CHARLES J. PROROK, Plaintiff-Appellant,
WINNEBAGO COUNTY, Defendant-Appellee.
from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. No. 16-AR-254
Honorable Lisa R. Fabiano, Judge, Presiding.
JUSTICE HUTCHINSON delivered the judgment of the court, with
opinion. Justices McLaren and Jorgensen concurred in the
judgment and opinion.
1 This case presents the question of whether a claim for back
pay against a public employer under the Illinois Wage Payment
and Collection Act (Wage Act) (820 ILCS 115/5 (West 2016)) is
subject to the 1-year limitations period in the Local
Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act
(Tort Immunity Act) (745 ILCS 10/8-101(a) (West 2016)) or the
10-year limitations period applicable to claims arising under
the Wage Act (735 ILCS 5/13-206 (West 2016)). We hold today
that the Tort Immunity Act does not apply to such claims, and
therefore the 10-year limitations period is applicable.
2 From February 1978 to October 2007, plaintiff, Charles J.
Prorok, was employed as an assistant state's attorney by
defendant, Winnebago County (County). According to his
complaint, when Prorok left the County's employment in
October 2007, he had not been paid for 526 hours of accrued
and unused vacation time. Under the Wage Act, the
"monetary equivalent of earned vacation" is part of
the "final compensation" that must be paid to the
employee by the next regularly scheduled payday following his
or her separation. 820 ILCS 115/2, 5 (West 2016). In August
2016, Prorok filed a single-count complaint in Winnebago
County circuit court under the Wage Act, seeking judgment in
the amount of $30, 142.43 as compensation for his
unpaid, unused vacation time.
3 The County filed a motion to dismiss, which admitted the
legal sufficiency of Prorok's complaint (see 735 ILCS
5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2016)), but asserted that his claim was
barred by the one-year limitations period in section 8-101(a)
of the Tort Immunity Act (745 ILCS 10/8-101(a) (West 2016)).
Prorok responded that his claim "d[id] not fall
within" the provisions of the Tort Immunity Act and that
"the appropriate statute of limitations" was the
10-year limitations period applicable to claims arising under
the Wage Act. See 735 ILCS 5/13-206 (West 2016). The County
responded in turn that Prorok was essentially seeking
"equitable relief" and "damages" and that
therefore the Tort Immunity Act's 1-year limitations
period prevailed over the 10-year provision-in essence, that
the 10-year limitations period applied only to claims against
4 The trial court granted the County's motion to dismiss
and stated that, because the County was a public employer and
because Prorok's Wage Act claim sought monetary or
"essentially equitable" relief that could be
"characterized as damages, " the one-year
limitations period applied. Thus, because Prorok's
complaint was not brought within one year of his separation
from the County, i.e., by October 2008, his
complaint was dismissed.
5 Prorok appeals, and we reverse. We review the trial
court's ruling on a motion to dismiss de novo.
See Patrick Engineering, Inc. v. City of Naperville,
2012 IL 113148, ¶ 31. Different legal claims are subject
to different statutes of limitations. To determine the
applicable statute of limitations, a court must focus on the
nature of the liability and not on the nature of the relief
sought. See Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. v.
Bowman, 229 Ill.2d 461, 469 (2008); Armstrong v.
Guigler, 174 Ill.2d 281, 286 (1996); Mitchell v.
White Motor Co., 58 Ill.2d 159, 162 (1974).
6 The County's arguments focus primarily on whether
Prorok's suit, based in part on the Wage Act, has alleged
an "injury" as defined by section 1-204 of the Tort
Immunity Act. 745 ILCS 10/1-204 (West 2016). That is a matter
on which reasonable people could certainly disagree. See,
e.g., Rozsavolgyi v. City of Aurora, 2016
IL App (2d) 150493, vacated, 2017 IL 121048; see
also Stephanie M. Ailor, The Legislature Versus the
Judiciary: Defining "Injury" Under the Tort
Immunity Act, 57 DePaul L. Rev. 1021 (2008). However, we
need not address this issue, because we determine that
Prorok's claim for back pay falls within the Act's
exception for contract claims.
7 The purpose of the Tort Immunity Act is to protect local
public entities and their employees from liability arising
from the operation of government. Coleman v. East Joliet
Fire Protection District, 2016 IL 117952, ¶ 34.
