General Contractor Insolvency, Not Owner Recourse, is Key Implied Warranty of Habitability Test – IL First Dist.

In Sienna Court Condominium Association v. Champion Aluminum Corporation, 2017 IL App (1st) 143364, the First District addressed two important issues of common law and statutory corporate law.  It first considered when a property owner could sue the subcontractor of a defunct general contractor where there was no contractual relationship between the owner and subcontractor and then examined when a defunct limited liability company (LLC) could file a lawsuit in the LLC’s name.

The plaintiff condo association sued the developer, general contractor (“GC”) and subcontractors for various building defects.  The subcontractors moved to dismiss the association’s claims on the ground that they couldn’t be liable for breaching the implied warranty of habitability if the plaintiff has possible recourse from the defunct GC’s insurer.

The trial court denied the subcontractors’ motion and they appealed.

Affirming denial of the subcontractors’ motions, the First District considered whether a homeowner’s implied warranty claim could proceed against the subcontractors of an insolvent GC where (1) the plaintiff had a potential source of recovery from the GC’s insurer or (2) the plaintiff had already recovered monies from a warranty fund specifically earmarked for warranty claims.

The court answered “yes” (plaintiff’s suit can go forward against the subs) on both counts. It held that when deciding whether a plaintiff can sue a subcontractor for breach of implied warranty of habitability, the focus is whether or not the GC is insolvent; not whether plaintiff can possibly recover (or even has recovered) from an alternate source (like a dissolved GC’s insurer).

For precedential support, the Court looked to 1324 W. Pratt Condominium Ass’n v. Platt Construction Group,   2013 IL App (1st) 130744 where the First District allowed a property buyer’s warranty claims versus a subcontractor where the general contractor was in good corporate standing and had some assets.  The court held that an innocent purchaser can sue a sub where the builder-seller is insolvent.

In the implied warranty of habitability context, insolvency means a party’s liabilities exceed its assets and the party has stopped paying debts in the ordinary course of its business. (¶¶ 89-90).  And under Pratt’s “emphatic language,” the relevant inquiry is GC’s insolvency, not plaintiff’s “recourse”.¶ 94

Sienna Court noted that assessing the viability of an owner’s implied warranty claim against a subcontractor under the “recourse” standard is difficult since there are conceivably numerous factual settings and arguments that could suggest plaintiff has “recourse.”  The court found the insolvency test more workable and more easily applied then the amorphous recourse standard. (¶ 96).

Next, the Court considered the chronological outer limit for a dissolved LLC to file a civil lawsuit.  The GC dissolved in 2010 and filed counterclaims in 2014.  The trial court ruled that the 2014 counterclaims were too late and time-barred them.

The appeals court affirmed.  It noted that Section 35-1 of the Illinois LLC Act (805 ILCS 180/1-1 et seq.) provides that an LLC which “is dissolved, and, unless continued pursuant to subsection (b) of Section 35-3, its business must be wound up,” upon the occurrence of certain events, including “Administrative dissolution under Section 35-25.” 805 ILCS 180/35-1

While Illinois’ Business Corporation Act of 1993 specifies that a dissolved corporation may pursue civil remedies only up to five years after the date of dissolution (805 ILCS 5/12.80 (West 2014)), the LLC Act is silent on when a dissolved LLC’s right to sue expires.  Section 35-4(c) only says “a person winding up a limited liability company’s business may preserve the company’s business or property as a going concern for a reasonable time”

The Court opted for a cramped reading of Section 35-4’s reasonable time language.  In viewing the LLC Act holistically, the Court found that the legislature contemplated LLC’s having a finite period of time to wind up its affairs including bringing any lawsuits.  Based on its restrictive interpretation of Section 35-4, the Court held the almost four-year gap between the GC’s dissolution (2010) and counterclaim filing (2014) did not constitute a reasonable time.

Afterwords:

Sienna Court emphasizes that a general contractor’s insolvency – not potential recourse – is the dominant inquiry in considering a property owner’s implied warranty of habitability claim against a subcontractor where the general contractor is out of business and there is no privity of contract between the owner and subcontractor.

