Is a Declaratory Judgment Order Immediately Appealable Without a Rule 304(a) Finding?

July 07, 2014 1:48 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

In In re Marriage of Heinrich, 2014 IL App (2d) 121333, the Illinois Appellate Court, Second District, held that a ruling on a declaratory judgment motion within a marriage dissolution proceeding was not appealable until a subsequent ruling on a motion to reconsider, brought 17 months later, that contained a specific finding pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 304(a) (eff. Feb. 26, 2010). The court’s opinion, with one justice dissenting, represents an apparent split among the First and Second Appellate Districts as to whether a trial court’s declaratory judgment order entered pursuant to section 2-701(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-701(a) (West 2010)) is immediately appealable without a Rule 304(a) finding.


In Heinrich, the parties were married on May 26, 2001. The day prior to their marriage, they signed a premarital agreement. On April 28, 2010, the wife-petitioner filed a petition to dissolve the parties’ marriage.


On March 3, 2011, the husband-respondent moved for a declaratory judgment pursuant to section 2-701(a) of the Code, seeking a general termination of the parties’ rights under the premarital agreement, arguing an actual controversy as to the agreement’s validity and enforceability. Petitioner requested a finding that the premarital agreement was valid and enforceable. On April 8, 2011, the court reviewed the agreement and found it valid and enforceable. Between May 2011 to October 2012, various further proceedings took place in the dissolution proceeding not relevant to the appeal.


However, on October 1, 2012, respondent filed a motion asking the trial court to reconsider its April 8, 2011, declaratory order finding that the premarital agreement was valid and enforceable. In response, petitioner filed in the trial court an emergency motion for an immediate hearing on respondent’s motion to reconsider and for a Rule 304(a) finding. The trial court first found the petitioner’s motion not an emergency. Noting that respondent’s motion to reconsider “was untimely and that it presented ‘nothing new,’ ” the court denied respondent’s motion to reconsider. The court found that, pursuant to Rule 304(a), there was no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal or both of its order of April 8, 2011, declaratory order.


On appeal, the majority held that the April 8, 2011 declaratory order was final, but not appealable, on the date it was entered because the dissolution matter had continued. Therefore, the order did not become final and appealable until the trial court made its Rule 304(a) finding over 17 months later. The dissent considered a declaratory judgment entered pursuant to section 2-701(a) to be final under Supreme Court Rule 303 and, when part of a larger lawsuit, that determination should be treated as immediately appealable pursuant to Rule 304(b).


The majority cited In re Marriage of Best, 228 Ill.2d 107 (2008) (Best I). In Best I, the husband petitioned for dissolution of the parties’ marriage and, later, moved for declaratory judgment, seeking a ruling concerning the validity and construction of their premarital agreement. According to the majority in Heinrich, the Supreme Court in Best I held that, even though a final dissolution order had not been entered, a reviewing court could review the trial court’s rulings if the requirements of the declaratory judgment statute were met. But the majority then noted from Best I that, as “critical to this appeal, the Supreme Court further declared that the ruling was appealable under Rule 304(a).” Thus according to the majority, in Best I the “parties’ two requests for relief (declaratory and non- declaratory) had different statutory bases and were ‘not so closely related that they must be deemed part of a single claim for relief.’ ”


Relying on Best I, the majority held that jurisdiction was conferred pursuant to Rule 304(a), where a judgment in the case involving multiple parties or multiple claims disposes of at least one, but not all, of such parties or claims. Here, the trial court’s declaratory judgment, which addressed claims relating to the premarital agreement, was final on April 8, 2011. However, the majority opined, the trial court’s April 8, 2011, order only became appealable on October 31, 2012, by virtue of the court’s express Rule 304(a) finding. The majority further stated: "[a]lthough the Rule 304(a) finding here was not made until over 17 months later (in an order also denying respondent’s motion to reconsider), that delay is of no import because a Rule 304(a) finding may be made at any time.”


