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24.3 Cases

Executory Promise as Satisfying “Value”

Carter & Grimsley v. Omni Trading, Inc.

716 N.E.2d 320 (Ill. App. 1999)

Lytton, J.

Facts

Omni purchased some grain from Country Grain, and on February 2, 1996, it issued two checks, totaling $75,000, to Country Grain. Country Grain, in turn, endorsed the checks over to Carter as a retainer for future legal services. Carter deposited the checks on February 5; Country Grain failed the next day. On February 8, Carter was notified that Omni had stopped payment on the checks. Carter subsequently filed a complaint against Omni…alleging that it was entitled to the proceeds of the checks, plus pre-judgment interest, as a holder in due course.…[Carter moved for summary judgment; the motion was denied.]

Discussion

Carter argues that its motion for summary judgment should have been granted because, as a holder in due course, it has the right to recover on the checks from the drawer, Omni.

The Illinois Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) defines a holder in due course as:

“the holder of an instrument if:

(1) the instrument when issued does not bear such apparent evidence of forgery or alteration or is not otherwise so irregular or incomplete as to call into question its authenticity, and (2) the holder took the instrument (i) for value,…

Section 3-303(a) of the UCC also states that:

(a) “An instrument is issued or transferred for value if: (1) the instrument is issued or transferred for a promise of performance, to the extent that the promise has been performed * * *.” (emphasis added)

Carter contends that in Illinois a contract for future legal services should be treated differently than other executory contracts. It contends that when the attorney-client relationship is created by payment of a fee or retainer, the contract is no longer executory. Thus, Carter would achieve holder in due course status. We are not persuaded.

A retainer is the act of a client employing an attorney; it also denotes the fee paid by the client when he retains the attorney to act for him. [Citation] We have found no Illinois cases construing section 3-303(a) as it relates to a promise to perform future legal services under a retainer. The general rule, however, is that “an executory promise is not value.” [Citation] “[T]he promise does not rise to the level of ‘value’ in the commercial paper market until it is actually performed.” [Citation]

The UCC comment to section 303 gives the following example:

“Case # 2. X issues a check to Y in consideration of Y’s promise to perform services in the future. Although the executory promise is consideration for issuance of the check it is value only to the extent the promise is performed.

We have found no exceptions to these principles for retainers. Indeed, courts in other jurisdictions interpreting similar language under section 3-303 have held that attorneys may be holders in due course only to the extent that they have actually performed legal services prior to acquiring a negotiable instrument. See [Citations: Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts]. We agree.

This retainer was a contract for future legal services. Under section 3-303(a)(1), it was a “promise of performance,” not yet performed. Thus, no value was received, and Carter is not a holder in due course.

Furthermore, in this case, no evidence was presented in the trial court that Carter performed any legal services for Country Grain prior to receiving the checks. Without an evidentiary basis for finding that Carter received the checks for services performed, the trial court correctly found that Carter failed to prove that it was a holder in due course. [Citations]

Conclusion

Because we have decided that Carter did not take the checks for value under section 3-303(a) of the UCC, we need not address its other arguments.

The judgment of the circuit court of Peoria County is affirmed.

Holdridge, J., dissenting.

I respectfully dissent. In a contractual relationship between attorney and client, the payment of a fee or retainer creates the relationship, and once that relationship is created the contract is no longer executory. [Citation] Carter’s agreement to enter into an attorney-client relationship with Country Grain was the value exchanged for the checks endorsed over to the firm. Thus, the general rule cited by the majority that “an executory promise is not value” does not apply to the case at bar. On that basis I would hold that the trial court erred in determining that Carter was not entitled to the check proceeds and I therefore dissent.

Case Questions

  1. How did Carter & Grimsley obtain the two checks drawn by Omni?
  2. Why—apparently—did Omni stop payments on the checks?
  3. Why did the court determine that Carter was not an HDC?
  4. Who is it that must have performed here in order for Carter to have been an HDC, Country Grain or Carter?
  5. How could making a retainer payment to an attorney be considered anything other than payment on an executory contract, as the dissent argues?