The case also gives some definition to Section 35-4 of the LLC Act’s “reasonable time” standard for a dissolved LLC to sue on pre-dissolution claims.  In this case, the Court found that waiting four years after dissolution to file counterclaims was too long.

 

 

Constructive Fraud in IL Mechanics’ Lien Suits: A Case Study

ACHere’s one from the vault.  While dated, the case is still relevant for its cogent discussion of important and recurring mechanics’ lien litigation issues.  In Springfield Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. v. 3947-55 King Drive at Oakwood, LLC, 387 Ill App 3d 906 (1st Dist. 2009), the First District examined the concept of constructive fraud and discussed when a subcontractor can bring alternative unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims in a lien suit.

The plaintiff was a subcontractor who installed HVAC materials on a construction project consisting of two adjoining properties  for a total contract sum of about $400,000.  When the general contractor fired it, the plaintiff liened both parcels each for $300,000 – the total amount plaintiff was then due for its HVAC work.  The result was a “blanket lien” on the properties for a total of about $600K – double the proper amount.

The plaintiff sued to foreclose its liens and filed companion (and alternative) claims for quantum meruit and unjust enrichment against the general contractor and owner defendants.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims.  The court held that the lien claim was constructively fraudulent since it was inflated by almost two times the actual lien amount and because the lien wasn’t apportioned among the two property parcels.  The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims because it held that a subcontractor’s only remedy against an owner is a mechanics lien foreclosure action.

Held: Affirmed in part; reversed in part

 Constructive Fraud

The First District found there was no evidence of constructive fraud by the subcontractor; noting that Section 7 of the Lien Act aims to protect honest lien claimants who make a mistake rather than claimants who intentionally make a false statement or who knowingly inflates their lien.  That’s why someone must show an intent to defraud in order to nullify a lien.

While acknowledging that the plaintiff subcontractor’s lien totaled about $600K – nearly double of the amount it was actually owed – the Court looked beyond the liens’ numerical overcharge and found no additional evidence of fraudulent intent. 

This holding amplifies the First District’s Cordeck Sales, Inc. v. Construction Systems, Inc. (382 Ill.App.3d 334(1st. Dist. 2008)) ruling – a case viewed with near-Biblical reverence in Illinois mechanics lien circles – that a mechanics lien won’t be invalidated for constructive fraud simply because its inflated.  There must be an overstatement “in combination” with other record evidence that allows the court to infer fraudulent intent.  Here, there was no additional fraud evidence and the Court reinstated the subcontractor’s lien claim.

Quantum Meruit/Unjust Enrichment

The Court sustained the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s equitable counts of quantum meruit and unjust enrichment.  The general rule is that a subcontractor like plaintiff can’t recover for unjust enrichment where the entire work to be performed by the subcontractor is under a contract with the general contractor.  See Premier Electrical Construction Co. v. La Salle National Bank, 132 Ill. App. 3d 485, 496 (1st Dist. 1985). 

In such a case (no privity between owner and subcontractor), the general contractor has the power to employ whom he chooses and the owner is entitled to presume that any subcontracting work is being done for the contractor; not the owner.  Since there is normally no direct contract between a subcontractor and the owner, a subcontractor can’t claim that its work unjustly enriched the owner.

So, unless the subcontractor proves that it dealt directly with a property owner, its exclusive remedy against an owner is a statutory, mechanics lien suit.  Swansea Concrete Products, Inc. v. Distler, 126 Ill. App. 3d 927, 932 (5th Dist. 1984).  If the subcontractor misses the time deadlines to record its lien (four months, usually) or fails to timely file suit to foreclose the lien (two years post-completion of job), the subcontractor can’t then try to recover against the property owner under quantum meruit or unjust enrichment. 

Here, since the plaintiff’s contract was with the general contractor and not the owner, the plaintiff’s remedy against the general contractor was for breach of contract and its remedy against the owner was a mechanics’ lien suit.  As a result, the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims were properly dismissed.

