Retailers’ Sales Forecasts Not Factual Enough to Buttress Fraud In Inducement Claim (IL ND)

The Northern District of Illinois provides a useful synopsis of Federal court summary judgment standards and the scope of some Illinois business torts in a dispute over a canceled advertising contract to sell hand tools.

The plaintiff in Loggerhead Tools, LLC v. Sears Holding Corp., 2016 WL 5111573 (N.D.Ill. 2016) sued Sears when it canceled an agreement to promote the plaintiff’s Bionic Wrench product and instead bought from plaintiff’s competitor.   The plaintiff claimed that after Sears terminated their contract, it was too late for the plaintiff to supply product to competing retailers.  Plaintiff filed a flurry of fraud claims alleging the department store giant made inflated sales forecasts and failed to disclose it was working with  plaintiff’s competitor.  Sears successfully moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims.

Summary Judgment Guideposts

Summary judgment is appropriate where the movant shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Courts deciding summary judgment must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a “genuine” dispute as to those facts.  A genuine fact dispute exists where a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. 

The summary judgment movant has the initial burden of establishing an absence of a genuine fact dispute.  Once the movant meets this burden, it then shifts to the nonmovant/respondent who must point to specific evidence in the record that shows there is a genuine issue for trial.  But only “material” factual disputes will prevent summary judgment.  A fact is material where it is so important that it could alter the case’s outcome.

Fraud Analysis:

The crux of Plaintiff’s fraud suit was that Sears strung Plaintiff along by creating the false impression that Sears would market Plaintiff’s products.  Plaintiff alleged that Sears concealed its master plan to work with Plaintiff’s competitor and only feigned interest in Plaintiff until Sears struck a deal with a competing vendor.

An Illinois fraud plaintiff must show:  (1) defendant made a false statement of material fact, (2) defendant knew the statement was false, (3) the defendant intended the statement to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) the plaintiff justifiably relied on the statement’s truth, and (5) plaintiff suffered damages as a result of relying on the statement.

A bare broken promise doesn’t equal fraud.  An exception to this “promissory fraud” rule is where the defendant’s actions are part of a “scheme to defraud:” that is, the defendant’s actions are part of a pattern of deception.  The scheme exception also applies where the plaintiff can show the defendant did not intend to fulfill his promise at the time it was made (not in hindsight).

In determining whether a plaintiff’s reliance on a defendant’s misstatement is reasonable, the court looks at all facts that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of as well as facts the plaintiff may have learned through ordinary prudence.

Here, Sears’ sales forecasts were forward-looking, “promissory” statements of hoped-for sales results.  Sears’ profuse contractual disclaimers that sales forecasts were just “estimates” to be used “for planning purposes” only and “not commitments” prevented the Plaintiff from establishing reasonable reliance on the projections.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s fraudulent concealment claim.  To prevail on a fraud claim premised on concealment of material facts, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a duty to disclose the material fact.  Such a duty will arise where the parties have a special or fiduciary relationship that gives rise to a duty to speak.  

Parties to a contract are generally not fiduciaries.  Relevant factors to determine whether a fiduciary relationship exists include (1) degree of kinship of the parties, and (2) disparity in age, health, mental condition, education and business experience between the parties.

Here, there was no disparity between the parties.  They were both sophisticated businesses who operated at arms’ length from one another.

Afterwords: This case provides a good distillation of summary judgment rules, promissory fraud and the scheme to defraud exception to promissory fraud not being actionable.  It echoes how difficult it is for a plaintiff to plead and prove fraud – especially in the business-to-business setting where there is equal bargaining power between litigants.

This case provides a good distillation of summary judgment rules, promissory fraud and the scheme to defraud exception to the promissory fraud rule.  The case further illustrates the difficulty of proving fraud – especially in the business-to-business setting where there is equal bargaining power between the parties.

 

 

 

Getting E-Mails Into Evidence: (Ind.) Federal Court Weighs In

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Since e-mail is the dominant form of business communication across the globe, it’s no surprise that it comprises a large chunk of the documents used as evidence at a business dispute trial.

Email’s prevalence in lawsuits makes it crucial for litigators to understand the key evidence authenticity and foundational rules that govern whether an email gets into evidence.  This is especially true where an email goes to the heart of a plaintiff’s claims (or defendant’s defenses) and the e-mail author or recipient denies the e-mail’s validity.

Finnegan v. Myers, 2015 WL 5252433 (N.D. Ind. 2015), serves as a recent example of a Federal court applying fundamental evidence rules to the e-mail communications context.

In the case, the plaintiffs, whose teenaged daughter died under suspicious circumstances, sued various Indiana child welfare agencies for lodging criminal child neglect charges against them that were eventually dropped.  The plaintiffs then filed Federal civil rights and various due process claims against the defendants.

The defendants moved for summary judgment and then sought to strike some of plaintiffs’ evidence opposing summary judgment.  A key piece of evidence relied on by the plaintiff in opposing summary judgment that the defendants sought to exclude as improper hearsay was an e-mail from a forensic pathologist to child welfare personnel that called into questions the results of a prior autopsy of the deceased.

Denying defendants’ two motions (the summary judgment motion and motion to strike), the Court provides a useful gloss on the operative evidence rules that control e-mail documents in litigation.

