Doctor’s Oral Promise to Retire in Future Not Enough To Sustain Healthcare Plaintiff’s Fraud Claims

In Heartland Women’s Healthcare, Ltd. v. Simonton-Smith, 2021 IL App (5th) 200135-U, the appeals court affirmed summary judgment for an obstetrician sued for fraud based on her alleged verbal promise to retire from her practice at the end of a three-year employment term.

The plaintiff claimed the defendant tricked it into buying her practice by promising to retire. The written agreement resulting from the parties’ negotiations contained neither a non-compete term nor a recital that defendant intended to retire at the agreement’s conclusion.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on plaintiff’s fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims.  Plaintiff appealed.

Affirming, the Fifth District found that the plaintiff failed to produce evidence to support its misrepresentation claims and specifically, to show defendant hatched a “scheme to defraud” the plaintiff.

In Illinois, to state a colorable fraudulent misrepresentation claim, a plaintiff must allege: (1) a false statement of material facts, (2) known or believed to be false by the person making it, (3) an intent to induce a plaintiff to act, (4) action by the plaintiff in justifiable reliance on the truth of the statement, and (5) damage to the plaintiff resulting from the reliance.

A negligent misrepresentation plaintiff must also establish these elements but instead of showing a knowingly false statement, must prove the defendant (i) was careless or negligent in ascertaining the truth of the statement and (ii) owed a duty to the plaintiff to impart accurate information.

In both a fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation claim, the statement must be of an existing or past fact and not merely a promise to do something in the future.  The alleged fraud must also be complete at the time of the challenged statement as opposed to an intention to commit a future fraud.

The ‘Scheme to Defraud’ Exception

Where the false representation of future conduct is the scheme or device employed to accomplish the fraud, a court can restore the parties to the positions they occupied before the fraud was committed.  And while courts make clear that something beyond a lone broken promise is usually required to trigger the scheme exception, that “plus-factor” is still elusive.

Some courts require a plaintiff to allege a sustained pattern of repeated false representations [see HPI Health Care Services, Inc. v. Mt. Vernon Hospital, Inc., 131 Ill.2d 145 (1989)] while others [Roda v. Berko (401 Ill.335 (1948), Vance Pearson, Inc. v. Alexander, 86 Ill.App.3d 1105 (1980)] have held that a single promise can trigger the scheme exception.

In cases that have recognized the exception in the single broken promise setting, the plaintiff must generally produce evidence of a  defendant’s contemporaneous intention not to follow through on the promise.   The cases also make clear that whether a plaintiff is proceeding on a course of conduct scheme theory or one that involves only one promise, it must show the defendant’s fraudulent intent existed at or before the time of the promise. [25]

Here, the plaintiff could not prove the defendant promised to retire while, at the same time, never intending to fulfill that promise at the outset.  For support, the Court quoted both plaintiff’s agent’s and defendant’s deposition testimony.  Both testified that while the defendant’s future retirement was discussed prior to inking the three-year pact, it was never reduced to writing.  The plaintiff also could not pinpoint a definite promise by the defendant to retire when the employment contract lapsed.

As further proof that the defendant never unequivocally promised to retire, the plaintiff’s agent testified he even asked the defendant not to retire and that defendant stay beyondthe employment contract’s end date.  In the end, Plaintiff’s evidence did not go far enough to establish either an oral promise to retire at the agreement’s conclusion or the defendant’s intention not to fulfill that promise.

Afterwords:

In finding for the doctor defendant, the Heartland Women’s Healthcare Court was careful to respect the boundary between contract and tort law damages – a delineation that, in theory at least, prevents every broken promise from undergirding a fraud claim.

And while the content and outer reaches of the scheme to defraud exception [to the rule that a false promise is not actionable fraud] is still murky, it seems that something beyond a one-off broken promise is generally required.  A plaintiff invoking the scheme exception has a better chance of surviving a pleadings motion or summary judgment where it can show a defendant’s pattern of repeated broken promises.

