By: Kimberly Glasford
Recently, in Armstead v. National Freight, Inc., 2021 IL 126730, the Illinois Supreme Court reiterated that the distinction between claims and issues is crucial under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 304(a) (eff. Mar. 8, 2016).
Following a vehicular collision in Illinois, the plaintiff brought a workers’ compensation claim against his Pennsylvania-based employer in Pennsylvania. The order adjudicating the plaintiff’s claim incorporated an agreement stating that he had sustained only right knee strain, to the exclusion of other injuries.
The plaintiff then filed a two-count negligence claim against the other driver and his employer in Illinois. The circuit court granted defendants’ “Motion for Partial Summary Judgment or Summary Determination of a Major Issue” and determined that the plaintiff’s judicial admission in the workers’ compensation agreement prohibited him from raising any injury other than right knee strain. The court also found there was no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal under Rule 304(a).
The plaintiff appealed. The circuit court, however, subsequently granted his motion to voluntarily dismiss without prejudice the rest of his action as to injuries pertaining to right knee strain. The plaintiff then filed a second notice of appeal. After consolidating the appeals, the appellate court affirmed on different grounds.
Justice Overstreet, writing for the majority, found that the court lacked jurisdiction to consider the circuit court’s partial summary judgment ruling.
Rule 304(a) states, in pertinent part, that “[i]f multiple parties or multiple claims for relief are involved in an action, an appeal may be taken from a final judgment as to one or more but fewer than all of the parties or claims only if the trial court has made an express written finding that there is no just reason for delaying either enforcement or appeal or both.” (Emphases added.) Ill. S. Ct. R. 304(a) (eff. Mar. 8, 2016). Conversely, Rule 304(a) does not authorize the review of orders disposing of mere issues within a claim. Armstead, 2021 IL, 126730, ¶ 24.
The supreme court found that the circuit court’s order granting the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment disposed of an issue that was ancillary to, rather than separate from, his negligence claims. Id. ¶ 27. Specifically, the order resolved the issue of whether the workers’ compensation agreement contained a judicial admission precluding him from asserting injuries to his shoulder and back. Yet, the order did not resolve either negligence claim. Consequently, the circuit court’s Rule 304(a) language had no effect and jurisdiction remained in that court.
Moreover, because the plaintiff failed to refile the action within one year (735 ILCS 5/13-217 (West 2016)), his action remained dismissed. Accordingly, the supreme court vacated the appellate court’s decision in its entirety and remanded for the circuit court to dismiss the case.
Chief Justice Anne M. Burke, joined by Justice Neville, concurred in part and dissented in part. She agreed that the plaintiff’s appeal under Rule 304(a) was improper because it merely resolved an issue. The same reasoning, however, precluded the court from addressing the order on the plaintiff’s motion for voluntary dismissal.
Specifically, Chief Justice Burke observed that while the majority concluded that the plaintiff dismissed “his action,” he had actually attempted to dismiss his “claim” for right knee strain, a claim which did not exist. Even assuming the plaintiff had dismissed the entire action, the appeal was moot because the plaintiff did not attempt to refile. The appropriate remedy would be to vacate the circuit court’s voluntary dismissal order and return the case to the circuit court with the partial summary judgment ruling intact.
The distinction between issues and claims appears to plague both litigants and courts alike. Tread carefully.