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Independence Plus, Inc v. Frances Walter

December 14, 2012

INDEPENDENCE PLUS, INC.,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
FRANCES WALTER, KRISTEN PRINZ, AND BELLOWS AND BELLOWS, P.C., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. No. 09 L 011922 Honorable Charles R. Winkler, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Palmer

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

Presiding Justice McBride and Justice Howse concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 Plaintiff Independence Plus, Inc. (IPI), appeals from the dismissal of its malicious prosecution suit against defendants Frances Walter, Kristen Prinz and Prinz's law firm, Bellows and Bellows, P.C. (Bellows).

¶ 2 The facts behind the underlying proceedings are as follows. IPI, a company that specializes in providing in-home private duty nursing care, hired Walter in May 2006 and fired her in November of that same year, allegedly for threatening another staff member following a series of emotional outbursts. Subsequently, Walter filed a series of administrative complaints against IPI, namely, (1) a complaint under the Personnel Record Review Act (820 ILCS 40/1 et seq. (West 2008)) with the Illinois Department of Labor, (2) a complaint under the Wage Payment and Collection Act (820 ILCS 115/1 et seq. (West 2008)) with the Illinois Department of Labor, and (3) a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, alleging sexual harassment, age discrimination and retaliation. These complaints were all dismissed. Additionally, Walter filed a complaint in the circuit court against IPI, seeking damages for retaliatory discharge and wrongful termination. Walter voluntarily dismissed this action on August 17, 2009. In both her action before the circuit court and in her administrative complaints, Walter was represented by Prinz and by Prinz's law firm, Bellows.

¶ 3 On October 7, 2009, IPI filed the instant complaint for malicious prosecution against Walter, Prinz and Bellows. Defendants moved to dismiss IPI's complaint under section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2008)), contending, inter alia, that IPI had failed to allege special injury, as required to recover for malicious prosecution. The trial court initially denied defendants' motion, but upon reconsideration, the court granted it and dismissed IPI's complaint. IPI now appeals. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

¶ 4 I. BACKGROUND

¶ 5 IPI's amended complaint, which frames the issues now before us, alleges the following. IPI hired Walter as a clinical manager on May 5, 2006. By October 2006, Walter's conduct had become "increasingly erratic and abusive"; she had screaming arguments with staff and locked herself in her office. On November 16, 2006, Walter sent threatening emails to another IPI employee. IPI launched an investigation into her actions and fired her on November 27, 2006.

¶ 6 Following her termination, Walter, through her attorney Prinz, filed a total of four actions against IPI, all of which were allegedly filed without probable cause and with malice solely for the purpose of harassing and debilitating IPI. As noted earlier, these actions consist of (1) a Personnel Record Review Act complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor, (2) a Wage Payment and Collection Act complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor, and (3) a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, all three of which were filed on May 25, 2007, and (4) a circuit court complaint against IPI, filed on November 15, 2007.

¶ 7 IPI's complaint discusses each of these actions in turn. Walter's first action, under the Personnel Record Review Act, was an attempt to access "certain unidentified documents" that she claimed were a part of her personnel file at IPI. However, according to IPI, such documents did not exist, Walter was aware that they did not exist, and, in any event, had such documents existed, Walter could have obtained them through her other civil actions, rendering this complaint "duplicative and unnecessary." This complaint was dismissed in favor of IPI on January 2, 2008.

¶ 8 In Walter's second action, a wage claim filed with the Illinois Department of Labor, she sought to recover wages based upon her allegation that, when she was hired, IPI promised her a raise if she had a positive six-month performance evaluation. IPI alleged that this claim was both factually unsound, since IPI had made no such promise in the first place and Walter did not receive a positive six-month evaluation, and legally without merit, since the Wage Payment and Collection Act only covers earned wages, not promised raises. This complaint was dismissed in favor of IPI on August 7, 2007.

¶ 9 Walter's third action was a charge of discrimination, filed with the Illinois

Department of Human Rights, in which she alleged that she was subjected to sexual harassment and age discrimination by another IPI employee and that IPI fired her in retaliation for reporting this conduct. This complaint was dismissed in favor of IPI on August 28, 2008. The Illinois Department of Human Rights specifically found that its investigation did not reveal that Walter was sexually harassed or harassed because of her age, and it also specifically found that IPI did not fire Walter in retaliation but because of her "escalating behavior" toward another IPI employee.

¶ 10 Walter's fourth and final action was a complaint for retaliatory discharge and wrongful termination filed in the circuit court against IPI on November 15, 2007, when two of her administrative complaints were still pending. The wrongful termination count was both duplicative of and preempted by Walter's charge of discrimination filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and after IPI filed a motion to dismiss this count, Walter voluntarily dismissed it in March 2008. Meanwhile, in her retaliatory discharge count, Walter claimed, for the first time, that IPI had terminated her employment because she complained about patient care. IPI states that this claim was a complete fabrication and not credible, since Walter, as a licensed nurse, had a statutory duty to report any failure of care, and she had made no such report. In any event, Walter voluntarily dismissed her retaliatory discharge count on August 17, 2009.

ΒΆ 11 Walter also amended her circuit court complaint to add two more counts, both of which, according to IPI, were equally non-meritorious, and both of which were eventually voluntarily dismissed by Walter. First, after the Illinois Department of Human Rights dismissed her charge of discrimination, Walter attempted to seek review of that decision in the circuit court, despite being aware that under the applicable statute, the circuit court lacked jurisdiction over such a claim. Second, Walter amended her complaint to add a count for spoliation, which IPI argues was without merit because ...


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