Illinois Bar Journal

March 2012Volume 100Number 3Page 126

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Co-parties lack standing to appeal substitution-of-judge rulings

The Illinois Supreme Court holds in Powell v Dean Foods that a defendant does not have standing on appeal to challenge the ruling on a co-defendant's motion for substitution of judge.

One party to a lawsuit lacks standing to appeal the ruling on another party's motion for substitution of judge, according to a recent Illinois Supreme Court decision.

"A party must assert its own legal rights"

The personal injury case was a bit of a rollercoaster ride procedurally, with a handful of intertwined defendants, four substitutions of judges - including one judge who vacated her own recusal - and two petitions for leave to appeal that were denied before the supreme court finally granted a motion to reconsider a PLA on a relatively simple question.

"The only issue fully briefed at the supreme court was substitution of judges," said Ottawa-based attorney Michael T. Reagan, who was one of the plaintiffs' attorneys on appeal. "The question was whether one co-defendant has appellate standing to challenge the ruling on another co-defendant's motion for substitution of judge."

Hugh C. Griffin, an attorney with Hall, Prangle & Schoonveld LLC in Chicago, was one of the defense attorneys on appeal. He said the Illinois rule allowing one automatic substitution of judge per party has been around for a while, and appellate courts have consistently held that any court orders or judgments entered after an erroneous SOJ decision are void.

"The defendants were intertwined together through vicarious liability," Griffin said. "How could you have standing for one without the other?…We argued that if it's null and void to one party, it must be for every party."

But in Powell v Dean Foods Co., 2012 IL 111714 (2012), the supreme court disagreed, vacating the appellate court judgment and remanding the matter on different grounds.

"A party must assert its own legal rights and interests, rather than assert a claim for relief based upon the rights of third parties," Justice Robert R. Thomas wrote in an opinion joined by all other justices except Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride, who took no part in the decision. "Thus, as a general rule, a party cannot complain of an error that does not prejudicially affect that party."

A "clear definition of appellate standing"

The court found that the Powell case includes a number of defendants, most of whom filed SOJ motions as of right, which pursuant to statute may be granted only before the judge makes any substantial rulings in the case. The first two SOJ motions were granted, but the third was filed on behalf of an entity defendant that was merely a prior corporate name for another entity defendant that had already obtained its one and only automatic SOJ.

According to Reagan, "when the plaintiffs' attorneys found out about it, they objected and the case went back to the chief judge, who sent it back to the last judge, who had recused herself, for reconsideration of her recusal," Reagan said. "She vacated her own recusal."

The supreme court decision says the defendants then "agreed with plaintiffs" that the third SOJ motion had been filed "inadvertently," and the defense withdrew that motion. Then a fourth SOJ motion was filed by yet another defendant, but that motion was denied on grounds that the judge had already made a substantial ruling in the case.

The case finally proceeded to trial and the jury ruled against all defendants, awarding a total of more than $19 million to three plaintiffs. The defendants appealed, claiming the judge erroneously denied the fourth SOJ motion because her alleged "substantial ruling" was not related to the merits of the case.

"That sets the stage for what the case ultimately turned out to be about in the supreme court, which was the single issue of whether the rest of the defendants had appellate standing that would permit them to claim error," Reagan said. "The court said 'no,' and that is the long-term importance of this case - a clear definition of appellate standing and a reaffirmation of the need for appellate standing on review."

The supreme court held that a litigant may only appeal matters when that party was directly prejudiced by the rulings made by the trial court. In the Powell case, however, the defendants could not prove direct prejudice and therefore lacked standing to appeal rulings that did not directly cause them harm.

"It is clear that defendants Dean Foods Company, Alco of Wisconsin Inc., and Reeves are asserting a claim for relief based upon the rights of Alder Group, rather than asserting their own claims," the court held. "Consequently, defendants do not have standing to challenge the trial court's order denying Alder Group's motion for substitution of judge as of right."

Adam W. Lasker is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.

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