December 24, 2009

Punitive Damages Verdict Against Broadcaster Affirmed; Court Uses Two-Pronged Standard Of Review

Jerri Blount sued Jovon Broadcasting. She claimed the company fired her because she agreed to testify for another employee who alleged racial and sexual discrimination against the company. After a trial, a jury awarded Blount $3,082,350, $2.8 million of which was for punitive damages. Jovon appealed, and among other things, argued that the punitive damages award was excessive.

The First District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the verdict. The court indicated the standard of review for the propriety of a punitive damages verdict has two levels of analysis. First, the “amount of a punitive damages award will not be reversed unless it is so excessive that it must have been a result of passion, partiality, or corruption.” The appellate court also used the more familiar “manifest weight” standard: “Because a jury’s determination of the amount of punitive damages is a predominately factual issue, we will not reverse a jury’s determination as to the amount of punitive damages unless it is against the manifest weight of the evidence.”

So to get a reversal, an appellant must show by a manifest weight of the evidence that a punitive damages verdict was the result of passion, partiality, or corruption.

The whole case, Blount v. Stroud, Nos. 1-06-2428, 1-06-2968 (10/6/09), is available by clicking here.

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December 20, 2009

No Appellate Jurisdiction Over Trustee’s Appeal Filed Before Final Distribution Of Assets

After Eleanor Miller died, Melodee Miller-Hanson became the successor trustee of Eleanor’s trust. Melodee got into a dispute with the other beneficiaries of the trust, and they ended up suing each other. The beneficiaries wanted Melodee removed as trustee; Melodee wanted the beneficiaries disinherited.

Melodee’s counterclaim was dismissed. And with “a few specific exceptions that were to be assessed against Melodee’s final distribution share,” the trial court ruled against the beneficiaries in their claim against Melodee. Melodee later asked the court to grant her litigation expenses, which the court largely denied.

Under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 304(b)(1) [allowing an interlocutory appeal from a judgment or order entered in the administration of an estate, guardianship, or similar proceeding which finally determines a right or status of a party], Melodee appealed a number the trial court’s rulings in connection with her requests for fees and costs. But she filed her notice of appeal before the court ruled on a final distribution of the assets of the trust.

Arguing that the appeal was premature, the beneficiaries asked the Second District Illinois Appellate Court to dismiss the appeal. The appellate court agreed that Melodee’s appeal did not invoke appellate jurisdiction: there was no final order from which to appeal because the rights of the parties had not been established. Here is the court’s explanation:

… [T]he rights of the parties to the distribution of the trust assets had not been established by order of the court. While Melodee’s trustee fees had been set by the court, none of the beneficiaries, including Melodee, knew in what proportions the remaining trust assets would be divided … Clearly, no party’s rights regarding the trust were finalized …

To allow Melodee’s appeal at this point is to encourage piecemeal appeals; if we were to address this appeal and affirm the judgment, the execution [of the judgment] would not be the only thing remaining to be done … There was no final judgment from which to appeal, and no provision of Supreme Court Rule 304 applies. Therefore, we grant the plaintiff beneficiaries’ motion to dismiss …

The appellate court also ruled that Illinois Supreme Court Rule 304(b)(1) did not apply to this case because the trial court’s “limited activity falls well short of the type of oversight involved in comprehensive proceedings like estate or guardianship proceedings.” Read the whole case, In re The Living Trusts of George C. Miller and Eleanor Miller, 2-07-0773 (12/14/09), by clicking here.

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December 15, 2009

Failure To Make Offer Of Proof Dooms Appellate Argument Opposing Oral Settlement Agreement

K4 Enterprises sued Grater, Inc. and James Zavacki During the trial, the parties met with the judge, but without attorneys, to discuss settlement of the case. The case was settled, at least everyone thought so at the time. But over the following weeks, the parties could not agree on the terms of a written agreement.

K4 asked the trial judge to enforce the oral agreement made during the settlement discussions in the court’s chambers. Grater and Zavacki opposed the motion, and asked for an evidentiary hearing. They wanted to question the judge as a witness to the settlement negotiations. The judge denied the request for an evidentiary hearing, and said he would not give testimony. Instead, the judge ruled that Grater and Zavacki could make an offer of proof to show what their other witnesses would say. Grater and Zavacki declined to make the offer of proof, saying they were unable to do so without the testimony of the trial judge. The court then granted K4’s request to enforce the oral settlement agreement.

On appeal, Grater and Zavacki claimed the trial court was wrong to refuse to hold an evidentiary hearing. But the First District Illinois Appellate Court disagreed, and ruled that Grater and Zavacki forfeited the argument by declining to make an offer of proof. Here’s how the appellate court explained it:

Generally, when a trial court refuses evidence, no appealable issues remain unless a formal offer of proof is made … The purpose of an offer of proof is to inform the trial court, opposing counsel, and a reviewing court of the nature and substance of the evidence sought to be introduced … An adequate offer of proof is the key to preserving a trial court’s error in excluding evidence.

