Promissory Fraud: Sporting Goods Maker Pleads Seller’s Scheme to Defraud – IL ND

Maurice Sporting Goods, Inc. v. BB Holdings, Inc., 2017 WL 2692124, ponders the reach of the promissory fraud rule (a broken promise normally doesn’t equal fraud), how to plead around it, and the law of the case doctrine.

After a multi-year business relationship for the sale of sporting goods imploded, the plaintiff distributor sued the defendant manufacturer for breach of a 2015 buy-back agreement that required the manufacturer to “buy back” unsold inventory.

The manufacturer counterclaimed; it claimed the distributor defrauded it and tampered with the manufacturer’s relationship with a key customer.  Partially granting the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims, the Northern District discussed the factual specificity required of a plaintiff to circumvent the general rule that promissory fraud isn’t actionable.

The Court first addressed the distributor’s law of the case argument – the manufacturer was trying to relitigate its earlier failed estoppel defense (that the distributor’s fraud barred it from recovering damages from the manufacturer).  The court previously nixed the manufacturer’s estoppel defense because it failed to link the plaintiff’s fraud to the buy-back agreement.

The law of the case doctrine (LOC) prevents a court from reopening issues it previously decided in the same case.  LOC is a flexible doctrine, though.  A court will refuse to apply LOC if there is a change in the law, new evidence or compelling circumstances.

The court declined to apply the LOC doctrine here because the manufacturer’s stricken estoppel defense was premised on fraud by the plaintiff distributor related to a separate transaction – the original distributor agreement – that differed from the buy-back agreement that underlay plaintiff’s suit.

Next, the court examined whether defendant sufficiently alleged an exception to promissory fraud under Federal pleading rules.  Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires heightened factual specificity in fraud claims as the Rule tries to discourage litigants from bootstrapping simple breach of contract claims into tort actions with wide-ranging damages.

Promissory fraud is a false representation of intent concerning future conduct where there is no actual intent to do so.  While promissory fraud is generally not actionable, a plaintiff can plead around it by alleging egregious conduct or a pattern of deception or enticements that reasonably induce reliance.  A fraudulent scheme exists where a party alleges a specific and objective pattern of deception including the who, what, where, and when of the misstatements.

Here, the manufacturer was able to point to three different agents of the distributor who made misstatements in three different phone calls in the same month to support the fraud counterclaim.  These allegations that three distributor employees made false promises in order to sabotage defendant’s relationship with a major retailer were definite enough to meet Rule 9’s pleading requirements for fraud.

Afterwords:

While there is some elemental overlap between an estoppel defense and a promissory fraud counterclaim, the defeat of one won’t always cancel out the other where they relate to different transactions and different underlying facts.

To allege actionable fraud based on a broken promise, a plaintiff must plead a scheme to defraud that equates to a measurable pattern of deception or factual misrepresentations.

Plaintiff’s Damage Expert Barred in Tortious Interference Case Where Only Offering ‘Simple Math’ – IL Case Note

An auto body shop plaintiff sued an insurance company for tortious interference and consumer fraud.

The plaintiff in Knebel Autobody Center, Inc. v. Country Mutual Insurance Co., 2017 IL App (4th) 160379-U, claimed the defendant insurer intentionally prepared low-ball estimates to drive its policy holders and plaintiff’s potential customers to lower cost (“cut-rate”) competing body shops.  As a result, plaintiff claimed it lost a sizeable chunk of business.  The trial court granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment and motion to bar plaintiff’s damages expert.

Result: Affirmed.

Reasons: The proverbial “put up or shut up” litigation moment,  summary judgment is a drastic means of disposing of a lawsuit.  The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of production and ultimate burden of persuasion.  A defendant moving for summary judgment can satisfy its burden of production either by (1) showing that some element of plaintiff’s cause of action must be resolved in defendant’s favor or (2) by demonstrating that plaintiff cannot produce evidence necessary to support plaintiff’s cause of action.  Once the defendant meets its burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff who must then present a factual basis that arguably entitles it to a favorable judgment.

Under Illinois law, a consumer fraud plaintiff must prove damages and a tortious interference plaintiff must show that it lost specific customers as a result of a defendant’s purposeful interference.

Here, since the plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of lost customers stemming from the insurer’s acts, it failed to offer enough damages evidence to survive summary judgment on either its consumer fraud or tortious interference claims.

The court also affirmed the trial court’s barring the plaintiff’s damages expert.

In Illinois, expert testimony is admissible if the offered expert is qualified by knowledge, skill, training, or education and the testimony will assist the judge or jury in understanding the evidence.

