Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Julia Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cunningham
The plaintiffs, Erwin Negron and 381 other Chicago police officers (plaintiffs) filed suit in the circuit court of Cook County against the defendant, the City of Chicago (the City), alleging that they had been denied access to the police department's promotional process because of a newly adopted college credit educational requirement. The plaintiffs brought a complaint for declaratory judgment and a petition for writ of mandamus seeking the right to take the next sergeant's exam and be promoted without regard to the new educational requirement. The plaintiffs filed the original complaint on January 31, 2000, and 281 additional plaintiffs were added by an amended complaint on October 5, 2001. After multiple motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment, 11 remaining plaintiffs went to trial in November 2004 to determine if their claims were barred by laches. The trial court entered judgment in favor of five remaining plaintiffs who had filed their claim in January of 2000 allowing them to pursue their claim (January 2000 plaintiffs). The trial court ruled against the plaintiffs who filed suit in October of 2001(October 2001 plaintiffs), finding that their claim was barred by laches.
The October 2001 plaintiffs who were barred from pursuing their claim by the trial court's ruling now appeal and the City of Chicago cross-appeals the ruling in favor of the January 2000 plaintiffs. The issues on appeal are: (1) whether the January 2000 plaintiffs unreasonably delayed filing suit; and (2) whether the October 2001 plaintiffs prejudiced the City by their delay in filing suit. For the reasons outlined below, we affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the circuit court.
The following facts have been adduced from the record.
In 1993, the City announced its intention to institute a 60-hour college credit requirement for police officers to be promoted to the rank of sergeant. The City implemented the new requirement in the fall of 1997. The City announced that all police officers must have 45 hours of college credit to be allowed to sit for the sergeant's exam and must have 60 hours of college credit by the time they are called for promotion. On November 21, 1997, the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Lodge #7, Fraternal Order of Police president William Nolan and police officer William Jaconetti (Jaconetti) filed a lawsuit for declaratory judgment and preliminary injunction on behalf of Jaconetti and all other affected members of the union. The lawsuit sought to enjoin the City from enforcing its new educational requirement for the promotion of police officers. The trial court denied the preliminary injunction and dismissed the case, holding that the Fraternal Order of Police and William Nolan lacked standing to bring the lawsuit and that Jaconetti's claims were barred by laches. The plaintiffs appealed the trial court's decision.
On December 8, 1999, the appellate court affirmed the trial court's ruling that the Fraternal Order of Police and William Nolan lacked standing to bring the lawsuit (Nolan v. Hillard, 309 Ill. App. 3d 129, 722 N.E.2d 736 (1999)). However, the appellate court reversed the trial court on Jaconetti's claim and found that he had filed his claim in a timely manner. The appellate court also held that the City had not properly implemented the educational requirement and as a remedy, ordered that Jaconetti could take the next scheduled exam. After the Nolan decision by the appellate court, the City later amended its personnel rules on April 4, 2000, to properly implement the educational requirement.
Following the appellate court's ruling in December 1999, on January 31, 2000, 382 police officers (the January 2000 plaintiffs) filed a new lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment and writ of mandamus against the City. The plaintiffs in that case requested that the court judicially declare the right of each plaintiff to sit for the next sergeant's exam without regard to the educational requirement and to be promoted if the examination results entitled them to promotion. The plaintiffs also requested that the trial court grant the same relief in a writ of mandamus directed to the City.
On October 5, 2001, 281 additional police officer plaintiffs (October 2001 plaintiffs) joined the lawsuit which had been filed in January 2000. The City brought multiple motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment. The trial court ultimately ruled as follows: the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (745 ILCS 10/1-101 et seq. (West 2004)) did not bar the plaintiffs' lawsuit; the plaintiffs stated a valid cause of action for mandamus; a valid question of fact remained to determine if laches barred the plaintiffs' claims; and the relief afforded to Jaconetti by the appellate court should be afforded to all similarly situated police officers.
On July 15, 2002, the trial court dismissed 402 plaintiffs from the pending lawsuit for failure to comply with the City's discovery requests. Named plaintiffs in the instant lawsuit, Erwin Negron and Charles Woodhouse, were among the police officers dismissed from the trial court proceedings at that time. Over the next year, various other plaintiffs were dismissed for a variety of reasons. The case eventually went to trial with only 11 remaining plaintiffs from both the January 2000 and October 2001 groups. The main issue litigated in the trial court was whether the affirmative defense of laches barred the plaintiffs from proceeding with their mandamus claim.
At trial, the City had to prove that the plaintiffs unreasonably delayed filing their claim and prejudiced the City with their delay. The City argued that the plaintiffs' cause of action accrued in 1997 when the City announced the new educational requirement. Thus, under Illinois common law, the plaintiffs then had six months to seek a writ of mandamus. The City argued that the plaintiffs unreasonably waited until January 2000 and October 2001 to file their claims. The City contended that the delay resulted in prejudice to the City and that the plaintiffs should be barred from pursuing their claim. The City presented the testimony of Commander William Powers, former head of the police department personnel division, to prove how the City was prejudiced by the plaintiffs' delay. Powers testified that the City announced the upcoming change in the educational requirement in 1993 to give police officers adequate time to meet the new standards. He said that the new requirement was a "revolutionary step" in changing community policing and the culture of the police department. Powers claimed that the plaintiffs' delay in filing their lawsuit prejudiced the City because the result would be two classes of sergeants within the police department, one class that met the educational requirement and one class that did not. This in turn would affect morale and call into question the credibility of the police department management practices.
The plaintiffs argued that they reasonably delayed filing suit and did not prejudice the City with any alleged delay. The plaintiffs asserted that the January 2000 plaintiffs delayed filing suit against the City because they were waiting for the Nolan decision to be handed down by the Illinois Appellate Court. The individual police officer plaintiffs testified that they believed any decision rendered in the Nolan case would affect their rights and ability to sit for the sergeant's exam because they believed that their interests were being represented by the lawsuit filed by the Fraternal Order of Police and Jaconetti. The plaintiff police officers claimed they were informed about the educational requirement and pending litigation through the Fraternal Order of Police newsletter, union representatives, bulletin boards and conversations with colleagues. They also argued that the City was not prejudiced by any alleged delay; however, they did not rebut any of Commander Powers' testimony. The plaintiffs requested that they be declared eligible for promotion without regard to the educational requirement and be promoted if their scores and available openings in the ranks of sergeants warranted.
The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs who had filed suit in January 2000 and against those who joined the lawsuit in October 2001. The trial court found that the plaintiffs who filed suit in January 2000 had a reasonable excuse for waiting until the conclusion of the Nolan appeal. The January 2000 plaintiffs were found to have a good faith belief that the Nolan plaintiffs represented their interests and that issues crucial to their claims would be resolved by the appellate court. The court also held that the October 2001 plaintiffs waited an unreasonable amount of time to file suit. The trial court found that the October 2001 plaintiffs failed to exercise due diligence in filing suit, failed to offer an explanation for their delay, and prejudiced the City by their delay. The trial court relied on Commander ...