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October 27, 1994


Nickels, Bilandic, Miller

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nickels

JUSTICE NICKELS delivered the opinion of the court:

The issue in this appeal is whether the legislature may revive a time-barred tort claim brought by a crime victim against the victim's offender based on conduct for which the offender was convicted. Plaintiff in the tort action is Elmer Sepmeyer, as special administrator for the estate of Esther Sepmeyer. The primary defendant is Richard Holman, who was convicted of murdering Esther Sepmeyer. Also named as defendants are the Illinois Department of Corrections, Comptroller and Central Management Services. These secondary defendants were named by plaintiff because they control the distribution of settlement monies owing to Holman from an unrelated civil suit. Plaintiff seeks these monies from Holman in the instant case.

Plaintiff filed a two-count civil complaint against Holman in the circuit court of Madison County. The circuit court dismissed the complaint because the statute of limitations had expired on both claims. The appellate court reversed, relying on a subsequent legislative amendment to the statute of limitations explicitly reviving time-barred claims against those convicted of murder or other serious felonies. (246 Ill. App. 3d 255 (relying on 735 ILCS 5/13-202.1(c) (West 1992)).) We granted Holman's petition for leave to appeal under Rule 315(a) (134 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)). We find the plaintiff's claim time-barred and therefore reverse the appellate court.

Holman makes three arguments in support of reversing the appellate court and finding the legislative revival of plaintiff's time-barred tort claim unconstitutional. First, Holman claims that the legislature violated his right to due process under both the State and Federal Constitutions by reviving a time-barred claim. (U.S. Const., amend. V; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 2.) Second, Holman argues that the legislature violated the separation of powers provision of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. II, § 1) by passing an amendment to the Code of Civil Procedure designed to "reverse" a judgment of the circuit court. Third, Holman argues that the statute violates his right to equal protection (U.S. Const., amend. XIV) because it provides for the Department of Corrections to notify a crime victim when his or her offender obtains a judgment in the offender's favor against the Department of Corrections, but not where the offender comes into money in any other way. As we find the defendant's due process argument dispositive, we do not reach defendant's second or third arguments.

On July 13, 1979, Esther Sepmeyer was murdered in her rural Madison County farmhouse. Holman was convicted of the murder and his conviction was affirmed on appeal. ( People v. Holman (1983), 115 Ill. App. 3d 60, 70 Ill. Dec. 959, 450 N.E.2d 432.) At the time, no civil action was filed against Holman, presumably because he lacked any assets from which a judgment could be satisfied. On August 17, 1986, Holman was stabbed and beaten while in prison. Based on this event, Holman filed a civil rights suit against the Department of Corrections in Federal court. On July 2, 1990, the suit was settled before trial with the State's agreeing to pay defendant $15,000 plus interest.

The Department of Corrections notified plaintiff of the settlement agreement with Holman pursuant to section 13-202.1(d) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/13-202.1(d) (West 1992)). This notice provision is part of a statutory scheme designed to assist crime victims in recovering compensation from their offender. In addition to the notice provision, the statute provides that any action for damages based on conduct that constitutes first degree murder, a Class X felony, or a Class 1 felony may be brought without regard to the statute of limitations. (735 ILCS 5/13-202.1 (West 1992).) The statute became effective January 4, 1984. As originally written, the statute did not state whether the legislature intended it be retroactively applied to revive claims for which the statute of limitations had already expired.

After receiving this notice concerning the settlement in Holman's favor, plaintiff filed a civil suit against Holman. This suit was filed on January 14, 1991, eleven years after the murder of Esther Sepmeyer. Count I of plaintiff's complaint alleged a wrongful death action against Holman based on the murder of Esther Sepmeyer. Count II framed a vague cause of action seeking recovery in tort based on an alleged armed robbery.

The trial court determined that the two-year statute of limitations applicable to plaintiff's wrongful death claim in count I had expiredprior to the enactment of section 13-202.1, which eliminates the statute of limitations defense in such cases. The trial court further determined that the legislature did not intend that the courts apply section 13-202.1 retroactively to revive time-barred claims. Therefore, the trial court dismissed count I. The trial court also found that section 13-202.1 did not apply to count II because Holman had not been convicted of armed robbery.

Plaintiff appealed from the dismissal of the complaint. During the pendency of the appeal, the legislature amended section 13-202.1 to include language expressly reviving time-barred claims against those convicted of murder or serious felonies. The amendment states that "this Section shall be applied retroactively and shall revive causes of actions which otherwise may have been barred under limitations provisions in effect prior to the enactment and/or effect of [the act]." (735 ILCS 13-202.1(c) (West 1992).) A letter sent by the deputy chief legal counsel of the Department of Corrections to the Department's chief of intergovernmental relations entered into the record on appeal states that this amendment came in direct response to an unnamed case where a court dismissed a crime victim's complaint as time-barred.

The appellate court noted that the trial court was correct when it ruled that the plaintiff's complaint was time-barred. (246 Ill. App. 3d at 259.) However, the appellate court ruled that the subsequent amendment effectively revived plaintiff's cause of action for wrongful death. (246 Ill. App. 3d at 260.) The appellate court ruled that the second count involving armed robbery was properly dismissed, as the statute requires a conviction for the conduct that serves as the basis for liability, and Holman was not convicted of armed robbery. 246 Ill. App. 3d at 260.

The appellate court declined to follow this court's established line of cases that have found a defense based on the expiration of the statute of limitation to be a "vested right" protected by the Illinois Constitution and beyond legislative interference. (See, e.g., Board of Education of Normal School District v. Blodgett (1895), 155 Ill. 441, 447, 40 N.E. 1025; Country Mutual Insurance Co. v. Knight (1968), 40 Ill. 2d 423, 428, 240 N.E.2d 612; Hupp v. Gray (1978), 73 Ill. 2d 78, 83, 22 Ill. Dec. 513, 382 N.E.2d 1211; Wilson v. All-Steel, Inc. (1981), 87 Ill. 2d 28, 41-42, 56 Ill. Dec. 897, 428 N.E.2d 489; Conner v. Copley Press, Inc. (1984), 99 Ill. 2d 382, 388, 76 Ill. Dec. 820, 459 N.E.2d 955.) The appellate court determined that this well-developed line of cases did not apply because they did not involve an express revival of a time-barred claim by the legislature. (246 Ill. App. 3d at 260.) According to the appellate court, the question of whether the legislature may constitutionally revive a time-barred claim was left open by the court's decisions in Arnold Engineering, Inc. v. Industrial Comm'n (1978), 72 Ill. 2d 161, 20 Ill. Dec. 573, 380 N.E.2d 782, and People v. Lansing (1966), 35 Ill. 2d 247, 220 N.E.2d 218.

The appellate court erred when it determined that this court's precedent leaves open the question of whether the legislature may expressly revive a time-barred cause of action. In both Arnold Engineering and Lansing, the court cited the general rule that the legislature may not constitutionally revive time-barred claim. ( Arnold Engineering, Inc., 72 Ill. 2d at 167; Lansing, 35 Ill. 2d at 250.) However, as part of the general rule that a reviewing court should avoid constitutional rulings, those cases did not reach the constitutional issue and instead found, on statutory construction grounds, that the statutes at issue were not intended to revive time-barred claims. Arnold Engineering, Inc., 72 Ill. 2d at 167-68; Lansing, 35 Ill. 2d at 250.

Our cases have been uniform in holding that the legislature lacks the power to reach back and breath life into a time-barred claim. This line of cases began 100 years ago with Board of Education of Normal School District v. Blodgett ...

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