Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County 07 M6 6002 Honorable Camille Willis, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Connors
JUSTICE CONNORS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.
Presiding Justice Quinn and Justice Cunningham concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 An arbitration panel awarded $33,344 to plaintiffs Daniel Babcock and BBS Management, and the circuit court entered judgment in plaintiffs' favor on the award. Defendant Vernon Wallace appeals, arguing that the circuit court's judgment is void because the arbitrators' award exceeded the $30,000 limit set by the Cook County circuit court's mandatory arbitration program. We affirm.
¶ 3 This case arises out of a dispute over defendant's alleged breach of a commercial real estate lease, but the alleged facts of the case are immaterial for purposes of this appeal. Plaintiffs' original complaint sought damages in the amount of $24,414, so when plaintiffs filed their case it was assigned to the first district of the circuit court's municipal department. This department is divided into six geographical districts, and the first district (which covers the city of Chicago) hears general civil actions in which the amount in controversy is less than $30,000.
See Cook Co. Cir. Ct. G.O. 2.3(a) (eff. May 2, 2011). For cases like this one where the amount sought is relatively small, the Illinois Supreme Court has created a non-binding mandatory arbitration program. See Ill. S. Ct. R. 86 (eff. Jan. 1, 1994). Under this program, monetary disputes below a certain amount are subject to mandatory arbitration proceedings, which are governed by both supreme court and local rules. See Ill. S. Ct. R. 86(c) (eff. Jan. 1, 1994). In Cook County, the ceiling for mandatory arbitration is $30,000. See Cook Co. Cir. Ct. R. 18.3(b) (eff. Aug. 1, 2001).
¶ 4 Because plaintiffs sought less than $30,000, the case was assigned to an arbitration calendar and scheduled for arbitration. At some point prior to the arbitration hearing, however, plaintiffs amended their complaint to seek damages of $30,805, which exceeds the ceiling for mandatory arbitration. In this situation, plaintiffs have the right (but not the obligation) to have the case removed from the arbitration calendar and reassigned from the municipal department to the law division of the county department, which in the first district hears civil actions that seek damages in excess of $30,000. See Cook CO. Cir. Ct. G.O. 2.1(a) (eff. Aug. 1, 1996); see also Eissman v. Pace Suburban Bus Division of the Regional Transportation Authority, 315 Ill. App. 3d 574, 577-78 (2000) (citing Ill. S. Ct. R. 86(d), Committee Comments). For whatever reason, plaintiffs did not ask the circuit court to remove the case from the arbitration calendar, so the case proceeded to arbitration as scheduled.
¶ 5 At the arbitration hearing, a split panel found in favor of plaintiffs on damages in the amount of $33,344, but awarded $0 on costs. One arbitrator dissented, though the record does not disclose the reason. Arbitration awards under this program are not binding, meaning that either party may reject the award within 30 days of the hearing and demand trial before the circuit court. See Ill. S. Ct. R. 93 (eff. Jan. 1, 1997). Defendant filed a rejection notice for the award but missed the 30-day deadline. Plaintiffs then moved the circuit court to strike defendant's attempted rejection on timeliness grounds and to enter judgment on the award. See Ill. S. Ct. R. 92(c) (eff. Jan. 1, 1994). Defendant opposed the motion, arguing that the arbitration award should be set aside because it exceeded $30,000, making the award void and relieving defendant of the obligation to file a rejection notice. The circuit court ultimately agreed with plaintiffs and entered judgment against defendant on the award. Defendant moved to set aside the judgment, but this too was denied.
¶ 7 Before we address the merits of this appeal, we must first mention the inadequacy of the parties' briefs in this case. Defendant's brief does not include an appendix with a table of contents for the record (see Ill. S. Ct. Rs. 341(h)(9) (eff. July 1, 2008); R. 342(a) (eff. Jan. 1, 2005)), and defendant's statement of facts and argument only occasionally directs us to relevant sections of the record (see Ill. S. Ct. R. 341(h)(7) (eff. July, 1, 2008)). Moreover, there are pertinent facts in the record that defendant omits completely (see Ill. S. Ct. R. 341(h)(6) (eff. July 1, 2008)), foremost among them being that defendant did in fact file a rejection notice for the arbitration award but only after the deadline had already lapsed. (We will return to this interesting but unmentioned detail in our analysis.) Neither party includes the standard of review for any issue (see Ill. S. Ct. R. 341(h)(3), (i) (eff. July 1, 2008)), which as we will see is crucial to the outcome of this appeal, and both parties fail to cite numerous cases that are important to the issues raised. The parties' citations to authority are haphazard and incomplete. The issues implicated by this appeal are complex and of lasting importance, but defendant's brief cites no case law and only a few supreme court and circuit court rules. (Defendant does eventually cite some cases in his reply brief, in plain violation of Rule 341(h)(7).) This is inexplicable because all of defendant's briefs in the circuit court on these same issues cite and discuss a number of relevant cases, but defendant fails to even mention them in his opening brief. Plaintiffs' response brief is not much better, for although plaintiffs cite several relevant cases, the citations have no pincites (with a single exception, see plaintiffs' brief, page 8) and some quote the wrong case (see, e.g., plaintiffs' brief, page 5, which misquotes Cruz v. Northwestern Chrysler Plymouth Sales, Inc., 179 Ill. 2d 271 (1997) (plaintiffs attribute two quotations to Cruz, butthe first quotation is actually from the appellate opinion and does not appear in the supreme court opinion)). We trust that mentioning this problem in our opinion will be sufficient to deter the attorneys involved from submitting similarly inadequate briefs in the future and to remind other appellate practitioners of the importance of adequate briefing.
¶ 8 With that said, on to the merits. There is no question that the arbitrators' award exceeded $30,000. Illinois Supreme Court Rule 92(b) (eff. Jan. 1, 1994) states that the arbitration award "may not exceed the monetary limit authorized by the Supreme Court for that circuit or county within that circuit, exclusive of interest and costs." Cook County's monetary limit, which was established by supreme court order in 1989 and is set forth in Cook County Circuit Court Rule 18.3 (eff. Aug. 1, 2001), is $30,000. So the arbitrators' award violated the rules of the mandatory arbitration program.
¶ 9 The real issues in this case are, first, what the effect of exceeding the monetary limit is and, second, what can or must be done about it by the parties and the circuit court. Defendant frames this as a matter of the arbitrators' jurisdiction or authority to act, asserting that because the arbitrators are only authorized to award up to $30,000, they had no jurisdiction to issue an award over that amount. In defendant's view, the arbitration award is therefore void and unenforceable by the circuit court, making a rejection ...