Computer-Generated Business Records and Summary Judgment Affidavits – IL Law

bizrecordsIn US National Bank v. Avdic, 2014 IL App (1st) 121759-U, the First District provides a detailed analysis of both the evidentiary foundation requirements for computer-generated business records and the requirements of a valid summary judgment affidavit.

The plaintiff lender filed a foreclosure suit against the borrower defendant and moved for summary judgment.  The lender supported its motion with the affidavit of a bank officer who attached sworn copies of key loan documents, the promissory note and a computer-generated payment history for the defendant borrower’s account.

The defendant moved to strike the bank’s affidavit on the basis that it failed to lay a sufficient foundation for the attached loan and payment records and didn’t establish that the bank employee who signed the affidavit had first-hand knowledge of the defendant’s payment history.  The trial court entered summary judgment for the lender and denied the borrower’s motion to strike the affidavit.  The borrower appealed.

Result: Trial court affirmed. Plaintiff-lender wins.

Q: How Come?

A: The lender’s summary judgment affidavit complied with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 191 – the rule that governs summary judgment affidavits.  Rule 191 requires affidavit to state specific facts and to be based on personal knowledge instead of conclusions or guess-work.  Affidavits are substitutes for live trial testimony and because of that, must pass a stringent test for admission in evidence.  US Bank, ¶¶ 22-25.

To lay a foundation for admitting business records as a hearsay exception, the party must show that the records were (1) made in the regular course of business; and (2) at or near the time of the event or occurrence.  Rule 803(6) and Supreme Court Rule 236 work in tandem to codify the business records exception to the hearsay rule.  US Bank, ¶¶ 24-26.

Where computer-generated records are involved, the proponent must demonstrate (1) that the computer equipment is standard equipment, (2) the computerized entries were made in the regular course of business (3) at or reasonably near in time to the events recorded and (4) that the sources of information, the method of data entry and preparation are all trustworthy.  US Bank, ¶26.

The Court found that the lender’s affidavit met the relevant Rule 191 criteria.  The bank officer testified that she was familiar with the lender’s business practices, records and its manner of inputting, tracking and generating payment information.  She also testified in detail what steps the bank takes when creating, storing and printing loan and payment records.  The officer also said she reviewed the loan file, promissory note and related documents.  She also attached the key loan documents to the affidavit. ¶¶ 30-31.

The affidavit also met the admissibility standards for computer-generated payment records.  The bank officer described the computer software used by the bank to create and print out loan payment histories and testified that the software program used was standard and customary in the banking industry.  The officer even said that the computer equipment was periodically checked for accuracy. ¶¶ 29-30.

The court also found there was no requirement that the officer have first-hand knowledge of the borrower’s account or that she (the officer) personally made the payment entries into the bank’s computer for the affidavit to conform to Rule 191’s requirements.  Under Rule 236 and Illinois Evidence Rule 803(6), a lack of personal knowledge can affect the weight given to testimony; but it won’t bar that testimony outright.

Take-aways:  To get computer business records into evidence on summary judgment, the mo any should itemize each foundational requirement for those records.  A business entity plaintiff especially should establish that the person signing a summary judgment affidavit is familiar with the business’s record-keeping and billing processes and can testify to any unique billing and payment software used by the business.

Tortious Interference With Prospective Economic Advantage – An Illinois Case Note

In Davidson v. Schneider, 2014 WL 656780 (N.D.Ill. 2014), the Court describes the quantum of proof required for a plaintiff to survive summary judgment on both the damages element of a breach of contract claim and the “reasonable expectancy” prong of a tortious interference claim.

The plaintiff and defendant were competitors in the baseball vision testing business.  They were also parties to prior patent infringement litigation that culminated in a written settlement agreement that contained broad non-disparagement language.

 When the plaintiff found out that one of defendant’s employee’s was bad-mouthing the plaintiff to a college softball coach and prospective client, he sued in Federal court.  After discovery finished, the Court entered summary judgment for defendants on plaintiff’s breach of contract and tortious interference claims.

An Illinois breach of contract plaintiff must show (a) existence of a contract, (b) performance by the plaintiff, (c) breach by the defendant and (d) compensable damages resulting from the breach.  Davidson, *3, Asset Exch. II, LLC v. First Choice Bank, 2011 Ill.App. (1st) 103718. 

Damage to reputation or goodwill resulting in a diminished ability to make money as a result of a breach can be recovered in a breach of contract suit.  However, where a party shows a breach but no damages, the contract claim is “pointless” and must failDavidson, *5.

Here, the plaintiff established a contract (the settlement agreement) and defendant’s breach (by disparaging plaintiff’s products and services).  However, the plaintiff was unable to pinpoint any measurable money damages resulting from the defendants’ denigrating the plaintiff’s vision training services.

