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Watkins v. Ingalls Memorial Hospital

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fourth Division

April 26, 2018

JOHNNIE WATKINS, as Guardian of the Estate of Johnnice Ford, a Disabled Person, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
INGALLS MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, a Corporation, INGALLS HEALTH SYSTEM, a Corporation, SOUTH SUBURBAN NEUROLOGY, LTD., a Corporation, MARVIN ZELKOWITZ, M.D., SAIF NAZIR, M.D., and LARRY FOSTER, M.D., Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 2016-L-687 Honorable Kathy M. Flanagan, Judge Presiding.

          PRESIDING JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Gordon and Ellis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          BURKE, PRESIDING JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 On August 20, 2010, Johnnice Ford filed a complaint in the circuit court of Cook County "individually, and as mother and next best friend of Jaiyana Ford, a minor." In her complaint, Ford alleged medical malpractice against various medical professionals, including each of the defendants here. Ford contended that the defendants negligently failed to diagnose and treat her during her September 2008 visit to Ingalls Memorial Hospital. The complaint was filed shortly before the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations period applicable to medical malpractice actions under section 13-212(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/13-212(a) (West 2008)). On September 14, 2010, the circuit court granted Ford's motion to voluntarily dismiss the complaint. On July 15, 2014, plaintiff, Johnnie Watkins, "as Guardian of the Estate of Johnnice Ford, a disabled person, " filed a complaint in the circuit court, naming as defendants Ingalls Memorial Hospital and Ingalls Health System (collectively, Ingalls) and Bari Parks-Ballard, M.D. The allegations in the complaint largely mirrored the allegations raised in the 2010 complaint concerning Ford's treatments at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in September 2008. Ingalls filed a motion to dismiss, but before the circuit court could address plaintiff's complaint, the case was removed to federal court by the Unites States of America, which substituted itself as defendant for Dr. Parks-Ballard, who was a federal employee. The federal district court dismissed the case, finding that plaintiff had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. Plaintiff never sought to transfer the remaining state law claims against Ingalls to the circuit court.

         ¶ 2 In September 2015, plaintiff filed a complaint in the federal district court for the northern district of Illinois against the United States, as the principal of Dr. Parks-Ballard. Plaintiff alleged negligence against the United States for the treatment provided to Ford at Ingalls in September 2008, echoing the claims from the 2010 and 2014 complaints. The federal district court granted the United States's motion to dismiss the complaint, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed that ruling.

         ¶ 3 On January 21, 2016, plaintiff filed the instant action, the fourth complaint concerning the same operative facts and cause of action. The principal allegations of the complaint once again concerned Ford's treatment at Ingalls in September 2008. All defendants moved to dismiss the action under section 2-619 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2014)), chiefly contending that the action was barred by the statute of limitations, the statute of repose, and the refiling limitation of section 13-217 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/13-217 (West 1994)).[1] Ingalls also contended that the conduct of plaintiff's attorneys was sanctionable under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 137 (eff. July 1, 2013). The circuit court granted defendants' motions, finding that the 2016 complaint was an unpermitted refiling of the original action. The court determined that the 2014 complaint was the one, and only, refiling of the 2010 action permitted pursuant to section 13-217. The court also found that plaintiff's claims were barred by res judicata. The court subsequently denied Ingalls motion for Rule 137 sanctions.

         ¶ 4 On appeal, plaintiff asserts that the circuit court erred in granting defendants' motions to dismiss where there was a question of fact as to whether Ford was under a mental disability at the time the 2010 complaint was filed, rendering that action a nullity and tolling the limitations periods. Plaintiff also contends that she was not appointed as Ford's guardian until 2015, and thus lacked the authority to bring the 2014 complaint on Ford's behalf. Plaintiff therefore asserts that the 2016 action was not barred by section 13-217 because it was the first new action brought against these defendants by Ford or on her behalf. Plaintiff also asserts that the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata do not bar her claims. Ingalls contends that the circuit court erred in denying its motion for sanctions. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

