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Welch v. Illinois Supreme Court

June 04, 2001


Appeal from the Circuit Court of La Salle County. No. 98--L--66 Honorable James L. Brusatte, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Byrne

Plaintiff, Bonita L. Welch, appeals the judgment of the circuit court of La Salle County granting the motion of defendants, the Illinois Supreme Court and Justice James D. Heiple, to dismiss Welch's two-count complaint. We affirm.

On May 5, 1998, Welch filed the present action against defendants. The following uncontroverted facts are taken from the complaint. Count I, directed solely against defendant Illinois Supreme Court, alleged that on or about February 10, 1994, the Illinois Supreme Court, through its agents, the justices of the Appellate Court, Third District (Third District), offered Welch a position with the Third District to work as a research attorney at a salary of $39,464. Welch alleged that in consideration she agreed to transfer from her position as judicial law clerk for Justice Tobias Barry to fill the position of research attorney for the Third District, effective February 16, 1994. Welch alleged that she began work on February 16, 1994, pursuant to the oral agreement, and the supreme court subsequently breached the agreement by reducing her salary to $32,571. Welch sought damages in excess of $100,000 for the alleged breach.

Count II, directed solely against defendant Justice Heiple, alleged that Justice Heiple tortiously interfered with Welch's employment agreement by directing that her salary be reduced. Welch alleged that the justices of the Illinois Appellate Court were authorized by administrative rule to pay new-hire research attorneys up to $39,464 per year without requesting the approval of the supreme court. Welch further alleged that Justice Heiple learned of Welch's agreement for a transfer from Robert Davison, then director of the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts, an agent of the supreme court. Welch alleged that Justice Heiple intentionally interfered with the oral agreement for employment by directing Davison to order the payroll department to reduce her salary to $32,571, the minimum starting salary for the position of research attorneys. Welch further alleged that, at the time Justice Heiple ordered the reduction of her salary, he knew that Welch had 12 years' experience as Justice Barry's judicial law clerk. Welch alleged that Justice Heiple's action was not performed in furtherance of his position as justice of the supreme court, in furtherance of any policy, or in furtherance of his administrative authority over the Third District. Instead, she claimed that it was an unauthorized, arbitrary, and a capricious act taken with malice and in reckless disregard of Welch's rights, in derogation of administrative rules and the State's policy of not impairing State contracts, and in furtherance of his private or political bias against Welch as an older employee, a female, and as a former employee of his political rival, Justice Barry. Welch sought damages in count II in excess of $300,000.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to section 2--619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2--619(a)(1) (West 1998)), arguing that sovereign immunity barred both claims. Defendants supplemented the motion to dismiss count II on the ground that the Illinois Human Rights Act (Human Rights Act) (775 ILCS 5/8--111(C)(West 1998)) preempted the claim to the extent it purported to allege sex or age discrimination. Defendants further argued that Welch's alleged political association with Justice Barry gave her no cognizable claim against Justice Heiple for tortious interference with contract.

The trial court agreed with defendants. The court dismissed count I as barred by sovereign immunity, noting that under section 8 of the Court of Claims Act (705 ILCS 505/8 (West 1998)), a state entity cannot be sued in a circuit court, particularly when the allegation involves monetary claims for a breach of contract with the State. The court also dismissed count II on the basis of sovereign immunity. The court found that the crucial issue was whether Justice Heiple's actions were "outside the scope of his authority." The court found that, when a request for more than the average authorized salary was made, Justice Heiple had the authority to become involved in the matter and that, to hold otherwise, would be to control the State's actions in personnel and employment matters. The court further dismissed count II as preempted by the Human Rights Act to the extent that it alleged age and sex discrimination claims. Concluding that the court lacked jurisdiction over Welch's action, the court dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

Welch filed a motion to reconsider and sought leave to file a first amended complaint. Welch sought declaratory relief under count I. The remainder of the pleadings essentially contained the same allegations but sought more damages. The trial court denied the motion for reconsideration and held that, although Welch purportedly sought "declaratory relief" in count I, the claim was essentially one for monetary damages. Because sovereign immunity would still bar both counts, the court refused to allow Welch leave to amend. Welch timely appeals from the order dismissing her complaint and from the denial of her motion to amend.

