In 2006 Jose Alvarado promised Cesar Gamboa, Ruben Nava, and Mauro Lopez, who were unlawfully in this country, that for $15,000 apiece, he could get them United States citizenship papers. Alvarado promised that he could deliver “authentic citizenship documents” for them through a contact at the US Consulate office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He told them that he had contacts that could influence the immigration authorities to expedite the application process but would need to pay employees in the different departments to obtain the necessary releases. Alvarado stated that he and his brother were obtaining their citizenship documents through the contact and invited Gamboa, Nava, and Lopez to join the group. The latter agreed and began paying in installments to Alvarado. Alvarado issued them receipts for the payments through his business, Marco’s Digital Video and Photography, Inc., to prove that the payments were legitimate. They say that Alvarado used “high-pressure tactics” to get the payments, calling them weekly until they had paid in full.
Once he received the money, however, Alvarado became less communicative. He did not deliver the promised “authentic citizenship documents” but delivered various excuses. In March 2009, he told the group that they were all swindled by the Mexican contact. Alvarado asked the group to contribute additional $200 each to hire a Mexican lawyer to pursue restitution from the swindler in Mexico. These additional payments did not fare any better than the first payments. Soon Alvarado informed the group that the legal challenge was not an option but proposed a new strategy. The new plan was to hire thugs in Mexico to kidnap the swindler and to get their money back. If the swindler would not return the money, the thugs would kill him. However, in October 2009, Alvarado told the group that the kidnapping plan was also on hold.
The thug-and-kidnapping plan having failed, Gamboa, Nava, and Lopez decided to try their luck with the Circuit Court of Cook County. They filed a lawsuit against Alvarado and his business for fraud, unjust enrichment, civil conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. The trial court dismissed the complaint, finding that the contract between the plaintiffs and the defendants were illegal and could not be enforced by the court. The plaintiffs appealed. The appellate court reversed.
The appellate court noted that plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that defendants engaged in numerous instances of unfair and deceptive practices in the conduct of trade or commerce in violation of the section of the Consumer Fraud, which governs private providers of immigration assistance services. The appellate court noted that there was no question that the verbal contract between defendants and plaintiffs was illegal and involved a “scheme” wherein the five members of the group agreed to obtain their citizenship documents “by circumventing the normal, legal process that the public follows in obtaining such documents” such as by paying bribes and paying off government officials in violation of assorted criminal codes. The appellate court agreed that the courts would not enforce an illegal contract.
However, the appellate court noted, the plaintiffs were not seeking to enforce the contract. What they were seeking with the lawsuit was to get their money back from the defendants on the basis of the fraudulent contract, costs they incurred as a result of the contract and assorted punitive damages including those provided for by the Consumer Fraud Act. The appellate court noted:
We do not find, notwithstanding defendants’ argument to the contrary, that allowing plaintiffs to proceed with their claims would be tantamount to allowing them to enforce an illegal contact. Plaintiffs seek compensation for defendants’ actions in violating the Consumer Fraud Act and in misleading them, in promising something they had no ability or intent to deliver with full knowledge that plaintiffs would be harmed financially and emotionally by their actions. We do not find that allowing plaintiffs’ case to proceed would, as defendants assert, give “the parties’ meeting of the minds legitimacy.” Nor do we find that it will “send a message to those who lawfully engage in the process of obtaining immigration papers that if you do not accomplish your goal legally and through proper channels, then it is okay to do it by illegal means such as bribery and paying off corrupt officials within a government.” On the contrary, allowing plaintiffs’ claims to proceed will send a message to those unscrupulous individuals who mislead and prey on others by promising them immigration services they cannot deliver that there are ramifications for this antisocial behavior. These individuals cannot be allowed to use the very illegality of their agreement as a way to avoid the consequences of their actions.
You can read the entire court’s decision here.