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Quick takes from Thursday's Illinois Supreme Court opinions

Our panel of leading appellate attorneys review Thursday's Illinois Supreme Court opinions in the civil cases Peterson v. Peterson, Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co. and In re Mulroe and criminal cases People v. Masterson and People v. White.

CIVIL

Petersen v. Petersen

By Alyssa M. Reiter, Williams Montgomery & John Ltd.

This family law case resolved the appropriate means by which to apportion postdissolution decree college expenses where the judgment of dissolution reserved the issue for future consideration.

The Petersens’ 1999 divorce decree provided that the court “expressly reserves the issue of each party’s obligation to contribute to the college…expenses of the parties’ children pursuant to Section 513 of the Illinois Marriage and Marriage Dissolution Act.”  The decree also ordered the husband (Kevin) to pay monthly child support.

In 2007, the wife (Janet) filed a petition to allocate past and future college expenses for their children.  The circuit court ordered Kevin to pay 75% of the total college expenses for all three children.  The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding that the 2007 petition constituted a modification to the 1999 decree.  It held that the circuit court could not order Kevin to pay for those expenses that predated the filing of the petition.

On review, the Supreme Court agreed that the order could not require Kevin to pay for pre-petition college expenses.  It reasoned that section 513 expenses are a form of child support.  It further reasoned that where the original decree reserves the issue of educational expenses, a later petition to allocate those expenses seeks a “modification” of the decree.  Such a modification cannot operate retroactively. 

The Supreme Court reversed the circuit court orders and remanded with instructions to recalculate Kevin’s obligation for all of the educational expenses, taking into account all relevant factors, including that Janet’s financial resources may have been depleted by paying for the past college expenses.

Jablonski v. Ford Motor Co.

By Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC

Reversing a $43 million general verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages to the plaintiffs in an automotive product liability case, the Illinois Supreme Court held that plaintiffs' negligence claims either lacked evidentiary support, or, in the instance of a claimed postsale duty to warn, were not legally viable. The lawsuit arose from an automobile accident in which a distracted driver slammed into the rear of Dora and John Jablonski's 1993 Lincoln Town Car. The fuel tank was punctured in the high-speed collision. A fire ensued, and Mrs. Jablonski sustained severe injuries; Mr. Jablonski's injuries were fatal.

Proceeding to trial in Madison County, the plaintiffs dropped their strict liability theories and pursued several negligent design theories pertaining to the location of the fuel tank. The supreme court considered the sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial on three of plaintiffs' theories in the context of the risk-utility balancing test, a multifactorial inquiry into the reasonableness of a manufacturer’s conduct. That inquiry is the same in either a strict liability or a negligent design case. Ford proved its compliance with industry standards for fuel system integrity; the court considered whether plaintiff presented evidence that Ford's conduct was otherwise unreasonable. Observing the lack of evidence showing that the risk was more than remote or that a feasible alternative design would have prevented the injuries, the supreme court found that plaintiffs failed to make their case.

The supreme court also rejected plaintiffs' claim that Ford had a postsale duty to warn. A manufacturer has no duty to warn its customers of risks first known after a product has left its control. The court also rejected plaintiffs' contention that Ford's actions in the context of certain police vehicles which had experienced fuel-fed fires after high-speed rear end accidents established a duty to issue postsale warnings to civilian customers. Neither the pleadings nor the evidence established such a voluntary undertaking.

In re Mulroe

By Michael T. Reagan, The Law Offices of Michael T. Reagan

In re Mark Gerard Mulroe decided the substantive question of the quality of conduct which would constitute a violation of the Rule of Professional Conduct prohibiting conduct involving dishonesty, deceit, fraud, or misrepresentation, and also a question of the sanction to be imposed upon a technical conversion of funds held in escrow without dishonest intent behind that conversion.

Respondent practiced law on a part-time basis. While he had an IOLTA client trust account, he used it as a pass-through account to park money that he used for business purposes. In the course of his representation of a husband in a dissolution proceeding, he undertook to hold the proceeds from the sale of the marital home in escrow. During the period when he was to be holding those funds, he made transfers from his IOLTA account to his business account for the payment of personal and business expenses, at one point emptying the account, except for a nominal sum.