         ¶ 5 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 6 A. The 2010 Complaint

         ¶ 7 On August 20, 2010, Ford filed a complaint in the circuit court "individually, and as mother and next best friend of Jaiyana Ford, a minor." Ford named as defendants all of the defendants in the case at bar and other medical professionals. In her complaint, Ford alleged that, on August 20, 2008, the physician defendants rendered medical care to her while she was pregnant. On September 10, 2008, Ford checked into the emergency room at Ingalls. During the course of Ford's treatment at Ingalls, she underwent an emergency caesarean section. Ford was later transferred to another hospital and diagnosed with Wernicke's Encephalopathy, Dry Beriberi, and Pseudobulbar palsy. Ford asserted that the physicians at Ingalls failed to properly diagnose and treat her, which directly caused her serious medical conditions, rendering her disabled. Ford contended that since her treatment at Ingalls, she had been "lethargic, bedridden, and incapable of fully caring for herself, and require[d] constant care and attention."

         ¶ 8 Ford's attorney attached an affidavit to the complaint, stating that he had recently obtained Ford's complete medical records and required time to have the records reviewed by proper medical professionals. Ford's attorney maintained that he was therefore unable to comply with section 2-622 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-622 (West 2008)) as required for medical malpractice actions. On September 14, 2010, Ford voluntarily dismissed the action without prejudice, and the circuit court permitted her "leave to re-file within one year."

         ¶ 9 B. 2014 Complaint

         ¶ 10 Nearly four years later, on July 15, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in the circuit court "as Guardian of the Estate of Johnnice Ford, a disabled person." In this action, plaintiff named only Ingalls and Dr. Bari Parks-Ballard as defendants. In the complaint, plaintiff contended that on September 10, 2008, Ford received treatment at Ingalls by Dr. Parks-Ballard. Plaintiff contended that Dr. Parks-Ballard negligently failed to properly care for and treat Ford, resulting in her current medical conditions. One of plaintiff's attorneys attached an affidavit to the complaint, averring that counsel was unable to obtain a consultation as required by section 2-622 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-622 (West 2014)) because "the statute of limitations would impair the action and the consultation required could not be obtained before the expiration of the statute of limitations." Ingalls filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, but before the trial court could rule on the motion, the United States removed the case to federal court, substituting itself as defendant in place of Dr. Parks-Ballard, a federal employee. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois subsequently dismissed the action because plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies before filing suit. Watkins v. Ingalls Memorial Hospital, No. 14-CV-08417 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2015). Plaintiff never sought to transfer the remaining state law claims against Ingalls to the circuit court.

         ¶ 11 C. 2015 Complaint

         ¶ 12 On September 16, 2015, plaintiff filed a complaint "as Guardian of the Estate of Johnnice Ford, a disabled person" in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the United States, as the principal of Dr. Parks-Ballard. As in the 2014 complaint, plaintiff claimed Dr. Parks-Ballard committed malpractice in failing to treat and diagnose Ford at Ingalls on September 18, 2008. The district court granted the United States' motion to dismiss the complaint, finding that the claim was time barred under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) (28 U.S.C. § 2675 (2012)) statute of limitations. Watkins v. United States, No. 15-CV-8350, 2016 WL 1435704 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 12, 2016). The court stated that the issue was determining when plaintiff's claim accrued and that "the 2010 lawsuit against Dr. Parks-Ballard resolves any doubt about whether Ford (and by extension Plaintiff) knew of the doctor-related cause of her injuries. Her claims thus accrued, at the latest, by August 20, 2010." (Emphasis in original.) Id. at *2. The court found that despite plaintiff's claims that Ford's disability tolled the limitations period, Ford's filing of the 2010 complaint "indisputably establishes that Plaintiff was sufficiently aware of her injuries and their cause to trigger the limitations period." Id. at *3. On April 27, 2017, after the circuit court in this case granted defendants' motions to dismiss, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling. Watkins v. United States, 854 F.3d 947 (7th Cir. 2017).

