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Epstein v. Davis

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division

December 15, 2017

DAVID A. EPSTEIN, Public Administrator of Cook County, as Independent Administrator of the Estate of Marshana Philpot-Willis, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
PIXIE DAVIS, Individually and as Employee and Agent of One Hope United, Inc., ONE HOPE UNITED, INC., and LASHANA PHILPOT, Defendants MARTELL WILLIS, JR., Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
CHARLES P. GOLBERT, Acting Public Guardian of Cook County, as Guardian of Lamariana Philpot-Willis, a Minor, Respondent-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 11 L 1160 Honorable Ronald F. Bartkowicz, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE DELORT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Hoffman and Justice Connors concurred in the judgment.

          OPINION

          DELORT, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Seven-month-old Marshana Philpot-Willis died while her family participated in the "Intact Family Services" program of defendant One Hope United, Inc. (One Hope United). The Cook County public guardian[1] filed a wrongful death case on behalf of Marshana's estate to recover damages against One Hope United; its employee, Pixie Davis; and Marshana's mother, Lashana Philpot. See generally Harris v. One Hope United, Inc., 2015 IL 117200. The estate settled the wrongful death action with One Hope United and Davis for $750, 000. Following a hearing, the circuit court allocated 60% of the proceeds to Marshana's father, petitioner-appellant Martell Willis, Jr., and 40% to Marshana's sister, Lamariana Philpot-Willis. Willis appeals, contending that the court improperly denied certain motions he filed and that he should receive 100% of the settlement. We affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Martell Willis, Jr., and defendant Lashana Philpot were the parents of two daughters who were born 10 months apart: Lamariana Philpot-Willis, born December 5, 2008, and Marshana Philpot-Willis, born October 17, 2009. On July 14, 2010, both daughters were placed unsupervised in a single "bath tote" while in their mother's care and while the family participated in a program administrated by One Hope United. The younger daughter, Marshana, drowned in the bath tote while her older sister Lamariana was alongside her.

         ¶ 4 The public guardian of Cook County, which was named as independent administrator of Marshana's decedent's estate, filed the underlying wrongful death action. It was also appointed guardian of Lamariana's minor's estate.

         ¶ 5 The circuit court found the $750, 000 settlement from One Hope United and Davis to be made in good faith, and the settlement was also approved by the probate court. The funds remained undistributed, pending a dependency hearing.

         ¶ 6 In 2015, Willis filed a petition seeking a determination pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act (740 ILCS 180/1 et seq. (West 2014)) of the relative dependencies of Marshana's family members. In the petition, he sought an allocation of 90% to himself, 10% to Lamariana, and 0% to the child's mother, Lashana.

         ¶ 7 On November 10, 2016, the court hearing Marshana's decedent's estate case granted the public guardian's request to withdraw both as administrator and attorney in that case because the dispute over the division of the settlement created a conflict between two of the heirs of the estate: Willis, the father, on the one hand, and its ward, Lamariana, on the other. That court resolved the matter by appointing the Cook County public administrator as successor supervised administrator of Marshana's estate.

         ¶ 8 On November 14, 2016, the circuit court substituted the public administrator of Cook County for the public guardian as plaintiff in the wrongful death case, and allowed the public guardian's attorneys to withdraw as counsel for the plaintiff. The public guardian, however, retained its previous appointment as guardian of Lamariana's minor's estate and its role as her counsel in the dependency hearing.

         ¶ 9 Willis orally moved for "recusal" of the public guardian, asserting that a conflict still existed and that a private guardian ad litem should be appointed for Lamariana. On November 16, 2016, the court denied the motions, finding that the conflict had been cured and that the only dispute then pending was between Willis, represented by private counsel, and Willis's daughter Lamariana, represented by the public guardian. The court also found Lashana, the girls' mother, in default and, after a prove-up hearing, entered a judgment against her for $100, 000.

         ¶ 10 Willis also filed a third amended motion in limine requesting that the court bar presentation of, among other things, any evidence of the following at the hearing on his petition: (1) his criminal convictions; (2) his incarceration for a parole violation; and (3) any trauma suffered by Lamariana, as she was less than two years old at the time of her sister's death. On December 1, 2016, the court heard argument on the motion in limine and concluded that such a motion was more properly brought in a case heard by a jury. The court stated that since it would hear the evidence without a jury, it would reserve judgment on admission of particular evidence until it was presented and "exclude any testimony that I feel to be irrelevant."

         ¶ 11 On December 9, 2016, the circuit court conducted an evidentiary hearing on Willis's petition for allocation of the settlement. At the commencement of the hearing, Willis's attorney again requested a ruling on the motion in limine. The court responded: "No. We've gone beyond that. We talked about that." Eight witnesses testified, and the transcript of the hearing spans ...


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