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Judith J. Snyder v. Elliot Heidelberger

June 16, 2011

JUDITH J. SNYDER,
APPELLEE,
v.
ELLIOT HEIDELBERGER, APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Garman

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

Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Thomas, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

Justice Freeman dissented, with opinion.

OPINION

Plaintiff, Judith Snyder, filed suit in the circuit court of Du Page County against defendant, attorney Elliot Heidelberger, for legal malpractice, alleging that defendant negligently prepared a quitclaim deed that failed to convey certain real estate to plaintiff and her husband, Wilbert, as joint tenants with right of survivorship. After Wilbert died, plaintiff discovered that, prior to the date of the alleged malpractice, legal title to the property was held by a trustee in a land trust and not by Wilbert individually and, that upon Wilbert's death, the sole beneficial interest in the land trust went to Steven Snyder, Wilbert's son and plaintiff's stepson. The circuit court granted defendant's motion to dismiss count I of plaintiff's complaint on the ground that the statute of repose had expired. A divided appellate court reversed and remanded. 403 Ill. App. 3d 974.

BACKGROUND

On February 28, 2008, plaintiff filed her two-count complaint. Count I alleged legal malpractice as to defendant. Count II of the complaint, against Steven Snyder, asked for imposition of a constructive trust upon the premises.

In her complaint, plaintiff alleged that on or about May 23, 1997, Wilbert retained defendant to prepare a quitclaim deed conveying property comprising the couple's marital home, of which Wilbert was the sole owner, into the names of plaintiff and Wilbert as joint tenants. Defendant prepared the deed and it was executed and recorded. Wilbert died in December 2007. Thereafter, Steven Snyder commenced an action in forcible entry and detainer seeking to remove plaintiff from the property, claiming that he was entitled to possession of the property. Plaintiff alleged that defendant knew that Wilbert intended plaintiff to primarily benefit from defendant's representation of Wilbert. Thus, plaintiff alleged, she was a third-party beneficiary of the professional relationship between defendant and Wilbert. She further alleged that, relying on their ownership interests, she and Wilbert had granted a mortgage to a bank and had made payments on the mortgage. Plaintiff alleged that defendant breached his duty to her to (1) exercise a reasonable degree of skill and care in determining the true owner of the property prior to preparing any documents of conveyance; (2) prepare the appropriate documentation for legal title to be conveyed to plaintiff and Wilbert as joint tenants; and (3) not permit plaintiff and Wilbert to be subjected to adverse claims for possession and ownership of the property.

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss count I of the complaint under section 2--619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2--619 (West 2008)), alleging, inter alia, that plaintiff's suit was barred by the six-year statute of repose applicable to legal malpractice actions (735 ILCS 5/13--214.3(c) (West 1994)).

At the hearing on defendant's motion to dismiss, defendant argued that the injury occurred at the time the quitclaim deed was prepared and the six-year statute of repose therefore applied. Plaintiff urged the circuit court to find that the injury occurred upon the death of Wilbert and that her action was timely filed under subsection (d) of the legal malpractice statute (735 ILCS 5/13--214.3(d) (West 1994)), which, inter alia, permits the filing of an action within two years of the death of the person for whom the legal services were rendered. The circuit court rejected plaintiff's argument and entered an order on October 14, 2008, dismissing count I of plaintiff's complaint with prejudice on the ground that plaintiff's action was not timely filed. The court made a finding under Supreme Court Rule 304(a) (Ill. S. Ct. R. 304(a) (eff. Feb. 26, 2010)), and plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court reversed the circuit court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings. The appellate majority found that subsection (d) of the legal malpractice statute applied and that because plaintiff filed her action within two years of Wilbert's death, her complaint was filed within the applicable limitations period. The dissenting justice concluded that the injury took place when the allegedly negligent act occurred and thus the six-year statute of repose in subsection (c) of the statute applied to bar plaintiff's claim.

This court allowed defendant's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S. Ct. R. 315 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010).

ANALYSIS

A motion for involuntary dismissal under section 2--619 admits all well-pleaded facts and reasonable inferences therefrom. The motion should be granted only if the plaintiff can prove no set of facts that would support a cause of action. Feltmeier v. Feltmeier, 207 Ill. 2d 263, 277-78 (2003). When ruling on a section 2--619 motion to dismiss, a court must interpret all pleadings and supporting documents in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Porter v. Decatur Memorial Hospital, 227 Ill. 2d 343, 352 (2008). This court reviews de novo a section 2--619 order of dismissal. Id.

Section 13--214.3 of the Code sets forth the limitations and repose period applicable to actions for legal malpractice. It states, in relevant part, as follows:

"(b) An action for damages based on tort, contract, or otherwise (i) against an attorney arising out of an act or omission in the performance of professional services or (ii) against a non-attorney employee arising out of an act or omission in the course of his or her employment by an attorney to assist the attorney in performing professional services must be commenced within 2 years from the time the person bringing the action knew or reasonably should have known of the injury for which damages are sought.

(c) Except as provided in subsection (d), an action described in subsection (b) may not be commenced in any event more than 6 years after the date ...


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