         ¶ 13 D. 2016 Complaint

         ¶ 14 Plaintiff filed the instant action on January 21, 2016, again "as Guardian of the Estate of Johnnice Ford, a disabled person." Plaintiff's contentions again concerned Ford's treatment by the physician defendants at Ingalls in September 2008. This represented the fourth such complaint filed by Ford or on Ford's behalf relating to same cause of action. Ingalls filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint contending that plaintiff's complaint was based on the same facts and same cause of action as Ford's 2010 complaint and plaintiff's 2014 action and should, therefore, be dismissed under section 13-217 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/13-217 (West 2014)). Ingalls contended that section 13-217 barred this action because the complaint represented a second refiling of Ford's 2010 action and section 13-217 permits only one refiling after a complaint is voluntarily dismissed. In the alternative, Ingalls contended that plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed under section 13-217 because it was filed more than one year after Ford's 2010 action was voluntarily dismissed. Before the court could rule on Ingalls's motion, plaintiff filed an amended complaint.

         ¶ 15 In the amended complaint, plaintiff contended that at the time Ford's cause of action accrued, or before the applicable statute of limitations period had expired, she was under a legal disability, which stayed the limitations period until the disability was removed. Plaintiff asserted that Ford's disability was evidenced by her medical records, the fact that she was adjudicated disabled in January 2015, and plaintiff's appointment as guardian of Ford's estate. Plaintiff asserted that, therefore, her time to refile the action under section 13-217 had not yet expired. Plaintiff further contended that the 2014 action did not qualify as a refiling because the case was dismissed for plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies, rather than for one of the reasons enumerated in section 13-217.

         ¶ 16 1. Defendants' Motions to Dismiss

         ¶ 17 All defendants filed motions to dismiss plaintiff's amended complaint pursuant to section 2-619(a)(5) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(5) (West 2014)). Ingalls contended in a motion to dismiss that plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed because under section 13-217, this action represented a second, impermissible refiling of Ford's 2010 action, and section 13-217 permits only one refiling. Ingalls contended that Ford's care at Ingalls in 2008 has been the basis of all of her filings since her first complaint in 2010 and that the statute prevented this refiling of her claims. Ingalls argued that, in the alternative, plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed because it was filed more than one year after the original action was dismissed, or because it was filed after the expiration of the applicable statute of repose. Ingalls also noted that in the amended complaint, plaintiff cited the amended version of section 13-217 in her brief, which was found unconstitutional. Ingalls maintained that sanctions were warranted under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 137 (eff. July 1, 2013) where plaintiff impermissibly filed the lawsuit three times and relied on an unconstitutional version of section 13-217 to support her arguments.

         ¶ 18 The motions to dismiss filed by defendants Dr. Saif Nazir and Larry Foster[2] and defendants Dr. Marvin Zelkowitz and South Suburban Neurology, Ltd., largely echoed the arguments made by Ingalls in their motion concerning section 13-217. Dr. Saif Nazir and Larry Foster also contended that both the statute of limitations and the statute of repose had elapsed and that Ford's disability had not tolled the limitations period. Dr. Marvin Zelkowitz and South Suburban Neurology, Ltd., contended that because they were not named as defendants in the 2014 complaint, plaintiff could not use the relation-back doctrine to relate her claims against Dr. Marvin Zelkowitz and South Suburban Neurology, Ltd., back to when she filed the 2014 action.

