Course of Dealing Leads to Implied-In-Fact Contract Judgment in Construction Spat – IL First Dist.

While a signed agreement is almost always preferable to an oral one, the absence of a writing won’t always doom a breach of contract action.

Trapani v. Elliot Group, Inc., 2016 IL App (1st) 143734, examines what happens when parties don’t sign a contract but still act as if an agreement exists.

In a construction dispute, the First District affirmed a trial court’s finding that an implied-in-fact contract existed between the contractor plaintiff and the real estate developer defendant.  In upholding the $250K-plus judgment for the plaintiff, the Court highlights the nature and scope of implied contracts and discusses the agent-of-a-disclosed-principal rule.

The plaintiff submitted a draft contract that identified the defendant as “owner.”  The defendant, who wasn’t the owner (it was the developer), never signed the contract.

Despite the absence of a signed contract, the plaintiff performed the work contemplated by the draft agreement and was paid over $2M over a several-month period.  Plaintiff sued to recover for its remaining work after the developer refused to pay.  The developer denied responsibility for the plaintiff work: it claimed it merely acted as the owner’s agent and that plaintiff should have looked to the owner for payment.

The trial court entered judgment for the plaintiff.  It found that the plaintiff and developer, while lacking a signed written agreement, had an implied-in-fact contract.  The developer appealed.

Result: affirmed.

Reasons:

Whether an implied in fact contract (or “contract implied in fact”) exists depends on the surrounding facts, circumstances and expressions of the parties demonstrating an intent to be bound.

A contract implied in fact is a classic contract by conduct.  It arises where the court imposes a contractual duty on a party based on the party’s promissory expression that shows an intention to be bound;

The promissory expression can be inferred from the parties’ conduct and an implied in fact contract can be found even where there is no express contract between the parties;

An implied in law contract differs in that it is an equitable remedy based on the principle that no one should unjustly enrich himself at another’s expense;

Acceptance of an implied in fact contract can be shown by conduct of the parties and a course of dealing that demonstrates the parties’ intent to form a binding agreement.

(¶¶ 40-44)

The Court agreed with the trial court that the parties’ conduct supported a finding of an implied in fact contract.  The Court noted that throughout the construction project, the plaintiff communicated regularly with the defendant and provided lien waivers and payment certificates to the defendant.  The defendant also provided project specifications to the Plaintiff and approved multiple change orders over the course of plaintiff’s work on the site.  Significantly, the defendant never rejected plaintiff’s work or demanded that plaintiff stop working at any time during the project.

Next, the Court tackled the developer’s argument that it wasn’t liable to the plaintiff since the developer was acting as the agent of the property owner.  In Illinois, an agent who contracts with a third party generally is not liable so long as he discloses his principal’s identity.  Where the agent fails to identify his principal, it creates an “undisclosed principal” scenario which will make the agent personally liable if the contract is later breached. (¶ 60)

The reason for the undisclosed principal rule is reliance: the third party (here, the plaintiff) relies on the agent’s credit when entering the contract.  As a result, it would be unfair to immunize the agent and have the undisclosed principal shoulder the financial burden when the agent fails to reveal the principal.  The dearth of evidence showing a relationship between the developer (agent) and the owner (principal) led the Court to sustain the trial court’s finding that the developer was responsible for the outstanding amounts owed the plaintiff contractor.

Afterwords:

1/  An implied in fact contract is a valid, enforceable contract, despite a lack of express agreement.  Instead, the parties’ intention to be contractually liable can be shown through course of dealing between parties;

2/ The agent of a disclosed principal is generally immunized from liability.  However, where the agent fails to sufficiently disclose its principal’s identity, the agent remains liable if the plaintiff can show it relied on the agent’s credit and lacked notice of the agent’s principal’s identity.

 

Constructive Fraud in IL Mechanics’ Lien Suits: A Case Study

ACHere’s one from the vault.  While dated, the case is still relevant for its cogent discussion of important and recurring mechanics’ lien litigation issues.  In Springfield Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc. v. 3947-55 King Drive at Oakwood, LLC, 387 Ill App 3d 906 (1st Dist. 2009), the First District examined the concept of constructive fraud and discussed when a subcontractor can bring alternative unjust enrichment and quantum meruit claims in a lien suit.