The “Good Faith and Reasonable Commercial Standards” Requirement

Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Camp

825 N.E.2d 644 (Ohio App. 2005)

Donovan, J.

Defendant-appellant Shawn Sheth appeals from a judgment of the Xenia Municipal Court in favor of plaintiff-appellee Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. (“Buckeye”). Sheth contends that the trial court erred in finding that Buckeye was a holder in due course of a postdated check drawn by Sheth and therefore was entitled to payment on the instrument despite the fact that Sheth had issued a stop-payment order to his bank.

In support of this assertion, Sheth argues that the trial court did not use the correct legal standard in granting holder-in-due-course status to Buckeye. In particular, Sheth asserts that the trial court used the pre-1990 Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) definition of “good faith” as it pertains to holder-in-due-course status, which defined it as “honesty in fact.” The definition of “good faith” was extended by the authors of the UCC in 1990 to also mean “the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” The post-1990 definition was adopted by the Ohio legislature in 1994.

Sheth argues that while Buckeye would prevail under the pre-1990, “honesty in fact” definition of “good faith,” it failed to act in a commercially reasonable manner when it chose to cash the postdated check drawn by Sheth. The lower court…adjudged Buckeye to be a holder in due course and, therefore, entitled to payment. We conclude that the trial court used the incorrect “good faith” standard when it granted holder-in-due-course status to Buckeye because Buckeye did not act in a commercially reasonable manner when it cashed the postdated check drawn by Sheth. Because we accept Sheth’s sole assignment of error, the judgment of the trial court is reversed.

On or about October 12, 2003, Sheth entered into negotiations with James A. Camp for Camp to provide certain services to Sheth by October 15, 2003. To that end, Sheth issued Camp a check for $1,300. The check was postdated to October 15, 2003.

On October 13, 2003, Camp negotiated the check to Buckeye and received a payment of $1,261.31. Apparently fearing that Camp did not intend to fulfill his end of the contract, Sheth contacted his bank on October 14, 2003, and issued a stop-payment order on the check. Unaware of the stop-payment order, Buckeye deposited the check with its own bank on October 14, 2003, believing that the check would reach Sheth’s bank by October 15, 2003. Because the stop-payment order was in effect, the check was ultimately dishonored by Sheth’s bank. After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain payment directly from Sheth, Buckeye brought suit.

Sheth’s sole assignment of error is as follows:

“The trial court erred by applying the incorrect legal standard in granting holder in due course status to the plaintiff-appellee because the plaintiff-appellee failed to follow commercially reasonable standards in electing to cash the check that gives rise to this dispute.”

[UCC 3-302] outlines the elements required to receive holder-in-due-course status. The statute states:

…‘holder in due course’ means the holder of an instrument if both of the following apply:

“(1) The instrument when issued or negotiated to the holder does not bear evidence of forgery or alteration that is so apparent, or is otherwise so irregular or incomplete as to call into question its authenticity;

“(2) The holder took the instrument under all of the following circumstances:

(a) For value;

(b) In good faith;

(c) Without notice that the instrument is overdue or has been dishonored or that there is an uncured default with respect to payment of another instrument issued as part of the same series;

(d) Without notice that the instrument contains an unauthorized signature or has been altered;

(e) Without notice of any claim to the instrument as described in [3-306];

(f) Without notice that any party has a defense or claim in recoupment described in [UCC 3-305(a); emphasis added].

At issue in the instant appeal is whether Buckeye acted in “good faith” when it chose to honor the postdated check originally drawn by Sheth.…UCC 1-201, defines “good faith” as “honesty in fact and the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” Before the Ohio legislature amended UCC 1-201 in 1994, that section did not define “good faith”; the definition of “good faith” as “honesty in fact” in UCC 1-201 was the definition that applied[.]…

“Honesty in fact” is defined as the absence of bad faith or dishonesty with respect to a party’s conduct within a commercial transaction. [Citation] Under that standard, absent fraudulent behavior, an otherwise innocent party was assumed to have acted in good faith. The “honesty in fact” requirement, also known as the “pure heart and empty head” doctrine, is a subjective test under which a holder had to subjectively believe he was negotiating an instrument in good faith for him to become a holder in due course. Maine [Citation, 1999].

