Law-Of-The-Case Doctrine And Appellate Mandate Direct Trial Court’s Actions On Remand

The Drapers owned and lived on a property in a historic area north of Chicago. The property was subject to a conservation easement. The Drapers were allowed three amendments to the easement to alter the property and the home.

Their neighbors, the Bjorks, took offense to the amendments and the alterations, so they sued the Drapers. The Bjorks asked for declaratory judgment that the conservation easement could not be amended. The trial court ruled that two of the amendments were valid.

The Bjorks appealed, and the appellate court ruled (1) the conservation easement could be amended, (2) the two amendments the trial court said were valid in fact were not because they directly conflicted with the easement, and (3) the Drapers’ violations of the easement were not intentional or culpably negligent. The appellate court directed the trial court “to equitably consider all of the alterations that had been made to the property and, in its discretion, determine ‘which alterations, if any, must be removed and which if any, may be retained.’”

After another hearing, the trial court ruled that one of the three alterations could be retained. The Bjorks appealed again. The Bjorks arguments included: (1) the trial court should not have balanced the equities to decide which property alterations could remain; (2) the appellate court’s mandate from the first appeal did not require the trial court to accept the appellate ruling that the Drapers were not culpably negligent.

The Second District Illinois Appellate Court rejected both arguments.

Relying on the law-of-the-case doctrine, the appellate court ruled the trial court was obligated to balance the equities. The court stated: “… [T]he law-of-the-case doctrine bars relitigation of an issue previously decided in the same case … Questions of law that are decided on a previous appeal are binding on the trial court on remand as well as on the appellate court in subsequent appeals … The two recognized exceptions to the law-of-the-case doctrine are: (1) when a higher reviewing court makes a contrary ruling on the same issue subsequent to the lower court’s decision, and (2) when a reviewing court finds that its prior decision was palpably erroneous.”

In this case, there was no ruling from a higher court and the appellate court “declined plaintiffs’ [Bjorks’s] invitation” to find its earlier ruling to be erroneous. So the law-of-the-case doctrine required the trial court to apply a balancing test to the Drapers’s property alterations.

The appellate court also ruled that its mandate required the trial court to accept the appellate ruling that the Drapers were not culpably negligent. Here is how the appellate court explained it:

When a judgment of a trial court is reversed and the cause is remanded by this court with specific directions as to the action to be taken, it is the duty of the trial court to follow those directions … Generally, the correctness of a trial court’s action on remand is to be determined from our mandate, as opposed to our opinion … This proposition, however, is based upon the assumption that the direction contained in our mandate is precise and unambiguous.

The appellate court ruled the trial court “did not have discretion to reassess whether the defendants’ [Drapers] actions were intentional or culpably negligent” because the appellate court’s earlier mandate already disposed of the question.

In the end, the appellate court affirmed the trial court. Read the whole opinion, Bjork v. Draper, No. 2-09-1345 (9/22/10), by clicking here.