Unconscionability: Substantive and Procedural – Illinois Case Snapshot

The Case: Rosenbach v. NorStates Bank, 2014 IL App (2d) 131162-U

Facts Summary: Plaintiff LLC member who guaranteed commercial real estate loan sues the lender after lender makes (allegedly) unauthorized loan advances, declares a default against the LLC and seizes over $200,000 of the plaintiff’s personal funds that were pledged to induce the loan to the LLC.  Plaintiff’s claims are for breach of contract and a declaratory judgment action seeking ruling that the commercial guaranty is unconscionable under Illinois law.

Procedural History: Lender moves to dismiss on dual bases that (1) plaintiff’s injury is derivative of injury to the LLC borrower; and (2) commercial guaranty is not procedurally or substantively unconscionable.  Trial court grants motion and plaintiff appeals.

Result: Trial court’s dismissal upheld.  Lender wins, plaintiff LLC member/guarantor loses.

Operative Rules:

To defeat a guaranty claim, a guarantor must establish he suffered a direct injury as a result of a lender’s breach; as opposed to injury that is derivative of the injury suffered by the borrower.  So, if a corporate borrower is damaged due to a lender’s breach, the borrowing entity has a right to sue; not a constituent (individual) member of that borrower (e.g. an officer, shareholder, employee, etc.);

Illinois’ declaratory judgment statute allows a court to make binding declarations of rights in cases where the parties’ dispute has crystallized and they have reached an impasse.  The “dec action” plaintiff must show (1) a tangible legal interest in the subject of the suit; (2) a defendant with an opposing interest to plaintiff’s; and (3) an actual controversy between the parties. 735 ILCS 5/2-701(a);

Illinois recognizes (a) procedural unconscionability; and (b) substantive unconscionability.  The former means there is unfairness during the contract formation stage that deprives one of the parties of freedom of choice.  The latter (substantive unconscionability) looks to the terms of a contract and whether they are so one-sided that they oppress or unfairly burden an innocent party and show an imbalance in obligations among the contracting parties.

Procedural unconscionability factors include whether each party had a chance to understand the terms of the contract, whether key terms were hidden amid “a maze of fine print” and any other circumstances surrounding contract formation.

¶¶ 20-28, 31-35

Application:

Plaintiff’s claimed injuries in the breach of guaranty count were purely derivative of the LLC borrower’s.  The extent of plaintiff’s liability to the lender defendant was tied directly to the borrowing entity’s liability to the lender defendant.  There were no facts pled that showed plaintiff would have any different (in nature or amount) liability to defendant than the underlying corporate borrower.

The court held that loss of a guarantor’s investment is a derivative injury, not a direct one.  As a result, plaintiff’s claims were defeated since he failed to plead a direct (as opposed to flow-through) injury as the result of any lender conduct.

The plaintiff’s unconscionability arguments also failed.  The plaintiff only made conclusory allegations that the guaranty was a pre-printed document, drafted by the lender who had a superior bargaining stance compared to the plaintiff.  These blanket allegations weren’t enough though to show a defect during the formation and execution of the guaranty.

The court also held that even if the guaranty was procedurally unconscionable, the plaintiff would still have to show sustantive unconscionability – that the guaranty terms were inordinately one-sided in favor of the lender (and against the plaintiff) that no court could fairly enforce the guaranty.

Here, the court allowed that the guaranty definitely did favor the lender and the lender was probably in a stronger contracting position than the plaintiff.  Still, the terms weren’t so one-sided that the court should abstain from enforcing them.  In rejecting the plaintiff’s substantive unconscionability argument, the court also cited the fact that the guaranty terms weren’t hidden or hard to understand or any unfair surprise.

Afterwords:

Individual guarantor of a corporate borrower must show separate and distinct injury from the corporate borrower to have standing to sue a lender for breach;

A sophisticated borrower will likely need to show both procedural (formation defects) and substantive unconscionability (unfair or one-sided contract terms) to free himself from a contract he willingly signed.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.