In 1994, however, the Ohio legislature amended the definition of “good faith” to include not only the subjective “honesty in fact” test, but also an objective test: “the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” Ohio UCC 1-201(20). A holder in due course must now satisfy both a subjective and an objective test of good faith. What constitutes “reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing” for parties claiming holder-in-due-course status, however, has not heretofore been defined in the state of Ohio.

In support of his contention that Buckeye is not a holder in due course, Sheth cites a decision from the Supreme Court of Maine, [referred to above] in which the court provided clarification with respect to the objective prong of the “good faith” analysis:

“The fact finder must therefore determine, first, whether the conduct of the holder comported with industry or ‘commercial’ standards applicable to the transaction and second, whether those standards were reasonable standards intended to result in fair dealing. Each of those determinations must be made in the context of the specific transaction at hand. If the fact finder’s conclusion on each point is ‘yes,’ the holder will be determined to have acted in good faith even if, in the individual transaction at issue, the result appears unreasonable. Thus, a holder may be accorded holder in due course where it acts pursuant to those reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing—even if it is negligent—but may lose that status, even where it complies with commercial standards, if those standards are not reasonably related to achieving fair dealing.” [Citation]

Check cashing is an unlicensed and unregulated business in Ohio. [Citation] Thus, there are no concrete commercial standards by which check-cashing businesses must operate. Moreover, Buckeye argues that its own internal operating policies do not require that it verify the availability of funds, nor does Buckeye apparently have any guidelines with respect to the acceptance of postdated checks. Buckeye asserts that cashing a postdated check does not prevent a holder from obtaining holder-in-due-course status and cites several cases in support of this contention. All of the cases cited by Buckeye, however, were decided prior to the UCC’s addition of the objective prong to the definition of “good faith.”

Under a purely subjective “honesty in fact” analysis, it is clear that Buckeye accepted the check from Camp in good faith and would therefore achieve holder-in-due-course status. When the objective prong of the good faith test is applied, however, we find that Buckeye did not conduct itself in a commercially reasonable manner. While not going so far as to say that cashing a postdated check prevents a holder from obtaining holder-in-due-course status in every instance, the presentation of a postdated check should put the check cashing entity on notice that the check might not be good. Buckeye accepted the postdated check at its own peril. Some attempt at verification should be made before a check-cashing business cashes a postdated check. Such a failure to act does not constitute taking an instrument in good faith under the current objective test of “reasonable commercial standards” enunciated in [the UCC].

We conclude that in deciding to amend the good faith requirement to include an objective component of “reasonable commercial standards,” the Ohio legislature intended to place a duty on the holders of certain instruments to act in a responsible manner in order to obtain holder-in-due-course status. When Buckeye decided to cash the postdated check presented by Camp, it did so without making any attempt to verify its validity. This court in no way seeks to curtail the free negotiability of commercial instruments. However, the nature of certain instruments, such as the postdated check in this case, renders it necessary for appellee Buckeye to take minimal steps to protect its interests. That was not done. Buckeye was put on notice that the check was not good until October 15, 2003. “Good faith,” as it is defined in the UCC and the Ohio Revised Code, requires that a holder demonstrate not only honesty in fact but also that the holder act in a commercially reasonable manner. Without taking any steps to discover whether the postdated check issued by Sheth was valid, Buckeye failed to act in a commercially reasonable manner and therefore was not a holder in due course.

Based upon the foregoing, Sheth’s single assignment of error is sustained, the judgment of the Xenia Municipal Court is reversed, and this matter is remanded to that court for further proceedings in accordance with law and consistent with this opinion.

Judgment reversed, and cause remanded.

