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Whether a postjudgment motion is denied, dismissed, or stricken may determine whether the appellate court has jurisdiction

December 28, 2013 by in General

In this case, the defendant’s postjudgment motion was “stricken, with prejudice” for failure to appear at a clerk’s status call, the defendant did not move to vacate the order striking the motion within 30 days, and the defendant ultimately filed a notice of appeal more than 30 days after the date the postjudgment motion was stricken. The appellate court considered whether it had jurisdiction and ruled that it did not because the appeal was filed too late.

Before getting to the court’s resolution of the jurisdictional issue, it may be useful to pause and consider how that resolution came about. The court notes in its decision that the plaintiff filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction at the outset of the appeal. The court denied the motion, but noted that the plaintiff continued to challenge jurisdiction and that the court is obligated to reconsider its own jurisdiction before continuing to the merits of the case. More about that later.

But first, here are the procedural highlights. On January 19, 2012, the trial court granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and entered judgment against the defendant. On February 16, 2012, the defendant filed a postjudgment motion to reconsider and reverse the summary judgment. The court entered a briefing schedule on the postjudgment motion on February 29, 2012. The briefing schedule included a deadline for the defendant’s reply brief of April 4, 2012, and a clerk’s status call on April 5, 2012, at which the movant was required to provide courtesy copy of the full briefing on the motion.

The defendant failed to appear at the April 5 clerk’s status call and the trial court entered an order striking the motion to reconsider “with prejudice.” On April 6, the defendant filed a reply brief without leave of court.

On May 4, 2012, the defendant filed a motion to set a hearing on its motion to reconsider pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 184. According to that filing, the judge’s clerk called the defendant’s counsel and advised him to file a motion to set a hearing date. On May 16, the trial court set a briefing schedule on the defendant’s motion to set a hearing date. The plaintiff filed a response arguing that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to consider the motion in light of the order striking the postjudgment motion.

Over the plaintiff’s jurisdiction objection, on June 19, 2012, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to set a hearing on the February 16 postjudgment motion. The hearing was held on July 26, 2012, at which the trial court noted the plaintiff’s continuing jurisdictional objection and denied the postjudgment motion, but not on jurisdictional grounds.

On August 24, 2012, the defendant filed a notice of appeal of the January 19, 2012, order granting summary judgment and the July 26, 2012, order denying reconsideration.

As noted above, the plaintiff challenged the appellate court’s jurisdiction. The appellate court found that, once the trial court entered the order striking the postjudgment motion with prejudice, the only pending postjudgment motion was disposed of and the time to appeal began to run. To have any chance of preserving appellate jurisdiction, the defendant would have had to move to vacate the motion striking the reconsideration motion, but it did not do so. The May 4 motion to set a hearing on the postjudgment motion had no legal effect because in order to call up the motion to reconsider, that motion had to be pending, but it was not pending because of the April 5 order.

The court distinguished the situation in this case from other cases in which a court order merely took a motion to reconsider off of the call but did not dispose of the motion. In this case, the express terms of the trial court’s April 5 order disposed of the defendant’s motion to reconsider.

Because the 30-day appeal period began no later than the April 5 order and the notice of appeal was not filed until August 24 (over four months later), the appellate court found that it lacked jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal.

There are lots of lessons to be learned from this case, but I focus on only one. The sequence of events illustrates one of the more frustrating aspects of practice in Illinois state appellate courts. As a matter of routine, the state appellate courts do not consider whether appellate jurisdiction is present before the case is fully briefed and ready for decision unless the appellee raises a jurisdictional challenge. When the court does consider jurisdiction, it is not uncommon (although I believe that it may be less common than it once was) for the motion panel to “punt” and defer any decision on the jurisdictional issue until the case is fully briefed. There is almost never any legitimate reason for that practice. If the court needs more information to make the decision, it should require that the parties provide that information. If it has all of the information necessary to make the decision, it should make the decision and get it over with.

On those occasions when the court does rule on a pre-briefing motion to dismiss, it is sometimes difficult to believe that denial of the motion was the result of a robust consideration of the jurisdictional challenge. In other words, it seems that the Illinois appellate courts are simply not interested in (and, therefore, not geared toward) an early determination of jurisdictional issues. This is in very sharp contrast to other courts, such as the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which conduct routine sua sponte jurisdictional reviews of newly-filed appeals and do not hesitate to dismiss appeals where jurisdiction is lacking.

Why does it matter? Because early – and reliable – jurisdictional review can make a tremendous difference in efficiency. There is no reason that both parties should expend the time and effort to fully brief – and sometimes even argue – an appeal before the court dismisses it for a jurisdictional defect. Where the appeal was filed too late, there is no benefit to anyone – including the court – to allow the case to drag on as a kind of legal zombie – undead and still active until someone eventually delivers the inevitable coup de grace. Where the appeal is premature rather than late, there is no benefit to allowing the case to linger in the appellate court, rather than sending it back to the circuit court where the judge can take whatever actions are necessary to complete the case, which in many cases may amount to little more than the formality of disposing of claims on which there will be no relief.

Won v. Grant Park 2, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122523.

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