If You Have a Business Agreement, Get It in Writing!

The issues faced by our clients, and particularly our business clients, are often complex both factually and legally. Our Palatine business lawyers recently discovered a case filed in Du Page county that illustrates how business legal issues can, and often do, dovetail with personal legal issues. Prignano v. Prignano demonstrates the importance of obtaining legal advice before making business agreements and contracts that include will and probate issues.

In Prignano v. Prignano, the widow of George Prignano, a man who owned several businesses with his brother Louis, sued that brother for allegedly failing to honor an agreement that the survivor of the two brothers would buy the decedent brother’s share of their co-owned businesses. The Prignano brothers jointly owned two corporations, Sunrise Homes and Rainbow Installations, and were equal partners in 710 Building Partnership. The Plaintiff widow alleged that the Defendant had an oral agreement with her deceased husband George whereupon Louis would purchase George’s share of their three businesses with the proceeds from life insurance policies purchased for that purpose. Plaintiff also alleged that she and Defendant had an oral agreement that Defendant would purchase his brother’s share of the businesses from Plaintiff.

After George’s death, Defendant, who was the executor of George’s estate, allegedly kept George’s share of the businesses and the life insurance payments for himself unbeknownst to Plaintiff. When Plaintiff discovered this, she filed suit against him for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. The trial court ruled in her favor on all counts and awarded her damages and prejudgment interest. Defendant then appealed the trial court’s finding of liability and the award of prejudgment interest.

On appeal, the Second District of the Appellate Court of Illinois reaffirmed the trial court’s finding that both oral agreements (between the brothers and between Plaintiff and Defendant) were valid and enforceable due to the testimony of third parties who were aware of the oral agreement between the brothers, and the existence of a written agreement that was drawn up after the oral contract between Plaintiff and Defendant was initially formed. The Court also found that Defendant owed a fiduciary duty to Plaintiff as he was a corporate officer and partner in the businesses, and upon George’s death, his interest in the businesses was transferred to Plaintiff. As such, the Court held that Defendant owed Plaintiff a duty to exercise “the highest degree of honesty and good faith” in dealing with Plaintiff, and Defendant breached that duty. The Court then vacated the trial court’s judgment on the unjust enrichment claim because Plaintiff was victorious on her breach of contract claim. The Court stated that unjust enrichment does not apply when there is a breach of contract under Illinois law. Finally, the Court reaffirmed the award of prejudgment interest because Plaintiff had been deprived of money that was rightfully hers, and Defendant should not profit from his wrongful retention of the funds.

Prignano v. Prignano exemplifies why business owners should have all of their business agreements and contracts reviewed by a trained legal professional. Family business owners, in particular, should guard against casual or oral agreements, as personal relationships can be strained when there is a misunderstanding regarding such agreements. If you are unsure about the legality or legitimacy of your business agreements, or are currently in a dispute, you should consult a discerning Chicago and Naperville business attorney to determine your rights.

Lubin Austermuehle is a full-service litigation firm based in Chicago that services clients throughout the area, including Berwyn, Arlington Heights, and Crystal Lake. We focus on handling all of the legal issues confronting businesses in a constantly changing environment. We represent both plaintiffs and defendants, and we have experience representing clients in matters ranging from shareholder disputes to breach of contract claims. Our attorneys have over two decades of experience in business litigation and have won favorable verdicts in numerous “bet the business” lawsuits. Lubin Austermuehle’s business attorneys can identify and understand the legal issues in a dispute, no matter how complex they may be, and our experience allows us to provide sound guidance and legal advice. Our focus with each client is to resolve their legal issues efficiently and with minimal costs, while still providing outstanding representation. If your business is being sued or you are seeking advice to stay out of court, call our Chicago business lawyers to discuss what Lubin Austermuehle can do for you. For a consultation, call 630-333-0333 or send us an email through our website.

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