On appeal, Welch does not contest the trial court's dismissal of count I as barred by sovereign immunity. Rather, her first argument centers on the section 2--619 dismissal of count II (tortious interference by Justice Heiple) on the basis of sovereign immunity.

The granting of a section 2--619 motion to dismiss is proper only if it appears that no set of facts can be proved that would entitle the plaintiff to recover. Turner v. Fletcher, 302 Ill. App. 3d 1051, 1055 (1999). Where defects do not appear on the face of the pleadings, affidavits can be filed stating affirmative matters that justify dismissal. In addressing a section 2--619 motion, a court takes all well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true, and only the complaint's legal sufficiency is contested. Petty v. Crowell, 306 Ill. App. 3d 774, 776 (1999). We review the granting of a section 2--619 motion de novo. Petty, 306 Ill. App. 3d at 776.

Sovereign immunity in Illinois exists pursuant to a statute and mandates that the State or a department of the State cannot be sued in its own court or any other court without its consent. The legislature enacted the State Lawsuit Immunity Act (745 ILCS 5/1 et seq. (West 1998)), which provides that the State shall not be made a defendant or party in any court except as provided by section 8 of the Court of Claims Act (Act) (705 ILCS 505/8 (West 1998)). The Act established the Court of Claims as the "exclusive" forum for resolving lawsuits against the State. 705 ILCS 505/8 (West 1998). The Act gives exclusive jurisdiction to the Court of Claims in lawsuits against the State of Illinois, including contract actions, tort actions, and actions founded upon Illinois laws.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity has not been confined to actions that name the State as a defendant. Sovereign immunity applies in an action naming a State employee as defendant where the impact on the State makes it, for all practical purposes, a suit against the State. Healy v. Vaupel, 133 Ill. 2d 295, 308 (1990). The determination of whether an action is an action against the State or is against only the individual depends on the issues involved and the relief sought, rather than the formal designation of the parties. Healy, 133 Ill. 2d at 308.

Courts generally look to three criteria in determining whether an action is really against the State: (1) whether the official allegedly acted beyond the scope of his authority; (2) whether the duty the official allegedly breached is owed solely by virtue of State employment; and (3) whether the action the official allegedly took involved matters within his normal and official functions. Janes v. Albergo, 254 Ill. App. 3d 951, 958 (1993). Even when these criteria are not met, a court must consider the relief sought. Janes, 254 Ill. App. 3d at 958. Sovereign immunity will apply whenever a judgment for the plaintiff could operate either to control the actions of the State or subject it to liability. Griffin v. Fluellen, 283 Ill. App. 3d 1078, 1084-85 (1996). The issue of when a State employee's on-the-job negligence is immunized turns on an analysis of the source of the duty the employee is charged with breaching in committing the allegedly negligent act. Currie v. Lao, 148 Ill. 2d 151, 159 (1992).

"Where the charged act arose out of the State employee's breach of a duty that is imposed on him solely by virtue of his State employment, sovereign immunity will bar maintenance of the action in circuit court. [Citation.] Conversely, where the employee is charged with breaching a duty imposed on him independently of his State employment, sovereign immunity will not attach and a negligence claim may be maintained against him in circuit court." (Emphasis in original.) Currie, 148 Ill. 2d at 159.

Welch raises a number of contentions under her first argument. She contends that the trial court violated section 2--619(c)(735 ILCS 5/2--619(c) (West 1998)) by considering affidavits and other exhibits in ruling that count II was barred by sovereign immunity. Welch argues that the trial court's decision was founded upon improper factual determinations that (1) "a process was proceeding in relation to the hire" when Justice Heiple reduced her salary; and (2) Justice Barry's letter "justifiably trigger[ed] Justice Heiple's subsequent actions." Welch argues that based on this finding the court wrongly inferred that she had no binding contract when the complaint alleged that she did. Welch asserts that this improper inference allowed the court to conclude that Justice Heiple was acting "within the scope of his authority," and so the court's sovereign immunity decision, which she claims rested on that conclusion, was also wrong. Welch further argues that rule 5(D)(1) of the Illinois Supreme Court ...

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