Articles Posted in Illinois Appellate Courts

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There are hundreds of new cases filed in Illinois courts every day, and many of those cases involve business disputes. At Lubin Austermuehle, we pride ourselves on staying on top of new court filings so that we know of changes in the law as they happen. Our Waukegan business attorneys just found a decision rendered by the Appellate Court of Illinois that provides some useful information for our business clients.

Zahl v. Krupa is a dispute between investors in a fund allegedly run by a company and the directors of that company. Plaintiffs alleged that they were approached by Defendant Krupa, President of Jones & Brown Company, Inc., who solicited money to be invested in a fund only available to the officers and directors (and their family members) of the company. There were two agreements allegedly written on company letterhead that set out the terms of the investments, whereupon Plaintiffs would invest between $100,000 and $160,000 each and receive an 11.1% return guaranteed by Jones & Brown. Plaintiffs each allegedly signed an agreement with Defendant Krupa and gave him the funds requested. There was no other written documentation regarding the investments or the agreements. Plaintiffs allegedly never got the return on their investment nor did they get their money back.

Plaintiffs then filed suit against Krupa, the other officers of Jones & Brown, and the directors of the business. Plaintiffs sued for breach of contract, fraud, and negligent hiring, supervision, and retention. The breach of contract and fraud causes of action were reliant upon the alleged assertion that Defendant Krupa, in soliciting Plaintiffs, was acting as an agent or apparent agent of Jones & Brown. The remaining causes of action sought to hold Defendants liable for Defendant Krupa’s deception because they knew or should have known that he was untrustworthy.

Through discovery, the depositions of several parties allegedly showed that Defendant Krupa never had actual authority to enter into the investment agreements because the directors neither signed nor authorize the agreements. Testimony also revealed that the investment agreements were allegedly outside the scope of Jones & Brown’s normal business as a construction company, which showed that Krupa did not have apparent authority. As a result of these facts, Defendants successfully moved for summary judgment on the breach of contract claim based upon lack of actual and apparent authority. In moving for summary judgment on the fraud claim, Defendants cited Illinois case law holding that directors cannot be held personally liable for fraud unless they personally participated in perpetrating the fraud. As the directors did not sign the agreements or participate in their creation, the court granted summary judgment. Finally, Defendants successfully moved for summary judgment on the negligence claims because they did not know that Krupa had the potential for fraud.

Plaintiffs then appealed the trial court’s ruling against them, and the Appellate Court conducted a de novo review of Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The Court agreed with the trial court’s findings and held that Defendants were not negligent with respect to Krupa and did not know about his dealings with Plaintiffs. The Court went on to say that there was no reason for Defendants to suspect Krupa of wrongdoing.

In reviewing Zahl v. Krupa, the case serves as a reminder for business investors to carefully examine any investment opportunities and accompanying paperwork to ensure the legitimacy of the investment. Additionally, business owners and directors should keep an eye on their officers and employees to ensure that they do not find themselves defending a lawsuit for their employees’ allegedly objectionable actions.

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When starting a new business venture, choosing the right partners is one of the most important decisions any company owner will make. Unfortunately, not all partnerships work out, and in some instances that is due to the dishonest machinations of fellow owners. Our Elgin business attorneys recently discovered one such case where one business partner was allegedly defrauded by two other owners in a transaction to jointly purchase and operate a gas station in Tinley Park.

Hassan v. Yusuf pits Plaintiff, a man who thought he was investing in the purchase of a gas station, against his two business partners who were also involved in the deal. Defendants solicited an investment of $120,000 from Plaintiff, equal to their own contributions, to purchase the gas station in question, but allegedly failed to inform Plaintiff that he was only purchasing one-third of the business, and had no claim to the real-estate upon which the station was built. After Plaintiff entered into an oral agreement to purchase the station with Defendants and run the day-to-day operations of the business, Defendants acquired title to the property and conveyed that title to a corporation solely owned by Defendants. The business was profitable at first, but eventually began operating at a loss. Defendants then demanded Plaintiff invest more money in the venture to cover these losses, but Plaintiff had no additional funds to invest, and requested an accounting of the business’s financial records and documentation showing his ownership and portion of the losses. Defendants failed to provide said documentation, and Plaintiff ceased working at the station and eventually filed suit.

