Court Weighs In On Constructive Fraud in Contractor Lien Dispute, Summary Judgment Burdens – IL First Dist.

The First District affirmed partial summary judgment for a restaurant tenant in a contractor’s mechanics lien claim in MEP Construction, LLC v. Truco MP, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 180539.

The contractor sued to foreclose its $250,000-plus mechanics lien for unpaid construction management services furnished under a written contract between the contractor and restaurant lessee.

The lessee moved for summary judgment arguing the contractor completed only about $120,000 worth of work and so the lien was doubly inflated.  The lessee further contended that the majority of the liened work was done by plaintiff’s sub-contractors; not the plaintiff. The trial court sided with the lessee and found the plaintiff’s lien constructively fraudulent.

Affirming, the appeals court first restated the familiar, governing summary judgment standards and the contours of constructive fraud in the mechanics’ lien context.

The “put up or shut up” litigation moment – summary judgment requires the opposing party to come forward with evidence that supports its skeletal pleadings allegations.

Statements in an affidavit opposing summary judgment based on information and belief or that are unsupported conclusions, opinions or speculation are insufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact.

Section 7 of the Illinois mechanics lien act (770 ILCS 60/7) provides that no lien shall be defeated due to an error or overcharging unless the overcharge (or error) is “made with intent to defraud.” Section 7 aims to protect the honest lien claimant who makes a mistake rather than the dishonest claimant who makes a knowingly false statement. Benign mistakes are OK; purposeful lien inflation is not.
An intent to defraud can be inferred from “documents containing overstated lien amounts combined with additional evidence.” The additional evidence or “plus factor” requires more than a bare overcharge on a document: there must be additional evidence at play before a court invalidates a lien as constructively fraudulent.

Affirming the trial court’s constructive fraud ruling, the First District pointed to plaintiff’s president’s sworn statement which indicated plaintiff only performed a fraction of the liened work and that the majority of the lien was from subcontractors who dealt directly with the lessee. Critical to the court’s conclusion was that the plaintiff did not have contractual relationships with its supposed sub-contractors.

Looking to Illinois lien law case precedent, the Court noted that lien overstatements of 38%, 82% and 79% – all substantially less than the more than 100% overstatement here – were all deemed constructively fraudulent by other courts. [⁋ 17]

The Court also affirmed the lower court’s denial of the contractor’s motion for more discovery. (The contractor argued summary judgment was premature absent additional discovery.) Illinois Supreme Court Rule 191(b) allows a party opposing summary judgment to file an affidavit stating that material facts are known only to persons whose affidavits can’t be obtained due to hostility or otherwise. The failure to file a 191(b) motion precludes that party from trying to reverse a summary judgment after-the-fact on the basis of denied discovery. [⁋ 20]

Here, the contractor’s failure to seek additional time to take discovery before responding to the lessee’s summary judgment motion doomed its argument that the court entered judgment for the lessee too soon.

Take-aways:

Constructive fraud requires more than a simple math error. Instead, there must be a substantial overcharge coupled with other evidence. Here, that consisted of the fact the contractor neither performed much of the underlying services nor had contractual relationships with the various subcontractors supposedly working under it.

The case also solidifies the proposition that while there is no magic lien inflation percentage that is per se fraudulent, an overstatement of more than 100% meets the threshold.

Procedurally, the case lesson is for a summary judgment respondent to timely move for more discovery under Rule 191(b) and to specifically identify the material evidence the summary judgment respondent needs to unearth in the requested discovery.

LinkedIn Connection Requests Don’t Violate Insurance Salesman’s Noncompete – IL Court

The First District recently considered whether an insurance salesman’s generic LinkedIn invites to some former co-workers violated non-compete provisions in his employment contract.

The plaintiff in Bankers Life v. American Senior Benefits employed the defendant for over a decade as a sales manager.  During his employment, plaintiff signed an employment agreement that contained a 24-month noncompete term that covered a specific geographic area (Rhode Island).  Plaintiff sued when it learned the defendant sent some LinkedIn connection requests to some former colleagues.

The court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion on the basis that the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence that the defendant breached the noncompete by trying to induce three of plaintiff’s employees to join defendant’s new agency.  Plaintiff appealed.

Plaintiff argued that the LinkedIn requests were veiled, if not blatant, attempts to circumvent the noncompete by inviting former co-workers to join a competitor.

