Final Judgments In Illinois Civil Cases
Supreme Court Rule 301 is deceptively simple: “Every final judgment of a circuit court in a civil case is appealable as of right. The appeal is initiated by filing a notice of appeal. No other step is jurisdictional. An appeal is a continuation of the proceeding.” 155 Ill. 2d R. 301. The question raised by this rule is “When is there a final judgment?” The answer to this question is key not only to determine if your appeal is premature but also to make sure when the judgment is final you file your notice of appeal right away before your appeal is lost. This article briefly explores some issues encountered when determining whether a judgment is final and may be appealed.
It has long been the law that, with a few exceptions that are outside the scope of this article, an appeal may only be taken from final judgments. Brentine v. Daimler-Chrysler Corp., 356 Ill. App. 3d 760 (2005). A final judgment is one that fixes absolutely and finally the rights of the parties to a lawsuit; it is final if it determines the litigation on the merits so that, if affirmed, the only thing remaining is to proceed with the execution of the judgment. In re Marriage of Link, 362 Ill. App. 3d 191, 192-93 (2005). An oral pronouncement of the trial court’s decision is not sufficient; the oral decision is still modifiable until it is written down in a written judgment. In re Interest of K.S., 250 Ill. App. 3d 862 (1993). An order denying summary judgment or a motion to dismiss normally is not appealable because such orders are not final judgments. Brandon v. Bonell, 368 Ill. App. 3d 492 (2006). However, if an order denying summary judgment grants a cross-motion for summary judgment, terminating the case, then the order is appealable because the case as a whole is final. City of Oakbrook Terrace v. Suburban Bank & Trust Co., 364 Ill. App. 3d 506 (2006).
Supreme Court Rule 304(a)
Some cases have multiple parties or multiple claims, and the trial court may dispose of some of those claims before others, for example, on a motion to dismiss or on summary judgment. In those cases, a decision dismissing or resolving some, but not all, of the claims or parties is appealable only if the trial court makes an express written finding that there is no just reason to delay either enforcement or appeal or both. 210 Ill. 2d R. 304(a). The purpose of this rule is to prevent “piecemeal” appeals. Sometimes the resolved counts or parties are closely related to the remaining claims. In those cases an appeal is impracticable. In fact, even these “final orders” are actually interlocutory and can be modified or even reversed while the rest of the case is pending. Doe v. Dilling, 371 Ill. App. 3d 151, 166 (2006). A trial court has the discretion to make a finding under Rule 304(a). Berdex International, Inc. v. Milfico Prepared Foods, Inc., 258 Ill. App. 3d 738 (1994).
However, Rule 304(a) finding should not be used to make a nonfinal order final. Board of Library Directors of the Village of Lombard v. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill,215 Ill. App. 3d 69 (1991). Rather, the rule requires that there be a final judgment as to a claim or party. In Library Directors, a trial court denied a motion for summary judgment but entered a finding that there was no just reason for delaying enforcement or appeal. The appellate court ignored that finding because the order was not final and could not be appealed. Library Directors, 215 Ill. App. 3d at 73.
It is not the only appeal that is affected by Rule 304(a); but enforcement is also prohibited if some claims are unresolved, in the absence of Rule 304(a) finding. Bank of Matteson v. Brown, 283 Ill. App. 3d 599 (1996). In Marble Emporium, Inc. v. Vuksanovic, 339 Ill. App. 3d 84 (2003), judgment was entered against the defendant, but the case was unresolved as to other parties. There was no finding under Rule 304(a) that there was no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal. The plaintiff attempted to conduct a citation to discover assets, but the appellate court reaffirmed Bank of Matteson and held the citation proceeding void. Even the subsequent Rule 304(a) finding did not save the original improper citation proceedings. Vuksanovic,339 Ill. App. 3d at 91. Therefore, if a party wishes to enforce a judgment when some defendants are unserved or there is no judgment against them, or a count remains pending, it is necessary to first ask for and receive a finding that there is no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal or both.
