Plaintiff sued when most of the parts were faulty and didn’t meet Plaintiff’s verbal and written requirements.  Plaintiff brought both contract- and tort-based claims against the Plaintiff.

The Breach of Contract Claims

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the contract claims on the basis they were time-barred under the UCC’s four-year limitations period for the sale of goods.

In Illinois, a breach of written contract claimant has ten years to sue measured from when its claim accrues. 735 ILCS 5/13-206.  A claim accrues when the breach occurs, regardless of the non-breaching party’s lack of knowledge of the breach.  For a contract involving the sale of “goods,” a shortened 4-year limitations period applies. 810 ILCS 5/2-102 (goods df.), 810 ILCS 5/2-725(2)(4-year limitations period).

With a mixed contract (an agreement involving the supply of goods and services), Illinois looks at the contract’s “predominant purpose” to determine whether the 10-year or the compressed 4-year limitations period governs.

To apply the predominant purpose test, the court looks at the contract terms and the proportion of goods to services provided for under the contract.  The court then decides whether the contract is mainly for goods with services being incidental or if its principally for services with goods being incidental.

Here, the Court noted the Agreement was a mixed bag: the defendant promised to provide both goods and services.  But various parts of the contract made it clear that the defendant was hired to first provide a prototype product and later, to furnish components pursuant to plaintiff’s purchase orders.  The court found that any services referenced in the agreement were purely tangential to the main thrust of the contract – defendant’s furnishing electronic sensors for plaintiff to attach to its client’s golf clubs.  Support for this finding lay in the fact that the Agreement set out specific quantity and price terms for the goods (the components) but did not so specify for the referenced assembly, manufacturing and procurement services.

Other Agreement features that led to the court ruling the Agreement was one for goods included its warranty, sales tax, “F.O.B. and title passing provisions. The court noted that the warranty only applied to the manufactured products and not to any services and the contract’s sales tax provision – making Plaintiff responsible for sales taxes –  typically applied in goods contracts, not services ones.

Additionally, the Agreement’s F.O.B. (“free on board”) and title passage terms both signaled this was a goods (not a services) deal. See 810 ILCS 5/2-106(1)(sale consists in passing title from seller to buyer for a price). [*5]

Since the plaintiff didn’t sue until more than five years elapsed from the breach date, the Court affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and breach of warranty claims.

The Negligent Misrepresentation Claim

The Seventh Circuit also affirmed dismissal of plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation claim. Under New York law (the contract had a NY choice-of-law provision), a plaintiff alleging negligent misrepresentation must establish (1) a special, privity-like relationship that imposes a duty on the defendant to impart accurate information to the plaintiff, (2) information that was in fact incorrect, and (3) plaintiff’s reasonable reliance on the information.

Like Illinois, New York applies the economic loss rule. This precludes a plaintiff from recovering economic losses under a tort theory. And since the plaintiff’s claimed negligent misrepresentation damages – money it lost based on the component defects – mirrored its breach of contract damages, the economic loss rule defeated plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation count. [*10]

Afterwords:

The case presents a useful summary of the dispositive factors a court looks at when deciding whether a contract’s primary purpose is for goods or services.  Besides looking at an agreement’s end product (or service), certain terms like F.O.B., title-shifting and sales tax provisions are strong indicators of contracts for the sale of goods.

The case also demonstrates the continuing viability of the economic loss rule.  Where a plaintiff’s breach of contract damages are identical to its tort damages, the economic loss rule will likely foreclose a plaintiff’s tort claim.

 

IL Supreme Court Expands on Shareholder Derivative Suits and Standing Doctrine in Att”y Malpractice Suit

Some minority shareholders in an LLC sued their former counsel for legal malpractice alleging the firm failed to file “obvious” breach of fiduciary claims against the LLC’s corporate counsel.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm in Stevens v. McGuirreWoods, LLP, 2015 IL 118652, the Illinois Supreme Court gives content to the quantum of proof needed to sustain a legal malpractice claim and discusses the type of legal interest that will confer legal standing for a corporate shareholder to sue in its individual capacity.

The plaintiffs’ central claim was that McGuirreWoods (MW) botched the underlying case by not timely suing Sidley Austin, LLP (Sidley), the LLC’s erstwhile counsel, in the wake of the LLC’s majority shareholders looting the company.  Sidley got the underlying case tossed on statute of limitations grounds and because the plaintiffs lacked standing.

The trial court found that even if MW had timely sued Sidley, the shareholder plaintiffs still lacked standing as their claims belonged exclusively to the LLC. After the First District appeals court partially reversed on a procedural issue, MW appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Affirming judgment for Sidley, the Illinois Supreme Court considered the interplay between legal malpractice cases and shareholder derivative suits.

Dubbed a “case-within-a-case,” the legal malpractice claim plaintiff alleges that if it wasn’t for an attorney’s negligence in an underlying case, the plaintiff would have won that case and been awarded money damages.

The legal malpractice plaintiff must prove (1) the defendant attorney owed the plaintiff a duty of care arising from the attorney-client relationship, (2) the defendant attorney (or law firm) breached that duty, and (3) as a direct and proximate result of the breach, the plaintiff suffered injury.

Injury in the legal malpractice setting means the plaintiff suffered a loss which entitles him to money damages.  Without proof the plaintiff sustained a monetary loss as a result of the lawyer’s negligence, the legal malpractice suit fails.

The plaintiff must establish it would have won the underlying lawsuit but for the lawyer’s negligence.  The plaintiff’s recoverable damages in the legal malpractice case are the damages it would have recovered in the underlying case. [¶ 12]

Here, the plaintiffs sued as individual shareholders.  The problem was that Sidley’s obligation ran to the LLC entity.  As a result, the plaintiffs lacked individual standing to sue Sidley.

Under the law, derivative claims belong solely to a corporation on whose behalf the derivative suit is brought.  A plaintiff must have been a shareholder at the time of the transaction of which he complains and must maintain his shareholder status throughout the entire lawsuit.  [¶ 23]

Illinois’ LLC Act codifies this rule by providing that any derivative action recovery goes to the LLC; not the individual shareholder.  The individual shareholder plaintiff can recover his attorneys’ fees and expenses.  805 ILCS 180/40-15.

While a successful derivative suit plaintiff can benefit indirectly from an increase in share value, the Court held that missing out on increased share value was not something the shareholders could sue for individually in a legal malpractice suit.

Had MW timely sued Sidley, any recovery would have gone to the LLC, not to the plaintiffs.  And since the plaintiffs could not have recovered money damages against Sidley in the earlier lawsuit, they could not recover them in a later malpractice case.

Afterwords:

This case provides a thorough explication of the standing doctrine in the context of shareholder derivative suits.

The case turned on the nature of the plaintiff’s claims.  Clearly, they were suing derivatively (as opposed to individually) to “champion” the LLC’s rights.  As a result, any recovery in the case against Sidley would flow to the LLC – the entity of which plaintiffs were no longer members.

And while the plaintiffs did maintain their shareholder status for the duration of the underlying Sidley case, their decision to terminate their LLC membership interests before suing MW proved fatal to their legal malpractice claims.