Is It a New Contract Or Modification of an Existing One? Illinois Case Discusses Why It Matters

In business relationships that contemplate a series of reciprocal services, it’s at times unclear if extra services are being offered as a modification to an existing contract or are done as part of a new agreement.  Landmark Engineering v. Holevoet, 2016 IL App (1st) 150723-U examines this sometimes fine-line difference and illustrates in stark relief the importance of honoring contractual provisions that require contract changes to be in writing and signed by the parties.

The defendant hired the plaintiff under a written contract to do some engineering work including a soil study on a parcel of land the defendant was going to sell.  The plaintiff’s work would then be submitted to the governing county officials who would then determine whether the sale could go through.

The contract, drafted by plaintiff, had a merger clause requiring that all contract modifications be in writing and signed by the parties.  When the plaintiff realized the contract’s original scope of work did not satisfy the county’s planning authorities, the plaintiff performed some $50,000 in additional services in order to get county approval.

The plaintiff argued the defendant verbally authorized plaintiff to perform work in a phone conversation that created a separate, binding oral contract.  For her part, the defendant asserted that the extra work modified the original written contract and a writing was required to support the plaintiff’s additional invoices.

The defendant refused to pay plaintiff’s invoices on the basis that the extra work and accompanying invoice far exceeded the agreed-upon contract price.  Plaintiff sued and won a $52,000 money judgment at trial.

Reversing, the appeals court examines not only the reach of a contractual merger clause but also what constitutes a separate or “new” contract as opposed to only a modification of a pre-existing one.

In Illinois, a breach of oral contract claim requires the contract’s terms to be proven with sufficient specificity.  Where parties agree that a future written document will be prepared only to memorialize the agreement, that oral agreement is still binding even though the later document is never prepared or signed.

However, where it’s clear that the parties’ intent is that neither will be legally bound until a formal agreement is signed, no contract comes into existence until the execution and delivery of the written agreement.

Illinois law defines a  contractual “modification” as a change in one or more aspects of a contract that either injects new elements into the contract or cancels others out.  But with a modification, the contract’s essential purpose and effect remains static.  (¶¶ 35-36)

In this case, since the plaintiff submitted a written contract addendum (by definition, a modification of an existing agreement) to the defendant after their telephone conversation (the phone call plaintiff claimed was a new contract), and defendant never signed the addendum, am ambiguity existed concerning the parties intent.  And since plaintiff drafted both the original contract and the unsigned addendum, the ambiguity had to be construed in defendant’s favor under Illinois contract interpretation rules.

Since the unsigned addendum contained the same project name and number as the original contract, the appeals court found that the record evidence supported a finding that the addendum sought to modify the original contract and was not a separate, new undertaking.  And since defendant never signed the addendum, she wasn’t bound by it.


The case serves as a cautionary tale concerning the perils of not getting the party to be charged to sign a contract.  Where one party fails to get the other to sign it yet still does work anyway, it does so at its peril.

Here, since both the original and unsigned addendum each referenced the same project name, description and number, the court found plaintiff’s extra work was done in furtherance of (and as a modification to) the original contract.  As the contract’s integration clause required all changes to be in writing, the failure of defendant to sign off on the addendum’s extra work doomed the plaintiff’s damage claims.




Judicial Notice, Screenshot Evidence and On-line “Browsewrap” Contractual Arbitration Clauses – A Case Note

Judicial notice serves the salutary purpose of saving litigation time and expense.  It applies in situations where one party wants to establish a fact that’s not subject to reasonable dispute (e.g. Sacramento is the capital of California, for instance).  Judicial notice’s effect is that the party doesn’t have to endure the time and expense of calling a witness to testify or to marshal cumbersome documents to prove the generally known fact.

The rule is codified at Federal Rule of Evidence (and Illinois Rule of Evidence) 201.  Van Tassell v. United Marketing Group, LLC, 795 F.Supp.2d 770 (N.D.Ill. 2011) is a fairly recent case application of judicial notice in the context of a class action consumer fraud action versus various on-line vendors for unapproved credit card charges.

In addition to its clear judicial notice illustration, the case also has value for its discussion of the key factors governing on-line contracts that contain hard-to-find alternative dispute provisions.

Here’s some key judicial notice points, gleaned from the case (and others like it):

Under FRE 201, a court may take judicial notice of an adjudicative fact that is not subject to reasonable dispute;

– An adjudicative fact is one that applies specifically to the parties in a specific case (as opposed to “legislative facts” which involve more general facts that could apply across the board to any situation);

– A fact is not subject to reasonable dispute where (1) it is generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the trial court; or (2) is capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy can’t reasonably be questioned.

One of the on-line vendor defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and attached screenshots of on-line enrollment forms, which contained pro-merchant disclaimer language.  The defendant asked the court to take judicial notice of the enrollment pages since they were printed off the Internet.

But the court refused to take judicial notice of the Web pages.  In their response to the motion, the plaintiffs filed affidavits stating they never viewed the enrollment pages.  They (the plaintiffs) also didn’t refer to the enrollment pages in their Complaint.  As a result, the Web enrollment pages weren’t properly before the court on a motion to dismiss since on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court typically only considers the face of a complaint and any documents “central” to a complaint.

Next, the court addressed whether the various on-line contract’s arbitration provisions were enforceable against the consumer plaintiffs on an on-line merchant defendant’s motion to compel arbitration.