The Circuit Court of Cook County found that Defendants had defrauded Plaintiff through their misrepresentations regarding the purchase of the business and accompanying real estate. In its judgment, the trial court granted Plaintiff rescission of the contract and damages for the total amount of money he invested in the business. After the trial verdict, Defendants appealed the finding of fraud on the basis that there was not clear and convincing evidence of a misrepresentation that Plaintiff would be an owner of the real estate under their agreement.

The Appellate Court upheld the Circuit Court’s decision, finding the record sufficient to support a finding that Defendants misrepresented to the Plaintiff that he was purchasing a one-third interest in the station and accompanying real estate, even though they had no intention of actually doing so. Furthermore, there was clear evidence of a fiduciary relationship between the parties, which gave rise to a claim for fraud by omission when Defendants failed to make explicit to Plaintiff that he was not acquiring an interest in the land. The Court went on to state Plaintiff’s reliance upon Defendants’ misrepresentations were justifiable, and upheld the trial court’s decision to rescind the contract, but reduced the damages award in an amount equal to Plaintiff’s share of the profits from the station. The Court did so because giving Plaintiff his share of the profits would be inconsistent with the remedy of rescission, which is supposed to place a party in the same position they would be in had the contract never occurred.

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Lubin Austermuehle has clients that operate a variety of businesses all across the state of Illinois. While there are common laws and legal principles that apply to all companies and corporations, there are other Illinois statutes that apply to specific types of businesses. Our Elgin business attorneys came across Clark Investments, Inc. v. Airstream , Inc., which is an Appellate Court of Illinois case involving laws that govern motor vehicle dealerships.

Clark Investments, Inc. v. Airstream , Inc. is a dispute between a Recreational Vehicle (RV) manufacturer and an RV dealer over a contractual agreement between the two companies. Initially, the Plaintiff car dealer contracted with Defendant manufacturer to have exclusive rights to sell Defendant’s RV’s in the state of Illinois. The initial contract was for a period of approximately two years, and shortly before the end of that contract Defendant proposed to renew the agreement with different terms. Defendant’s new contract contained no expiration date and gave Plaintiff no exclusive sales territory. Plaintiff rejected this contract and proposed the same exclusivity terms as the first contract, but Defendant rejected Plaintiff’s proposed changes. Shortly after these negotiations, the initial contract expired, but Defendant continued to supply Plaintiff with merchandise and service and Plaintiff continued to operate its business for almost nine months. The parties then entered into a new contract that contained no exclusive sales region for Plaintiff but allowed Plaintiff to sell more types of Defendant’s RV’s. After this new contract was signed, Defendant entered into an agreement with another RV dealership located ninety miles from Plaintiff’s business. This agreement authorized that dealership to sell some, but not all of the same products contained in Plaintiff’s agreement with Defendant.

Upon learning of this new agreement, Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant alleging violations of the Franchise Act and the Franchise Disclosure Act. Defendant then filed a motion for summary judgment on both causes of action, and the trial court granted the motion as to both claims. Plaintiff appealed the court’s ruling as to the Franchise Act claim only, alleging that Defendant’s had violated section 4(e)(8) of the Act by granting an additional franchise within Plaintiff’s relevant market area and refusing to extend the first contract that granted Plaintiff all of Illinois as its exclusive sales territory. The Appellate Court rejected this argument by citing language from the Act that defines the relevant market area as the fifteen mile radius around Plaintiff’s principle location. Because the other franchise was located further than fifteen miles away, there was no violation of the Act.

Plaintiff also argued that Defendant violated section 4(d)(6) of the Act by refusing to extend the first contract that granted Plaintiff an exclusive sales territory of the whole state. The pertinent part of the Act makes it unlawful for a manufacturer
“1) to cancel or terminate the franchise or selling agreement of a motor vehicle dealer,
2) to fail or refuse to extend the franchise or selling agreement of a motor vehicle dealer upon its expiration, or
3) to offer a renewal, replacement or succeeding franchise or selling agreement containing terms and provisions the effect of which is to substantially change or modify the sales and service obligations or capital requirements of the motor vehicle dealer.”