The First District affirmed summary judgment for the defendant.  For support, it looked to cases in other jurisdictions that considered if social media overtures can violate employee restrictive covenants.  The Court noted that a majority of these cases hold that passive social media postings (LinkedIn and Facebook, mainly) don’t go far enough to violate a noncompete.

The cases that have found that social media breached noncompete obligations involve clear statements of solicitation by the departed employee where he directly tries to sign up a former client or colleague. Since all the defendant did in this case was send generic LinkedIn messages, they didn’t rise to the level of an actionable solicitation.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that summary judgment was premature and that the plaintiff should have the opportunity to take more discovery on this issue.  Illinois Rule 191 allows a summary judgment opponent to stave off judgment while it takes written and oral discovery to assemble evidence to oppose the motion.  But the plaintiff must show a “minimum level of information” showing a defendant is possibly liable before initiating a lawsuit or making a defendant submit to discovery requests.

Since the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence the defendant solicited any of plaintiff’s employees in the prohibited Rhode Island area, summary judgment for the defendant was proper.

Afterwords:

LinkedIn generic invites that don’t specifically ask someone to sever his/her relationship with current employer don’t go far enough to constitute improper solicitation;

Summary judgment is “put up or shut up moment;” the party opposing summary judgment must offer evidence that raises a question of material fact that can only be decided after a trial on the merits.

 

Missing “Course Of Dealing” Evidence Dooms Wedding Dress Seller on Summary Judgment – IL ND

In a Memorandum Opinion and Order that quotes Neil Sedaka and Taylor Swift in its footnotes, the District Court in House of Brides, Inc. v. Angelo, 2016 WL 698093 (N.D.Ill. 2016), examines the quantity and quality of evidence required to win a summary judgment motion. 

The plaintiff sold wedding clothes on-line and in retail stores and the defendant was the plaintiff’s main supplier.  The plaintiff sued the dress maker in state court for breach of contract claiming many of the dresses were defective or shipped later than promised. 

After it removed the case to Federal court, the defendant counter-sued the plaintiff for unpaid invoices. The defendant moved for summary judgment on its counterclaims as well as on plaintiff’s claims.

Partly siding with the defendant, the court discussed some common Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) claims and defenses and the required elements of a summary judgment affidavit.

The UCC governs contracts for the sale of goods and wedding dresses constitute goods under the UCC.  A seller who delivers accepted goods to a buyer can sue the buyer for the price of the goods accepted along with incidental damages where a buyer fails to pay for the goods.  810 ILCS 5/2-709.

In a goods contract, written contract terms can be explained or supplemented by a “course of performance, course of dealing, or usage of trade.” However, written terms cannot be contradicted by evidence of a prior agreement or an oral agreement made at the same time as the written one by the parties.

Here, the plaintiff argued that the course of dealing showed that defendant routinely accepted late payments and so defendant’s “net 30” invoice language was excused.

The court rejected this argument.  It held that avoiding the 30-day payment deadline was a material change that would have to be in writing since the Statute of Frauds governs contracts for the sale of goods exceeding $500 and the dresses involved in this suit easily eclipsed that value.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s set-off defense against the defendant’s breach of contract counterclaim since a set-off must relate to the same contract being sued on (the court’s example: a seafood buyer can’t set off the price of frogs’ legs because the seller previously sent bad fish in a previous order)

Next, the court struck the plaintiff’s affidavit in support of its breach of implied warranty of merchantability claim on the basis of hearsay. 

In Federal court, an affidavit in support of or opposing summary judgment must be based on personal knowledge, show the witness’s competence and constitute admissible evidence.  Conclusory statements or affidavit testimony based on hearsay is inadmissible on summary judgment.  

The plaintiff’s affidavit testimony that there were dress defects that required refunds was too vague to survive defendant’s summary judgment motion.  This was because no employee stated that he/she personally issued any refunds or had first-hand knowledge of any dress defects that warranted a refund. 

What’s more, the seller failed to offer any authenticated business records that showed either the claimed dress defects or the refund amounts.  Without admissible evidence, the plaintiff seller failed to challenge the defendant’s breach of contract claim and the court awarded summary judgment to the defendant.

Afterwords:

1/ This case shows importance of furnishing admissible evidence when challenging summary judgment;

2/ Hearsay evidence in a summary judgment affidavit will be rejected;

3/ Course of performance or course of dealing can augment or explain written contract terms but cannot contradict them;

4/ A set-off defense must pertain to contract being sued on instead of a separate agreement;