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Stephens v. Taylor

June 19, 2003

AGNES M. STEPHENS, APPELLEE,
v.
STEVEN TAYLOR ET AL., APPELLANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Fitzgerald

Docket No. 94597-Agenda 14-March 2003.

Defendants, the Moline Housing Authority (the Authority) and its director, Steven Taylor, request that we consider the res judicata effect of an unsuccessful application for leave to appeal pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 306(a)(1) (166 Ill. 2d R. 306(a)(1)). Rule 306(a)(1) allows a party to petition for leave to appeal an order of the trial court granting a new trial. 166 Ill. 2d R. 306(a)(1). According to defendants, principles of res judicata would preclude the party petitioning under Rule 306(a)(1) from subsequently raising the same issues contained in the Rule 306 petition in an appeal filed after the conclusion of the new trial.

However, in this case the petitioning party under Rule 306(a)(1)-the party who sought leave to appeal the order of the trial court granting a new trial-also requested the new trial. For this reason, we reverse the judgment of the appellate court and reinstate the verdict of the circuit court following the second trial.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Agnes Stephens, an employee of the Authority, was charged with theft of a "Bill Trip Alarm." After nine months, the charge was dismissed nolle prosequi, and Stephens filed a multicount civil suit against the Authority and Taylor in the circuit court of Rock Island County. Stephens sought damages for malicious prosecution, the intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a violation of her civil rights pursuant to section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. §1983 (2000)).

Stephens presented her case to a jury, and upon defendants' motion at the close of Stephens' case, the trial court directed a verdict in favor of the Authority and Taylor on the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. *fn1 The trial court submitted to the jury a special "court interrogatory." The interrogatory was drafted by the trial court without the assistance of counsel for any of the parties. Both Taylor and the Authority objected to the form and content of the special interrogatory. The special court interrogatory provided, "If you find that Mr. Taylor commenced or continued a criminal proceeding against the plaintiff then do you find that Mr. Taylor acted with willful and wanton disregard plaintiff's rights?" The jury answered the interrogatory "no," and returned its verdict in favor of Stephens for malicious prosecution with judgment in the amount of $150,000, and in favor of the Authority and Taylor on the section 1983 counts. The trial judge concluded that it was inconsistent to find that Taylor's conduct was not willful and wanton, and at the same time malicious. Accordingly, the trial court entered judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the Authority and Taylor on the malicious prosecution counts.

On the same day the trial court entered its order setting aside the verdict, Stephens filed a "Motion For Entry Of Judgment On General Verdict," and within the motion she requested that the court "vacate the judgment entered herein and enter judgment for the plaintiff or in the alternative grant a new trial." (Emphasis added.) The trial court allowed oral argument on the motion, and ultimately denied the motion but invited written posttrial motions from the parties. Stephens filed a posttrial motion for entry of judgment on the general verdict, arguing that the general verdict was not inconsistent with the answer to the special court interrogatory. Stephens argued that the jury was properly instructed that "[m]alice may be inferred from the absence of probable cause when the circumstances which exist are inconsistent with good faith by the actor and where the absence of probable cause has been clearly proved." Defendant maintained that the absence of willfulness is not inconsistent with a finding of malice. Therefore, in her posttrial motion Stephens again requested that the trial court "vacate the judgment entered herein, enter judgment on the general verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $150,000, or in the alternative, grant judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or a new trial." (Emphasis added.) Stephens' memorandum in support of her posttrial motion requested identical relief: "vacate the Order previously entered herein, reconsider its decision, and enter judgment on the general verdict for the plaintiff or grant a new trial or enter judgment N.O.V." (Emphasis added.) The trial court denied Stephens' request to vacate the judgment, but granted her request for a new trial.

Despite the trial court order granting her request for a new trial, Stephens filed a petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 306(a)(1) (166 Ill. 2d R. 306(a)(1)). Pursuant to Rule 306(a)(1), a party may petition for leave to appeal from an order of the trial court granting a new trial. 166 Ill. 2d R. 306(a)(1). Within her petition for leave to appeal, Stephens argued that the trial court erred in granting a new trial and refusing to enter judgment on the general verdict because the verdict was not inconsistent with the special court interrogatory. The appellate court denied Stephens' petition without addressing the merits.

The case proceeded to trial a second time. The parties conducted additional discovery, deposed new witnesses, and filed new pretrial motions. Stephens voluntarily dismissed her claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court directed a verdict in favor of Taylor and the Authority on the civil rights claim. At the close of the trial, the jury returned a verdict for Taylor and the Authority on the remaining malicious prosecution counts. Stephens filed a posttrial motion, and argued various claims of error, including a claim that related to the first trial. Stephens argued that the first trial court erred when it granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict and granted a new trial. The posttrial motion was denied, and Stephens appealed. 155 Ill. 2d R. 301.

In her appeal following the second trial, Stephens raised the same errors contained in her posttrial motion. Primarily, Stephens maintained that the first trial court erred when it ordered judgment notwithstanding the verdict and granted a new trial. Further, Stephens argued a second time that the special court interrogatory and the general verdict from the first trial were not inconsistent with one another. The docketing statement prepared by Stephens, attached to her "Notice of Appeal," highlights the limited scope of issues raised on appeal following the second trial:

"The transcript of proceedings in the initial trial has already been prepared. The transcript of the hearing on the post-trial motion from the second trial is being prepared ***. Those are the only items of transcript that need to be considered by the Appellate Court on the issues that will be raised and the issue will be whether or not the Court should have entered judgment on the general verdict in the initial trial." (Emphasis added.)

On appeal, the appellate court first examined "whether a party who was denied leave to appeal from a petition filed pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 306(a) [citation] after a new trial was granted is foreclosed from raising the same issues in a subsequent appeal." 331 Ill. App. 3d 508, 509. The appellate court reasoned that all litigants are entitled to one appeal from an order granting a new trial. 331 Ill. App. 3d at 511, citing 134 Ill. 2d R. 306(a)(1). Therefore, the appellate court concluded that "[i]f a petition for leave to appeal is denied without reaching the merits of the petition and then the petition is treated as if it were res judicata, the parties will effectively have been deprived of the one review to which they are entitled." 331 Ill. App. 3d at 511. Therefore, the appellate court decided that the party petitioning under Rule 306(a)(1) may raise the same issues contained in the Rule 306 petition in a subsequent appeal if the appellate court declined to reach the merits of the Rule 306 petition. Essentially, the court's decision not to address the merits preserved the issues for later review. Accordingly, the appellate court then addressed the merits in this case, and reversed the judgment of the trial court and the results of the second trial, and reinstated the jury verdict of $150,000 in the first trial. We granted the Authority and Taylor's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315.

ANALYSIS

Illinois Supreme Court Rule 306(a)(1) provides that a party may petition for leave to appeal to the appellate court "an order of the circuit court granting a new trial." 166 Ill. 2d R. 306(a)(1). Taylor and the Authority request that we consider whether a party who requests and is granted a new trial, and then subsequently petitions for appellate review pursuant to Rule 306(a)(1), is barred from raising the same issues contained in the Rule 306(a)(1) petition in a subsequent appeal filed after the conclusion of the new trial. Essentially, Taylor and the Authority request that we consider the res judicata effect upon the petitioning party of an application for leave to appeal filed pursuant to Rule 306(a)(1). Conversely, Stephens maintains that when a new ...


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