         ¶ 19 In response, plaintiff contended that her complaint should not be dismissed because there was a question of fact as to whether Ford was under a legal disability at the time her cause of action accrued, thus tolling the limitations period. Plaintiff recognized that although Ford was not adjudicated disabled until 2015, the allegations in the complaint and the attached letters from physicians raised a genuine issue as to whether Ford was under a legal disability at the time her cause of action accrued. Plaintiff further asserted that the 2014 action was filed before Watkins was judicially appointed as Ford's guardian, and thus plaintiff had no authority to file that action on Ford's behalf. Plaintiff maintained that the 2014 action, therefore, could not be considered a valid refiling on the 2010 action for purposes of section 13-217. Plaintiff contended that this action thus represented the first refiling against defendants by a person authorized to file an action under section 13-217, and within the limitations period, which was tolled due to Ford's legal disability.

         ¶ 20 2. Circuit Court's Ruling

         ¶ 21 In ruling on defendants' motions, the circuit court determined that "the record contains sufficient evidence to raise a question of fact as to whether Ms. Ford was under a legal disability at the time this cause of action accrued in September of 2008." The court found that the letters of Ford's treating physicians and the allegations in the 2010, 2014, and 2016 complaints established enough evidence to raise a question of fact as to Ford's legal disability. The court concluded that, therefore, the action could not be dismissed on the basis of the expiration of the statutes of limitations and repose.

         ¶ 22 The court further noted that the 2010 action was filed against all of the defendants named in this case, but the 2014 action named only Ingalls and Dr. Parks-Ballard as defendants. The court found that it was "crucial" to note that the 2014 action was filed by the same law firm that was currently representing plaintiff in the 2016 action. The court, therefore, found plaintiff's argument that the 2014 action was a nullity or not relevant was unpersuasive. The court found that the fact that plaintiff had not yet been appointed Ford's guardian at the time the 2014 complaint was filed was merely a "technical defect, " which could have been "cured by actual issuance of letters of office as guardian, and a motion for leave to substitute could have been presented and granted, and the 2014 pleading would have related back to the date of the original filing of the 2014 action."

         ¶ 23 The court observed that after the 2014 action was removed to federal court and dismissed for plaintiff's failure to exhaust her administrative remedies, plaintiff made no attempt to pursue the action against Ingalls. The court noted that although there was no adjudication of the claim with regard to Ingalls, the 2014 action constituted plaintiff's one refiling against Ingalls permitted under section 13-217.

         ¶ 24 The court further found that the doctrine of res judicata applied to bar plaintiff's claims against all of the physicians originally named as defendants in the 2010 action. The court observed that, although these physicians were not named as defendants in the 2014 action, they could have been. The court therefore granted defendants' motions to dismiss the complaint pursuant to section 2-619(a)(5) of the Code. Plaintiff appealed the circuit court's ruling.

         ¶ 25 3. Ingalls Motion for Sanctions

         ¶ 26 After the trial court entered its order dismissing plaintiff's complaint, Ingalls filed a motion for a ruling on its motion for sanctions. In ruling on Ingalls's motion, the court found that although plaintiff's attorneys should have realized the version of section 13-217 cited in the amended complaint had been previously invalidated, such an error did not support the imposition of sanctions. The court further found that the plaintiff's refiling of an action more than once on a basis that was found to be incorrect did not warrant sanctions. Accordingly, the court found that Ingalls failed to meet its burden to demonstrate that sanctions were warranted. Ingalls appealed the circuit court's ruling and the case was consolidated with plaintiff's appeal.

         ¶ 27 II. ANALYSIS

         ¶ 28 On appeal, plaintiff contends that the court erred in granting defendants' motions to dismiss where there was a question of fact as to whether Ford was legally disabled at the time her cause of action accrued. Plaintiff asserts that Ford's status as legally disabled adult precluded the presumption that the 2010 action was brought by an attorney with the authority to do so. Plaintiff further contends that the circuit court erred in "applying the relation-back rule, offensively, to find that the 2014 action was the one permitted refiling of the 2010 action, " and dismissing the complaint on that basis. Plaintiff maintains that at the time the 2014 action was filed, she had not been appointed Ford's guardian, and her appointment as guardian was not a mere "technical defect" that could be cured by ...


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