Expert testimony is proper only where the subject matter is so arcane that only a person with skill or experience in a given area is able to form an opinion. However, “basic math” is common knowledge and does not require expert testimony. 

Illinois Evidence Rules 702 and 703 codify the expert witness admissibility standards.  Rule 702 provides that if “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.”

Rule 703 states that an expert’s opinion may be based on data perceived by or made known to the expert at or before the hearing. If the data is of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in a particular field, the underlying data supplied to the expert doesn’t have to be admissible in evidence.

Here, the plaintiff’s expert merely compared plaintiff’s loss of business from year to year and opined that the defendant’s conduct caused the drop in business.  Rejecting this testimony, the court noted that anyone, not just an expert, can calculate a plaintiff’s annual lost revenues.  Moreover, the plaintiff’s expert failed to account for other factors (i.e. demographic shifts, competing shops in the area, etc.) that may have contributed to plaintiff’s business losses.  As a result, the appeals court found the trial court properly barred plaintiff’s damages expert. (¶¶ 32-33)

Afterwords:

The case underscores the proposition that a tortious interference plaintiff must demonstrate a specific customer(s) stopped doing business with a plaintiff as a direct result of a defendant’s purposeful conduct.  A consumer fraud plaintiff also must prove actual damages resulting from a defendant’s deceptive act.

Another case lesson is that a trial court has wide discretion to allow or refuse expert testimony.  Expert testimony is not needed or allowed for simple math calculations.  If all a damages expert is going to do is compare a company’s earnings from one year to the next, the court will likely strike the expert’s testimony as unnecessary to assist the judge or jury in deciding a case.

 

‘Substantial Truth’ Defeats Wisconsin Plaintiff’s Tortious Interference Suit – 7th Circuit

In Wesbrook v. Ulrich 2016 WL 6123534, the Seventh Circuit examined the reach of the truth defense to a tortious interference with contract action stemming from a bitter dispute between a prominent Wisconsin medical clinic and one of its high-level employees.

The plaintiff sued a former co-worker and ex-supervisor for tortious interference with contract claiming the two worked in concert to engineer the plaintiff’s firing from the clinic.  The plaintiff claimed the defendants repeatedly made critical statements about him to third parties that resulted in his being ostracized by clinic staff and ultimately let go.  The District Court granted summary judgment for the clinic and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

To prove tortious interference with contract in Wisconsin, the plaintiff must show (1) a valid contract or a prospective contractual relationship with a third party, (2) defendant’s interference with that relationship, (3) interference by the defendant that was intentional, (4) a causal connection between the interference and damages, and (5) the defendant wasn’t justified or privileged to interfere.

To sue a co-worker for tortious interference, the plaintiff must show (1) that the employer did not benefit from the co-worker’s/defendant’s statement, and (2) the co-worker’s act was independently tortious (i.e., fraudulent or defamatory).

Whether conduct or a statement is privileged is a fact-driven question that looks at the nature, type and duration of the conduct and whether the conduct was fair under the circumstances.  But where the challenged statement is true, it is privileged as a matter of law.  There can be no cause of action aimed at a true statement; even one motivated by ill will toward a plaintiff.

The same holds for “substantially true” statements.  Even where a statement isn’t 100% accurate, so long as it’s true in most of its particulars, it’s still privileged and will defeat a tortious interference claim.  Tort law does not demand “artificial precision” in common use of language.

Here, the defendants’ challenged statements concerning plaintiff were substantially true.  Defendants’ verbal and written assertions that plaintiff had an autocratic management style, threatened his subordinates, and that several employees had lodged complaints against him were true enough to defeat plaintiff’s claims.  While there were arguably some factual specifics that were either embellished or omitted from the statements, the Court viewed their substance as sufficiently accurate to negate plaintiff’s tortious interference suit.

The Seventh Circuit also based its decision granting summary judgment for the defendants on policy grounds.  It reasoned that if a plaintiff could sue a co-worker every time he believed that co-worker instigated or contributed to the firing decision, it would swallow up the general rule that at-will employees cannot sue for breach of contract where they are fired without warning or cause.

Afterwords:

1/ An interesting case in that it examines the tortious interference tort in the factually anomalous setting of an at-will employee suing his co-workers instead of his employer after a discharge;

2/ The key holding from the case is that truth is a defense not only to defamation but also to tortious interference with contract under Wisconsin law;

3/ A statement’s truth is construed flexibly: it doesn’t have to be completely accurate.  Even if there are exaggerated aspects of a statement, so long as the statement meets the substantially true test, the speaker will be privileged to tortiously interfere.