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Boles Trucking, Inc. v. O'connor





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County; the Hon. Richard E. Mann, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiffs brought a complaint for declaratory judgment in the circuit court of Sangamon County, alleging that section 18-702 of the Illinois Motor Carrier of Property Law (Motor Carrier Law) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 95 1/2, par. 18-702) is unconstitutional insofar as it grants authority to the Illinois Commerce Commission (Commission) to assess civil penalties for violations of the Motor Carrier Law. Defendants, as members of the Commission, filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction, which was denied. Thereafter the trial court denied the complaint, in effect upholding the constitutionality of section 18-702. Plaintiffs appeal from the denial of their complaint; defendants have filed a cross-appeal from the denial of their motion to dismiss.

The facts of this case are undisputed. Plaintiffs are trucking corporations engaged in transporting property in intrastate commerce. In April 1984 the Commission issued "citation orders" directed to each plaintiff, ordering them to appear at an administrative hearing before the Commission and show cause why civil penalties should not be imposed against them, pursuant to section 18-702, for violations of the Motor Carrier Law.

On May 8, 1984, prior to the scheduled administrative hearing, plaintiffs filed their complaint for declaratory judgment, seeking a declaration that the civil penalty provision contained in section 18-702 violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the United States and Illinois constitutions. Defendants responded by filing a motion to dismiss the complaint, asserting for various reasons that the court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the complaint. The motion to dismiss was briefed by the parties and denied by the trial court.

Thereafter, defendants filed their answer denying that section 18-702 is unconstitutional and setting forth as affirmative defenses the grounds previously alleged in their motion to dismiss. Following a hearing on the complaint, the trial court entered an order on the docket denying the relief sought.

Initially we feel constrained to comment on the trial court's method of adjudicating the instant controversy. The court's final order states in pertinent part: "The Court finds the issues in favor of defendants. Prayer of complaint denied. Cause stricken."

• 1 A complaint for declaratory judgment by its very nature demands a determination of the respective rights of the parties. Where a declaratory judgment action is properly brought and entertained by the court, it is improper to merely dismiss the complaint or enter judgment for the plaintiff; the court should rather enter an order fixing the rights of the parties. See M.F.A. Mutual Insurance Co. v. Cheek (1975), 34 Ill. App.3d 209, 340 N.E.2d 331.

In the case at bar, we are left to infer the rights of the parties. We presume that since the court denied defendants' motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds, the issues referred to in the quoted order relate to the merits of plaintiffs' complaint. It therefore appears that the court upheld the constitutionality of section 18-702, in effect declaring that the Commission has properly been delegated the authority to impose civil penalties upon plaintiffs, should the cited violations of the Motor Carrier Law be substantiated. The parties on appeal have proceeded on this basis.

• 2, 3 Although the point was not raised on appeal, it is clear that defendants do not have standing to cross-appeal from the denial of their motion to dismiss. No part of the trial court's final judgment was adverse to defendants and cross-appeal does not lie from the denial of a motion to dismiss. (Bullman v. Cooper (1936), 362 Ill. 469, 200 N.E. 173; People ex rel. Jones v. Adams (1976), 40 Ill. App.3d 189, 350 N.E.2d 767.) While the cross-appeal must be dismissed, we still consider the issues raised by defendants in their motion to dismiss and in their answer since an appellee may advance any argument supported by the record to sustain the judgment of the trial court, and we may affirm when the court's decision is justified in law for any reason. Ozment v. Lance (1982), 107 Ill. App.3d 348, 437 N.E.2d 930.