Family Law Cases And Rule 304(a)
Perhaps the most significant field in which a final order is necessary for appeal is marriage dissolution. In 1983, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that “issues raised in a dissolution-of-marriage case are not separate claims and therefore are not appealable under Rule 304(a).” In re Marriage of Leopando, 96 Ill. 2d 114 (1983). Under Leopando, the matters raised in a marriage dissolution proceeding, including grounds, custody, property distribution, and maintenance, are not separate claims under Rule 304(a), but instead, are different issues in a single claim. Leopando, 96 Ill. 2d at 119. Our supreme court made a similar holding in parentage cases: where parentage has been determined but child support has not, then the judgment is not final for purposes of appeal. Franson v. Micelli, 172 Ill. 2d 352 (1996). Recently our supreme court applied Leopando to hold the enforcement of an attorney’s fee judgment was premature when the dissolution had not yet been entered. In re Marriage of King, 208 Ill. 2d 332, 344 (2003).
If the court expressly reserves a particular issue in a divorce case, such as maintenance or a future receipt of property, then the judgment will often be considered final, because the trial court actually considered the issue but noted uncertainties that prevented its final determination. In re Marriage of Toth, 224 Ill. App. 3d 43 (1991) (future personal injury action); In re Marriage of Lord, 125 Ill. App. 3d 1 (1984) (maintenance).
Leopando does not govern separate post-decree petitions. In re Custody of Purdy,112 Ill. 2d 1 (1986). In Purdy, the father filed a change of custody petition, which was granted. The trial court reserved the issue of summer visitation for the mother and entered a Rule 304(a) finding. The Illinois Supreme Court allowed an appeal, noting that the change of custody was a final order on the petition for change of custody; the remaining issue is always subject to revision in any event. Purdy, 112 Ill. 2d at 5.
Finally, the recent case of In re Marriage of Link, 362 Ill. App. 3d 191 (2005), illustrates that Leopando is not applicable where the issue is not part of the marriage dissolution action, but rather raises different issues and involves different rights. In Link, the issue was whether the husband could enforce a resulting trust against his paramour. Although brought in the same case as the dissolution case, it raised a separate action, and therefore its resolution could be appealed as long as the court entered a finding under Rule 304(a).
Cases Appealable Without A Rule 304(a) Finding
Supreme Court Rule 304(b) allows enforcement or appeal of certain final orders without a Rule 304(a) finding. These include judgments entered in estate proceedings or receiverships that finally determine the right or status of a party and a finding of contempt that imposes a penalty. 210 Ill. 2d R. 304(b)(1), (2), (5). Notably, these exceptions demonstrate the meaning of Rule 304(a). Unlike cases involving separate claims or parties, rulings falling under these exceptions, by their nature, require immediate enforcement while an underlying case is still pending. Cases under Sections 2-1401 (relief from judgments) and 2-1402 (supplementary proceedings) of the Code of Civil Procedure also immediately fix the rights of parties, and therefore an exception is appropriate for them as well. 210 Ill. 2d R. 304(b)(3), (4).
Knowing when a judgment or decision by a trial court is final and appealable is crucial to both sides of a dispute as well as the trial court. The party seeking to appeal should ensure that the order is a final judgment so the notice of appeal is properly and timely filed. Alternatively, if a dismissed count might be reinstated upon the discovery of new evidence, or if an appeal would be costly when the remainder of the case is unresolved, it may be best to avoid a Rule 304(a) finding. On the other hand, the prevailing party will often seek a Rule 304(a) finding where it is applicable in order to enforce a judgment, to make it permanent, or force the other side to decide whether to appeal.
Finally, trial courts should be cautious in finding no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal. Rule 304(a) is inapplicable to marriage dissolution and paternity cases (except post-decree). Even where Rule 304(a) could be applied, a finding on counts related to the remainder of a lawsuit could force an unnecessary appeal or unwittingly give an advantage to a party by forcing the other to litigate in two separate courts; by contrast, waiting until the case is final may in some cases promote both fairness and judicial economy.
© 2008 Philip J. Piscopo