The Court disagreed with Plaintiff’s claim that Defendant’s actions fell within the first category of conduct. The Court explained that Defendant’s conduct fell under the third category because Defendant offered Plaintiff a new contract with different terms before the initial contract expired. They held that the changes in the new contract did not substantially change the sales and service obligations or capital requirements of the Plaintiff, and upheld the lower court’s ruling.

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Many of us have had work done to our homes at some point, and sometimes difficulties arise during the course of such projects. Lubin Austermuehle is familiar with the legal issues that arise in such cases, and our lawyers are always concerned about protecting the rights of consumers. Universal Structures LTD v. Buchman is a case about a home improvement construction deal gone bad.

In Universal Structures LTD v. Buchman, Defendants contracted with Plaintiff to perform a series of demolition and remodeling projects at their home in Northfield, Illinois. The work was eventually completed and Defendants paid most of the amount billed by Plaintiff, but the payment left an outstanding balance of over $100,000. Plaintiff then recorded a mechanic’s lien for the unpaid amount and eventually filed a lawsuit to foreclose on the lien. Defendants successfully moved to dismiss the lawsuit because Plaintiff failed to present them with a written contract or work order to be signed and also did not present Defendants with a consumer rights brochure. The trial court dismissed Plaintiff’s suit because each of those failures constituted a violation of the Home Repair and Remodeling Act.

On appeal, the Court reviewed whether Plaintiff was “precluded from asserting a mechanic’s lien upon defendant’s property . . . when there was no signed contract or work orders and no delivery by plaintiff of the consumer rights brochure” as required by the Act. The Court found that Plaintiff had entered into a valid oral contract with Defendants and had tendered written, itemized work orders for approval before performing any work, which created a right to a mechanic’s lien. Furthermore, there is no language in the Act that that invalidates an oral agreement in the absence of a signed contract or failure to provide the consumer rights brochure. The Court pointed out that a contract is unenforceable under that Act only when the subject matter or purpose of the contract violated the law. As such, the Court reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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Most businesses require loans to normalize their income stream and ensure that they have the cash necessary to operate. Some business owners enter into guaranty contracts to get the capital that they need, and in the process become personally liable for the debt of their company. In such instances, disputes often arise when the other party attempts to enforce the guaranty contract to collect on the debt. Lubin Austermuehle has been involved with contract disputes of all kinds, and our Elgin guaranty contract attorneys recently uncovered a case that illustrates why it is important to draft such contracts carefully and enforce them in a timely manner.

In Riley Acquisitions Inc. v. Drexler, Defendant and her husband initially entered into a guaranty contract and promissory note with a third party to get credit for the two companies owned by the couple. Eventually, the marriage dissolved, and each spouse took control of one of the companies. Defendant’s company dissolved shortly thereafter, and Defendant then sent a letter to the third party revoking her personal guaranty. Her ex-husband eventually filed for bankruptcy – discharging his liability under the guaranty in the process, and leaving Defendant as the only guarantor on the loan. The third-party who owned the debt eventually sold and assigned its interest to Plaintiff, who filed suit to collect on the loan. Defendant asserted affirmative defenses that her obligation under the note terminated after her company (the principal on the note) dissolved and that Plaintiff’s claims were barred under the applicable ten-year statute of limitations. Defendant won a directed verdict on the basis of her discharge and statute of limitations defenses, and Plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Court found that because Defendant’s company dissolved, its obligation on the note terminated five years later under the applicable portion of the Illinois Business Corporation Act of 1983. This effectively terminated Defendant’s liability as well because the guaranty contract did not expressly provide that liability would continue in such a situation. Thus, because Plaintiff filed suit nine years after the dissolution of Defendant’s company, the Court upheld the trial court’s verdict on discharge grounds and did not address the statute of limitations issue.

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No matter what kind of business you own and operate, an unfortunate part of running a company is the inevitable employment disputes with employees. Whether it is an action over wages, job duties, or other issues, many business owners will find themselves in court opposite a current or former employee at some point. Lubin Austermuehle’s Naperville business attorneys know the legal challenges that business owners face, and are always mindful of new case law that affects our clients.

