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Illinios State Toll Highway Authority v. Amoco Oil Co.

January 13, 2003

ILLINOIS STATE TOLL HIGHWAY AUTHORITY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
AMOCO OIL COMPANY AND MOBIL OIL CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 94--MR--266 Honorable Bonnie M. Wheaton, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'malley

Plaintiff, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISTHA), appeals from the dismissal of its complaint against Amoco Oil Co. (Amoco) and Mobil Oil Corp. (Mobil). ISTHA sought a declaration that Mobil and Amoco, while operating gasoline stations on ISTHA's property under written agreements with ISTHA, violated the terms of those agreements by spilling petroleum products onto the property. ISTHA also asked that Mobil and Amoco be ordered to contribute to the costs of remedying the petroleum contamination. We reverse the trial court's dismissal of ISTHA's complaint.

The complaint dismissed by the trial court was ISTHA's fourth amended complaint against Amoco and Mobil. ISTHA alleged therein that it owns various rest stops or "Oases" along the Illinois toll highways. Under leases and operating agreements with ISTHA, Amoco and Mobil have operated gasoline stations at the Oases. Amoco operated the stations from 1957 to November 1985. Mobil has operated the stations from November 1985 to the present. The gasoline storage and dispensing equipment that was the subject of the agreements included underground petroleum storage tanks (USTs) and underground pipe systems and fuel dispensers (collectively, UST systems). ISTHA attached to its complaint copies of the various leases and operating agreements it entered into with Amoco and Mobil during their respective tenures.

[The following material is nonpublishable under Supreme Court Rule 23.]

[The preceding material is nonpublishable under Supreme Court Rule 23.]

ISTHA alleged that Amoco and Mobil caused spillage and leakage of petroleum products while they operated the Oases.

[The following material is nonpublishable under Supreme Court Rule 23.]

[The preceding material is nonpublishable under Supreme Court Rule 23.] ISTHA alleged that Illinois health and environmental authorities investigated the contamination at the Oases and ordered a cleanup. ISTHA averred that it has "expended significant sums of money to assess, monitor and remediate" the contamination. Specifically, ISTHA alleged that it has incurred "site assessment costs" as low as $200,000 and as high as $500,000 at each Oasis where contamination was found. ISTHA alleged that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, pursuant to its authority under the Illinois Environmental Protection Act (Environmental Act) (415 ILCS 5/1 et seq. (West 2000)), has demanded that ISTHA propose a remediation plan for the contamination at each Oasis. Each plan, ISTHA asserted, will involve "substantial" additional sums. ISTHA alleged that it, Amoco, and Mobil are jointly liable under the Environmental Act for the contamination of the Oases. ISTHA averred that, despite its demands, Amoco and Mobil have neither acknowledged their duty to assist in the remediation nor compensated ISTHA for the sums it has expended so far.

ISTHA brought claims for declaratory relief and contribution. In its claims for declaratory relief, ISTHA requested a declaration of "the rights and obligations of the parties with respect to the remediation and cleanup" of the Oases. Specifically, ISTHA sought a declaration that Mobil and Amoco are required under the lease and operating agreements to indemnify ISTHA for past and future costs associated with remediation and to cooperate with state authorities until the remediation is complete. ISTHA also sought contribution from Mobil and Amoco under the Illinois Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (Contribution Act) (740 ILCS 100/1 et seq. (West 2000)) for the amount it paid in excess of its pro rata share of the parties' common liability under the Environmental Act. Finally, ISTHA sought a finding that Mobil and Amoco are "liable for their pro rata share of any future liability or expense incurred by [ISTHA] stemming from" the violations of the Environmental Act.

Mobil and Amoco each filed a motion to dismiss ISTHA's complaint under sections 2--615 and 2--619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615, 2-619 (West 2000)). The following arguments for dismissal of the claims for declaratory relief were presented in one or both of the motions: (1) declaratory relief was inappropriate because ISTHA sought a declaration of rights stemming entirely from past conduct; (2) the claims for declaratory relief lacked adequate specificity, and the leases and operating agreements cited in the claims did not support the relief requested; (3) declaratory relief was inappropriate because ISTHA had recourse to an alternative remedy, namely, a cause of action for breach of contract; and (4) the claims for declaratory relief were barred by the applicable statute of limitations and by the doctrine of laches.

The following arguments for dismissal of the contribution claims were presented in one or both of the motions: (1) ISTHA's claims against Amoco concerned events that occurred before the effective date of the Contribution Act; (2) ISTHA's claims for contribution against Amoco and Mobil were premature because the liability for which ISTHA sought contribution had not been asserted against it in a lawsuit by a third party; and (3) ISTHA's claims for contribution for sums it has not yet paid or even calculated were premature and non-justiciable. Without providing a rationale, the trial court dismissed ISTHA's complaint with prejudice. ISTHA appeals, and Mobil and Amoco reassert the arguments they pressed in their motions to dismiss. We address first the propriety of the court's dismissal of ISTHA's claims for declaratory relief.