The plaintiff was a subcontractor who installed HVAC materials on a construction project consisting of two adjoining properties  for a total contract sum of about $400,000.  When the general contractor fired it, the plaintiff liened both parcels each for $300,000 – the total amount plaintiff was then due for its HVAC work.  The result was a “blanket lien” on the properties for a total of about $600K – double the proper amount.

The plaintiff sued to foreclose its liens and filed companion (and alternative) claims for quantum meruit and unjust enrichment against the general contractor and owner defendants.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims.  The court held that the lien claim was constructively fraudulent since it was inflated by almost two times the actual lien amount and because the lien wasn’t apportioned among the two property parcels.  The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims because it held that a subcontractor’s only remedy against an owner is a mechanics lien foreclosure action.

Held: Affirmed in part; reversed in part

 Constructive Fraud

The First District found there was no evidence of constructive fraud by the subcontractor; noting that Section 7 of the Lien Act aims to protect honest lien claimants who make a mistake rather than claimants who intentionally make a false statement or who knowingly inflates their lien.  That’s why someone must show an intent to defraud in order to nullify a lien.

While acknowledging that the plaintiff subcontractor’s lien totaled about $600K – nearly double of the amount it was actually owed – the Court looked beyond the liens’ numerical overcharge and found no additional evidence of fraudulent intent. 

This holding amplifies the First District’s Cordeck Sales, Inc. v. Construction Systems, Inc. (382 Ill.App.3d 334(1st. Dist. 2008)) ruling – a case viewed with near-Biblical reverence in Illinois mechanics lien circles – that a mechanics lien won’t be invalidated for constructive fraud simply because its inflated.  There must be an overstatement “in combination” with other record evidence that allows the court to infer fraudulent intent.  Here, there was no additional fraud evidence and the Court reinstated the subcontractor’s lien claim.

Quantum Meruit/Unjust Enrichment

The Court sustained the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s equitable counts of quantum meruit and unjust enrichment.  The general rule is that a subcontractor like plaintiff can’t recover for unjust enrichment where the entire work to be performed by the subcontractor is under a contract with the general contractor.  See Premier Electrical Construction Co. v. La Salle National Bank, 132 Ill. App. 3d 485, 496 (1st Dist. 1985). 

In such a case (no privity between owner and subcontractor), the general contractor has the power to employ whom he chooses and the owner is entitled to presume that any subcontracting work is being done for the contractor; not the owner.  Since there is normally no direct contract between a subcontractor and the owner, a subcontractor can’t claim that its work unjustly enriched the owner.

So, unless the subcontractor proves that it dealt directly with a property owner, its exclusive remedy against an owner is a statutory, mechanics lien suit.  Swansea Concrete Products, Inc. v. Distler, 126 Ill. App. 3d 927, 932 (5th Dist. 1984).  If the subcontractor misses the time deadlines to record its lien (four months, usually) or fails to timely file suit to foreclose the lien (two years post-completion of job), the subcontractor can’t then try to recover against the property owner under quantum meruit or unjust enrichment. 

Here, since the plaintiff’s contract was with the general contractor and not the owner, the plaintiff’s remedy against the general contractor was for breach of contract and its remedy against the owner was a mechanics’ lien suit.  As a result, the plaintiff’s quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims were properly dismissed.

Afterwords: Even though the case is now several years old, Springfield Heating has continued relevance in construction lien litigation because it is the First District’s most recent word on the showing a property owner must make to prove a subcontractor’s constructive fraud when attempting to defeat a lien on the owner’s property.  Clearly, a numerical overcharge isn’t enough to defeat a lien. 

The owner must show additional “plus factors” which signals  fraudulent intent by the lien claimant.  The case also further supports the black-letter proposition that a subcontractor’s sole remedy against a property owner is a mechanics’ lien suit.  This rule will always apply unless the subcontractor can prove that the owner specifically requested or induced the subcontractor’s labor and materials on the owner’s property.