Enterprise Recovery Systems, Inc. v. Salmeron is a decision handed down by the Appellate Court of Illinois earlier this year regarding an employer/employee dispute filed in the circuit court of Cook County. Plaintiff Enterprise Recovery Systems hired Defendant Salmeron as general manager and director of operations for their recovery and resolution of delinquent student loans business. Defendant worked for Plaintiff for four years before being terminated, and she sued Plaintiff for sexual harassment. This case settled, and Defendant signed a broadly worded release containing language that discharged Plaintiff from any other claims arising out of Defendant’s employment with Plaintiff in exchange for $300,000. After this settlement, Defendant Salmeron filed a qui tam action against Plaintiff Enterprise on behalf of the federal government alleging that Enterprise had defrauded the government. The federal government declined to intervene in the qui tam action, and the lawsuit was eventually dismissed with prejudice due to the misconduct of Salmeron’s lawyer, according to the court. Because of issues brought to light in the qui tam action, Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant alleging fraud in the inducement and breach of Defendant’s duty of loyalty to Plaintiff. After the court found repeated misconduct by Defendant’s attorney (which included multiple violations of court orders), the trial court banned Defendant from presenting evidence in her defense of the fraud and breach of fiduciary duty action. Plaintiff then moved for summary judgment on both claims.

Plaintiff’s motion showed that Defendant produced company log reports in the qui tam suit and those reports were stolen from the Plaintiff. Furthermore, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant failed to alert Plaintiff about the supposed illegal conduct of Plaintiff’s employees prior to notifying the government and filing the qui tam lawsuit. Additionally, Plaintiffs contended that Defendant planned to file the qui tam action before signing the release that was a part of the sexual harassment suit settlement. Defendant failed to file a response to the motion for summary judgment, so the court granted the motion. Plaintiff appealed, and the matter was reviewed de novo by the Appellate Court.

The Appellate Court upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment as to the fraud in the inducement claim because the court found that Defendant knew she had information for the qui tam case against Plaintiff at the time she negotiated the sexual harassment claim’s settlement and release. Furthermore, the court found that Defendant waited until she had received her last settlement payment before filing the qui tam lawsuit and signed the settlement agreement with no intention of honoring it. The Court upheld summary judgment as to Plaintiff’s breach of the duty of loyalty cause of action because Defendant was a high-level member of Plaintiff’s management team and owed a duty of loyalty to the company. This duty was breached when Defendant sought to profit from information harmful to the company that was obtained through her position of trust within the company. The Court also explained that it was reasonable for Plaintiffs to expect Defendant to neither exploit her position for personal gain nor hinder the business operations of the company

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Lubin Austermuehle prosecutes consumer protection class-action lawsuits on a regular basis, and in order to best serve our present and future clients, we are always mindful of new Illinois cases in the field. Howard v. Chicago Transit Authority is a consumer rights decision from the Appellate Court of Illinois that our attorneys found in the course of their research.

Howard v. Chicago Transit Authority is a case between those who ride public transportation in Chicago and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). Initially, the named Plaintiff started the litigation because of Defendant CTA’s policy of allowing the transit cards needed to ride on Defendant’s transit system to expire one year after the cards are issued. The named Plaintiff had purchased such a card, and when that card expired, he lost the remaining balance on his card. After discovering that he had lost the money on the card, Plaintiff filed a putative class-action lawsuit, alleging violations of the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act and the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Defendant then filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the trial court. Plaintiffs then appealed the lower court’s dismissal.

The Appellate Court reviewed the trial court’s dismissal de novo and examined the reasoning used by the lower court’s decision. The case was dismissed by the trial court because Defendant successfully argued that Plaintiff’s claims could not stand due to the terms and conditions of the card. These terms and conditions clearly stated that the transit card had an expiration date and could not be redeemed for cash, replaced, or refunded. Additionally, upon purchase of the transit card, the Court held that Plaintiff had entered into a valid contract of carriage and therefore Defendant had committed no wrongful conduct. Plaintiff claimed that the terms and conditions of the card referred only to the use of the card itself and not the use of money placed on the card. The Court disagreed and upheld the trial court’s ruling that use of the card was part and parcel of using the money on the card. The Court went on to state that “the terms on a fare pass are incorporated into the carrier’s contract for carriage and are enforceable as written.” Thus, because the contract for carriage contained the expiration clause and Plaintiffs accepted those terms, the contract was valid and the suit was properly dismissed.