A. The Dismissal of ISTHA's Claims For Declaratory Relief

Section 2--701 of the Code, also known as the Declaratory Judgment Act (Act) (735 ILCS 5/2--701(a) (West 2000)), provides in pertinent part:

"(a) 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 *** contract *** and a declaration of the rights of the parties interested."

Courts have construed the Act as permitting declaratory judgment only where an actual controversy exists and the party seeking relief has a tangible, legal interest in the controversy. In re Application of the County Treasurer & ex officio County Collector, 309 Ill. App. 3d 181, 187 (1999). An "actual controversy" is "a concrete dispute that admits of an immediate and definitive determination of the party's rights." Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Ass'n v. Bower, 325 Ill. App. 3d 1045, 1051 (2001). The central purpose of declaratory relief is to allow the court to address a controversy one step sooner than normal after a dispute has arisen, but before the plaintiff takes steps that would give rise to a claim for damages or other relief. Eyman v. McDonough District Hospital, 245 Ill. App. 3d 394, 396 (1993). The declaratory judgment procedure allows parties to a dispute to learn the consequences of their action before acting. Eyman, 245 Ill. App. 3d at 396. The remedy of declaratory judgment is to be liberally applied to provide a method by which a binding declaration of rights may be rendered before the parties make an irrevocable change in position that might jeopardize those rights. Midwest Petroleum Marketers Ass'n v. City of Chicago, 82 Ill. App. 3d 494, 499 (1980). The remedy is meant to afford security and relief against uncertainty with a view toward avoiding litigation, not toward aiding it. Lihosit v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 264 Ill. App. 3d 576, 580 (1993).

The court provided no rationale for its dismissal of plaintiff's complaint. An order granting a motion to dismiss without specifying the ground on which it is based places before the appellate court every issue raised in the motion; if any ground raised in the motion is a sufficient basis for the dismissal, the appellate court must affirm. Williams v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 222 Ill. App. 3d 559, 565 (1991). In the trial court, Mobil and Amoco proffered various reasons why ISTHA's claims for declaratory relief should be dismissed. They reassert them on appeal, and we address them successively. In an unpublished part of this opinion, we address and reject the defendants' arguments that ISTHA's claims for declaratory relief do not present an "actual controversy" as defined by the Act and, alternatively, that the claims are barred under the applicable limitations period and under the doctrine of laches.

[The following material is nonpublishable under Supreme Court Rule 23.]

[The preceding material is nonpublishable under Supreme Court Rule 23.]

Amoco and Mobil also argued in their motions to dismiss that ISTHA's claims for declaratory relief were inappropriate because ISTHA had recourse to an alternative remedy (namely, a suit in contract based on the leases and operating agreements), and the "existence of another remedy is sufficient grounds for dismissal of a declaratory judgment action." Assuming that ISTHA could have sought the relief it requests in an action for breach of contract, we must decide whether the availability of such other relief was a sufficient ground for the dismissal of ISTHA's complaint for declaratory relief.

To support their position, Mobil and Amoco cite a case from this district, Outboard Marine Corp. v. Chisholm & Sons, Inc., 133 Ill. App. 3d 238 (1985). In Outboard Marine, the court said:

"A complaint for declaratory judgment which recites in sufficient detail an actual and legal controversy between the parties and prays for a declaration of rights and, if desired, other legal relief, states facts sufficient to state a cause of action [citation], and although the court has discretion to grant declaratory relief, it has no discretion to refuse to entertain the action as against a motion to dismiss where the complaint states a cause of action. [Citation.] The courts have recognized a clear distinction between the trial court's discretionary power to refuse to grant declaratory judgment even though the statute would permit a judgment under the facts, and its refusal to entertain the action as against a motion to dismiss where the complaint states a cause of action. [Citation.]" Outboard Marine, 133 Ill. App. 3d at 241.

The court remarked that " '[t]he discretion is not one to entertain the action but to enter or decline to enter the judgment or decree.' " Outboard Marine, 133 Ill. App. 3d at 241, quoting Meyer v. County of Madison, 7 Ill. App. 3d 289, 291 (1972). The court noted-- inconsistently, in our view--that "one way the court can exercise its discretion to decline to enter a declaratory judgment is to dismiss the complaint it if appears from the face of the complaint that there has accrued another existing and well-recognized form of action." Outboard Marine, 133 Ill. App. 3d at 241-42. Thus, while "it is well established in Illinois that the existence of another remedy does not preclude declaratory relief," "the existence of another adequate remedy can constitute sufficient grounds for dismissal at the trial court's discretion." Outboard Marine, 133 Ill. App. 3d at 247. Defendants rely on the latter proposition in asking us to affirm the trial court's dismissal of ISTHA's complaint.

We decline to follow Outboard Marine. First, it simply is internally inconsistent. The only rationale it provides for the rule that the availability of another remedy is a sufficient ground for the dismissal of a claim for declaratory relief rests on an unfounded distinction between a "refusal to entertain" a complaint for declaratory relief and a "dismissal" of that ...


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