In Southern Wine and Spirits of Illinois, Inc. v. Steiner, 2014 IL App (1st) 123435, the First District outlined and applied the rules governing the interpretation and enforcement of written guaranty agreements in Illinois.
The plaintiff wine distributor purchased the assets of another distributor that had previously entered into a contract with a liquor store company; a contract personally guaranteed by the individual liquor store owners.
The year after the asset purchase, the plaintiff began supplying wine to the defendants’ liquor store on account. But neither the plaintiff nor the purchased distributor informed the guarantors of the asset purchase. Because of this, the guarantors had no idea that the assets of the distributor were sold to the plaintiff. The defendants also didn’t know that the plaintiff now held the guaranty given by the liquor store owners to purchased distributor.
When the liquor store defaulted on about $20,000 worth of merchandise, the plaintiff sued under the guaranty signed by the liquor store owners.
The defendants moved to dismiss on the basis that the personal guaranty wasn’t assignable to the plaintiff since defendants didn’t know they were guaranteeing the liquor store’s contract obligations to the plaintiff. The trial court agreed and plaintiff appealed.
The appeals court affirmed the trial court based on some basic guarantor liability principles.
In Illinois, a guaranty is simply a contract where a guarantor promises to pay the debts of a “principal” (the main debtor) to a third party creditor.
A guaranty is construed like any other contract and a guarantor is given the benefit of any doubts that may arise from the language of a guaranty. A guarantor’s liability can’t exceed the scope of what he has agreed to accept and guaranties are strictly construed in favor of the guarantor; especially when the creditor drafted the guaranty. ¶ 16.
Guaranty agreements are generally not assignable but a guaranty can be assigned where the essentials of the original contract are not changed and the performance required under the guaranty isn’t materially different from what was originally contemplated.
Where (1) a guarantor’s risk is increased or (2) performance is materially changed by the assignment of a guaranty or a merger involving the plaintiff-creditor, the guarantor’s obligations can be discharged. ( ¶ 18).
The Court held that because the defendants didn’t know that the guaranty was assigned to the plaintiff and because the amount owed the plaintiff fluctuated from month-to-month (in contrast to the fixed amount the guarantors owed the original distributor), the defendants’ risk under the guaranty was materially increased by the assignment to plaintiff.
This was deemed a material change in the terms of the agreement that defendants entered into with plaintiff’s predecessor and changed defendants’ risk from known to completely unknown. (¶¶ 21-22).
The Court also held that the trial court properly struck key parts of the plaintiff’s affidavit filed in response to defendants’ motion to dismiss.
The plaintiff filed the affidavit of its credit manager who testified that she reviewed the payment history involving the purchased distributor and the guarantors’ liquor store business. The credit manager attached about two years’ worth of invoices and a payment ledger to her affidavit.
But the invoices didn’t reference the prior wine distributor and only identified the guarantors’ liquor store. The Court found that because the affidavit attachments failed to link the plaintiff directly to either the guarantor defendants or their liquor business, the plaintiff failed to lay an adequate foundation for the invoices as business records.
– A guaranty agreement should specify whether or not it’s assignable and enforceable by third parties;
– Where a guaranty is assigned to a third party, the original creditor and assignee should both notify the guarantor and make it clear that the assignee creditor plans to hold the guarantor to the terms of the guaranty;
– Where an assigned or sold guaranty either changes the guarantor’s performance or materially increases his risk, for example by increasing the payment terms or frequency, the guaranty will likely not be enforceable by a third party/assignee.