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Blog comments do not reflect the views or opinions of the Author or Ancel Glink. Some of the content may be considered attorney advertising material under the applicable rules of certain states. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Please read our full disclaimer

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Illinois Supreme Court Rules in Public Body's Favor in FOIA Case Involving Lawful Injunction

In a prior post, we wrote about a November 2015 FOIA request to the Chicago Police Department seeking all closed complaint register files (CRs) for all Chicago police officers. After CPD failed to respond to the request, the requester filed a lawsuit seeking an order directing CPD to release the requested files. In response, CPD argued that because a May 2015 injunction entered by another court prohibited CPD from releasing any CR files older than four years from the date of any FOIA request, CPD did not improperly withhold the responsive CR records. That injunction was later vacated in 2016. 

In 2020, a circuit court ruled in favor of the requester and ordered CPD to turn over all responsive CR files from 1967 to 2011. The appellate court reversed, finding that the circuit court improperly ordered CPD to produce the CR files, because CPD was required to follow the terms of a lawful injunction that prohibited releasing the CR files subject to the injunction. The appellate court also determined that it was irrelevant whether the injunction was subsequently vacated, because at the time CPD received the FOIA request, CPD was following a lawful injunction.

The requester subsequently appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. In Green v. CPD, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s ruling in favor of CPD, finding that the appropriate time to determine whether a public record may be withheld is when the public body asserts the exemption and denies the request (“time-of-request” approach). The Court rejected the requester’s “changed circumstances” argument, explaining that accounting for changed circumstances that occur during litigation would require a public body to continually monitor the information and revise its responses. The Court held that this approach could undermine FOIA’s goal of producing public information expediently and efficiently and lead to the absurd result of burdening the public body with the requester’s attorney fees even if the denial was proper when the agency made its decision.

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Illinois Supreme Court Finds City and Alderman Immune from Liability for Rezoning

The Illinois Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in Strauss, et al. v. City of Chicago finding that the City was not liable for money damages based on a discretionary zoning decision. The case made its way to the Illinois Supreme Court after the lower courts both found in favor of the City.

The building at issue had been zoned for mixed-use developments since 1974, with commercial uses permitted at street level and residential uses permitted above street level. According to the opinion, in 2012, the alderman for the City ward in which the property was located informed the property owner that a music venue would be the only tenant allowed in the building. Soon after the venue opened, however, the relationship between the music venue and property owner became strained because of noise complaints, illicit drug use, and excessive alcohol intake by the venue’s patrons. Based on these issues and other violations of the lease, the property owner filed an eviction action against the music venue in 2015.

In 2016, while the eviction lawsuit was pending, the alderman introduced a downzoning amendment to apply solely to the building. The new classification would prohibit upper-level residences as well as more than 30 categories of businesses. Over the next 14 months, the alderman proposed two other downzoning amendments, both of which substantially limited the permissible uses of the property and impeded the property owner’s efforts to lease or sell the building. Eventually, the City Council adopted one of these downzoning amendments, limiting the kinds of commercial and retail tenants that could rent space in the building. 

Strauss (the property owner at that time) filed a lawsuit, alleging violations of the Illinois Constitution and several tort claims for civil damages. The City prevailed in the trial and appellate courts. The case was appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which found that the two constitutional claims were no longer ripe for decision because Strauss no longer owned the building and could not receive effective relief from a decision that the amendment was unconstitutional. 

With respect to the claims for money damages, the Illinois Supreme Court determined that the City could not be found liable for money damages under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act (the Act), which provides that public employees in positions involving the determination of policy or the exercise of discretion cannot be held liable for injuries resulting from those discretionary actions. Even though Strauss alleged that the alderman had acted maliciously due to an alleged relationship with the music venue that had been evicted (and thus was not exercising proper discretion), the Court found that immunity under the Act extends to all kinds of discretionary acts, including those motivated by corruption or the misuse of political power. Because the alderman was determining policy and exercising his discretion in advocating for the downzoning of the property, the Court found that both he and the City were immune from liability for any damages the property owner incurred as a result. Strauss's attempt to have the Court limit immunity to “lawful” and “official” discretionary acts was rejected by the Court, which found that the Act makes clear that “even if the discretion is abused, immunity still attaches.”

Post Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Court Finds Village Had Discretionary Immunity in Motorcycle Accident Case

In Page v. Village of Coal City, an Illinois Appellate Court determined that a village was immune from liability for an injury resulting from a village employee’s actions because the village employee had a position with discretion to make decisions.

A motorcyclist was driving on a local road when her motorcycle tires hit a section of loose gravel, and as a result, she lost control and was thrown off the motorcycle. She filed a negligence claim against the village. The trial court found in favor of the village, and the motorcyclist appealed.

The court determined that the liability of the village depended on whether the village employee who was responsible for village road maintenance served in a position requiring discretionary actions or solely ministerial tasks. Under provisions of the state's Tort Immunity Act, actions by municipal employees are treated differently whether the employees are exercising discretionary authority or acting in a ministerial fashion. As a general rule, the Act provides certain immunities to municipalities for actions of their employees who have the discretion to make judgment calls.