Case Questions

  1. Who was Camp? Why did Sheth give him a check? Why is the case titled Buckeye v. Camp?
  2. How does giving someone a postdated check offer the drawer any protection? How does it give rise to any “notice that the check might not be good”?
  3. If Camp had taken the check to Sheth’s bank to cash it, what would have happened?
  4. What difference did the court discern between the pre-1990 UCC Article 3 and the post-1990 Article 3 (that Ohio adopted in 1994)?

The Shelter Rule

Triffin v. Somerset Valley Bank

777 A.2d 993 (N.J. Ct. App. 2001)

Cuff, J.

This case concerns the enforceability of dishonored checks against the issuer of the checks under Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), as implemented in New Jersey[.]

Plaintiff [Robert J. Triffin] purchased, through assignment agreements with check cashing companies, eighteen dishonored checks, issued by defendant Hauser Contracting Company (Hauser Co.). Plaintiff then filed suit…to enforce Hauser Co.’s liability on the checks. The trial court granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment. Hauser Co. appeals the grant of summary judgment.…We affirm.

In October 1998, Alfred M. Hauser, president of Hauser Co., was notified by Edwards Food Store in Raritan and the Somerset Valley Bank (the Bank), that several individuals were cashing what appeared to be Hauser Co. payroll checks. Mr. Hauser reviewed the checks, ascertained that the checks were counterfeits and contacted the Raritan Borough and Hillsborough Police Departments. Mr. Hauser concluded that the checks were counterfeits because none of the payees were employees of Hauser Co., and because he did not write the checks or authorize anyone to sign those checks on his behalf. At that time, Hauser Co. employed Automatic Data Processing, Inc. (ADP) to provide payroll services and a facsimile signature was utilized on all Hauser Co. payroll checks.

Mr. Hauser executed affidavits of stolen and forged checks at the Bank, stopping payment on the checks at issue. Subsequently, the Bank received more than eighty similar checks valued at $25,000 all drawn on Hauser Co.’s account.

Plaintiff is in the business of purchasing dishonored negotiable instruments. In February and March 1999, plaintiff purchased eighteen dishonored checks from four different check cashing agencies, specifying Hauser Co. as the drawer. The checks totaled $8,826.42. Pursuant to assignment agreements executed by plaintiff, each agency stated that it cashed the checks for value, in good faith, without notice of any claims or defenses to the checks, without knowledge that any of the signatures were unauthorized or forged, and with the expectation that the checks would be paid upon presentment to the bank upon which the checks were drawn. All eighteen checks bore a red and green facsimile drawer’s signature stamp in the name of Alfred M. Hauser. All eighteen checks were marked by the Bank as “stolen check” and stamped with the warning, “do not present again.”…

Plaintiff then filed this action against the Bank, Hauser Co.,…Plaintiff contended that Hauser Co. was negligent in failing to safeguard both its payroll checks and its authorized drawer’s facsimile stamp, and was liable for payment of the checks.

The trial court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment motion, concluding that no genuine issue of fact existed as to the authenticity of the eighteen checks at issue. Judge Hoens concluded that because the check cashing companies took the checks in good faith, plaintiff was a holder in due course as assignee. Judge Hoens also found that because the checks appeared to be genuine, Hauser Co. was required, but had failed, to show that plaintiff’s assignor had any notice that the checks were not validly drawn.…

Hauser Co. argues that summary judgment was improperly granted because the court failed to properly address Hauser Co.’s defense that the checks at issue were invalid negotiable instruments and therefore erred in finding plaintiff was a holder in due course.

As a threshold matter, it is evident that the eighteen checks meet the definition of a negotiable instrument [UCC 3-104]. Each check is payable to a bearer for a fixed amount, on demand, and does not state any other undertaking by the person promising payment, aside from the payment of money. In addition, each check appears to have been signed by Mr. Hauser, through the use of a facsimile stamp, permitted by the UCC to take the place of a manual signature. [Section 3-401(b) of the UCC] provides that a “signature may be made manually or by means of a device or machine…with present intention to authenticate a writing.” It is uncontroverted by Hauser Co. that the facsimile signature stamp on the checks is identical to Hauser Co.’s authorized stamp.

