Property Is Subject to Turnover Order Where Buyer Is ‘Continuation’ of Twice-Removed Seller – Successor Liability in IL

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a trial court’s turnover order based on a finding that a property transfer involving three separate parties was in reality, a single “pre-arranged transfer” involving a “straw purchaser.”

I previously profiled Advocate Financial Group, LLC v. 5434 North Winthrop, 2015 IL App (2d) 150144 (see http://paulporvaznik.com/5485/5485) where the court addressed the “mere continuation” and fraud exceptions to the general rule of no successor liability (a successor corporation isn’t responsible for debts of predecessor) in a creditor’s post- judgment action against an entity twice removed from the judgment debtor.

The plaintiff obtained a breach of contract judgment against the developer defendant (Company 1) who transferred the building twice after the judgment date. The second building transfer was to a third-party (Company 3) who ostensibly had no relation to Company 1. The sale from Company 1 went through another entity – Company 2 – that was unrelated to Company 1.

Plaintiff alleged that Company 1 and Company 3 combined to thwart plaintiff’s collection efforts and sought the turnover of the building so plaintiff could sell it and use the proceeds to pay down the judgment. The trial court granted the turnover motion on the basis that Company 3 was the “continuation” of Company 1 in light of the common personnel between the companies.  The appeals court reversed though.  It found that further evidence was needed on the continuation exception but hinted that the fraud exception might apply instead to wipe out the Company 1-to Company 2- to Company 3 property transfer.

On remand, the trial court found that the fraud exception (successor can be liable for predecessor debts where they fraudulently collude to avoid predecessor’s debts) indeed applied and found the transfer of the building to Company 3 was a sham transfer and again ordered Company 3 to turn the building over to the plaintiff. Company 3 appealed.

Held: affirmed

Reasons:

– A corporation that purchases the assets of another corporation is generally not liable for the debts or liabilities of the transferor corporation. The rule’s purpose is to protect good faith purchasers from unassumed liability and seeks to foster the fluidity of corporate assets;

– The “fraudulent purpose” exception to the rule of no successor liability applies where a transaction is consummated for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s obligations; 

– The mere continuation exception requires a showing that the successor entity “maintains the same or similar management and ownership, but merely wears different clothes.”  The test is not whether the seller’s business operation continues in the purchaser, but whether the seller’s corporate entity continues in the purchaser. 

– The key continuation question is always identity of ownership: does the “before” company and “after” company have the same officers, directors, and stockholders? 

The factual oddity here concerned Company 2 – the intermediary.  It was unclear whether Company 2 abetted Company 1 in its efforts to shake the plaintiff creditor.  The court affirmed the trial court’s factual finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser from Company 1. The court focused on the abbreviated time span between the two transfers – Company 2 sold to Company 3 within days of buying the building from Company 1 – in finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser. The court also pointed to evidence at trial that Company 1 was negotiating the ultimate transfer to Company 3 before the sale to Company 2 was even complete.

Taken together, the court agreed with the trial court that the two transfers (Company 1 to Company 2; Company 2 to Company 3) constituted an integrated, “pre-arranged” attempt to wipe out Company 1’s judgment debt to plaintiff.

Afterwords:  This case illustrates that a court will scrutinize property transfers that utilize middle-men that only hold the property for a short period of times (read: for only a few days).

Where successive property transfers occur within a compressed time window and the ultimate corporate buyer has substantial overlap (in terms of management personnel) with the first corporate seller, a court can void the transaction and deem it as part of a fraudulent effort to evade one of the first seller’s creditors.

 

Pleading Fraud ‘On Information And Belief’ Fails Rule 9 Specificity Test

In Deschepper v. Midwest Wine and Spirits,2015 WL 1433230, the Northern District considered the necessary pleading allegations for claims based on the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (“IWPCA”), common law fraud and successor liability in an employment dispute involving former salespersons of a liquor wholesaler.  The employer (and their principals) defendants moved to dismiss under FRCP 12(b)(6).  The court granted in part and denied in part the motion.

The Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act Claim

Upholding the IWPCA claim, the Court held that to state a claim under the IWPCA, a plaintiff “must plead that wages or final compensation is due to him or her as an employee from an employer under an employment contract or agreement.” 820 ILCS § 115/5.  An employment contract or agreement under the IWPCA doesn’t have to be formal or even written.  Instead, employers and employees can manifest their assent to employment terms by conduct alone.

Here, while there wasn’t a formal written employment contract, the Court still sustained the IWPCA count since the plaintiffs alleged that they had a hybrid salary-plus-commissions arrangement.  This was enough to survive dismissal of the IWPCA claim.