Here, the plaintiff alleged only a single misstatement – defendant’s supposed oral promise to retire at the conclusion of the employment contract.  Without evidence of defendant’s contemporaneous intent not to uphold her promise, there wasn’t enough evidence of a scheme to defraud to survive summary judgment.

In hindsight, the Plaintiff should have negotiated and codified both a non-compete provision and defendant’s imminent retirement as material terms of the contract.

 

 

E-Mails, Phone Calls, and Web Activity Aimed at Extracting $ From IL Resident Passes Specific Jurisdiction Test – IL First Dist.

In Dixon v. GAA Classic Cars, LLC, 2019 IL App (1st) 182416, the trial court dismissed the Illinois plaintiff’s suit against a North Carolina car seller on the basis that Illinois lacked jurisdiction over the defendant.

Reversing, the First District answered some important questions concerning the nature and reach of specific jurisdiction under the Illinois long-arm statute as informed by constitutional due process factors.

Since the defendant had no physical presence or office in Illinois, the question was whether the Illinois court had specific jurisdiction [as opposed to general jurisdiction] over the defendant.

Specific jurisdiction requires a plaintiff to allege a defendant purposefully directed its activities at the forum state and that the cause of action arose out of or relates to those contacts.  Even a single act can give rise to specific jurisdiction but the lawsuit must relate specifically to that act. [¶ 12]

In the context of web-based companies, the Court noted that a site that only imparts information [as opposed to selling products or services] does not create sufficient minimum contacts necessary to establish personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  Here, though, the defendant’s site contained a “call to action” that encouraged visitors like the plaintiff to pay the defendant.  [¶ 14]

The court found that plaintiff’s allegations that defendant falsely stated that the Bronco’s frame was restored, had new brakes and was frequently driven over the past 12 months [when it hadn’t] were sufficient to allege a material misstatement of fact under Illinois fraud law.  It further held that fraudulent statements in telephone calls are just as actionable as in-person statements and can give an Illinois court jurisdiction over a foreign defendant.  [¶ 17]

Viewed in the aggregate, the plaintiff’s allegations of the defendant’s Illinois contacts were enough to confer Illinois long-arm jurisdiction over the defendant.

The plaintiff alleged the defendant (i) advertised the Bronco on a national website, and (ii)  e-mailed and telephoned plaintiff several times at his Illinois residence.

Next, the court considered whetherspecific jurisdiction over the defendant was  consistent with constitutional due process considerations.

The due process prong of the personal jurisdiction inquiry focuses on the nature and quality of a foreign litigant’s acts such that it is reasonable and fair to require him to conduct his defense in Illinois.

Factors the court considers are (1) the burden on the defendant to defend in the forum state, (2) the forum’s interest in adjudicating the dispute, (3) the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining effective relief, (4) the interstate judicial system’s interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of the case, and (5) the shared interests of the several states in advancing fundamental social policies.

Once a plaintiff shows that a defendant purposely directed its activities at the forum state, the burden shifts to the out-of-state defendant to show that litigating in the forum is unreasonable.

The Dixon court held the defendant failed to satisfy this burden and that specific jurisdiction over it was proper.

Next, the Court declined to credit defendant’s Terms & Conditions (“T&C”) – referenced in the Defendant’s on-line registration form and that fixed North Carolina as the site for any litigation.

Generally, one written instrument may incorporate another by reference such that both documents are considered as part of a single contract.  However, parties must clearly show an intent to incorporate a second document.

Here, the court found such a clear intent lacking. Defendant did not argue that it sent the T&C to Plaintiff or referenced them in its multiple e-mail and telephone communications with Plaintiff.

The court also pointed out that defendant’s registration form highlighted several of the T&C’s terms.  However, none of the featured [T&C] terms on the registration form mentioned the North Carolina venue clause.  As a result, the bidder registration form didn’t evince a clear intent to incorporate the T&C into the contract.

Afterwords:

A foreign actor’s phone, e-mail and on-line advertisements directed to Illinois residents can meet the specific jurisdiction test;

Where a Terms and Conditions document contains favorable language to a foreign defendant, it should make it plain that the T&C is a separate document and is to be incorporated into the parties’ contract by using distinctive type-face [or a similar method];

If the defendant fails to sufficiently alert the plaintiff to a separate T&C document, especially if the plaintiff is a consumer, the defendant runs the risk of a court refusing to enforce favorable (to defendant) venue or jurisdiction provisions.