Afterwords: Even though the case is now several years old, Springfield Heating has continued relevance in construction lien litigation because it is the First District’s most recent word on the showing a property owner must make to prove a subcontractor’s constructive fraud when attempting to defeat a lien on the owner’s property.  Clearly, a numerical overcharge isn’t enough to defeat a lien. 

The owner must show additional “plus factors” which signals  fraudulent intent by the lien claimant.  The case also further supports the black-letter proposition that a subcontractor’s sole remedy against a property owner is a mechanics’ lien suit.  This rule will always apply unless the subcontractor can prove that the owner specifically requested or induced the subcontractor’s labor and materials on the owner’s property.

 

 

General Contractor Can Be Liable For Subcontractor Mishap: The ‘Retained Control’ Exception

stilts2In Lederer v. Executive Construction, 2014 IL App (1st) 123170, a drywall subcontractor’s employee sued a general contractor and an electrical subcontractor after the stilt-walking employee tripped on an uncovered electrical outlet at a downtown (Chi.) office building construction site.  The outlet was left uncovered by the electrical subcontractor who was hired by the general contractor.  The plaintiff’s theory of recovery was negligence: he argued that the general contractor owed and breached a legal duty of care to the plaintiff (and others like him) to ensure that the electrical subcontractor was adhering to project safety requirements.

The general contractor moved for summary judgment on the basis that it didn’t supervise the electrical subcontractor and wasn’t responsible for plaintiff’s injuries.  The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment for the general contractor. The plaintiff appealed.

Result: summary judgment for the general contractor reversed. Questions of fact concerning the degree of control the general contractor exerted over the project and the plaintiff’s work precludes summary judgment.

Rules/Reasoning:

The First District found that the evidence showed that the general contractor exerted enough supervisory control over the project that it could be liable for an independent (sub)contractor’s negligence.  The following liability principles controlled the Court’s analysis:

Under Illinois negligence law, whether a duty exists is a question of law to be determined by the court;

 – A general contractor defendant is usually not liable for negligence of an independent contractor;

 – Under Section 414 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, a defendant can be liable for the negligence of an independent contractor where it retains (a) control over the operative detail of the independent contractor’s work; or (b) “supervisory control” over the work;

 – Supervisory control consists of the power to direct the order in which a contractor’s work is to be done;

 – But, a defendant is not liable where he merely has a general right to order work stopped or resumed, to inspect work progress and to receive status reports. In such a case, there isn’t enough control to subject the defendant to liability for the independent contractor’s negligence;

 – The best indicator of whether a contractor has retained control is the parties’ contract;

 – A defendant general contractor only needs to retain control over a single part of the overall work to be subject to liability for failure to exercise control with reasonable care.

(¶¶48-58); Restatement (Second) of Torts, s. 414, comments a-c.

Here, the Court pointed to substantial record evidence that showed the general contractor controlled and supervised multiple aspects of  both the electrical sub’s and the drywall sub’s (the plaintiff’s employer) work including: (1) retaining authority to stop unsafe work; (2) ensuring that all subs followed the general contractor’s safety policies; (3) having a strong work site presence; (4) having its safety coordinator visit the site regularly; and (5) all subcontracts had extensive references to project safety and required all subs to adhere to the defendant’s written safety guidelines.

Significantly, the defendant’s safety manual specifically banned the use of the type of stilts the plaintiff was using (to reach the high ceiling) when he was injured.  Taken together, these facts established as a matter of law that the defendant knew or should have known of the dangerous conditions surrounding the plaintiff’s injury.  (¶¶ 62-64).

Take-aways:  Aside from providing a thorough synopsis of the relevant negligence principles and liability-shifting rules that govern construction project injuries, the case should serve as a cautionary tale for general contractors who carry on an active presence on a job site.  It’s clear that if a general contractor exerts even a modicum of control over a subcontractor and takes an active role for setting the safety guidelines on a project, that contractor may be held liable for a subcontractor’s employee’s on-site injuries; at least enough to survive summary judgment.