Successor Liability

A plaintiff suing under a Federal statute (like the Fair Labor Standards Act here) can sue on a successor liability theory where (1) the successor had notice of the plaintiff’s claim prior to the acquisition; and (2) there was substantial continuity in the operation of the business before and after the sale/acquisition.

The plaintiffs stated sufficient factual allegations to support a successor liability claim against a corporate entity plaintiff said was formed for the purpose of continuing the employer defendant’s business while avoiding that first employer’s Federal overtime payments to employees obligations.

Fraud

Plaintiffs fraud claims failed because they pled the facts “on information and belief.”  Alleging fraud on information and belief is insufficient to state a fraud claim unless (1) the facts constituting the fraud are not accessible to the plaintiff and (2) the plaintiff provides the grounds for his suspicions.

The court found that the plaintiffs’ shotgun pleading, and generalized assertions of fraud weren’t specific enough to place the court and the defendants on notice of the alleged factual basis for the claimed fraud. As a result, the Complaint didn’t satisfy FRCP 9(b)’s  particularity requirement for alleging fraud.

The fraud claim was also deficient since plaintiffs didn’t allege that the underlying fraud facts weren’t accessible to them and also failed to plead the factual bases for their suspicions that defendants were setting up various business entities to evade paying overtime to the plaintiffs.

Afterwords:

– An actionable IWPCA claim doesn’t require a formal written agreement.  All that’s required is the employer and employee manifest assent to payment terms through their conduct;

– Fraud pleading must rise above notice pleading under FRCP 9(b).  Absent specific factual assertions to support the fraud, the claim will likely be dismissed;

– Successor liability applies where defendant forms an entity that is arguably set up to avoid predecessor corporate obligations.

Saying “I Wasn’t Served” Not Enough to Challenge Service Return On Corp. Registered Agent – IL Law

In Charles Austin, Ltd. v. A-1 Food Services, Inc., 2014 IL App (1st) 132384, the First District affirmed the denial of a corporate defendant’s Section 2-1401 motion to vacate a judgment.

About three months after judgment, the defendant sought to vacate the judgment claiming it was never served with the lawsuit.  The trial court denied the motion leaving the judgment intact.

Q: Why?

A:  

1/ A party can serve a private corporation by leaving the complaint and summons with the registered agent or any officer or agent of the corporation found anywhere in the State. 735 ILCS 5/2-204;

2/ An affidavit of service is prima facie proof of proper service and the court will indulge every presumption in favor of finding that service was proper;

3/ To attack service, the moving party must produce evidence that casts doubt on the return of service by clear and convincing evidence;

4/ A conclusory affidavit that merely says “I was never served” isn’t sufficient to refute a return of service.  ¶ 16.

Here, the defendant’s affidavit saying he didn’t recall receiving the plaintiff’s complaint wasn’t enough to contest service on the corporation.  A defendant’s bare assertion that it doesn’t remember receiving a summons and complaint is not the kind of evidence required to impeach a facially valid service return. ¶ 19.

In Illinois, to vacate a judgment more than 30 days old,  a petitioner must show (1) the existence of a meritorious defense, (2) due diligence in presenting the defense in the underlying claim, and due diligence in filing the 2-1401 petition.

The defendant failed to show a meritorious defense.  The plaintiff alleged the predecessor corporation secretly sold its assets to the defendant – the acquiring entity – while the litigation was pending and did so to elude the debt to the plaintiff.  A well-known exception to the general rule that a successor corporation doesn’t assume the debts of a corporate predecessor is where the seller engages in a fraudulent transaction to avoid the seller’s contract obligations.

Here, the court found that the fraud exception to the rule against successor liability applied.

The court found that plaintiff sufficiently pled under Illinois fact-pleading rules that the sale of the predecessor’s assets to the defendant was fraudulent and done for the purpose of evading the plaintiff’s contract rights.  As a result, the meritorious defense argument failed.  ¶¶ 28-37.

The defendant also failed to establish due diligence in raising its defenses to the underlying breach of contract suit.  The court noted the defendant’s registered agent was served with process in October 2012, the judgment entered in January 2013, the defendant’s bank account was liened in May 2013 and it didn’t file its 2-1401 motion until June 2013.

The eight month delay in responding to the lawsuit signaled its lack of diligence in defending the suit.

Take-aways:

– To challenge service, a defendant must do more than blanketly allege that he doesn’t recall receiving a pleading;

– If a plaintiff alleges factual basis for his claim, the defendant trying to vacate a default judgment will have difficulty meeting 2-1401’s meritorious defense element.