By Jonathan B. Amarilio
Partner, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP
“We find that supreme court jurisprudence requires us to depart from the weight of First District authority.” In re Marriage ofTeymour, 2017 IL App (1st) 161091, ¶ 1. To any practitioner of the law, these words should set off alarm bells and garner attention, and In re Marriage of Fouad Teymour, 2017 IL App (1st) 161091, provides no exception to that rule.
Teymour concerns appeals from trial court orders resolving several postdissolution matters, specifically between Fouad Teymour and his ex-wife Hala Mostafa. The underlying facts are unremarkable. Fouad and Hala’s marriage was dissolved and he was ordered to pay maintenance. Several years later, Hala filed a petition to extend the length of the payment period, for unpaid child support, and for attorney fees and costs. Fouad, in turn, sought a reduction of maintenance. Both sides sought discovery sanctions. The trial court entered an order continuing maintenance, found Fouad in indirect civil contempt (although it declined to impose a penalty in conjunction therewith), and granted Hala leave to file petitions for attorney fees, costs and sanctions on several bases, denying Fouad’s reciprocal requests.
Fouad filed a notice of appeal challenging his continued maintenance obligations, the imposition of sanctions, the contempt finding, and the trial court’s failure to dismiss Hala’s request for child support. Hala’s petitions for attorney fees and—possibly—her request for child support (this latter point was apparently unclear from the record) remained pending; however, the trial court did not enter a Rule 304(a) finding.
On appeal, the First District was confronted with a surprisingly unresolved issue: whether unrelated, pending postdissolution matters constitute separate “claims” or separate “actions” for purposes of establishing jurisdiction under Rule 304(a). The reviewing court explained that the appellate districts were split on this question, further explaining that if each pending, unrelated matter constitutes a separate “claim” in the same action, a Rule 304(a) finding is required to appeal from an order disposing of only one such claim. Whereas if each pending and unrelated matter constitutes a separate “action,” an order disposing of only one such action is final and appealable under Rule 301—regardless of the status of other, still pending, actions. And of course, if the latter were true, a party would also have to file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the relevant trial court decision or lose the right to appeal it forever.
Criticizing as imprecise the reasoning adopted in several appellate and supreme court decisions addressing closely related issues, and observing that the supreme court’s 2009 decision In re Marriage of Gutman, 232 Ill. 2d 145 “only added fuel to the jurisdictional fire” (a statement seemingly meant to draw attention), the court here broke with First District precedent and adopted the position taken by the Second and Fourth Districts to find that separate and unrelated postdissolution matters present separate claims, not separate actions, and therefore a Rule 304(a) finding is required where only one of several pending postdissolution petitions has been resolved. Recognizing the fairly unique nature of postdissolution proceedings, the court stated that “[w]here a party files one postdissolution petition, several more are likely to follow,” and any different rule would only encourage unmanageable piecemeal litigation. Teymour, 2017 IL App (1st) 161091, ¶ 39.
Applying that holding to the facts presented, the court found that, even if it assumed the child support request was not pending when the notice of appeal was filed, the several attorney fee petitions (often considered ancillary in other contexts) were still pending. Because the trial court did not make a Rule 304(a) finding, the contempt and sanctions orders were not yet appealable, and the court found it lacked jurisdiction to consider them.
Unless and until the Supreme Court wades into this matter directly, Teymour is a must read opinion for all family law practitioners and for appellate lawyers handling family-law appeals.