Defendants have raised several arguments in support of their contention that the trial court should not have entertained the complaint for declaratory judgment. These arguments can be consolidated into the following issues: (1) whether plaintiffs' complaint states an "actual controversy" sufficient to bring a declaratory judgment action, and (2) whether plaintiffs should be precluded from seeking declaratory judgment by their failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

Defendants contend first that plaintiffs' complaint is insufficient to state an actual controversy within the meaning of section 2-701 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 2-701), which provides in relevant part:

"No action or proceeding is open to objection on the ground that a merely declaratory judgment or order is sought thereby. The court may, in cases of actual controversy, make binding declarations of rights, having the force of final judgments, whether or not any consequential relief is or could be claimed, including the determination, at the instance of anyone interested in the controversy, of the construction of any statute, * * * and a declaration of the rights of the parties interested. * * * The court shall refuse to enter a declaratory judgment or order, if it appears that the judgment or order, would not terminate the controversy or some part thereof, giving rise to the proceeding."

Defendants argue that plaintiffs do not have standing to contest the constitutionality of section 18-702 since they do not factually allege that their constitutional rights would necessarily be violated by implementation of the contested civil penalty provision. Defendants claim that standing cannot be demonstrated until plaintiffs are actually penalized, an event which is speculative, and that consequently plaintiffs do not assert violations of their equal protection and due process rights.

In declaratory judgment actions involving the validity of a statute, a party is entitled to a declaration of rights "if he pleads facts showing a protectable interest clearly falling within the operative language of the [statute] and that he will be adversely affected by its enforcement." (Eagle Books, Inc. v. City of Rockford (1978), 66 Ill. App.3d 1038, 1040, 384 N.E.2d 493, 495.) In Miller v. County of Lake (1980), 79 Ill.2d 481, 404 N.E.2d 222, the court found that plaintiff had sufficiently alleged an actual controversy where a State's Attorney had announced his intention to prosecute a plaintiff for violations of the former corrupt practices act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 102, par. 3) and plaintiff sought a declaration that his conduct was not illegal. The court, quoting Underground Contractors Association v. City of Chicago (1977), 66 Ill.2d 371, 375, 362 N.E.2d 298, 300, setting forth the prerequisites to the maintenance of a declaratory judgment action under the statutory predecessor to section 2-701, said:

"`"Actual" in this context does not mean that a wrong must have been committed and injury inflicted. Rather, it requires a showing that the underlying facts and issues of the case are not moot or premature, so as to require the court to pass judgment on mere abstract propositions of law, render an advisory opinion, or give legal advice as to future events. [Citations.] The case must, therefore, present a concrete dispute admitting of an immediate and definitive determination of the parties' rights, the resolution of which will aid in the termination of the controversy or some part thereof. [Citations.]'" Miller v. County of Lake (1980), 79 Ill.2d 481, 487, 404 N.E.2d 222, 225.

• 4, 5 In the instant case, plaintiffs have alleged a sufficiently concrete dispute, capable of an immediate and definitive determination of the parties' rights, such that plaintiffs have standing to bring a declaratory judgment action. The Commission has issued citation orders requiring plaintiffs to appear and show cause why they should not be penalized for violations of the Motor Carrier Law. Plaintiffs challenge the authority of the Commission to conduct such proceedings for the purpose of determining whether civil penalties should be imposed. Plaintiffs clearly have a protectable property interest in not being assessed the potentially severe penalties provided for in section 18-702. The allegations of plaintiffs' complaint appear to be sufficiently specific and are directed at a discrete part of section 18-702, i.e., the civil penalty provision. Further, a resolution of the issues in this case in favor of plaintiffs will terminate the administrative proceedings; conversely, if the issues are resolved in favor of defendants, the controversy over the validity of the civil penalty provision will be finally determined. Contrary to defendants' position, the pecuniary or material interests of plaintiffs do not, under the above authorities, have to be damaged before an actual controversy is established. See also Northwestern University v. State of Illinois (1977), 56 Ill. App.3d 305, 371 N.E.2d 1046.

Defendants' second major contention is that the failure of plaintiffs to exhaust their administrative remedies precludes judicial review of the validity of section 18-702. Defendants argue that plaintiffs' objections to the civil penalty provisions should be first presented and resolved before the Commission. Defendants note the possibility that civil penalties will not be imposed upon ...

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