Cyberspace contracts don’t change the elemental rules of contract formation: a contract requires a meeting of the minds and a manifestation of mutual assent.  Two common Internet contracts are clickwrap agreements and browsewrap agreements.  In the former, the webpage user must take affirmative steps to accept on-line contract terms; usually by clicking “accept” or checking an “I agree” box.  With a browsewrap contract, though, no action needs to be taken to “accept” the on-line vendor’s contract terms.  Using the site equates to accepting the terms.

The contract here involved a browsewrap contract and so was subjected to closer court scrutiny.  Since the arbitration provision was couched in the site’s “Conditions of Use” section which could only be accessed via a multi-step process, the court found the provision wasn’t prominent enough to be enforced.  As a result, the court denied the merchant’s motion to compel arbitration.  (pp. 779-780, 789-791).


1/ The case provides an interesting applications of judicial notice to computerized context.  While this court didn’t take judicial notice, I’ve found it to be an economical time-saving device as it eliminates the need to go through the cumbersome exercise of gathering evidence on issues for which there’s really no room for debate;

2/ Arbitration provisions buried in a maze of fine print or that can only be located through a tedious, multi-step process won’t be enforced;

3/ Browsewrap contracts that result in a user’s passive acceptance of contract terms are more stringently construed by a court than is a clickwrap contract.

Assigning A Breach of Contract Claim In Illinois and The Available Defenses

Contract rights are assigned fairly often, especially in the mortgage loan and credit card contexts.  In the former mortgage scenario, it’s common for a promissory note to be assigned multiple times during the note’s lifespan.  When there’s eventually a note default, it becomes a challenge for the noteholder to trace how it came into the note’s possession.  Repeated note assignments also provide the note maker (person who signed the note) a ready-made defense to a lawsuit based on the note.  The noteholder plaintiff then has the burden of proving to the court that it has the right to sue on the note.

Because assignments are so prevalent and confusion often results as to who can enforce contract rights, it’s important from both plaintiff and defense sides to have a working knowledge of what claims can be assigned and what defenses are available to a a defendant sued by an assignee of a contract claim.

The basics: a person that has a claim against another has a “chose in action.”  Classic examples of a chose in action include a claim for money owed on a debt, a right to stock shares or a claim for damages in tort.  Black’s Law Dictionary 258 (8th ed. 2004)

Choses in action are generally assignable. An assignment transfers title to the chose in action to the assignee, who becomes the real party in interest.  The assignee of the chose in action may then sue on the claim in his or her own name.

An action brought by an assignee is subject to any defense or set-off existing before notice of the assignment is given to the defendant.  735 ILCS 5/2–403(a).  But the set-off or defense must relate specifically to the assigned claim.  It can’t pertain to something extraneous to that claim.

Example, if Company X assigns its 2015 breach of contract claim against Person Y to me and I sue Person Y, Person Y can’t raise as a defense a $1,000 claim Person Y has against Company X from a 2013 contract.  The two contracts are different and involve different underlying facts. Person Y can only defend based on the same 2015 contract Company X assigned.

Puritan Finance Corp. v. Bechstein Const. Corp. 2012 IL App(1st) 112261 illustrates what defenses a defendant has versus a contract claim assignee under the common law and under Article 9 of the UCC.

The plaintiff was the assignee of a bankrupt trucking company (the Assignor) that had previously done business with the defendant.  The Assignor was owed monies by the defendant and assigned its claim to the plaintiff, a secured creditor of the Assignor.

After the plaintiff sued, the defendant asserted defenses based on an unrelated claim it had against the Assignor before the plaintiff’s involvement.  The court granted judgment for the plaintiff after a bench trial for the full amount of its claim (about $22,000) and the defendant appealed.

Affirming the judgment for the assignee, the court first rejected the defendant’s set-off claim under Code Section 2-403(a).  Since the defendant’s set-off involved a contract that was separate from the one being sued on, the defendant couldn’t use this separate contract as a defense to the assignee’s lawsuit.

The defendant’s Article 9 defense was a closer call.  UCC Article 9 governs security interests in personal property as collateral to secure a debt.  Section 9-404(a) of the UCC (810 ILCS 5/9-404) provides that an account debtor can assert against the assignee (1) any defense he (the debtor) had against the assignor “arising from the transaction” giving rise to the assignee’s claim; and (2) any other defense the debtor has against the assignor that accrues before the debtor received notice of the assignment.

Here, the defendant argued that under paragraph (2) of 9-404, it could assert defenses that related to a separate contract between it (the defendant) and the Assignor.  The court disagreed and gave a narrow reading to Section 9-404.

It held that since the defendant didn’t and couldn’t yet file suit against the Assignor before the assignment of the contract to the assignee/plaintiff, the defendant’s claim hadn’t “accrued” within the meaning of Section 9-404.  As a result, judgment for the plaintiff was affirmed.


– Where a defendant is sued by an assignee of a contract claim, it will be difficult to challenge the claim unless the defendant has claims or defenses against the assignor that are transactionally related to the assigned claim.  If the defendant’s defense relates to a separate, unrelated transaction, the defense or set-off will likely fail;

– Under Section 9-404, a defense “accrues” where the defendant actually has a viable cause of action against the assignor, such as where there has been a default in assignor’s payment obligations, instead of just a bare claim that a defendant is owed money on an unpaid invoice.