Hauser Co., however, contends that the checks are not negotiable instruments because Mr. Hauser did not sign the checks, did not authorize their signing, and its payroll service, ADP, did not produce the checks. Lack of authorization, however, is a separate issue from whether the checks are negotiable instruments. Consequently, given that the checks are negotiable instruments, the next issue is whether the checks are unenforceable by a holder in due course, because the signature on the checks was forged or unauthorized.

[Sections 3-203 and 3-302 of the UCC] discuss the rights of a holder in due course and the rights of a transferee of a holder in due course. Section 3-302 establishes that a person is a holder in due course if:

(1) the instrument when issued or negotiated to the holder does not bear such apparent evidence of forgery or alteration or is not otherwise so irregular or incomplete as to call into question its authenticity; and

(2) the holder took the instrument for value, in good faith, without notice that the instrument is overdue or has been dishonored or that there is an uncured default with respect to payment of another instrument issued as part of the same series, without notice that the instrument contains an unauthorized signature or has been altered, without notice of any claim to the instrument described in 3-306, and without notice that any party has a defense or claim in recoupment described in subsection a. of 3-305.

Section 3-203 deals with transfer of instruments and provides:

a. An instrument is transferred when it is delivered by a person other than its issuer for the purpose of giving to the person receiving delivery the right to enforce the instrument.

b. Transfer of an instrument, whether or not the transfer is a negotiation, vests in the transferee any right of the transferor to enforce the instrument, including any right as a holder in due course, but the transferee cannot acquire rights of a holder in due course by a transfer, directly or indirectly, from a holder in due course if the transferee engaged in fraud or illegality affecting the instrument.…

Under subsection (b) a holder in due course that transfers an instrument transfers those rights as a holder in due course to the purchaser. The policy is to assure the holder in due course a free market for the instrument.

The record indicates that plaintiff has complied with the requirements of both sections 3-302 and 3-203. Each of the check cashing companies from whom plaintiff purchased the dishonored checks were holders in due course. In support of his summary judgment motion, plaintiff submitted an affidavit from each company; each company swore that it cashed the checks for value, in good faith, without notice of any claims or defenses by any party, without knowledge that any of the signatures on the checks were unauthorized or fraudulent, and with the expectation that the checks would be paid upon their presentment to the bank upon which the checks were drawn. Hauser Co. does not dispute any of the facts sworn to by the check cashing companies.

The checks were then transferred to plaintiff in accordance with section 3-303, vesting plaintiff with holder in due course status. Each company swore that it assigned the checks to plaintiff in exchange for consideration received from plaintiff. Plaintiff thus acquired the check cashing companies’ holder in due course status when the checks were assigned to plaintiff. Moreover, pursuant to section 3-403(a)’s requirement that the transfer must have been made for the purpose of giving the transferee the right to enforce the instrument, the assignment agreements expressly provided plaintiff with that right, stating that “all payments [assignor] may receive from any of the referenced Debtors…shall be the exclusive property of [assignee].” Again, Hauser Co. does not dispute any facts relating to the assignment of the checks to plaintiff.

Hauser Co. contends, instead, that the checks are per se invalid because they were fraudulent and unauthorized. Presumably, this argument is predicated on section 3-302. This section states a person is not a holder in due course if the instrument bears “apparent evidence of forgery or alteration” or is otherwise “so irregular or incomplete as to call into question its authenticity.”

In order to preclude liability from a holder in due course under section 3-302, it must be apparent on the face of the instrument that it is fraudulent. The trial court specifically found that Hauser Co. had provided no such evidence, stating that Hauser Co. had failed to show that there was anything about the appearance of the checks to place the check cashing company on notice that any check was not valid. Specifically, with respect to Hauser Co.’s facsimile signature on the checks, the court stated that the signature was identical to Hauser Co.’s authorized facsimile signature. Moreover, each of the check cashing companies certified that they had no knowledge that the signatures on the checks were fraudulent or that there were any claims or defenses to enforcement of the checks. Hence, the trial court’s conclusion that there was no apparent evidence of invalidity was not an abuse of discretion and was based on a reasonable reading of the record.