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Most employers at some point will face the prospect of an employee failing to perform their job adequately. Additionally, some employees breach fiduciary duties owed the company or commit fraud and other harmful acts during the course of their employment. Hytel Group, Inc. v. Butler is a recent case out of the Appellate Court of Illinois that is just such a dispute between a Plaintiff employer and its Defendant ex-employee. Our Schaumburg business litigation attorneys discovered this decision and want to pass along the information to our readers.

In Hytel Group, Inc. v. Butler, Plaintiff Hytel Group initially hired Defendant Butler as comptroller for the company in February of 2008 and fired Butler four months later in June of that year. During Butler’s employment, Hytel’s lender, GBC Funding, filed suit in response to Hytel allegedly defaulting on several obligations under their loan agreement and Hytel’s failure to respond to the notices of default sent to them by GBC. Furthermore, GBC alleged that Hytel failed to cooperate with a restructuring officer approved by GBC pursuant to another agreement. This agreement was for GBC to refrain from exercising their rights under the loan agreement in exchange for Hytel’s cooperation with the restructuring officer. Hytel then filed the action in question in December 2008 against Defendant Butler alleging that she breached her fiduciary duty of loyalty and committed fraud when she failed to perform certain job duties because of a relationship she developed with GBC.

After Butler was fired by Hytel, but before Hytel filed suit, she filed a claim with the Illinois Department of Labor for unpaid final wages, and she moved to dismiss Hytel’s lawsuit under the Citizen Participation Act. The motion was based upon the allegation that Hytel was suing her in retaliation for filing the wage claim. Butler also moved to dismiss Hytel’s suit on procedural grounds because Hytel failed to properly state a cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty or for fraud. In dismissing Hytel’s claims, the trial court found that the Citizen Participation Act did apply to Butler’s wage claim, that she did not have a fiduciary relationship with Hytel, and that Hytel did not sufficiently allege all the elements of fraud. Plaintiff Hytel appealed the trial court’s ruling on the basis that Butler’s wage claim was a private dispute and the Citizen Participation Act is concerned with protecting free speech and citizen participation in government.

The Appellate Court reviewed the legislative intent behind the Citizen Participation Act and found that the state of Illinois intended the law to be construed broadly. As such, the Court found that Butler’s wage claim was an exercise of her right to petition for redress of grievances and therefore fell within the express language of the Act that protects actions taken in furtherance of a citizen’s right to petition. The Court went on to hold that the Act contains no public concern requirement and the fact that the wage claim was a private dispute did not matter. Finally, the Court found that Hytel’s suit was retaliatory in nature and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the action and the award of attorneys fees under the Act.

This case provides a warning for business owners who file suit against former employees for a breach of duty, particularly if there is an existing wage or other employment dispute between the parties. Hytel Group, Inc. v. Butler shows that Illinois courts will dismiss such claims pursuant to the Citizen Participation Act if there evidence that the suit filed by the employer is retaliatory in nature. As such, employers should ensure that they have ample evidence to show the legitimacy of their claims before filing, as they may be on the hook for the opposing party’s attorneys fees should the court find a retaliatory impetus for the action.

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At Lubin Austermuehle, we pride ourselves on staying abreast of changes in the law that may affect our clients, especially those rendered by the highest court in the state. The Supreme Court of Illinois released a new decision not long ago that was picked up by our Lombard business litigation attorneys, and the case is of particular interest to business owners who have personally guaranteed a business loan. In JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Earth Foods, Inc. the Court addressed the meaning of the term surety and whether a guarantor falls within that definition under the Illinois Sureties Act.