… The trial judge stated that he would not be a witness, but offered defendants an opportunity to make an offer of proof regarding the testimony of other witnesses … Defense counsel had an opportunity to place on the record, for review by this court, what other witnesses, namely, his client, James Zavacki, would testify to with regard to what occurred during the oral settlement negotiations in the judge's chambers. Defense counsel refused to do so and cannot now be heard to complain that the trial court's recollection of those settlement negotiations was inaccurate. Therefore, because defendants refused to make an offer of proof when given the opportunity to do so, we find that they forfeited their objection to the trial court's denial of an evidentiary hearing …

The appellate court affirmed the order to enforce the settlement, a sum of $2 million plus interest. Read the whole case, K4 Enterprises v. Grater, Inc., No. 1-07-2792 (8/19/09), by clicking here.

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December 12, 2009

Notice Of Appeal More Than 30 Days After 304(a) Finding Still Vests Appellate Jurisdiction

This insurance coverage case has a unique twist on when an interlocutory order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 304(a) may be appealed.

John J. Rickhoff Sheet Metal Co. filed a third-party complaint against Meridian Mutual Insurance Co and the Horton Group, Inc. Meridian and Horton asked the trial court to dismiss Rickhoff’s third-party complaint, which the court did.

Rickhoff then asked the court to reconsider the dismissals. The trial court denied Rickhoff’s request as to Meridian, and entered Rule 304(a) language [no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal] permitting an interlocutory appeal within 30 days. The trial court took the reconsideration request as to the Horton dismissal under advisement. More than 30 days later, the court also denied that request to reconsider, and made a similar Rule 304(a) finding.

Rickhoff appealed both dismissals within 30 days after the trial court denied the Horton reconsideration request. By that time, more than 30 passed from the time the court made its Rule 304(a) finding as to Meridian. So Meridian asked the appellate court to dismiss Rickhoff’s appeal because it was filed too late, depriving the appellate court of jurisdiction.

The First District Illinois Appellate Court disagreed with Meridian. The court said it had jurisdiction because Rickhoff’s whole third-party action was a “single piece of the action,” so it was okay to wait to appeal Meridian’s dismissal until after the ruling on Horton’s. Here’s how the appellate court viewed it:

In determining the effect of Rule 304(a) findings, our supreme court has made clear that its interpretations have been governed by its policy disfavoring piecemeal appeals … Further, our examination of the record in the case at bar discloses that the intent of the court and the parties was to treat the third-party action as a single piece of the action, albeit separate from the primary action commenced by State Farm, as to both third-party defendants. The court resolved both third-party defendants' motions to dismiss in a single order, and Rickhoff filed a single motion to reconsider as to both third-party defendants. Moreover, the allegations regarding the third-party complaint as well as the grounds for its dismissal against both third-party defendants involved the conduct of both third-party defendants. The record thus discloses that the trial court exercised its discretion to determine whether to sever the third-party complaint from the initial complaint filed by State Farm … We therefore find that the Rule 304(a) finding entered by the circuit court on December 14, 2007, should be strictly construed as to apply only to sever the third-party action from the primary action filed by State Farm …

As a result, Rickhoff's notice of appeal, which was filed less than 30 days after the order disposing of the portions of Rickhoff's motion to reconsider that related to Horton, was timely as to both Meridian and Horton. Thus, jurisdiction exists over Rickhoff's appeal of the dismissal of its third-party complaint against Meridian.

This opinion also lists six factors the court should consider in deciding whether to grant an interlocutory appeal. (“a paramount consideration is efficient judicial administration”). The whole thing, State Farm Fire & Casualty v. John J. Rickhoff Sheet Metal, No. 1-08-1933 (8/19/09), is available by clicking here.

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December 7, 2009

Failure To Designate Amount Of Attorney Fee Award Deprives Appellate Jurisdiction For Interlocutory Appeal

The City of West Chicago passed a zoning ordinance that banned certain billboards. Lamar Whiteco Outdoor Corporation sued the city, claiming the ordinance was unconstitutional. Lamar and the city eventually settled: an injunction was entered prohibiting the city from enforcing the ordinance against Lamar, and Lamar withdrew the lawsuit.

Lamar then filed a petition for its attorney fees. The trial court ruled that Lamar was entitled to the fees. But the court did not state how much money Lamar should get. The city asked the court to reconsider the ruling. The court refused to reconsider, and also ordered under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 304(a) [no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal of final judgments as to one or more but fewer than all of the parties or claims] that its order allowing the attorney fees was a final and appealable interlocutory order.

The city appealed. But Lamar argued the appellate court did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Lamar maintained that Rule 304(a) did not give the appellate court a basis to consider the appeal.

The Second District Illinois Appellate Court agreed with Lamar and dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The appellate court ruled that an order is not appealable under Rule 304(a) just because a trial court says so. There still must be a final judgment. This is how the appellate court explained it:

The inclusion of a Rule 304(a) finding in an order does not transform a nonfinal order into a final and appealable order … Rule 304(a) language applies only to cases involving multiple claims, multiple parties, or both, and in those cases, it can be used to sever a final order as to one claim or party from other claims or parties … The trial court’s use of Rule 304(a) language in an order does not affect its finality … Here, the parties settled all claims except the one for attorney fees and costs, and the City does not appeal any matter but the one that remains undetermined. The City does not wish to appeal any final order by severing it from the still pending claim for attorney fees and costs, and therefore, the Rule 304(a) finding is completely superfluous.

The whole opinion, Lamar Whiteco Outdoor Corp. v. City of West Chicago, No 2-08-0020 (10/8/09), is available here.

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