  • The Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) require a proponent to produce evidence sufficient to support a finding the item is authentic – that it is what the proponent claims it to be;
  • FRE 901 recognizes several methods of authentication including witness testimony, expert or non-expert comparisons, distinctive characteristics, and public records, among others;
  • FRE 902 recognizes certain evidence as inherently trustworthy and “self-authenticating” (requiring no additional proof of authenticity).  Evidence in this camp includes public records, official publications, newspapers and periodicals, commercial paper, and certified domestic records of a regularly conducted activity;
  • Authentication only relates to the source of the documents – it does not mean that the documents’ contents are taken as true;
  • E-mails may be authenticated by circumstantial evidence such as (a) viewing the e-mail’s contents in light of the factual background of the case, (b) identifying the sender and receiver via affidavit, (c) identifying the sender by the e-mail address from which the e-mail was sent, (d) comparing the email’s substance to other evidence in the case, and (e) comparing the e-mail to other statements by the claimed author of a given email.

(** 5-6)

Applying these guideposts, the court found that the plaintiff sufficiently established that the subject email was genuine (i.e., it was what it purported to be) and that it was up to the jury to determine what probative value the email evidence had at trial.

The court also agreed with the plaintiff that the pathologist’s email wasn’t hearsay: it was not used for the truth of the email.  Instead, it was simply used to show that the State  agency was put on notice of a second autopsy and changes in the pathologist’s cause of death opinions.

Afterwords:

This case resonates with me since I’ve litigated cases in the past where a witness flatly denies sending an email even though it’s from an e-mail address associated with the witness.  In those situations. I’ve had to compile other evidence – like the recipient’s affidavit – and had to show the denied email is congruent with other evidence in the case to negate the denial.

Finnegan neatly melds FRE 901 and 902 and provides a succinct summary of what steps a litigator must take to establish the authenticity of e-mail evidence.

Joint Ventures, Close Corporations and Summary Judgment Motion Practice – IL Northern District Case Snapshot

The featured case is Apex Medical Research v. Arif (http://cases.justia.com/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2015cv02458/308072/52/0.pdf?ts=1447939471)

A medical clinical trials firm sued a doctor and his company for breach of contract and some tort claims when the firm learned the doctor was soliciting firm clients in violation of a noncompete signed by him.

In partially granting and denying a flurry of summary judgment motions, the Illinois Northern District highlights the importance of Local Rule 56 statements and responses in summary judgment practice. Substantively, the court provides detailed discussion of the key factors governing whether a business arrangement is a joint venture and what obligations flow from such a finding.

The clinical trials agreement contemplated that plaintiff would locate medical trial opportunities and then provide them to the doctor defendant.  The doctor would then conduct the trials in exchange for a percentage of the revenue generated by them.  The plaintiff sued when the parties’ relationship soured.

Procedurally, the court emphasized the key rules governing Local Rule 56 (“LR 56”) statements and responses in summary judgment practice:

LR 56 is designed to aid the trial court in determining whether a trial is necessary; Its purpose is to identify relevant admissible evidence supporting the material facts.  LR 56 is not a vehicle for factual or legal arguments;

– LR 56 requires the moving party to provide a statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue;

– The non-moving party must then file a response to each numbered paragraph of the movant’s statement of facts and if it disagrees with any statement of fact, the non-movant must make specific reference to the affidavits and case record that supports the denial;

– A failure to cite to the record in support of a factual denial may be disregarded by the court;

– The non-movant may also submit its own statement of additional facts that require denial of the summary judgment motion;

– Where a non-movant makes evasive denials or claims insufficient knowledge to answer a moving party’s factual statement, the court will deem the fact admitted.

(**2-3)

The court focused its substantive legal analysis on whether the individual defendant owed fiduciary duties to the plaintiff.  Under Illinois law, a joint venturer owes fiduciary duties of loyalty and good faith to his other joint venturer.  So too does a shareholder in a close corporation (a corporation where stock is held in the hands of only a few people or family members) – but only if that shareholder is able to influence corporate policy and management.

The hallmarks of an Illinois joint venture are: (1) an express or implied association of two or more persons to carry out a single enterprise for profit; (2) a manifested intent by the parties to be joint venturers; (3) a community of interest (i.e. joint contribution of property, money, effort, skill or knowledge); and (4) a measure of joint control and management of the enterprise.  (*16).

The most important joint venture element is the joint control (item (4)) aspect.  Here, there were provisions of the parties’ written contract that reflected equal control and management of the clinical trials arrangement but other contract terms reflected the opposite – that the plaintiff could supervise the doctor defendant.  These conflicts in the evidence showed there was a genuine factual dispute on whether the parties jointly controlled and managed the trial venture.

The evidence was also murky as to whether the doctor defendant had enough control over the corporate plaintiff to subject the doctor to fiduciary obligations as a close corporation shareholder.  The conflicting evidence led the court to deny summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claim. (**16-17).

Afterwords:

Procedurally, the case presents a thorough summary of the key rules governing summary judgment practice in Illinois Federal courts.  The party opposing summary judgment must explicitly cite to the case record for its denial of a given stated fact to be recognized by the court.

The case also provides useful substantive law discussion of the key factors governing the existence of a joint venture and whether a close corporation’s shareholder owes fiduciary duties to the other stockholders of that corporation.