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Vision Point of Sale, Inc. v. Haas

September 20, 2007

VISION POINT OF SALE, INC., AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, APPELLEE,
v.
GINGER HAAS ET AL., APPELLANTS.



JUSTICE FREEMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Justices Fitzgerald, Kilbride, Garman, Karmeier, and Burke concurred in the judgment and opinion.

Chief Justice Thomas took no part in the decision.

OPINION

The circuit court of Cook County certified the following question of law:

"In determining whether 'good cause' exists under Supreme Court Rule 183 for the grant of an extension of time to remedy an unintentional noncompliance with a procedural requirement, may the court take into consideration facts and circumstances of record that go beyond the reason for noncompliance?"

The appellate court answered this question in the affirmative. 366 Ill. App. 3d 692. We granted leave to appeal (210 Ill. 2d R. 315). For the reasons that follow, we disagree with the appellate court. We hold that in determining whether good cause exists under Rule 183 to support an extension of time allowing a party to comply with a deadline set forth in our rules, the circuit court may not take into consideration facts and circumstances in the case that go beyond the reason for noncompliance. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the appellate court and remand this cause to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

This interlocutory appeal has its genesis in a February 2004 complaint filed in the circuit court of Cook County by plaintiff, Vision Point of Sale, Inc., against defendants Legacy Incorporated (Legacy) and Ginger Haas. Both plaintiff and Legacy are engaged in the sale and refurbishing of used point-of-sale equipment,*fn1 and therefore are in direct competition for customers. In its complaint, plaintiff alleged that it had hired Haas in January 2002 to serve as the executive secretary to plaintiff's Chief Executive Officer Frank Muscarello. According to plaintiff's complaint, Haas had access to plaintiff's confidential and proprietary information, including its customer lists and databases, customer-contact information containing private and cellular telephone numbers and email addresses, and customer order, pricing and equipment information. The complaint alleged that Haas resigned from plaintiff and began employment immediately thereafter with Legacy, taking plaintiff's confidential and propriety information with her. Plaintiff further alleged that "Haas stole such information at the direction or with the encouragement of Legacy," with the ultimate intent of soliciting plaintiff's customers.

Plaintiff's complaint sought damages from both Haas and Legacy for breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with plaintiff's business relationships, unjust enrichment, and violation of the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (765 ILCS 1065/1 et seq. (West 2002)). Plaintiff requested that the court, inter alia, permanently enjoin defendants from using its confidential and proprietary information for the benefit of Legacy.

Plaintiff also sought a preliminary injunction against defendants, requesting that the circuit court prevent any misappropriation of plaintiff's confidential and proprietary customer information. After conducting an evidentiary hearing on plaintiff's motion, the circuit court entered a preliminary injunction against defendants to maintain the status quo pending the outcome of plaintiff's suit. In addition, the circuit court entered several orders that set forth procedures intended to protect plaintiff's confidential information and provided a timetable by which the court expected defendants' compliance.*fn2

For the next several months, the litigation between the parties focused upon defendants' failure to comply with the court's preliminary injunction orders. As a result, the circuit court held additional hearings and entered another order detailing with greater specificity the method by which its preliminary injunction order was to be implemented, including an updated timetable for compliance.

During this period, proceedings with respect to plaintiff's complaint for a permanent injunction were also moving forward. On December 14, 2004, defendants sent to plaintiff their "Rule 216 Request for Admission of Facts," which consisted of 65 separate requests for admission. Defendants did not file their requests to admit with the clerk of the circuit court of Cook County at the time of service, contrary to Rule 3.1(c) of the circuit court of Cook County (Cook Co. Cir. Ct. R. 3.1(c) (eff. May 1, 1996)). Plaintiff timely responded to each of defendants' requests to admit on January 12, 2005. The final page of plaintiff's responses was signed by plaintiff's counsel on behalf of plaintiff. On the page immediately following the last page of responses, Muscarello signed a verification of the responses, which tracked the language set forth in section 1--109 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/1--109 (West 2002)).

