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Carver v. Sheriff of La Salle County

February 06, 2003

MARGARET M. CARVER ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
THE SHERIFF OF LA SALLE COUNTY, APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice McMORROW

Docket No. 91108-Agenda 26-November 2001.

This case is before us on a question of Illinois law certified by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. 145 Ill. 2d R. 20. The certified question is:

"Whether, and if so when, Illinois law requires counties to pay judgments entered against a sheriff's office in an official capacity. If [the Supreme Court of Illinois] believes that the answer depends on whether the case was settled as opposed to litigated, we would welcome treatment of that distinction as well."

For the reasons that follow, we hold that under Illinois law a sheriff, in his or her official capacity, has the authority to settle and compromise claims brought against the sheriff's office. Because the office of the sheriff is funded by the county, the county is therefore required to pay a judgment entered against a sheriff's office in an official capacity. We further hold that this conclusion is not affected by whether the case was settled or litigated.

BACKGROUND

On April 14, 1994, plaintiffs Margaret M. Carver and Randall S. Carmean, former employees of the La Salle County sheriff's department, filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against La Salle County, the La Salle County sheriff's department, and Anthony M. Condie, sheriff of La Salle County. The complaint alleged that the sheriff of La Salle County, Anthony Condie, engaged in sexual harassment, sex discrimination, deprivations of equal protection, and retaliation, in violation of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. §2000(e) (1994)) and section 1983 of title 42 (42 U.S.C. §1983 (1994)).

In June 1994, defendants La Salle County and the La Salle County sheriff's department filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint. La Salle County contended that because the sheriff holds an independent office created by article VII, section 4(c), of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, §4(c)), the county had no control over the conduct or policies of the sheriff's office and, therefore, the county could not be held vicariously liable for the alleged discriminatory conduct of Condie. In addition, the La Salle County sheriff's department argued that because it was created within the office of the La Salle County sheriff, and because its powers and duties are exercised under the direction of the sheriff, it did not have a separate legal existence apart from the sheriff of La Salle County and was, therefore, "not a sueable entity under Illinois law."

On June 17, 1994, the district court granted the motion to dismiss filed by La Salle County and the La Salle County sheriff's department. The district court, however, also granted plaintiffs leave to file an amended complaint. On August 2, 1994, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, and named, as the sole defendant, "Anthony M. Condie, Sheriff," in his official capacity. The allegations and relief requested in the amended complaint were the same as in plaintiffs' original complaint.

The parties proceeded with discovery, and the case was set for trial. On July 17, 1996, the district court summoned a prospective jury panel, and the parties appeared for trial. The court gave the parties a final break within which to discuss a settlement. The parties thereafter informed the court that they had reached a tentative settlement of the case and requested that the court enter a consent decree to reflect their agreement. The consent decree stated that "Defendant Anthony M. Condie, Sheriff of LaSalle County has agreed to the entry of judgment against him" in the amount of $500,000 in compensatory damages for violations of title VII and section 1983. The parties informed the court that the sheriff was entering the decree in his official capacity and that the judgment was regarded as an obligation of the office of the sheriff of La Salle County. Pursuant to the provisions contained within the consent decree, the court clerk terminated the case, with the exception of issues arising out of the enforcement of the decree.

On August 30, 1996, the plaintiffs filed with the district court, and served upon La Salle County, a third-party citation to discover assets to determine whether the county was holding assets for, or on behalf of, the La Salle County sheriff. *fn1 In response, La Salle County provided plaintiffs with the sheriff's budget and a list of all funds appropriated to the office of the La Salle County sheriff by the county board. Plaintiffs thereafter determined that La Salle County held funds duly appropriated and authorized by law for the use and benefit of the La Salle County sheriff and that these funds were available for the payment of the judgment. On September 6, 1996, plaintiffs filed a motion with the district court requesting that La Salle County turn over to plaintiffs all funds appropriated to the office of the La Salle County sheriff through the end of the budget year of 1996, and that the court impose a judicial lien on all assets held by La Salle County that belonged to the office of the La Salle County sheriff. On September 27, 1996, over two years after it requested that it be dismissed from this case, La Salle County attempted to intervene in this matter by filing a motion to quash the citation and a motion to set aside the consent decree as void. La Salle County argued that because it was not a party to the consent decree, it was not bound by its terms. The county further argued that, in any event, the consent decree was void because Sheriff Condie possessed no authority to enter into the decree and to determine how county monies would be expended. The county concluded by alleging that "the consent decree was but a ploy between the plaintiffs and Sheriff Anthony M. Condie to place the entire burden of paying the judgment on the County of La Salle, a non-party."

On December 11, 1996, the district court entered an opinion and order denying La Salle County's motion to declare the consent decree void. The court noted that La Salle County filed the motion to set aside the consent decree as an intervenor, yet the county neither presented the court with the proper motion to intervene nor requested leave of court to file an intervention motion. Accordingly, because La Salle County was not a party to the action, the court determined that it lacked jurisdiction to entertain the motion. Nevertheless, the court commented that it would have been disinclined to allow La Salle County to intervene, as the county did not show that the consent decree placed a legal obligation upon the county or affected its rights and interests. The district court, however, did quash the plaintiffs' citation to discover assets. The court noted that, in their pleadings, plaintiffs had failed to address La Salle County's motion to quash, and, therefore, the county's argument stood unrefuted. The court agreed with the county that there was no evidence in the record that the county possessed any of the sheriff's assets that could apply to the judgment.

