Like most states, Illinois is in the early stages of transitioning to an e-filing system in its state courts. With new rules come new problems for litigators: does this case qualify for e-filing? Is e-filing of this document mandatory, permissive, or barred?
Last week, a divided Illinois Supreme Court handed down its first major decision on the perils of e-filing. In an opinion by Justice Mary Jane Theis, the Court held 4-3 that erroneously e-filing a notice of appeal in a case that didn’t qualify for e-filing in the first place was not sufficient to deprive the Appellate Court of jurisdiction over the appeal. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court opinions in VC&M, Ltd. v. Andrews is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
VC&M began with a real estate dispute. In the midst of a divorce, the defendants signed a contract with the plaintiff to list their residence for sale. Plaintiff found a buyer who made an offer for the house. The defendants rejected the offer, declined to make a counter offer, and not long after, took the house off the market, with the wife allegedly saying she would buy out the husband and continue living there. Not long after the listing agreement expired, the Circuit Court entered a judgment of divorce incorporating a property settlement. The settlement valued the marital home at $5 more than the rejected offer.
So the disappointed real estate agent sued for the lost commission. The defendants moved to dismiss, and the Circuit Court granted the motion.
And that’s where the trouble started. Thirty days after dismissal, the plaintiff e-filed a motion for reconsideration. Thirty days after that motion was denied, the plaintiff e-filed a notice of appeal.
But the thing was, although the case appeared to be technically eligible, the plaintiff had never taken any of the steps required by the local court rules to qualify the case for e-filing. So did the misfiled motion for reconsideration toll the time for filing the notice of appeal? And did the misfiled notice of appeal accomplish anything at all? The Second District of Appellate Court answered both questions with a resounding “no,” dismissing the appeal.
The Supreme Court reversed. Neither the defendants nor the Appellate Court had pointed out any authority holding that non-compliance with a rule governing how a filing is delivered to the court rose to the level of a jurisdictional defect, the Court held. In fact, the Court concluded, what little authority exists points to the opposite conclusion, citing Ragan v. Columbia Mutual Insurance Co., Besic v. Lattof Chevrolet, Inc. and Cedzidlo v. Marriott International. Since the motion for reconsideration was merely defective, rather than a complete nullity, the motion tolled the plaintiff’s time to appeal. This was particularly true given that the defendants had not pointed to any prejudice arising from the plaintiff’s rules violation.
Nor was the e-filing of plaintiff’s notice of appeal fatal, the Court held. Plaintiff had argued that the rule’s language barring e-filing of “appellate . . . documents” didn’t apply to a notice of appeal, since the notice is filed in the trial court, but the majority disagreed. Nevertheless, particularly since during the transitional period, the clerk was maintaining a parallel paper file of all filed pleadings, the misfiled notice of appeal was sufficient to confer jurisdiction on the Appellate Court.
Justice Robert R. Thomas dissented from the Court’s “conclusion and analysis,” joined by Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride and Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier. The misfiled pleadings were a nullity, Justice Thomas concluded, ineffective for any purpose. Moreover, the dissenters argued, the presence or absence of prejudice had never been regarded as sufficient to excuse a jurisdictional defect. “Under the majority’s analysis, parties may now disregard local court rules” and “improperly file a document electronically,” and be subject to no consequences other than sanctions, Justice Thomas wrote.