On April 1, 2005, defendants filed their "Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Responses to First Set of Requests to Admit and to Deem Facts Admitted." Defendants asserted that because plaintiff's responses to the requests to admit were deficient, the responses should be stricken and the facts set forth by defendants in the requests be deemed admitted under Supreme Court Rule 216 (134 Ill. 2d R. 216). Defendants maintained that plaintiff's responses were defective because, although they were verified by Muscarello in accordance with section 1--109 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/1--109 (West 2002)), the final page of the responses themselves did not contain a signature of plaintiff, but only that of plaintiff's attorney. Defendants asserted that Rule 216 and the appellate court's decision in Moy v. Ng, 341 Ill. App. 3d 984 (2003), require that a party must sign the final page of the responses, and that a separate section 1--109 verification--absent a party's signature on the responses' final page--is insufficient. In addition, defendants contended that the responses were deficient in that they violated Rule 3.1(c) of the rules of the circuit court of Cook County (Cook Co. Cir. Ct. R. 3.1(c) (eff. May 1, 1996)), which requires that responses to requests to admit must be filed with the clerk of the circuit court. Finally, defendants maintained that plaintiff could not establish "good cause" for any extension of time to remedy these deficiencies pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 183 (134 Ill. 2d R. 183).

The circuit court granted defendants' motion to strike plaintiff's responses to defendants' request to admit and to deem those facts admitted. The court found that plaintiff's responses were deficient in that they failed to comply with Moy and Rule 3.1(c) of the circuit court of Cook County. At the conclusion of the court's ruling, counsel for plaintiff orally moved, pursuant to Rule 183, for leave to allow plaintiff further time to serve and file a set of amended responses, which, in addition to containing the section 1--109 verification, would also contain the signature of Muscarello on the last page of the responses. Counsel argued that the "good cause" required to be shown under Rule 183 to support this motion was a good-faith reading of section 1--109 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which appeared to allow the use of a verification in submitting responses to requests to admit. The circuit court denied counsel's motion.

After the circuit court ruled on the request-to-admit issue, the litigation between the parties proceeded. The defendants' alleged continued failure to comply with the circuit court's preliminary injunction rulings served as the basis for several contested motions and additional court hearings. During the course of one of these hearings, the circuit court expressed frustration with respect to what it characterized as defendants' "settled policy of recalcitrance" with regard to their lack of compliance with these earlier rulings. This frustration, coupled with the court's view that plaintiff's responses to defendants' requests to admit were deficient only as a result of a "technical and inadvertent failure," caused the circuit court to sua sponte reconsider and vacate its prior ruling granting defendants' request to deem facts admitted and refusing to allow plaintiff an extension of time pursuant to Rule 183 to serve and file an amended response to the requests to admit. The circuit court now determined that under the totality of circumstances in the case, good cause existed under Rule 183 for the time extension requested by plaintiff.

Defendants objected to the circuit court's ruling allowing plaintiff additional time under Rule 183 to amend its responses. Defendants argued that the circuit court's inquiry in determining whether to grant a time extension pursuant to Rule 183 is limited to examining only whether plaintiff established good cause for its noncompliance with the deadline, and that the court had erred in focusing upon defendants' own, unrelated conduct. Accordingly, defendants moved that the circuit court certify this issue for interlocutory appeal under Rule 308(a) (155 Ill. 2d R. 308). The circuit court thereafter certified the question of law previously identified at the outset of this opinion.

The appellate court granted defendants' petition for leave to appeal. 366 Ill. App. 3d 692. The appellate court held that when deciding whether to grant an extension of time for filing a response to a request to admit facts, the circuit court "may consider any facts that help it 'strike a balance between diligence in litigation and the interests of justice.' [Citation.]" 366 Ill. App. 3d at 694. Accordingly, the appellate court further held that a circuit court "need not restrict its attention to the causes for the delay in the response to the request to admit" in determining whether to grant an extension of time under Rule 183. 366 Ill. App. 3d at 694.

This court allowed defendant's petition for leave to appeal (210 Ill. 2d R. 315).

ANALYSIS

In order to answer the certified question, we must construe Rule 183 and, to some extent, Rule 216 as ...


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