Madison - St. Clair Record

Friday, August 23, 2019

Widow says dismissal inappropriate in fraud suit against State Farm

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Jun 15, 2018


A widow alleges dismissal is inappropriate for State Farm in a fraud suit alleging she was wrongfully accused of vandalizing a rental home in an effort to pay for dangerous code violations the landlords refused to repair.

Megan Sallee filed her lawsuit on Feb. 3, 2017, against State Farm Insurance, Walter Volentine, Becky Volentine and David Volentine. She filed an amended complaint on Aug. 2 against the same defendants.

According to the complaint, Sallee alleges she was a tenant at 8160 State Route 140 in Edwardsville with her husband Jim Sallee and two children. They began renting the premises on Dec. 18, 2012. The Volentines were their landlords.

Sallee’s husband died at the residence on Sept. 16, 2015.

Sallee alleges she and her husband were both disabled and the Volentines knew of their disablement.

On Sept. 24, 2015, eight days after Jim Sallee’s death and the day before his funeral, the Volentines placed a demand for rent on the door.

She claims she had paid $1,000 in rent on Sept. 7, 2015, pursuant to the rental agreement, which wasn’t due until Sept. 19. She claims her rent was paid until Oct. 19, 2015.

Sallee alleges her father and her children went to the house to get clothing for the funeral. She claims she misplaced her key but had left the door unlocked. However, when Sallee’s daughter attempted to enter the house, it was locked and a notice had been placed on the door demanding rent for $1,902 within five days or she would be evicted.

Around noon on Sept. 24, deputies for the Madison County Sheriff’s Department were allegedly called to the home for a purported safety check on the Sallees by the defendants and found “nothing suspicious noted” upon inspection.

On Sept. 26, Sallee’s mother received a phone call from David Volentine, who wanted to know when the plaintiff would pay her rent, the suit states.

David Volentine allegedly “reiterated that his father needed the income from the rental house and they wanted to rent it again by the end of October.”

He said he would give the plaintiff two weeks to be moved out, the complaint alleges.

Sallee alleges the Volentines tried to force her out by creating a gas leak on the gas line to the furnace on Oct. 6, 2015, and they again caused a leak on the gas line to the water heater on Oct. 17, 2015.

She claims she was working in the home with her children and parents at the time to clean and pack the family’s belongings, exposing them to a potentially deadly risk of causing an explosion.

Sallee also alleges the defendants refused to call a plumber and an electrician to make “essential” repairs in the rental house.

“The Defendants failed to repair the deteriorated and unsanitary conditions and make the home habitable,” the complaint states. “The Defendants should have reasonably known that the home was not in a habitable condition at the time it was rented to the Sallees and subsequently should have addressed the issues of the Plaintiff.”

On Oct. 22, 2015, Don Hawley of Hawley Home Inspections allegedly found multiple health and safety violations on the premises, which put the plaintiff’s family in danger of gas explosions, fire and electrocution, among others. He allegedly found no evidence of vandalism in the house.

The Madison County Planning and Development declared the home uninhabitable in November 2015.

Sallee turned over possession of the house on Nov. 13, 2015.

The Volentines reported the claim to State Farm on Dec. 8, 2015, alleging “extensive” vandalism and malicious mischief by Sallee. Insurance adjuster Bob Manville allegedly inspected the home Dec. 11, 2015, and approved the claim.

They allegedly reported the date of loss as Sept. 15, one day before James Sallee’s unexpected death.

“Sallee was ill on September 15 and unable to get out of bed. The date of September 15 is otherwise unremarkable,” the suit states.

The plaintiff alleges the State Farm policy lapsed on Sept. 30, 2015.

Manville took photos of the property, which allegedly shows gutted walls and debris where the kitchen sink and cupboards were removed. The home was allegedly in the process of a remodel to give it an open floor plan.

On Jan. 6, 2016, State Farm sent $9,929.23 to Walter Volentine.

Sallee claims numerous people were in the home between the alleged date of loss in September and when the photos were taken by a State Farm agent, including the police during the welfare check.

Beginning Jan. 14, 2016, State Farm sent letters to Sallee alleging she vandalized the home and demanded $10,929.23 to pay for the damage.

Sallee alleges State Farm failed to conduct a thorough investigation and should have known she did not commit the damage.

She seeks a judgment of more than $300,000.

A suggestion of death filed in May 2017 states that Walter Volentine died on April 27, 2017.

State Farm filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint on Oct. 17, 2017, through attorney Patrick Cloud of Heyl Royster Voelker & Allen PC in Edwardsville.

The defendant argues that count I “fails to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress because the conduct alleged is not ‘extreme and outrageous’ as a matter of law.

State Farm argues that count II fails to state a claim under the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act “because it does not allege facts demonstrating essential elements of a cause of action under the Act, including a nexus between the conduct alleged and a consumer interest; injury proximately caused by the conduct alleged; and the existence of ‘actual damages.’”

The defendant argues that count III’s defamation per se claim fails to describe “any alleged statement that could qualify as defamatory per se or that falls outside of a qualified privilege.”

Lastly, the defendant argues that count IV is insufficient “because there is no civil cause of action for ‘extortion,’ and the plaintiff cannot pursue that claim to evade the stringent requirements of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.”

Sallee responded to the defendant’s motion to dismiss on June 4 through attorney Greg Roosevelt of Edwardsville.

Sallee moved to voluntarily dismiss count IV but requested the court deny State Farm’s motion to dismiss counts I, II and III.

In regards to count I, Sallee argues that the degree of authority which a defendant has over a plaintiff is a factor in determining whether the conduct is outrageous as well as whether the plaintiff is susceptible to emotional distress.

She argues that “the Volentines have asserted superior power over Sallee during the family’s entire tenancy,” and State Farm’s financial condition over Sallee’s gives it authority.

“There could not have been a greater disparity of power,” the response states.

As for count II, which alleges consumer fraud, Sallee argues that State Farm was wrongfully attempting to collect a debt.

“State Farm cannot assert that because it paid a claim it is ‘entitled’ to reimbursement for that claim while ignoring evidence that its insured’s claim is fraudulent,” the response states.

“Sallee was an easy target as a poor widow, with two children, and was emotionally and financially fragile,” it continues. “Sallee went to Madison County to seek their protection and intervention. They inspected and then condemned the property and posted notices of condemnation on the premise doors. State Farm ignored these notices and then pursued Sallee with a fake charge of vandalism that was central to their wrongful insurance claim.”

In regards to count III, Sallee argues that she has been damaged by the false vandalism claim.

“Defendant State Farm asserts that it had a duty to report the claim to a collection agency and law firm for collection thus making the communication a qualified privileged one,” the response states. “Contrary to that assertion, State Farm had no duty to report their false, fraudulent and defamatory claim to anyone and surely not to a debt collection agency or a debt collection law firm.”

Madison County Circuit Court case number 17-L-167

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