 

 

Subcontractor’s Failure to Get Certified Mail ‘Green Cards’ into Evidence = Draconian Trial Loss in Lien Spat

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a harsh result against a subcontractor who failed to properly serve a Section 24 notice in accordance with the strictures of the Illinois Mechanics Lien Act.

The earth-moving subcontractor recorded a lien against a nascent Starbucks in Chicago’s western suburbs seeking payment for various change orders. It sent its lien notice to the property’s lender by certified mail but not to the property owner.

After a bench trial, the trial judge reluctantly found for the property owner defendants and held that the subcontractor’s lien notice failed to follow the Act.  The subcontractor appealed.

Affirming judgment for the property owner, the Court first emphasized the oft-cited rule that since rights created by the Act are statutory, the statutory technical and procedural requirements are strictly construed. The burden of proving that each requirement of the Act has been satisfied is on the party seeking to enforce its lien – here, the subcontractor.  But where there is no dispute that an owner actually received notice, courts will overlook technical defects.

Section 24 of the Act requires a subcontractor to serve notice of its intent to lien by certified mail or personal delivery to the record owner and lender (if known)within 90 days after completing the work on the property. 770 ILCS 60/24(a).

An exception to this notice requirement is where a general contractor’s sworn statement provides the owner notice of the subcontractor’s work and unpaid amount.

While courts will uphold a lien notice sent only to an owner (and not to the lender) since there is no concern of the owner being prejudiced or having to pay twice, the reverse isn’t true. Citing to half-century-old case law, the Court held that since notice to an owner is the ‘very substance of the basis on which a mechanic’s lien may be predicated,’, the Court refused to excuse the subcontractor’s failure to serve the owner with its lien notice even though the lender was given proper statutory notice.

And while the plaintiff attached some certified mail green (return) card copies to its written response to Defendant’s directed verdict motion at trial, the plaintiff never authenticated the cards or offered them in evidence at trial. As a result, the appeals court refused to consider the green cards as part of the appellate record. (An appeals court cannot consider documents that were not admitted into evidence at trial.)

In addition, the plaintiff’s trial testimony was conflicting. The Plaintiff’s owner’s testimony conflicted with a 2014 affidavit of mailing prepared by one of Plaintiff’s employees.  This evidentiary dissonance failed to show the owner’s actual notice of the plaintiff’s lien notice.  As a result, the trial court found that the plaintiff failed to carry its burden of proving that it complied with its Act lien notice rules.

The court then rejected the subcontractor’s argument that the owner had actual notice of its work since it saw the plaintiff performing grading work on the property and the plaintiff sent regular invoices to the owner’s agent.  However, under Illinois law, the mere presence of or owner’s knowledge that a contractor on a job is not a valid substitute for the required statutory notice.

The court also nixed the subcontractor’s claim that the owner had actual notice of the subcontractor’s work based on the sworn statements submitted to the owner from the general contractor. While courts have upheld an otherwise deficient subcontractor lien notice where sworn statements in the record plainly show the subcontractor’s identity and amounts owed.  Here, there were no sworn statements in the record. A trial witness may only testify to matters on which he/she has personal knowledge. Ill. R. Evid. 602. Since the plaintiff didn’t call to testify the owner’s construction manager – the only one who supposedly received the GC’s sworn statements (that identified plaintiff) –  there was no competent evidence that the owner received and reviewed any sworn statements that referenced the plaintiff’s work and amounts owed.

Afterwords:

This case shows how unforgiving statutory notice requirements can be in the mechanics lien context.

In hindsight, the subcontractor plaintiff should have introduced certified mail receipts into evidence.

Failing that, it should have called the owner’s construction manager as an adverse agent to lock in testimony that the general contractor furnished the owner with sworn statements and those statements sufficiently identified the subcontractor plaintiff.