To be sure, section 3-308(a) does shift the burden of establishing the validity of the signature to the plaintiff, but only if the defendant specifically denies the signature’s validity in the pleadings. The section states:

In an action with respect to an instrument, the authenticity of, and authority to make, each signature on the instrument is admitted unless specifically denied in the pleadings. If the validity of a signature is denied in the pleadings, the burden of establishing validity is on the person claiming validity, but the signature is presumed to be authentic and authorized unless the action is to enforce the liability of the purported signer and the signer is dead or incompetent at the time of trial of the issue of validity of the signature.

Examination of the pleadings reveals that Hauser Co. did not specifically deny the factual assertions in plaintiff’s complaint.

Hence, the trial court’s conclusion that there was no apparent evidence of invalidity was not an abuse of discretion and was based on a reasonable reading of the record.

In conclusion, we hold that Judge Hoens properly granted summary judgment. There was no issue of material fact as to: (1) the status of the checks as negotiable instruments; (2) the status of the check cashing companies as holders in due course; (3) the status of plaintiff as a holder in due course; and (4) the lack of apparent evidence on the face of the checks that they were forged, altered or otherwise irregular. Moreover, Hauser Co.’s failure to submit some factual evidence indicating that the facsimile signature was forged or otherwise unauthorized left unchallenged the UCC’s rebuttable presumption that a signature on an instrument is valid. Consequently, the trial court properly held, as a matter of law, that plaintiff was a holder in due course and entitled to enforce the checks. Affirmed.

Case Questions

  1. Why did the plaintiff, Mr. Triffin, obtain possession of the dishonored checks? Regarding the plaintiff, consider this: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/nj-supreme-court/1332248.html.
  2. Section 4-401 of the UCC says nobody is liable on an instrument unless the person signed it, and Section 4-403(a) provides that “an unauthorized signature is ineffective” (except as the signature of the unauthorized person), so how could Hauser Co. be liable at all? And why did the court never discuss plaintiff’s contention that the defendant “was negligent in failing to safeguard both its payroll checks and its authorized drawer’s facsimile stamp”?
  3. Why didn’t the Hauser Co. specifically deny the authenticity of the signatures?
  4. Obviously, the plaintiff must have known that there was something wrong with the checks when he bought them from the check-cashing companies: they had been dishonored and were marked “Stolen, do not present again.” Did he present them again?
  5. While the UCC does not require that the transferee of an instrument acted in good faith in order to collect on the instrument as an HDC (though he can’t have participated in any scam), it disallows a person from being an HDC if he takes an instrument with notice of dishonor. Surely the plaintiff had notice of that. What does the UCC require that transformed Mr. Triffin—via the shelter rule—into a person with the rights of an HDC?
  6. If the plaintiff had not purchased the checks from the check-cashing companies, who would have taken the loss here?
  7. What recourse does the defendant, Hauser Co., have now?
  8. Authors’ comment: How this scam unfolded is suggested in the following segment of an online guide to reducing financial transaction fraud.

    Recommendations: It is clear from this case that if a thief can get check stock that looks genuine, your company can be held liable for losses that may occur from those counterfeit checks. Most companies buy check stock from vendors that sell the identical check stock entirely blank to other companies, totally uncontrolled, thus aiding the forgers. Many companies opt for these checks because they are less expensive than controlled, high security checks (excluding legal fees and holder in due course judgments). Forgers buy the check stock, and using a $99 scanner and Adobe Illustrator, create counterfeit checks that cannot be distinguished from the account holder’s original checks. This is how legal exposure to a holder in due course claim can be and is created. Companies should use checks uniquely designed and manufactured for them, or buy from vendors such as SAFEChecks (http://www.safechecks.com) that customize every company’s check and never sells check stock entirely blank without it first being customized for the end user.Frank Abagnale and Greg Litster, Holder in Due Course and Check Fraud, TransactionDirectory.com.