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Clemons v. Mechanical Devices Company

November 21, 2002

DENNIS CLEMONS, APPELLANT,
v.
MECHANICAL DEVICES COMPANY, APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Freeman

UNPUBLISHED

Docket No. 91306-Agenda 37-September 2001.

This cause was remanded to the circuit court of McLean County for a new trial. Plaintiff, Dennis Clemons, filed a motion to amend his complaint against defendant, Mechanical Devices Company, to add a count alleging retaliatory discharge for exercising his rights under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (Wage Act) (820 ILCS 115/1 et seq. (West 2000)). The trial court denied the motion and the appellate court affirmed. No. 4-00-0639 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23).

We allowed plaintiff's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)). We now reverse the courts below and remand the cause to the trial court with directions to grant plaintiff's motion to amend.

BACKGROUND

We previously recited the underlying facts of this case in Clemons v. Mechanical Devices Co., 184 Ill. 2d 328 (1998) (Clemons I). Accordingly, we will describe only those facts pertinent to this appeal.

Plaintiff brought a retaliatory discharge action against defendant, alleging that defendant wrongfully discharged him in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. The action proceeded to a jury trial, where plaintiff presented evidence that defendant's method of paying him violated the Wage Act (820 ILCS 115/1 et seq. (West 2000)). Plaintiff's counsel, during his examination of Linda Fillingham, defendant's vice-president and general manager, directed her, over defendant's objection, to read portions of the Wage Act. Plaintiff's counsel questioned her about the legality of defendant's method of payment in light of the Act.

At the close of evidence, the trial court allowed plaintiff to amend his complaint by adding a paragraph which alleged that defendant wrongfully discharged plaintiff "in retaliation of Plaintiff's exercise of his statutory rights." In granting plaintiff leave to amend the complaint, the trial court specifically noted that "the statutory rights referred to are in fact the workmen's comp[ensation] statutory rights." In his amended complaint, plaintiff did not allege a claim based on a violation of the Wage Act, nor did he allege that defendant discharged him in retaliation for pursuing rights afforded him under the Wage Act.

During closing argument, plaintiff's attorney stated:

"If Mechanical Devices starts discharging their at-will employees because of the color of their skin, they are liable. If they start discharging employees for their gender, they are liable. If they start discharging their employees in violation of Illinois statute, they are liable. It is as simple as that. Read the statute."

Plaintiff's attorney did not identify the "statute" to which he referred. Also, the trial court instructed the jury regarding the Wage Act.

The jury found for plaintiff and awarded him damages. The trial court entered judgment on the verdict.

The appellate court reversed the judgment and remanded for a new trial. The appellate court concluded that the Wage Act was irrelevant to the issues in this case, and that the trial court erred by allowing testimony regarding that statute. Clemons v. Mechanical Devices Co., 292 Ill. App. 3d 242, 247-51 (1997). The appellate court further concluded that the admission of the testimony regarding the Wage Act, with corresponding jury instruction and argument, prejudiced defendant so as to deprive defendant of a fair trial. Clemons I, 292 Ill. App. 3d at 252-53.

In the course of its opinion, the appellate court observed that "the only allegation of retaliatory discharge properly before the jury involved [plaintiff's] filing a workers' compensation claim. *** Accordingly, [plaintiff] did not have to show that [defendant] had violated the Wage Act in order to prove a retaliatory discharge for filing a workers' compensation claim." (Emphasis in original.) Clemons I, 292 Ill. App. 3d at 248.

This court affirmed the judgment of the appellate court. Clemons I, 184 Ill. 2d 328 (1998). This court likewise held that the presentation of evidence regarding defendant's alleged violation of the Wage Act, with corresponding jury instructions and argument, constituted prejudicial error. Clemons I, 184 Ill. 2d at 338.

In the course of its opinion, this court observed that "evidence of the alleged violation of the Wage Act was not relevant to plaintiff's cause of action, which was based on an entirely different theory-that plaintiff was discharged in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim." Clemons I, 184 Ill. 2d at 337. The opinion observed that "plaintiff could not attempt to put forth what was in essence a new and separate cause of action ***." Clemons I, 184 Ill. 2d at 337-38.

On remand, plaintiff filed a motion to amend his complaint to add a second count, which alleges retaliatory discharge for exercising his rights under the Wage Act. The trial court denied plaintiff's motion to amend. The court found that section 2-616(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-616(a) (West 2000)) governed the amendment of plaintiff's complaint. The court found that: the motion to amend was not timely; plaintiff had prior opportunities to amend; and defendant would sustain substantial prejudice by allowing the amendment. See Lee v. Chicago Transit Authority, 152 Ill. 2d 432, 467-68 (1992); Loyola Academy v. S&S Roof Maintenance, Inc., 146 Ill. 2d 263, 273 (1992). Further, the court found that its order involved "a question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation." See 155 Ill. 2d R. 308(a). The trial court also expressly found that there was no just reason for delaying enforcement or appeal of its order. See 155 Ill. 2d R. 304(a).

The appellate court affirmed, with one justice dissenting. No. 4-00-0639 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). The dissent observed that in Clemons I, this court criticized the trial court's admission of evidence relating to the violation of the Wage Act because plaintiff had not alleged a violation thereof. The dissent also concluded that plaintiff's amendment was timely, and that defendant cannot be surprised by the evidence that was presented at the previous trial. No. 4-00-0639, slip op. at 10 (Cook, J., dissenting) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). Plaintiff appeals to this court. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315.

ANALYS ...


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