As the majority further explained:


“[T]he fact that respondent filed his motion to reconsider over 17 months after the declaratory judgment does not alter our conclusion. The declaratory judgment was final, but not appealable, on the date it was entered – April 8, 2011. [Citation omitted.] The order did not become appealable until the court made its Rule 304(a) finding. [Best I, 228 Ill.2d at 113.] The fact that respondent filed a motion to reconsider in the interim, which prompted petitioner’s request for Rule 304(a) language, does not alter this conclusion. The 30-day period for filing a notice of appeal was triggered by the issuance of the trial court’s Rule 304(a) language, not by any earlier filings. To hold otherwise, as the dissent suggests, would have the effect of swallowing Rule 304(a) and ignoring Best I”.


The majority also distinguished Pritza v. Village of Lansing, 405 Ill.App.3d 634 (2010), a case the dissent relied upon, as not involving a marriage dissolution action, and as not addressing Best I. In Pritza, the First District held that finality attached to a declaratory judgment on the date of its entry even without a Rule 304(a) finding, and that a trial court’s declaratory judgment order “ ‘fixed absolutely the rights of plaintiff and defendants on plaintiff’s claim for declaratory judgment for uninsured motorist’s coverage.’ ” As a result, the court in Pritza held that a party was required to appeal from a trial court’s declaratory order within 30 days of the orders entry even if that order did not contain a Rule 304(a) finding. The majority in Heinrich reiterated that, in a dissolution context, a declaratory judgment order is final when entered; but while finality may attach to a declaratory judgment order on the date it is entered, that order is not appealable in a dissolution context absent Rule 304(a) language where, as here, the declaratory judgment did not dispose of the entire action because the dissolution claim remained pending.


The dissent countered that the majority’s holding “promotes uncertainty over certainty,” as the parties will “now be able to revisit a declaratory judgment 17 months, or 17 years, after that order was entered.” The dissent looked to section 2-701(a) of the Code, which allows a court in cases of actual controversy to “make binding to declarations of rights, having the force of final judgments *** .” The dissent emphasized that the declaratory judgment procedure was designed to settle and fix litigants’ rights before there has been an irrevocable change in their respective positions, and to “afford security and relief against uncertainty so as to avoid potential litigation.”


Here, the dissent asserted, the respondent’s motion to reconsider “asked the trial court to bring the parties back 17 months to step one and place them in the exact same position that they were in when respondent filed his motion for declaratory judgment in March 2011.” Instead of a declaratory judgment being final, therefore, the parties “were once again uncertain as to their respective rights and obligations under the premarital agreement.”


The dissent distinguished Best I because that holding “did not speak to whether a party could request adding Rule 304(a) language to a declaratory judgment order 17 months after the trial court entered that order.” Therefore, the dissent could not read Best I “as broadly as the majority,” and did not believe that case to be controlling under the specific circumstances of the instant matter."


Rather, the dissent deemed the rationale and holding in Pritza more analogous to the instant matter. Recognizing that Pritza involved a declaratory judgment with respect to uninsured motorist’s coverage, as opposed to the instant matter involving a declaratory judgment in a dissolution proceeding, the dissent nevertheless deemed the holding in Pritza that a declaratory order is immediately appealable absent a Rule 304(a) finding “sound with respect to the finality of a declaratory judgment order.”


Appellate practitioners should take note of the split between Heinrich and Pritza as to whether a declaratory order entered pursuant to section 2-701(a) of the Code is immediately appealable without a Rule 304(a) finding. Until this conflict is settled, the prudent course would be to request a Rule 304(a) finding on the date the trial court issues a declaratory judgment order.

 

 

Recommended Citation: Robert G. Black, Is a Declaratory Judgment Order Immediately Appealable Without a Rule 304(a) Finding?, The Brief, (July 7, 2014), http://applawyers-thebrief.blogspot.com/2014/07/is-declaratory-judgment-order.html.


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