In this case, the Appellate Court determined that the village employee responsible for road repairs held a position requiring an exercise of discretion. The court pointed to the fact the village employee made a conscious decision to gravel the hazardous road and leave the roadway open to traffic until it could be repaved by an outside contractor months later. That employee's decision had been based on multiple factors including village budget, costs, and safety, which supported the village's argument that its employee engaged in a policy determination. While the court acknowledged that the public works roadcrew adhered to a set process in repairing the road, there was no indication in this case that the roadcrew failed to complete the work in a reasonably safe and skillful manner. In sum, the Appellate Court upheld the trial court's ruling that the village had discretionary immunity.

Post Authored by Katie Nagy & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink

Monday, September 12, 2022

Court Reverses Award of Damages to Developer in Case of Mutual Breach of Contract

Earlier this summer, an Illinois Appellate Court issued a decision finding that both the municipality and the developer had materially breached a redevelopment agreement. Because neither party had complied with the terms of the agreement, the Court decided that neither party was entitled to damages for the other’s breach. PML Development LLC v. Village of Hawthorn Woods.

In 2012, the parties entered into a redevelopment agreement that provided, among other things, that the developer would import fill and bring to grade a large piece of property it owned in the Village. The agreement required the developer to pay taxes on the property until the project was completed, at which point it would donate the land to the Village. The development project faced several obstacles early in the term of the agreement, including a number of changes to the project, including the amount of fill on the site, the sequencing of the project, and the company’s ability to sell certain materials. 

According to the breach of contract lawsuit filed against the Village, the developer argued that these changes presented major challenges to its ability to complete the project on time. The Village also claimed the developer had  breached its obligations under the agreement by not paying property taxes, which resulted in multiple tax liens being placed on the property. The trial court ruled in favor of the developer, finding that the developer's obligations were excused because of the Village's breach and awarding the developer damages for the breach.

On appeal, the Appellate Court found that neither party should have received any damages for breach of contract. The Court agreed with the trial court that the Village’s unilateral changes to the contract terms and working conditions for the company constituted a material breach, finding that under industry standards, the developer should have maintained control and discretion over the “means and methods” for developing the parcel. However, the Court did not find that the Village’s breach excused the developer from its contractual obligation to pay taxes on the property. Because the developer had promised to deliver a deed to the property without any liens or title issues, its failure to pay taxes undermined its ability to comply with that term in the agreement. The Court relied on a foundational principle of contract law to come to its conclusion: “[I]f both parties are in default (breach) there can be no recovery on the contract by either against the other" and reversed the trial court's damages award to the developer

Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Court Clarifies Scope of Home-Rule Units’ Administrative Hearing Authority

Recently, an Illinois Appellate Court clarified the authority of a City’s administrative hearing department where there are overlapping state and municipal traffic regulations. In Potek, et al. v. City of Chicago, the Court held that certain local traffic violations were properly heard in City administrative hearings rather than before a court.

In 2005, the City amended its traffic code to prohibit all use of cell phones while driving. In 2010, the General Assembly passed a narrower law that only prohibited texting, emailing, or instant messaging while driving. It wasn’t until 2014, that the General Assembly expanded state law to prohibit the use of cellphones while driving altogether. 

Between 2012 and 2014, a number of drivers were issued notices that they violated the City ordinance by talking on their cell phones while driving. These violations were considered, and several tickets were paid, through the City’s administrative hearing department. Certain ticketed individuals later sued the City, claiming that the City did not have the authority to decide their traffic tickets based on a state statute that they claimed restricted municipal authority to hold administrative hearings. This statute (contained in the Illinois Municipal Code) states that municipalities may not hold administrative hearings (1) beyond the scope of their statutory or home-rule authority or (2) to prosecute “any offense under the Illinois Vehicle Code or a similar offense that is a traffic regulation governing the movement of vehicles.”

The trial court dismissed the individuals' claims for lack of standing and they appealed. The Appellate Court reversed the standing ruling, finding that the individuals did face a real injury as a result of the City delegating the traffic violations to the administrative hearing department rather than sending the tickets to a local court, so they had standing to challenge in court the administrative hearing department's authority to find them liable and collect fines for their violations.

However, the Appellate Court did not rule in the individuals' favor on their substantive authority argument and instead agreed with the City that its administrative hearing department had the authority to adjudicate several of the traffic violations based on the Illinois Municipal Code. Through the end of 2013, the City ordinance, and not state statute, prohibited talking on a cell phone while driving. As a result, the Court determined that the two laws at the time did not regulate a “similar offense” that required prosecution in court rather than before an administrative agency. The Court also noted that as a home-rule unit of government, the City’s authority to conduct administrative hearings “must be construed liberally.” The Court remanded back to the trial court those tickets that were issued after the state law had changed to prohibit talking while driving to determine whether the drivers were entitled to a refund to the fines they had paid to the administrative hearing department.

Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink