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Rankin v. Heidlebaugh

April 13, 2001


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Williamson County. No. 96-OP-133 Honorable Paul S. Murphy, Judge, presiding. Appeal from the Circuit Court of Williamson County. No. 96-P-79 Honorable Paul S. Murphy, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Chapman

Joe Heidlebaugh was born with severe cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia, and he has severe motor disabilities. When Joe was one year old, he was abandoned and placed in foster care. Approximately 10 years later, John and Darlene Heidlebaugh, a deeply religious couple from southern Illinois, saw Joe on a television program and felt called to adopt him. It took the Heidlebaughs a year to locate Joe, but they persevered, and in 1982, when Joe was 13 years old, they adopted him.

The Heidlebaughs cared for Joe during his minority. They sent him to special education classes, and he graduated from that school in 1991. In addition to his physical disabilities, Joe is limited mentally. In Dr. Levinson's opinion, his development is far below age five. Joe was subsequently enrolled in a workshop located in West Frankfort, which Franklin-Williamson Human Services (FWHS) operated. A bus or van took Joe to the workshop in the morning and brought him home late in the afternoon. Joe's brother, Dexter, also has serious disabilities, and he attends the workshop along with Joe.

On the morning of May 22, 1996, Joe Heidlebaugh's parents, John and Darlene Heidlebaugh, placed him on the bus so that he could be taken to the workshop he had been regularly attending for five years. Joe did not get off the bus that evening. Instead, the driver of the bus handed Darlene a note that said Joe would not be coming home. No one told John or Darlene where Joe had been taken. This case is about the necessity of sanctions for the conduct involved in these and related actions.

John Heidlebaugh is appealing from the trial court's denial of his motion for sanctions under Supreme Court Rule 137 (155 Ill. 2d R. 137). He contends that the trial judge (1) abused his discretion in declining to sanction Karen Kauffman and the two additional attorneys employed by Equip for Equality, Inc. (EFE), and (2) erred in finding he lacked the authority to sanction EFE. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part and reverse in part, and we remand to the trial court the issue of the determination of the amount of fees and sanctions.


For some time before April 1996, the community support coordinator for FWHS, had been speaking with the Heidlebaughs about placing Joe in a group home. The Heidlebaughs' response was always that they were able to take care of Joe but that if at some time in the future they were no longer able to do so, they would have a family discussion about placing Joe in a group home.

The Heidlebaughs received a letter from FWHS notifying them of a meeting to be held at 10 a.m. on April 11, 1996. The letter stated that the purpose of the meeting was "[t]o discuss Joe's services at Franklin-Williamson County and his goals for the future." However, an internal document, which was not furnished to the Heidlebaughs, stated that the purpose of the meeting was "[t]o discuss Joe moving out of current living situation into CILA home." Because the Heidlebaughs could not attend the meeting on that date, they spoke with an individual at FWHS and asked for the meeting to be rescheduled. The meeting was not rescheduled and was conducted in the Heidlebaughs' absence.

On May 22, 1996, Joe, without notice to the Heidlebaughs, filed a petition for an order of protection against the Heidlebaughs. In that petition, Joe identified himself as a "high risk adult with disabilities" as defined in the Illinois Domestic Violence Act of 1986 (750 ILCS 60/101 et seq. (West 1996)). The petition alleged that the Heidlebaughs had physically neglected Joe by not assisting him with proper hygiene. In addition, it alleged that the Heidlebaughs limited Joe's fluid intake and put Joe in his bedroom whenever he was not at the workshop. It is undisputed that at no time before the filing of this petition for an order of protection had anyone from FWHS or EFE contacted Joe's parents to inform them that there was any problem or concern about any of the problems alleged in the petition. The petition also stated that Joe had been given temporary shelter at a location known to his caregivers. That location was not disclosed to the Heidlebaughs, although later it was found to be Independence Place and then Pathway House. The petition asked for an order prohibiting the Heidlebaughs from contacting Joe. The petition further alleged that the harm which the order of protection was intended to prevent "would be likely to occur if respondent were given any prior notice." Alan Rankin of FWHS signed the petition on the line provided in the petition for an attorney's signature.

The circuit court granted the order and stated that it would be in effect until 1:30 p.m. on June 10, 1996, when there would be a hearing. Darlene and John were served with copies of the order. Together they filed a pro se appearance on May 28. They requested an extension because their attorney was out of town. On June 6, 1996, Katherine Black filed her appearance for the Heidlebaughs.

On June 10, 1996, a hearing was called before Judge Phillip Palmer on the order of protection. At that time, Karen Kauffman, an attorney employed by EFE, successfully moved for her appointment as independent counsel to represent Joe's interests. EFE is a nonprofit corporation designated by the State of Illinois as the protection and advocacy agency for developmentally disabled persons. When she was appointed, Karen Kauffman stated to the court that she was very familiar with the background of the case. The Heidlebaughs' attorney had no objection to the appointment, and she presented a motion for a continuance so that counsel could conduct discovery and have Joe examined by a psychologist. In addition, the parties agreed that the temporary order of protection would be continued pending the hearing. Also on June 10, John filed a petition to be appointed Joe's guardian. EFE, represented by Karen Kauffman, opposed the petition. On July 11, Judge Paul Murphy entered a 30-day interim order of protection. That order expired August 17, and subsequently the judge entered a docket entry stating that it had expired.

On September 27, 1996, both John's guardianship petition and EFE's counterpetition, which asked that the court appoint the Office of State Guardian as Joe's guardian, were called for a hearing before Judge Murphy. A three-day evidentiary hearing was held, with testimony from psychologists, physicians, family and friends, Joe's parents, and Joe's caregivers from both the workshop and the group home.

The evidence completely destroyed any argument that Joe was capable of making choices for himself. In addition, although credible evidence of Joe's less-than-optimal level of cleanliness was presented, there was absolutely no credible evidence of abuse, of Joe being kept locked in his room for all his time at home, or of Joe being improperly limited as to the amount of food and drink he could have. In short, there was absolutely no evidence that any order of protection was ever required. In addition, neither Alan Rankin nor any other employee of FWHS who testified had ever spoken with John and Darlene about the alleged substandard level of care he was receiving at their home prior to the petition being filed. Finally, the evidence established that when Joe was taken from John and Darlene, Pathway House began receiving well over $2,000 per month from the state for Joe's support while he lives there. In addition, Pathway House received Joe's SSI and Social Security checks.

At the close of the evidence, Judge Murphy orally chastised both FWHS and EFE for many of the actions taken during both the order of protection and the guardianship proceedings. On October 10, Judge Murphy issued his ruling in letter form. The letter stated the court's intention to appoint John as Joe's guardian, and again the judge chastised the agencies for their actions. On November 7, the order appointing John as guardian was entered, and John removed Joe from the group home. On December 3, Steven Mills and Janet Cartwright, attorneys employed by EFE, filed an entry of appearance as co-counsel for Joe and a motion for the modification of the order appointing John guardian. On December 23, John filed a notice of appeal from the denial of the motion for attorney fees that he had filed in both the order-of-protection case and the guardianship proceeding. The appellate court dismissed both appeals because of the lack of an appealable final order. After some further orders were filed in the trial court, John again appealed from the denial of his motion for sanctions.


This case presents the question of whether the trial court's refusal to impose sanctions was an abuse of discretion. The sanctions were sought (1) against an attorney of record, (2) against EFE, an employer of that attorney, who, it is argued, could also be considered as an attorney of record or a party, and (3) against two attorneys also employed by the same employer who had minor involvement at the end of the proceedings.

Rule 137 states that both the parties and the attorneys have an affirmative duty to conduct an inquiry of the facts and the law before filing an action, pleading, or other paper and that the failure to make such an inquiry could subject them to sanctions. 155 Ill. 2d R. 137; see Amadeo v. Gaynor, 299 Ill. App. 3d 696, 700, 701 N.E.2d 1139, 1142-43 (1998). The rule requires a party or litigant to (1) sign pleadings and other papers to certify that he or she has read the document, (2) make reasonable inquiry into its basis, (3) believe that it is well-grounded both in fact and in law or that there is a good-faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, and (4) not interpose it for any improper purpose, such as harassment, unnecessary delay, or needless increase in the cost of the litigation. 155 Ill. 2d R. 137.

The purpose of Rule 137 is to prevent the abuse of the judicial process by penalizing those who bring vexatious or harassing actions without sufficient foundation. Amadeo, 299 Ill. App. 3d at 701, 701 N.E.2d at 1143. This rule is penal in nature and must be strictly construed. Amadeo, 299 Ill. App. 3d at 701, 701 N.E.2d at 1143. A trial court's decision whether to impose sanctions will not be reversed absent an abuse of discretion. Amadeo, 299 Ill. App. 3d at 701, 701 N.E.2d at 1143. This standard of review, however, does not prevent the appellate court from independently reviewing the record and finding ...

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