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Giles v. General Motors Corp.

December 18, 2003

WILLIE GILES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County. No. 02-L-194 Honorable Jan V. Fiss, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Chapman

UNPUBLISHED

The plaintiff, Willie Giles, is employed by the defendant, General Motors Corp. (GM). GM had been withholding a portion of the plaintiff's wages pursuant to a withholding order entered in St. Clair County under the Income Withholding for Support Act (Act) (750 ILCS 28/1 et seq. (West 2000)). The order set forth a termination date for withholding; nevertheless, GM withheld for 2½ years beyond that date. The plaintiff filed a complaint against GM. The complaint set forth claims for negligence, breach of contract, and conversion and sought the return of the wages that GM had withheld beyond the order's termination date, plus interest and costs. The plaintiff sought punitive damages on his negligence and conversion claims. In response, GM filed a motion for an involuntary dismissal pursuant to section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2002)). GM also filed an offer of a judgment in the amount of $15,113.11, representing the amount it had withheld from the plaintiff's wages after the termination date, plus a $200 fine allowed by section 50 of the Act (750 ILCS 28/50 (West 2000)). On September 18, 2002, the trial court entered an order granting GM's section 2-619 motion, dismissing all three counts of the plaintiff's complaint with prejudice and directing GM to tender to the plaintiff $15,113.11 in satisfaction of its offer of a judgment. The plaintiff appeals and we reverse and remand.

I. BACKGROUND

This appeal arises from a withholding order entered in St. Clair County under the Act on February 27, 1996, which required GM to withhold $122.47 per week from the plaintiff's wages for current support and $25 per week on an arrearage. The order, entered in the plaintiff's marriage dissolution proceeding, Willie Giles v. Katherine Giles, cause No. 88-D-213, directed GM to deposit the income it withheld with the clerk of the circuit court in St. Clair County for disbursement to Katherine. The withholding order stated that a support order was being entered on the same day and was to terminate on February 9, 1998.

GM withheld the amounts set forth in the withholding order and deposited the sums with the clerk of court, who then disbursed the money to Katherine. GM, however, withheld income from the plaintiff's wages 2½ years beyond the termination date-up to August 24, 2000. The extra withholding totaled $14,913.11. The plaintiff alleged that during the 2½ years, he had asked GM several times to stop withholding income, to no avail, and, further, that after GM stopped withholding income, his counsel asked GM to reimburse the amount wrongfully withheld, which GM refused to do. This conduct forms the basis of the plaintiff's prayer for punitive damages. (The record does not indicate what prompted GM to finally cease withholding income from his wages on August 24, 2000.) On November 3, 2000, the trial court entered an order in the dissolution proceeding confirming that the support and withholding orders served on GM had terminated on February 9, 1998.

On April 1, 2002, the plaintiff filed a complaint setting forth claims against GM for negligence, breach of contract, and conversion. He sought the return of the income that GM had withheld beyond the court-imposed termination date, plus interest and costs. He also prayed for punitive damages in his negligence and conversion counts, alleging that GM had exhibited a willful and wanton pattern of conduct in complete disregard of his rights by (1) continuing to withhold income from his wages in violation of the withholding order after being asked to stop withholding and (2) refusing to reimburse him after it had stopped withholding.

GM filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code of Civil Procedure. This section provides that a complaint may be dismissed when it is barred by an affirmative matter avoiding the legal effect of or defeating the claim. 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2002). The phrase "affirmative matter" in this subsection refers to the type of defense that either negates an alleged cause of action completely or refutes crucial conclusions of law or material fact unsupported by factual allegations in the complaint or inferred therefrom. Krilich v. American National Bank & Trust Co. of Chicago, 334 Ill. App. 3d 563, 570, 778 N.E.2d 1153, 1160 (2002). GM's motion advanced three reasons for a dismissal: (1) that count I for negligence should be dismissed because punitive damages cannot be recovered for ordinary negligence, (2) that counts II and III for conversion and breach of contract should be dismissed because GM's conduct was mandated by law and because it acted in good-faith reliance on a court order, and (3) that all three counts should be dismissed because the plaintiff's only recourse is under the Act and the Act does not allow for the imposition of punitive damages.

GM filed a motion titled "Offer of a Tender of Settlement[] or[,] in the alternative, Judgment" on the same day it filed its motion to dismiss. The offer was in the amount of $15,113.11, representing the amount of income it had withheld from the plaintiff's wages after the termination date, plus the $200 fine allowed by section 50 of the Act. The motion stated that GM sought an order from the court accepting its offer in satisfaction of the plaintiff's claim and dismissing the plaintiff's complaint as moot or, alternatively, entering a judgment in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $15,113.11. The plaintiff filed a response to GM's motion and stated that he would accept a partial judgment for the sum of $14,913.11 plus interest at 6% per annum from February 9, 1998, but he requested that the cause be set for further proceedings on the issue of punitive damages.

The trial court entered an order granting GM's section 2-619 motion, dismissing all three counts of the plaintiff's complaint with prejudice. It then directed GM, in accordance with section 50 of the Act (750 ILCS 28/50 (West 2002)), to tender to the plaintiff GM's $15,113.11 offer of a judgment-representing the plaintiff's wages GM had withheld after the withholding order had terminated, plus the maximum "fine]" authorized by the Act. The plaintiff appeals this order.

Because the material facts are largely undisputed, our review of this matter is limited to whether the dismissal was proper as a matter of law. See Kedzie & 103rd Currency Exchange, Inc. v. Hodge, 156 Ill. 2d 112, 116-17, 619 N.E.2d 732, 735 (1993). The facts and evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Saxon Mortgage, Inc. v. United Financial Mortgage Corp., 312 Ill. App. 3d 1098, 1104, 728 N.E.2d 537, 541 (2000). A section 2-619 motion to dismiss should not be granted when it cannot be determined with reasonable certainty that the movant's alleged defense exists. Saxon Mortgage, Inc., 312 Ill. App. 3d at 1104, 728 N.E.2d at 541.

An involuntary dismissal under section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure is subject to de novo review on appeal. Our review of the trial court's interpretation of a statute is also de novo. Grams v. Autozone, Inc., 319 Ill. App. 3d 567, 569, 745 N.E.2d 687, 689 (2001). Where, as in this case, the trial court does not specify the grounds for its order dismissing the plaintiff's complaint, we will presume it was upon one of the grounds properly urged by GM, and we will address the merits of each. Zielinski v. Miller, 277 Ill. App. 3d 735, 739, 660 N.E.2d 1289, 1293 (1995). Having reviewed the facts and the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, we reverse and remand this cause to the trial court for further proceedings.

II. ANALYSIS

A. The Income Withholding for Support Act

The threshold question we must answer is whether the plaintiff's relief is limited by the Act. We find that this question is easily resolved by referring to the language in the statute itself.

The overriding precept of statutory construction is for the court to ascertain and to give effect to the true intent of the legislature. Grams, 319 Ill. App. 3d at 569, 745 N.E.2d at 690. Our first step in determining the legislature's intent is to consider the language of the statute. We may look beyond the language of the statute only where we find an ambiguity or where a literal interpretation of the statute would lead to an absurd result. When the language is clear and unambiguous, ...


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