 Plaintiff cited no lost clients or business opportunities traceable to the defendants disparaging comments.  Without any damages evidence, the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim failed as a matter of law.  Davidson, *4.

The Court also granted summary judgment on plaintiff’s tortious interference with prospective economic advantage claim.  Plaintiff’s tortious interference count was based on derogatory comments defendants’ employee made to another baseball coach and prospective customer of plaintiff. 

The elements of tortious interference with prospective economic advantage are: (1) a reasonable expectation of entering a valid business relationship, (2) defendant’s knowledge of the expectation, (3) purposeful interference by the defendant that prevents plaintiff’s expectation from ripening into a business relationship, and (4) damages to the plaintiff resulting from the interference.  *5

The mere  hope for or possibility of a future business relationship is insufficient to show a reasonable expectancy. 

Here, plaintiff’s evidence showed only a nebulous hope of a future business pairing with the baseball coach to whom defendants trashed plaintiff’s product.  He didn’t show any specific business arrangement that was in the works.  As a result, plaintiff failed to raise a triable fact question on whether he had a reasonable expectation of a future business relationship with the baseball coach.

Take-aways: A breach of contract plaintiff’s failure to prove damages with tangible evidence of financial loss at the summary judgment state will doom his case. 

To survive summary judgment on a tortious interference with prospective economic advantage claim, the plaintiff must offer tangible evidence that he had a specific, proposed business arrangement with an identified third party – instead of a wish or hope for one – to meet the tort’s reasonable expectancy test.

 

7th Circuit Affirms Fraudulent Transfer and Alter Ego Judgment Against Corporate Officers

The Seventh Circuit affirmed an almost $3M judgment against the defendants under fraudulent transfer, successor liability and alter ego rules in Center Point v. Halim, 2014 WL 697501.

The plaintiff energy company entered into a written contract to supply natural gas to defendants’ 41 Chicago area rental properties.  The individual defendants – a husband and wife – managed the properties through a management company (Company 1).

Over a two-year period, defendants used over $1.2M worth of plaintiff’s gas and didn’t pay for it.  Plaintiff sued Company 1 in state court and got a $1.7M judgment.  When plaintiff discovered that defendants transferred all of Company 1’s assets to Company 2, plaintiff sued Company 2 and the husband and wife in Federal court alleging a fraudulent transfer and successor liability.  The Northern District entered summary judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $2.7M on all claims and defendants appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first found that the defendants’ conduct violated the Illinois Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 (the “Act”).  The Act punishes debtor attempts to avoid creditors through actual fraud or constructive fraud.

Constructive fraud applies where (1) a debtor transfers assets without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer and (2) the debtor intends to incur or reasonably should believe he will incur debts beyond his ability to pay them as they become due.  Halim, *2, 740 ILCS 160/5.

The Court found that the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent. First, the Court noted that during a three-year time span, Company 1 (the state court judgment debtor) transferred almost $11M to the individual defendants; ostensibly to repay loans.

But the Court found it odd there was no documentation of loans or a paper trail showing where the millions of dollars went.  The suspicious timing of defendants’ creation of a new company – Company 2 – coupled with the defendants’ inability to account for the millions’ whereabouts, bolstered the Court’s constructive fraud finding.

Since the individual defendants’ depletion of Company 1’s assets made it impossible for it to pay the state court judgment, the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent under the Act. *3.

The Court also affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff under successor liability and alter ego theories.  In Illinois, the general rule is that a company that purchases assets of another company does not assume the liabilities of the purchased company.

A common exception to this rule is where there is an express assumption (of liability) by the purchasing company.  Here, the record showed that Company 2 assumed all rights, obligations, contracts and employees of Company 1.  As a result, the unsatisfied state court judgment attached to Company 2 under successor liability rules.

The Court also affirmed the judgment under the alter ego doctrine.  Alter ego applies where there is virtually no difference between the business entity and that entity’s controlling shareholders.  That is, the dominant shareholders don’t treat the corporation as a separate entity and fail to follow basic corporate formalities (e.g. minutes, stock issuance, incorporation papers, etc.).

The individual defendants treated Company 1 as their personal piggy bank by commingling their personal assets with the corporate assets.  There were no earmarks of “separateness” between the individual defendants’ assets and Company 1’s corporate assets.  *3-4.

Because of this, the husband and wife defendants were responsible (in the Federal suit) for the unsatisfied state court judgment entered against the defunct Company 1.

Take-away: Halim illustrates that where a judgment debtor corporation or controlling shareholders of that corporation transfer all corporate assets to a new, similarly named (or not) entity shortly after a lawsuit is filed, it will likely look suspicious and can lead to a constructive fraud finding.

The case also underscores the importance of following corporate formalities and keeping corporate assets separate from individual/personal assets – especially where the corporation is controlled by only two individuals.  A failure to treat the corporation as distinct from the dominant individuals, can lead to alter ego liability for those individuals.