14947529603_d8d553e043_zWhat’s the impact on your time to appeal when the trial court says in open court that all substantive attacks on the judgment are denied – does the clock start?  That’s the question presented in Williams v. BNSF Railway Company, which was decided last week by a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court.  The Court’s answer: it depends.  Our detailed summary of the underlying facts and lower court rulings in Williams is here.  Our report on the oral argument is here.

Williams is an action against the plaintiff’s employer under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.  The jury rendered a verdict for plaintiff, as well as a verdict for the third-party defendant – which provided certain intermodal services to the defendant – on the defendant’s claim for contractual indemnity.

The defendant filed a timely post-trial motion raising 46 different challenges to the verdict and seeking a new trial.  On April 18, 2012, the trial court stated on the record that “the post-trial motions that have been filed are respectfully denied,” and that a written order would follow within “ten days or so.”  No written order was entered.

About six weeks later, the defendant filed a motion for leave to file supplemental authority on its claim for a remittitur. During a subsequent hearing, the court said “I’m going to give you a record that you can take up.”  Five days later, during another hearing, the court directed the plaintiffs to prepare a written order stating, among other things, that “[f]or all the reasons stated in the record the post-trial motion is denied.”  When a written order was finally issued a few days later, the order recited that it was final and appealable.

The defendant filed its notice of appeal less than thirty days after the trial court’s June 6 order, but 72 days after the court’s April 18 oral ruling that all post-trial motions were “respectfully denied.”  The Appellate Court dismissed the appeal, holding that the fact that the trial court hadn’t issued a written order following its April hearing didn’t make the oral ruling any less final.  The defendant filed a petition for rehearing together with a motion for leave to supplement the record with a certified copy of the law record, arguing that the oral hearing had never been entered as of record.  The Appellate Court denied both the petition and the motion for leave to supplement.

In an opinion by Justice Robert R. Thomas, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed.

The Court began by addressing the state of the record – a subject which was discussed during the oral argument.  The Court noted that just as it had at the Appellate Court, the defendant had moved for leave to supplement the record with the certified law record.  Both the plaintiff and the third-party defendant had opposed the motion, arguing that the defendant had missed its chance by not offering a complete record to the Appellate Court.  The Court disagreed, pointing out that there was nothing in the defendant’s appeal that required the certified law record; only when the plaintiff and third-party defendant reasserted their motion to dismiss did the issue become relevant.  The Court concluded that the record before the Appellate Court was insufficient to fully and fairly present the questions at issue, so it granted the motion to supplement.

The Court then turned to the issues.  The central problem with the Appellate Court’s opinion, the Court found, was that it apparently assumed that the trial court’s oral ruling constituted entry of record.  But it didn’t, the Court noted; although law and equity had been treated differently before Rule 272, the Rule had abolished the distinction.  Ever since, merely pronouncing an oral ruling wasn’t enough to start the appeal clock – it had to be entered by the clerk in the record.

And the trial court’s April oral ruling hadn’t been entered in the record until June 6.  The plaintiff argued that Rule 272 didn’t apply at all to post-trial orders, since it merely referred to judgments; but the Court made short shrift of that argument, finding that the Rule encompassed both a judgment and a post-trial order.  Since the oral ruling hadn’t been entered as of record until June 6, the defendant’s appeal was timely.

The Court concluded by declining the defendant’s invitation to decide its entitlement to a directed verdict on the third-party defendant’s contractual indemnity claim in the first instance.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Joe Haupt (no changes).