The trial court ordered transfer of the funds to the wife. Both spouses intended to appeal the trial court’s underlying order. The Hearing Board found that respondent truthfully, yet mistakenly, was of the belief that he did not have to transfer the funds because of the pendency of the appeal. Upon further order of the circuit court, the funds were transferred in full to the wife. The Hearing Board found that respondent had the financial means to deliver the funds at all relevant times. The Board further concluded that the conversion of the funds was a technical one, and was not motivated by an intention to deprive the opposing spouse of those funds.

The legal question before the Supreme Court was whether the undisputed conversion also constituted "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation" so as to constitute a violation of RPC 8.4(a)(4). The court reiterated the long-standing principle that poor bookkeeping practices or a failure to fully understand the attorney’s duty do not excuse or negate the conversion of client funds. However, the court declined to adopt the Administrator’s contention that failing to follow proper procedures is inherently dishonest, and that recklessness with respect to client funds creates a presumption of dishonesty. The court stated that it was declining to craft such a bright line rule.

With respect to the sanction, the court declined to impose the three-year suspension recommended by the Administrator, but rather, in agreement with the Hearing Board, suspended respondent from the practice for three months and required attendance at appropriate seminars. Among other factors, the court noted that there was no dishonest intent behind the conversion, but that it was driven by respondent’s misunderstanding that the funds were not to be dispersed until the appeal was completed. The respondent had made full restitution, admitted wrongdoing, expressed remorse, and had fully cooperated in the disciplinary process.

CRIMINAL

People v. Masterson

By Kerry J. Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender

At issue was whether equal protection denied to individuals subject to
commitment proceedings under the Sexually Dangerous Persons Act (SDPA)
because they are not entitled to have an independent psychiatrist appointed
at no cost while individuals facing commitment under the Sexually Violent
Persons Act (SVPA) are.

The Court noted that, as a threshold matter, there must be a showing that
the individual raising an equal protection claim is similarly situated to
the comparison group before any level of review (strict scrutiny,
intermediate scrutiny, or rational basis) is afforded.

Reviewing the provisions of the SDPA and SVPA, the Court found that
Masterson was not similarly situated to individuals under the SVPA.  For
instance, the SDPA applies broadly to individuals facing prosecution for
any criminal offense, while the SVPA applies only to individuals convicted
or found not guilty by reason of insanity of a limited number of “sexually
violent” offenses.  Further, the SDPA provides an alternative to criminal
prosecution, while the SVPA provides for commitment in addition to criminal
proceedings.

Because the SDPA and SVPA address separate groups of individuals in a
manner unique to each of those groups, Masterson could not meet the
threshold of establishing that he was similarly situated to individuals
subject to commitment under the SVPA.  His equal protection challenge
failed on that basis.

The Court’s decision serves to highlight the differences between the SDPA
and SVPA and to clarify that equal treatment need not be afforded to
individuals under those two provisions because individuals subject to
commitment under the SDPA are not similarly situated to those under the
SVPA.

People v. Jackson

By Kerry J. Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender

Michael Jackson and Felton Lee were each convicted of possession of a
controlled substance after bench trials.  Neither Jackson nor Lee received
any medical treatment while in the county jail.

The issue before the Court was whether, prior to its amendment (effective
August 15, 20080, the statute authorizing a $10 Arrestee’s Medical Costs
fee [730 ILCS 125/17] applied only to those arrestees convicted of a felony
who incurred medical expenses.

The Court noted that the defendants effectively conceded that the
post-amendment version of Section 17 authorized the $10 fee.  Lee’s appeal
was dismissed as improvidently granted because he had taken the position in
the appellate court that the post-amendment version applied to his case and
thus, he was precluded from now arguing that the pre-amended version
applied.

Relying on well-established principles of statutory construction, the Court
found that the pre-amended version of the statute authorized the $10 fee
against all arrestees convicted of a felony, regardless of whether they
actually received medical services.
Thus, the $10 medical costs fee may continue to be assessed for all felony
convictions, regardless of whether the defendant received medical treatment
and regardless of whether the pre- or post-amendment version of the statute
applies.

Posted on Sep 22, 2011 by Chris Bonjean | Comments (2)
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Member Comments

Looks like Mr. Petersen won the battle but will lose the war. Court can consider what she has already paid, will I predict amazingly conclude that he should pay 75%.
Looks like Mr. Petersen won the battle but will lose the war. Court can consider what she has already paid, will I predict amazingly conclude that he should pay 75%.

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