The initial dispute in JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Earth Foods, Inc. arose from a line of credit extended by Plaintiff JP Morgan Chase Bank to Defendant Earth Foods. The loan was personally guaranteed by the three co-owners of Earth Foods, and three years after the line of credit was first extended, Earth Foods defaulted on the loan. Plaintiff then filed a lawsuit against both the company for breach of contract and the co-owners as guarantors of the defaulted loan. The individual Defendants asserted an affirmative defense that the guaranty obligation was discharged under the Sureties Act because the Act applies to both guarantors and sureties and the law does not distinguish between the two. Plaintiffs then filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court. In granting the motion, the court held that the individual Defendants were guarantors and the Act only applied to sureties. Defendants appealed the trial court’s decision, and the appellate court held that the term surety encompassed both a surety and a guarantor under the Act and remanded the case. Plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s reversal.

On appeal, the Supreme Court performed an extensive statutory analysis of the Illinois Sureties Act. In performing this analysis, the Court first determined that dictionaries, treatises and past court decisions recognize a clear legal distinction between guarantors and sureties. They then went on to determine the legislative intent behind the Sureties Act through a discussion of other laws related to the same subject matter. Through their discussion, the Court held that a suretyship differs from a guaranty in that a suretyship is a primary obligation to ensure the debt is paid, while a guaranty is an obligation to pay the debt if the principal does not pay. The Court went on to say that the plain language of the Act indicates that the protections of the Sureties Act are not applicable to guarantors. Despite this ruling, the Court held that summary judgment was improperly granted in JP Morgan Chase Bank’s favor and remanded the case to the trial court due to genuine issues of fact regarding whether the parties intended the individual Defendants to be guarantors or sureties for the loan in question.

JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Earth Foods, Inc. unequivocally answered the question whether the terms surety and guarantor are interchangeable for the purposes of the Illinois Sureties Act. Despite the fact that there is a clear distinction between the two, the Supreme Court allows for the intent of the parties to rule when including either term in a loan agreement. Therefore, business owners should be careful when drafting and negotiating the terms of a guarantor or a surety and be clear which role is intended by the parties to avoid a potential lawsuit down the road.

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Business litigation is necessarily an adversarial process – the stakes are high and as such the opposing parties in most lawsuits will fight over many issues during the case. One of the most contentious segments of any case is the discovery process. Because the information obtained during discovery can make or break a case, it is important to understand the law in this area. In that vein, our Berwyn business attorneys would like to share a recent Illinois Appellate Court decision that may affect many of our clients the next time they go to court.

In Mueller Industries Inc. v. Berkman, Defendant Berkman worked for Plaintiff as president of a company owned by Plaintiff pursuant to an employment contract. During his employment, Defendant formed an investment partnership and obtained a 10% ownership interest in a company that was one of Plaintiff’s primary suppliers. Defendant’s lawyer – whose firm was also counsel for Plaintiff – advised him how to structure the investment venture so as to not run afoul of his employment contract with Plaintiff. The initial employment agreement subsequently expired, and a new open-ended agreement was consummated that contained a non-compete clause and other restrictive covenants governing outside financial interests and business opportunities. Defendant then had his attorney form a new company to compete with Plaintiff, and Defendant subsequently resigned his position with Plaintiff.

Plaintiff filed suit for breach of his employment contract and breach of fiduciary duty, alleging Defendant profited personally at the expense of Mueller through his investment partnership. A discovery dispute ensued when Defendant refused to produce documents related to his investment in the supply company and his creation of the competing company. Defendant refused production based upon the 5th amendment and attorney-client privileges. Plaintiff filed a motion to compel production, which was granted by the trial court.

Defendant appealed the trial court’s grant of the motion, and reasserted that the documents were privileged. The Appellate Court reversed in part, holding that Defendant’s pre-existing relationship with his lawyer kept all communication prior to the attorney’s firm’s representation of Plaintiff privileged. However, all communications after the dual representation began were no longer so protected because Defendant no longer had any reasonable expectation of confidentiality. Finally, the Court found that Defendant had failed to demonstrate that producing the requested documents would amount to incriminating testimony, but remanded the case with orders for the lower court to perform an in camera review of the disputed documents and urged the trial court to make a detailed record of its findings.

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