Appeal from Circuit Court of Sangamon County No. 10MR567 No. 11MR171 Honorable John W. Belz, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Knecht
Carla Bender 4th District Appellate
JUSTICE KNECHT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Turner and Justice Steigmann concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 In this consolidated appeal, plaintiffs, Robert D. Lynch and Timothy L. Storm, seek review of the Sangamon County circuit court's orders dismissing their claims under the Illinois Human Rights Act (Rights Act) (775 ILCS 5/art. I (West 2010)) pursuant to the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Both Lynch and Storm sued the State of Illinois, in its capacity as their respective employers, for violations of the Rights Act. Lynch sued the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) for unlawful retaliatory conduct. Storm sued the Illinois State Police (State Police) for unlawful employment discrimination on the basis of age, sex, and sexual orientation. In both cases, the court concluded (1) the Rights Act does not contain clear and unequivocal language waiving the State's sovereign immunity; (2) the State's sovereign immunity is not waived simply because the Rights Act includes the State in its definition of "employer"; and (3) the State was not estopped from asserting its sovereign immunity despite the letters it sent informing plaintiffs they could "commence a civil action in the appropriate state circuit court."
¶ 5 On June 16, 2009, Lynch filed his first charge of employment discrimination against IDOT (charge No. 2009SF3993) with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (Department) claiming he was denied anger-management classes after an incident with two co-workers and was suspended in retaliation for previously opposing racial discrimination against co-worker Elmer Taborn. On July 2, 2010, the Department notified Lynch by letter it had been unable to complete its investigation of his charge within the 365 days permitted by the Rights Act. The letter further stated if Lynch "wish[ed] to pursue [his] complaint, [he] must either file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission OR commence a civil action in the appropriate state circuit court within the 90-day window" beginning June 17, 2010, and ending September 14, 2010. (Emphasis in original.)
¶ 6 On February 22, 2010, Lynch filed his second charge of employment discrimination against IDOT (charge No. 2010SF2509) with the Department, claiming IDOT violated the Rights Act by unlawfully retaliating against him. On February 23, 2011, the Department dismissed this charge for lack of substantial evidence. In its notice of dismissal, the Department informed Lynch he could either seek review of the dismissal before the Human Rights Commission (Commission) or "commence a civil action in the appropriate state circuit court" within 90 days.
¶ 7 On September 10, 2010, Lynch filed a complaint based on his initial charge (charge No. 2009SF3993) in the circuit court against IDOT alleging unlawful retaliation in violation of the Rights Act. On May 6, 2011, Lynch amended his complaint to include the allegations against IDOT in his second charge (charge No. 2010SF2509). IDOT filed a motion to dismiss under section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Procedure Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2010)) and a supporting memorandum of law asserting the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because the doctrine of sovereign immunity prevented Lynch's suit against the State of Illinois where the legislature had not expressly waived sovereign immunity for this type of action.
¶ 8 On November 8, 2011, the circuit court held a hearing and orally granted IDOT's motion to dismiss, finding (1) the Rights Act does not contain clear and unequivocal language waiving the State's sovereign immunity; (2) the State's sovereign immunity is not waived simply because the Rights Act includes the State in its definition of "employer"; and (3) the State is not estopped from asserting its sovereign immunity despite the letter it sent informing plaintiff he could "commence a civil ...