Section 2-1401 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure provides that courts may grant relief from a judgment on petition made within thirty days of the original entry of the judgment. The statute further provides that the old common law writs which served similar purposes, such as writs of error coram nobis and coram vobis, bills of review and similar techniques are all abolished.
In the closing days of the May term, the Illinois Supreme Court clarified the procedure to be followed by trial courts in adjudicating such petitions, unanimously holding in Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District v. Walters that courts retained discretion to consider equitable factors, at least in fact-bound motions. Our detailed report on the underlying facts and lower court rulings in Warren County is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
Warren County arose from a 2005 contract to log a stand of 54 trees on a plot of land in Warren County, Illinois. The defendant signed a contract with a resident of Washington State – the apparent owner of the property – to do the logging. Four years later, the plaintiff filed suit, naming the logging company and various others as defendants, claiming that it actually owned the land on which the trees had stood. The complaint purported to state claims for violations of the Wrongful Tree Cutting Act, trespass, conversion, quantum meruit and negligence.
Counsel for most of the defendants (aside from the alleged owner of the property) failed to answer the complaint. After a case management conference, which counsel for the defendants failed to attend, the court entered an order directing the defendants to answer the complaint. They failed to do so. Plaintiff moved for entry of a default judgment. Defendants failed to oppose the motion or to appear at the hearing on it. So the court entered a default.
A month later, defendants moved to set aside the default judgment under Section 2-1301(e) of the Code of Civil Procedure, 735 ILCS 5/2-1301(e). Subsequently, defendants and their counsel failed to appear for a scheduled case management conference or for the hearing on their motion to vacate. The trial court denied the motion to set aside the default.
About a year later, now represented by new counsel, defendants filed a motion for relief from the judgment under Section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 735 ILCS 5/2-1401. In their motion, defendants contended that they had absolute defenses to the underlying claims as bona fide purchasers for value of logging rights for the land. The trial court concluded that the alleged owner did indeed appear to own the land at issue – meaning that the defendants had viable defenses to all claims – but that People v. Vincent had expressly held that Circuit Courts may not consider equitable factors in deciding Section 2-1401 motions. Accordingly, the court denied the motion for relief from judgment. The Appellate Court affirmed over a dissent.
In an opinion by Justice Kilbride, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed. The Court held that Section 2-1401 was intended as a substitute for the old equitable common law writs for relief from judgments. As such, a petition under 2-1401 necessarily contemplates the potential for equitable relief. In Smith v. Airoom, Inc., the Court had held that three factors were relevant to such a petition: (1) a meritorious defense or claim; (2) due diligence in presenting the defense or claim; and (3) due diligence in filing the petition. The Court made it clear that although Section 2-1401 was not intended to relieve parties of their own or their counsel’s mistakes, relief could be had for excusable neglect. In Airoom, the Court recognized that the requirement of due diligence could be relaxed when equitable considerations demanded it.
Vincent came twenty-one years later. There, the Court held that a trial court was authorized to enter an order on a Section 2-1401 petition without responsive pleadings or conducting a hearing. The Court rejected abuse of discretion review, commenting that earlier cases applying the standard were based on the “erroneous belief” that a Section 2-1401 petition was directed to the court’s equitable powers.
Lower courts have struggled to reconcile Vincent and earlier authority, including Airoom, ever since. In response, the Supreme Court held that Vincent should be understood strictly in light of its facts: a purely legal challenge to the judgment, raising no factual issues at all. Under such circumstances, the trial court was entitled to dispense with a hearing, the Appellate Court applied de novo review, and equity was irrelevant.
A fact-dependent challenge to the judgment such as the one in Airoom raised very different issues, however. The Court held that such a challenge, more closely analogous to the old common law writ coram nobis, continued to be governed by the three-factor Airoom test, and the trial courts had authority to relax the due diligence standard when, in their discretion, equity seemed to demand it.
Having clarified the legal landscape and reversed the Appellate Court’s holding that the legal standard of Vincent applied, the Court declined to go further. Pointing out that the lower courts had been confused about the appropriate legal standards and plaintiff had specifically asked for an opportunity, if the Court agreed with the defendants on the meaning of Vincent, to present additional evidence on remand, the Court remanded the matter back to the Circuit Court to apply the Airoom standard.