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.