" 'The Tort Immunity Act adopted the general
principle that local governmental units are liable in tort,
but limited this liability with an extensive list of
immunities based on specific government functions.'
" Id. (quoting In re Chicago Flood
Litigation, 176 Ill.2d 179, 192 (1997)). By restricting
the class of claims that may be brought against local
authorities, "the legislature sought to prevent the
diversion of public funds from their intended purpose to the
payment of damage claims." (Internal quotation marks
omitted.) Village of Bloomingdale v. CDG Enterprises,
Inc., 196 Ill.2d 484, 490 (2001).
8 In this case, the County and the trial court focused on the
fact that Prorok sought "equitable" relief that
could be "characterized as damages." What the
County and the trial court failed to consider was the nature
of the liability Prorok alleged, which is significant because
not all damages are of the same type. Claims for damages can
arise from the breach of a legal duty (i.e., in
tort, or ex delicti) or from the breach of a
contractual promise (i.e., ex contractu).
See generally Armstrong, 174 Ill.2d at 291. Section
2-101 of the Tort Immunity Act incorporates this basic
distinction when it states that the Tort Immunity Act does
not affect "the right to obtain relief other than
damages against a local public entity or public
employee." 745 ILCS 10/2-101 (West 2016). Then,
liability based on contract is the first of several
exceptions to the immunities conferred by the Tort Immunity
Act. 745 ILCS 10/2-101(a) (West 2016). And we further note
that the definition of "injury" in section 1-204,
which immunizes liability for a number of official acts,
makes no specific reference to contract claims. 745 ILCS
10/1-204 (West 2016).
9 We determine that Prorok's claim for back pay falls
outside the scope of the Tort Immunity Act, under the plain
language of sections 2-101 and 1-204. Prorok's claim was
for wages for work he already performed, and that claim
necessarily arose from his employment with the County. At
oral argument, the County emphasized that Prorok was an
"at-will employee, " but that observation only
highlights the crucial point-that employment at-will is
essentially a contractual relationship, one that is
accepted by the employee's having worked for the agreed
wages and benefits. See generally Jones v. Municipal
Employees' Annuity & Benefit Fund, 2016 IL
119618, ¶ 53; McInerney v. Charter Golf, Inc.,
176 Ill.2d 482, 485-89 (1997); see also Curtis 1000, Inc.
v. Suess, 24 F.3d 941, 943 (7th Cir. 1994) (stating that
"[e]mployment at will is of course a contractual
relationship"). Similarly, we note that the County's
reliance on our decision in In re Marriage of
Murray, 2014 IL App (2d) 121253, is misplaced. In that
case, we held that the Tort Immunity Act barred a claim for
statutory penalties against a public employer that had failed
to withhold funds from its employee for past-due child
support under the Income Withholding for Support Act (750
ILCS 28/35 (West 2010)). Murray, 2014 IL App (2d)
121253, ¶ 41. That case is distinguishable from this
one, however, because the petitioner in Murray had
no contractual relationship with her husband's (public)
10 But in this case, Prorok's claim was based on his
contractual relationship with the County, and for the purpose
of determining the applicable limitations period, the salient
point is that Prorok's complaint sounded in contract. See
Armstrong, 174 Ill.2d at 291. This is true
regardless of whether the relief Prorok sought was monetary
or could be characterized as "equitable." As
another court has explained, claims for front pay and back
pay might be " 'equitable' matters, but they
still are dollar values." Pals v. Schepel Buick
& GMC Truck, Inc., 220 F.3d 495, 501 (7th Cir.
2000). But again, the focus is on the nature of the liability
and not on the relief sought. As our supreme court explained
in Armstrong, in determining the applicable
limitations period, "[i]t is irrelevant whether the
aggrieved party seeks monetary damages, specific performance,
rescission or restitution. As long as the gravamen of the
complaint rests on the nonperformance of a contractual
obligation, [the 10-year limitations period in] section
13-206 applies." Armstrong, 174 Ill.2d at 291;
see 735 ILCS 5/13-206 (West 2016). Here, the gravamen of
Prorok's complaint rested on the County's alleged
nonperformance of a contractual obligation; therefore, he had
10 years to bring his back-pay claim.
11 In sum, we reverse the judgment of the circuit court of
Winnebago County and remand this cause to the ...