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Paula Bonhomme v. Janna St.

May 24, 2012

PAULA BONHOMME,
APPELLEE AND CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
JANNA ST.
JAMES, APPELLANT AND CROSS-APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Thomas

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

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

OPINION

¶ 1 Plaintiff, Paula Bonhomme, filed a seven-count second amended complaint against defendant, Janna St. James, for damages resulting from a fraudulent Internet-based relationship that defendant allegedly maintained with plaintiff for nearly two years. The circuit court of Kane County dismissed with prejudice all of plaintiff's counts except fraudulent misrepresentation, which it dismissed without prejudice. Plaintiff then filed a third amended complaint alleging a single count of fraudulent misrepresentation, and the trial court dismissed that complaint with prejudice, as well. Plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court unanimously affirmed the dismissal of the second amended complaint and, with one justice dissenting, reversed the dismissal of the third amended complaint. 407 Ill. App. 3d 1080. Both sides filed petitions for leave to appeal (Ill. S. Ct. R. 315 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010)), which this court allowed and consolidated for review.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 The following facts were alleged in plaintiff's third amended complaint and are set forth in the appellate court's opinion. In April 2005, plaintiff, a resident of Los Angeles, California, began online conversations with defendant on the "Deadwood Boards," an Internet chatroom dedicated to the HBO television series "Deadwood." Defendant, a resident of Batavia, Illinois, had registered as a user of the site under the name "Ms. Magnolia." In June, defendant registered again, posing as a man named Jesse James (Jesse) and under the user name of "Auboy." Jesse began chatting with and emailing plaintiff in July 2005. Defendant, in her own name, also began emailing plaintiff in July. Defendant represented to plaintiff that she knew Jesse and many of the people in Jesse's life.

¶ 4 Plaintiff and Jesse began an online romantic relationship that lasted until July 2006. In addition to exchanging emails, Jesse and plaintiff exchanged personal photos, handwritten letters, and gifts. They also spoke regularly on the telephone, with defendant using a voice-altering device to disguise her female voice.

¶ 5 During this same period, defendant continued to maintain a relationship under her own name with plaintiff. In addition, defendant created a universe of approximately 20 fictional online characters either related to or involved with Jesse, including an ex-wife, a son, various family members, a therapist, and friends living both in the United States and abroad. These characters communicated with plaintiff from separate and distinct email accounts and even sent photos, handwritten mail, and packages from different states and foreign countries. For her part, plaintiff sent gifts totaling more than $10,000 to defendant, Jesse, and various other characters.

¶ 6 In September 2005, plaintiff purchased round-trip airline tickets from Burbank, California, to Denver, Colorado, for the purpose of meeting Jesse in person. Jesse, however, cancelled the plans. Shortly thereafter, defendant informed plaintiff that Jesse had attempted suicide. This caused plaintiff great emotional distress, and plaintiff began seeing a therapist, with bills totaling more than $5,000.

¶ 7 In April 2006, plaintiff and Jesse decided to move in together in Jesse's Colorado home. The move was to take place in July 2006, and plaintiff spent approximately $700 preparing for the anticipated move. When July came, however, plaintiff was informed by Jesse's "sister," Alice, that Jesse had died of liver cancer. Posing as her other fictional characters, defendant sent plaintiff several letters of condolence. Plaintiff entered a deep depression at this point, experiencing headaches, exhaustion, inability to sleep, and inability to focus on job-related tasks. She also contracted a recurring infection known as MRSA (multidrug resistant staphylococcus aureus) because her immune system was so weakened.

¶ 8 Yet even after Jesse's death, defendant stayed in touch with plaintiff, communicating with her on a daily basis for the next seven months. In September 2006, plaintiff and defendant met in Colorado to visit some of Jesse's favorite places, after which they drove to New Mexico to visit other Jesse-related sites. During that trip, defendant gave plaintiff a letter that Jesse had written in which he professed his love for plaintiff and set out his dying wishes.

¶ 9 In February 2007, defendant visited plaintiff at her home in California. Plaintiff spent $1,000 preparing her home for defendant. The expenses included the purchase of an inflatable bed and linens and the installation of a handrail, sliding chair, and "medical bath assist devices." It was during this trip that some of plaintiff's actual friends discovered the fictional nature of the universe of people that defendant had created, and they confronted defendant. Defendant admitted on videotape that she had put plaintiff through an "emotional ringer [sic]" for "maybe a year and a half." Plaintiff continued to see a therapist to deal with the emotional aftermath of the false statements regarding the existence of the fictional characters, and her therapy bills continued to accumulate. Her "affected mental state" also resulted in lost earnings.

¶ 10 Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint against defendant in February 2008. Her second amended complaint contained seven counts, including both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation per se and per quod, negligent defamation, fraudulent misrepresentation, and false light. Defendant moved to dismiss the second amended complaint pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2008)), and the trial court dismissed with prejudice all of plaintiff's counts except fraudulent misrepresentation, which it dismissed without prejudice. Plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider, which the trial court denied.

¶ 11 Plaintiff then filed a motion requesting either a finding pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 304(a) (eff. Jan. 1, 2006) or, alternatively, an order certifying four questions of law pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308 (eff. Feb. 1, 1994). On the same day, plaintiff filed a notice of appeal from the trial court's denial of her motion to reconsider. In that notice of appeal, plaintiff explained that, while the trial court had yet to rule on her pending motions, she was submitting the notice "to apprise the Courts of the procedural posture of this case." On September 15, 2009, the trial court denied plaintiff's motions, and plaintiff thereupon withdrew her notice of appeal and instead filed a third amended complaint, alleging a single count of fraudulent misrepresentation. Defendant again moved to dismiss pursuant to section 2-615, and the trial court dismissed plaintiff's third amended complaint with prejudice.

ΒΆ 12 Plaintiff appealed. On appeal, plaintiff attempted to challenge not only the dismissal with prejudice of her third amended complaint but also the dismissal with prejudice of the emotional distress and defamation counts from her second amended complaint. A divided appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part. 407 Ill. App. 3d 1080. As to the counts dismissed from the second amended complaint, the appellate court unanimously affirmed on the grounds that plaintiff abandoned those counts by neither realleging nor incorporating them in her third amended complaint. Id. at 1083. As to the dismissal of the third amended complaint, a majority of the appellate court reversed, explaining that "plaintiff properly pleaded a cause of action for fraudulent misrepresentation in count I of her third amended complaint" and that the trial court therefore "erred in dismissing that complaint." Id. at 1088. Justice Schostok dissented on this point, arguing both that "[i]t is not appropriate to expand the application of ...


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