Illinois LLC Manager Liability For LLC Contract Obligations – Some Basics

This unpublished case is dated (2011) but still post-worthy for its discussion of the nature of limited liability company (LLC) contract obligations and when someone is privileged to intentionally tamper with an existing contract.

In 6030 Sheridan Road, LLC v. Wright Management, LLC, 2011 IL App. (1st) 093282-U, the plaintiff real estate developer sued defendants – an LLC property owner and its principal – for tortious interference with business relationship after a planned condominium conversion tanked.

The plaintiff sued when the defendants terminated the condo conversion agreement because of their displeasure with the plaintiff’s handpicked real estate broker and marketing firm.

The plaintiff sued claiming the defendants tortiously interfered with plaintiff’s contracts with the broker and marketing firm and caused the plaintiff to breach those contracts.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons: the court first held that an individual LLC member could conceivably interfere with a contract entered into by that LLC.  The elemental LLC rules relied on by the court:

An LLC is a separate entity from its principal members and can sue and be sued and make contracts in its own capacity.

An LLC is a hybrid form of doing business that combines the advantages of a corporation’s limitation on personal liability with a partnership’s pass-through tax treatment (i.e., the LLC pays no entity level state or federal income tax.)

– The Limited Liability Company Act (the Act) (805 ILCS 180/1-1 et seq.) requires an LLC to have one or more members and is a separate legal entity from its members.

– An LLC can be member-managed or manager-managed and LLC members owes an LLC’s other members a fiduciary duty of loyalty and care. The same holds true for managers of manager-managed companies.

– The debts of an LLC, whether arising in contract, tort, or otherwise, are solely the debt of the LLC; not its managers or members;

– A member or manager is not personally liable for a debt, obligation, or liability of the company solely by reason of being or acting as a member or manager.

– An LLC member can only be responsible for LLC debts where: (1) the articles of organization provide for individual liability; and (2) the member has consented in writing.

See 805 ILCS 180/10-10; 180/1-30; 180/15-1, 15-3.

Afterwords:

This case provides detailed discussion of the LLC business entity and the scope of an LLC member’s liability for contract obligations.

 

Federal Court Applies IL Tortious Interference Rules and the Statute of Frauds in Railcar Lease Dispute

trainThe Northern District of Illinois recently discussed the pleading and proof elements of tortious interference with contract and the promissory estoppel doctrine in a commercial railcar lease dispute. In Midwest Renewable Energy, LLC v. Marquis Energy-Wisconsin, LLC 2014 WL 4627921 (N.D. Ill. 2014), the plaintiff sublessor of railcars sued the sublessee for damages after the plaintiff’s lessor terminated a lease (“Master Lease”) for the same cars.  The sublessee moved for summary judgment.

Result: Motion granted.  Plaintiff’s tortious interference and promissory estoppel claims are defeated.

Q: Why?

A: After the railcar lessor terminated the Master Lease with the plaintiff and started dealing directly with the sublessee, the plaintiff sued it’s sublessee for tortious interference and promissory estoppel. Granting summary judgment for the sublessee , the Court enunciated the key tortious interference with contract elements under Illinois law.

Tortious Interference with Contract

A tortious interference with contract plaintiff must show (1) the existence of a valid and enforceable contract between the plaintiff and another, (2) the defendants’ awareness of the contract, (3) the defendants’ intentional and unjustified inducement of a breach of the contract, (4) subsequent breach of the contract caused by the defendants’ wrongful conduct, and (5) damagesIf a plaintiff fails to perform its contractual obligations, it can’t prove breach and its tortious interference claim will fail.

Here, the plaintiff’s tortious interference claim failed because it couldn’t show that its lessor breached the Master Lease. The plaintiff actually breached it by subletting it to defendant without the (Master) lessor’s knowledge and consent (the Master Lease required the lessor’s consent to any sublease or assignment) and also by failing to make several months’ of railcar lease payments.  Since the lessor was able to terminate the lease on plaintiff’s breach, the plaintiff failed to establish that the lessor breached – an essential tortious interference element.

Promissory Estoppel

Next, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s promissory estoppel count. Plaintiff predicated this claim on the defendant/sublessee’s promise to buy out plaintiff’s rights under the Master Lease.

Promissory estoppel is a doctrine under which the plaintiff may recover without the presence of a contract. To prove promissory estoppel, a plaintiff must show (1) defendant made n unambiguous promise to plaintiff, (2) plaintiff relied on such promise, (3) plaintiff’s reliance was expected and foreseeable by defendants, and (4) plaintiff relied on the promise to its detriment.  Aspirational negotiations or proposals don’t equate to a clear promise under the doctrine.

Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim failed because it couldn’t show a clear promise by the defendant to buy out plaintiff’s Master Lease rights. The evidence reflected that any lease buy-out talks were merely negotiations; not ironclad promises.

The promissory estoppel clam was also defeated by the statute of frauds – which requires certain contracts to be in writing.  Under Section 2A of the UCC, lease contracts for goods (like railcars) have to be in writing unless the total lease payments are less than $1,000.  810 ILCS 5/2A–201(1). Where the statute of frauds applies, to a contract, it also requires an assignment of the contract to be in writing and signed by the party being sued.

Here, since the statute of frauds applied to the Master Leases and well over $1,000 was at stake, any assignment from plaintiff to defendant of the Master Lease had to be in writing.  The Court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that several e-mail exchanges with the sublessee satisfied the statute’s writing requirement.  The Court found that since the none of the emails contained the contract parties, subject matter or price term of the supposed assignment agreement, the sporadic emails didn’t meet the writing requirement. (*5).

Take-aways: The case is post-worthy for its discussion of the key tortious interference with contract elements and how important it is for a plaintiff to show that it complied with the contract it is claiming was wrongfully interfered with. The case also provides good summary of promissory estoppel elements and cements the proposition that the statute of frauds will still apply to bar the claim if the subject matter is one that has to be in writing under the law.  Finally, this case amplifies the importance of careful lease drafting and review.  Parties to lease agreements – whether for real estate or tangible goods – should be cognizant of assignment and sublease provisions.  They almost always require the prime lessor’s knowledge and written consent.

 

 

 

 

 

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.