Our Chicago business litigation lawyers were interested in a recent decision from the First District Court of Appeal. Carpenter et al. v. Exelon Enterprises Company, No. 1-09-1222 (Ill. 1st March 18, 2010) posed a certified question to the court: Does the three-year statute of limitations established by the Illinois Securities Law apply to a claim that a majority shareholder breached its fiduciary duty to minority shareholders? In this case, the First decided that it does not, allowing Timothy Carpenter and seven co-plaintiffs to pursue a claim under a more generous five-year statute of limitations under the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure. Their victory in this interlocutory appeal allows them to continue their claim at the trial court level.
The plaintiffs all held minority shares of InfraSource, Inc., a Delaware corporation. The majority shareholder at 97% was Exelon, a Pennsylvania corporation. In 2003, Exelon created a new company for the purpose of divesting its interest in InfraSource, which allowed it to merge InfraSource with the new company. The resulting corporation sold some of its (formerly InfraSource’s) assets and business units to Exelon and others to GFI Energy Ventures, an independent third party. InfraSource would continue as a company, but the former minority shareholders were paid a pro-rated share of the proceeds. In 2007, the plaintiffs sued Exelon, alleging that it abused its power as majority shareholder. They accused Exelon of structuring the transaction in a way that did not adequately compensate them for the market value of their shares.
A second amended complaint said Exelon sold itself the InfraSource assets at an artificially low price and awarded itself preferred stock. It alleged causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty, civil conspiracy, and, against Exelon’s parent company, aiding and abetting those actions. Exelon moved to dismiss the second complaint based on the three-year statute of limitations in the Illinois Securities Law. The trial court denied this, finding that the five-year statute of limitations applied. However, it stayed further proceedings until the instant interlocutory appeal had been decided, answering the question of which statute of limitations is correct.
The First District started its analysis by examining the statue of limitations portion of the Illinois Securities Law. That language says plaintiffs have three years from the date of the relevant sale to bring claims under the Act, or on matters for which the Act grants relief. Plaintiffs specifically stated their claim under Delaware law in order to distance themselves from this statute of limitations, but Exelon argued that the statute still applies under the language allowing its use for matters for which the Act grants relief, and cited two cases in support. The plaintiffs countered that Illinois courts found that because the Act is modeled after federal securities laws, courts should look at how those laws are interpreted for guidance in interpreting the Act. Tirapelli v. Advanced Equities, Inc., 351 Ill. App. 3d 450, 455 (2004).
The First rejected both lines of case law, saying that the decision “actually depends on the resolution of a straightforward and fundamental question of statutory construction.” The relevant portion of the Illinois Securities Law gives any party in interest the right to bring legal action to enforce compliance or stop a violation. Exelon relies on that language to place the plaintiffs’ complaint under the Act, the court wrote, but incorrectly. When the Legislature added this language to the Act, it explicitly said it was trying to give Illinois security holders the right to stop illegal acts. It included the right to sue for rescission, the court said, but only to enforce the remedy the law provides. In fact, Guy v. Duff & Phelps, Inc., 628 F. Supp. 252 (N.D. Ill. 1985) explicitly examined whether the law gives a retrospective right of rescission to securities sellers and concluded that it should not be interpreted that way.
The First agreed, saying another reading would make other sections of the law irrelevant. It then dismissed arguments based on the Seventh Circuit’s finding in Klein v. George G. Kerasotes Corp., 500 F.3d 669 (7th Cir. 2007), saying the arguments that led to its contradictory conclusion did not apply, for all of the reasons discussed above. Because there is no retrospective right of rescission in the Act, the First said, the plaintiffs are not seeking relief on any matter for which the Act grants relief. Nor, as noted earlier, are they seeking relief under the Act itself. For that reason, the three-year statute of limitations provided by the Act does not apply, the court concluded. It answered the certified question posed by the trial court in the negative, essentially upholding that court’s decision, and remanded it for further proceedings.
Based in Chicago and Oak Brook, Ill., Lubin Austermuehle focuses on business litigation. Our clients are both plaintiffs and defendants in shareholder disputes, involved in businesses of all sizes. Our Naperville shareholder litigation attorneys and Chicago business law lawyers have more than two decades of experience in business litigation and have won favorable verdicts in many high-stakes cases. We can quickly identify the complicated legal issues behind a dispute and build a case that puts you in a position of strength in negotiations, at trial or in alternative dispute resolution. In all cases, our goal is to resolve our clients’ legal issues with as little time and expense as possible. If your business is entangled in litigation and you’re looking for experienced, effective legal representation, you should call our Elgin business dispute lawyers and Chicago trademark lawyers to discuss specifics of your case. For a consultation, call us at 630-333-0333 or send us an email through our website.