Thereafter, La Salle County, arguing that it had always remained a party to the underlying litigation, filed in the district court a motion requesting the court to "alter or amend" its judgment order of December 9, 1996, or in the alternative, for leave to intervene, instanter. On June 10, 1997, the court denied both motions. The court noted that La Salle County voluntarily absented itself from this case, and "when La Salle County chose not to protect its interests thereafter, it found itself in an oubliette from which its untimely motion offers no escape." The district court concluded that a grant of intervention at this late stage of litigation would prejudice the parties.

La Salle County appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In Carver v. Condie, 169 F.3d 469 (7th Cir. 1999) (Carver I), the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded this matter for further proceedings before the district court. The Seventh Circuit concluded that "the district court acted too hastily in finding that the county could not contest its liability under the consent decree" (Carver I, 169 F.3d at 470) and that La Salle County "has raised serious questions about its duty to satisfy the consent decree the sheriff signed" (Carver I, 169 F.3d at 473). Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit remanded this cause for the district court to determine "[w]hether or not the county has standing to attack the underlying consent decree, or if it may only defend against its legal liability to pay." Carver I, 169 F.3d at 474.

On remand, plaintiffs filed in the district court a motion to direct La Salle County to pay the consent decree. In response, the county again filed a motion to vacate the consent decree or, in the alternative, for declaratory relief. On February 10, 2000, the district court denied the motions of both plaintiffs and La Salle County, finding that La Salle County is not liable to plaintiffs for paying the consent decree. The district court, however, also recommended that the question of who pays the consent decree judgment be certified to this court.

Plaintiffs appealed to the Seventh Circuit. Because Condie is no longer the sheriff of La Salle County, and because the consent decree was entered against Condie in his official capacity, the court recaptioned the case as Carver v. Sheriff of La Salle County, 243 F.3d 379 (7th Cir. 2001) (Carver II). The court noted that the instant cause "is just one instance of a recurring question: Who pays official-capacity judgments in Illinois when the wrongdoer is an independently-elected officer?" Carver II, 243 F.3d at 381. The Seventh Circuit explained the dilemma posed by cases such as that at bar:

"Sheriffs, treasurers, clerks of court, and several other officers within Illinois counties are elected directly by the people and establish their own policies, but they lack authority to levy taxes or establish their own budgets. This leads the independently-elected officers to contend that the counties must pay; but the counties, which are unable to control the conduct of the officers, insist that they cannot be held liable because an official-capacity judgment runs against the office and not against an `employee' of the county. The law of Illinois does not provide a clean solution to this conflict, in which each insists that the other must pay." (Emphasis in original.) Carver II, 243 F.3d at 381.

In attempting to resolve the question of who pays official-capacity judgments in Illinois when the wrongdoer is an independently elected officer, the Seventh Circuit looked to section 9-102 of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Tort Immunity Act) (745 ILCS 10/9-102 (West 2000)) and concluded that because the cause at bar involves an official-capacity suit against the sheriff's office, "the sheriff's office itself seems to be [a] `local public entity' " within the meaning of this statutory section, which empowers a local public entity to settle and pay tort claims for which the entity is liable. Carver II, 243 F.3d at 383. The Seventh Circuit, however, observed that although it appears that the sheriff possesses the statutory authority to settle the claim and to pay the judgment, the statutory scheme does not make funds available to the sheriff to do so. The Seventh Circuit questioned the argument advanced by La Salle County that when an independently elected county officer settles official-capacity litigation, that officer may only recommend to the county board that funds be appropriated to satisfy the judgment. The court observed that under such a system, "the plaintiffs' entitlement would be, not immediate payment, but an order compelling the incumbent sheriff to get a move on finding the necessary funds (or, at plaintiffs' option, to an order vacating the settlement and placing the case back on the docket for decision on the merits)." Carver II, 243 F.3d at 385. The Seventh Circuit then took La Salle County's argument one step further:

"Suppose that an order requiring a sheriff to seek funding from a county is the only possible enforcement tool after a sheriff settles official-capacity litigation. That has an unsettling implication for cases that are not settled, for it implies that no money judgment against a sheriff's office is enforceable in Illinois. The alternative to settlement is a decision by the court, and LaSalle County's argument that it has plenary power not to appropriate funds to pay judgments implies that it could refuse to pay-and deny plaintiffs any means of collecting-even if this case had been litigated to the hilt rather than settled. That would put Illinois out of compliance with federal law ***. A state may not evade compliance by modeling its internal organization after a huckster's shell game, so that no matter which entity the plaintiff sues, the state (or its subdivisions) always may reply that someone else is responsible-and that power has been divided in such a fashion that the responsible person can't pay, and the entity that can pay isn't responsible for doing so. We are confident that the State of Illinois would not do such a thing, and that its statutes and other institutional arrangements leave some means of producing an enforceable judgment. But LaSalle County says otherwise, that it is never obliged to pay an official-capacity judgment growing out of a sheriff's wrongdoing, and our tour through state law has not produced a clear answer to the County's argument." (Emphasis omitted.) Carver II, 243 F.3d at 385-86.

Perceiving that there was a need for this court to authoritatively decide the issue of who is liable for payment of a judgment entered against a sheriff's office in an official capacity, the Seventh Circuit certified this question pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 20 (145 Ill. 2d R. 20). *fn2 We agreed to answer the question certified to us by the Seventh Circuit. We granted leave to the ...


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