Double Deference: Shamrock Chicago Explains Scope and Standard of Review for a Contempt Finding

March 05, 2021 4:12 PM | Carson Griffis (Administrator)

By:  John M. Fitzgerald

In Shamrock Chicago Corp. v. Wroblewski, 2019 IL App (1st) 182354, the First District of the Illinois Appellate Court tackled two issues that commonly cause confusion in Rule 304(b)(5) interlocutory appeals from contempt findings: what is the scope of the appellate court’s review, and what is the applicable standard of review?

The contempt finding in Shamrock Chicago arose from a discovery dispute: a defendant (Skyline) refused to turn over certain documents and information despite being ordered to do so, the plaintiff (Shamrock) filed a motion for a rule to show cause, and the circuit court held Skyline in civil contempt and imposed a monetary fine for its failure to comply with the discovery order.

Scope of Review: Predictably, the plaintiff-appellee (Shamrock) wanted to restrict the scope of the appellate court’s review as much as possible.  “Shamrock argues that we cannot review the underlying discovery order, partly because the order holding Skyline in contempt constitutes the only order subject to review.”  Id., ¶ 17. Skyline, meanwhile, attempted to use its Rule 304(b)(5) interlocutory appeal to challenge a TRO that was related to the discovery order.  Id.

Both parties were wrong.  First, Shamrock was wrong to suggest that the discovery order underlying the contempt finding was beyond review.  “The law is well settled that when a contempt order based on a discovery violation is appealed, the underlying discovery order is also subject to review.”  Id., ¶ 18.  Skyline was held in contempt for violating the discovery order, so the appellate court’s review encompassed both the contempt finding and the underlying discovery order.  Id.  Meanwhile, Skyline was wrong to use its Rule 304(b)(5) appeal from a contempt order (which was based on an underlying discovery order) as a vehicle for challenging a TRO.  “Rule 304(b)(5) provides limited jurisdiction that, as we said, involves just the contempt order and the underlying order on which it is based.”  Id., ¶ 19.

Finally, Shamrock attempted to block review of the underlying discovery order by saying that it was something other than a discovery order.  Because the circuit court had appointed a CPA to monitor Skyline’s compliance, Shamrock argued that the underlying order was not a discovery order at all, but one appointing a receiver.  The circuit court and the parties had referred to the CPA as a “receiver,” but this was a misnomer  “Receivers have functions based on the relevant statutory schemes allowing for their appointment, but, generally, a receiver takes possession of and holds disputed assets pending resolution of the parties’ claims.”  Id., ¶ 22.  In this case, the court-appointed CPA took possession of no assets; his role was to analyze documents and to supervise Skyline’s compliance — “a role commonly referred to by judges in Illinois as ‘facilitator in discovery.’”  Id., ¶ 23.  Thus, the underlying order was, in fact, a discovery order and fell within the scope of the appellate court’s review.

Standard of Review: The parties next disputed the applicable standard of review.  “We do not fault the parties for relying on disparate standards of review,” the appellate court explained, since “both parties cite cases that apply their proposed standard.”  Id., ¶28.  And, indeed, one case suggested an abuse of discretion standard while another suggested a manifest weight of the evidence standard.  As the Illinois Supreme Court held in In re Marriage of Logston, 203 Ill. 2d 266, 286-87 (1984), however, this apparent split in authority is not really a split at all:  both standards apply.

Logston “makes explicit a system of double deference to the trial court in contempt proceedings,” the appellate court explained.  Id., ¶ 29.  “If the trial court’s factual findings are in dispute, we review the record and only reverse those findings that are against the manifest weight of the evidence.  If the trial court’s factual findings are not in dispute or if those findings are consistent with the manifest weight of the evidence, we review the contempt order for an abuse of discretion, considering the relevant facts.”  Id.  This “two-step” is “consistent with the role typical to each standard of review,” since the abuse of discretion standard “provides deference to the trial court’s ultimate conclusions,” while the manifest weight of the evidence standard “provides deference to the trial court’s fact-finding . . . .” Id., ¶ 30.  “So, where the factual findings are correct or if we determine they are not against the manifest weight of the evidence, we determine whether it was reasonable for the trial court to reach its ultimate ruling based on its factual findings.”  Id.  Since no one disputed any factual findings by the circuit court, “we need not review the factual findings, but decide whether the trial court’s contempt order constitutes an abuse of discretion.”  Id., ¶ 31.  Because the circuit court did not abuse its discretion, the underlying discovery order was affirmed.  Id., ¶ 47.

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