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Hjerpe v. Thoma

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District

July 13, 2017

ERIC HJERPE, Plaintiff and Counterdefendant-Appellee,
v.
ROLAND J. THOMA, Defendant and Counterplaintiff-Appellant, and ROLAND J. THOMA, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
ERIC HJERPE, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County Nos. 11L224 11CH451. Honorable Charles M. Feeney III, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE STEIGMANN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Harris and Appleton concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          STEIGMANN, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Roland J. Thoma and Eric Hjerpe were the principal members of Thoma & Hjerpe, Certified Public Accountants (T&H), an accounting firm located in Bloomington, Illinois. In January 2010, Thoma and Hjerpe signed a document, entitled "Integrated Business Acquisition and Employment Agreement" (Agreement) that governed their business relationship. In December 2011, the parties filed lawsuits against each other, and the trial court determined the Agreement required the parties to pursue their claims through binding arbitration. In June 2016, the arbitrators issued their decision and an offset award in favor of Hjerpe for $271, 194.42. Thoma filed a motion in the trial court to modify, correct, or vacate the arbitrators' decision. The court denied the motion and awarded Hjerpe $12, 335.75 in attorney fees for the trial court litigation of Thoma's motion.

         ¶ 2 On appeal, Thoma argues that the arbitration award should be vacated and that the trial court's award of attorney fees was improper. For the reasons that follow, we disagree and affirm.

         ¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 4 In December 2011, Hjerpe filed a complaint against Thoma, alleging breach of contract and tortious interference with a business relationship (McLean County case No. 11-L-224). Hjerpe alleged Thoma joined a competitor and, using false statements, attempted to lure T&H customers to Thoma's new employer. Based on these allegations, Hjerpe filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

         ¶ 5 Later in December 2011, Thoma filed a complaint against Hjerpe, alleging tortious interference with a business relationship, defamation, replevin, and rescission of contract (McLean County case No. 11-CH-451).

         ¶ 6 Later that month, the trial court consolidated case Nos. 11-L-224 and 11-CH-451. The court found section 10.11 of the Agreement governed the parties' claims and required them to participate in mediation, followed by binding arbitration.

         ¶ 7 Two additional complaints followed. In January 2012, Thoma filed a verified countercomplaint in case No. 11-L-224, in which he sought payments owed under the Agreement. In March 2012, Thoma and his wife, Donna Thoma, filed a complaint against Hjerpe and T&H alleging unpaid wages, common-law retaliatory discharge, and false light invasion of privacy (McLean County case No. 12-L-43).

         ¶ 8 Over the next several years, the parties engaged in discovery and made numerous filings. Thoma filed an interlocutory appeal with this court, challenging the trial court's order granting sanctions for a discovery violation in case Nos. 11-CH-224 and 12-L-43. This court affirmed. See Hjerpe v. Thoma, 2014 IL App (4th) 130360-U.

         ¶ 9 In October 2015, a five-day evidentiary hearing commenced before the three arbitrators whom the parties selected.

         ¶ 10 In March 2016, the arbitrators issued a 29-page interim award, detailing their findings. The arbitrators awarded damages to both parties and, after offsetting the award, found in favor of Hjerpe for $271, 194.42. The arbitrators noted a fee-shifting provision in the Agreement allowed the successful party to receive attorney fees for the cost of the action. The arbitrators reserved the issue of attorney fees and requested the parties to respond in writing as to which party, if any, was entitled to attorney fees for the arbitration proceedings. The fee-shifting provision in the Agreement provided, as follows:

"In the event that any action is filed in relation to this agreement, the unsuccessful party in the action shall pay to the successful party, in addition to all the sums that either party may be called on to pay, a reasonable sum ...

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