When a defendant is convicted of a criminal offense and sentenced to prison time, the Unified Code of Corrections requires the Circuit Court clerk to transmit to the Department of Corrections the total time the defendant served prior to entry of final judgment so that the the defendant’s credits for “time served” can be calculated. The clerk gets that total number of days from the sheriff. (730 ILCS 5/5-4-1(e)(4)). What happens if the total the Department receives is wrong, and as a result the prisoner is detained longer than he should have been? Does the prisoner have a cause of action against the clerk? That was the question posed by Cowper v. Nyberg, decided last week by the Illinois Supreme Court. Our detailed summary on the facts and underlying court opinions in Cowper is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
The plaintiff pleaded guilty on criminal charges in 2011 and was sentenced to 27 months imprisonment. The judgment entered in the criminal case said he was entitled to 275 days’ credit for time served. Three weeks after the judgment was entered, the plaintiff filed a motion to recalculate his time served. Four months later, the defendant was released by the Department of Corrections. A month after that, the State finally responded to the plaintiff’s motion, conceding that his time served credits had been incorrectly calculated. The circuit court entered an order asking the State to prepare an amended mittimus, and an amended judgment was entered.
In early 2012, the plaintiff filed a two-count complaint, naming the sheriff and the Circuit Court clerk as defendants. Plaintiff’s theory was because the incorrect number of days had been transmitted to the Department of Corrections, he was overdetained by 137 days. The defendants moved to dismiss, and the trial court granted the motion. With respect to the clerk, the court held that the statute merely required the clerk to transmit whatever data was received from the sheriff – there was no duty to independently verify the numbers. As for the sheriff, the court held that Section 5/5-4-1(e)(4) didn’t create an express or implied right of action. The Fifth District Appellate Court reversed, holding that the Code did, in fact, create an implied right of action.
In an opinion by Justice Thomas, the Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The defendants raised two issues: (1) the plaintiff pled no breach, since the clerk was merely required to transmit whatever number he received from the sheriff, not to independently verify its accuracy; and (2) Section 5/5-4-1(e)(4) did not create an express right of action. The Court found that the second issue wasn’t before the Court. The Appellate Court had gotten off on the wrong track, the Court found, by looking for an implied right of action – the plaintiff hadn’t pled one. The plaintiff’s claims were simple common-law negligence. Only the duty purportedly came from the statute.
The Court agreed that court clerks could be held liable in negligence for breaches of purely ministerial duties. Indeed, the Court wrote, the defendants didn’t seem to seriously question that proposition. The plaintiff’s problem was his allegations about the nature of the clerk’s ministerial duty. The complaint alleged that the clerk had a statutory duty to transmit the accurate number of days’ credit, regardless of what the clerk got from the sheriff. But that’s not what the statute says – the clerk is merely required to pass along the number received from the sheriff. So the complaint was properly dismissed with respect to the clerk, but the Court concluded that dismissal should be without prejudice. The Court thus reversed the Appellate Court’s order reversing the dismissal with respect to the clerk.
The sheriff, however, was a different matter. The Court agreed that the statute imposed a ministerial duty on the sheriff to calculate the accurate amount of time served credits, and that the complaint had adequately pled breach of that duty. So the Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s decision reversing with respect to the sheriff.