Appellate Court Finds Lack of Jury Trial Insufficient Reason to Set Aside Judgment Due to Untimely Challenge

On March 25, 2022, Illinois’ First District Appellate Court issued an opinion in Casteel v. Jiminez affirming the dismissal of a petition (filed pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/2-1401) to set aside the judgment against the Defendant. The opinion contains an interesting analysis of the timeliness of filing a motion under 735 ILCS 5/2-1401 based on particular defenses.

The Case

Plaintiff alleged that in 2015, while Defendant was “conducting illegal activities” on a street in Chicago, the Defendant intentionally shot Plaintiff in both legs. The complaint filed by Plaintiff contained two counts: the first alleged negligence, and the second alleged a common-law battery claim under a theory of willful, wanton, or reckless conduct.

In October 2015, a sheriff personally served the Defendant with the summons in the State of Illinois.

In February 2016, an attorney appeared on the Defendant’s behalf and filed a form that had a box checked indicating the Defendant desired a trial by jury. Both state and federal prosecutors had charged the Defendant with various crimes in connection with the incident, and the Defendant moved to stay the tort case pending resolution of the criminal prosecutions. The motion for stay was continued but never actually resolved.

Plaintiff then filed a motion for partial summary judgment in his favor on the issue of liability. The motion was based on the Defendant’s guilty plea in federal court in connection with the incident in question. (At the plea hearing, the Defendant had stated in open court, “I shot individual A.” The Plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment alleged that he, the Plaintiff, was “individual A.” The motion included the transcript of the hearing, the Plaintiff’s affidavit describing his injuries, and the medical expenses Plaintiff incurred as a result of the shooting.)

The circuit court granted the Defendant time to respond to the motion “by agreement.” However, the record contained no response to the summary judgment motion filed by the Defendant.

On the date set for hearing of the motion, the court entered an order noting that Plaintiff’s attorney was present but Defendant’s attorney was not. The motion was then continued to a later date. On that later date, the court entered an order granting the Plaintiff’s summary judgment motion instanter, finding the Defendant liable.

On December 9, 2016, the court entered an order stating that the case came before it “for trial and prove up” and that it had heard “testimony orally and by evidence deposition.” The court entered a judgment in favor of the Plaintiff for $6,351,900 and ordered that within seven days a copy of the judgment be mailed to the attorney who had previously entered an appearance for Defendant.

Over the next two years, Plaintiff attempted to collect on the judgment by attaching Defendant’s assets. Plaintiff also requested the court issue a rule to show cause against Defendant for his failure to appear in response to a citation served on him.

On December 18, 2019—more than three years after the court’s entering the $6,351,900 judgment against Defendant—a different attorney made an appearance on behalf of Defendant. That attorney filed a petition under 735 ILCS 5/2-1401 alleging that the December 9, 2016, hearing was void because the court heard testimony on damages without a jury and Defendant never withdrew his jury demand.

The circuit court denied Defendant’s 735 ILCS 5/2-1401 petition on several grounds, including that it was untimely. Defendant appealed to the Illinois First District Appellate Court.

Analysis of the Ruling

The First District affirmed the decision of the circuit court. It reasoned that generally, to be legally sufficient, petitions brought pursuant to section 2-1401 must be filed within two years of the order or judgment. In this case the Defendant filed the petition more than two years after the judgment,

The First District, however, did not end its analysis there. It noted that a party may challenge a judgment as being void at any time. It reasoned that a judgment could be void if the court lacked personal jurisdiction over a defendant or if the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute.

The appellate court then found that the circuit court clearly had personal jurisdiction over the Defendant. Defendant had been duly served with process within the State of Illinois, and his attorney had filed an appearance and was active in the case for a time. The appellate court further reasoned that the complaint in this case alleged two common-law claims for tort committed upon an Illinois citizen within the State of Illinois. Since the circuit courts have general jurisdiction over common-law tort claims, the appellate court found that the circuit court had general jurisdiction in this case.

Since the First District believed the Illinois Supreme Court has been reluctant to establish a third class of void judgments, it declined to create one based on a lack of a jury trial and affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

The Takeaway

This case reminds us that defenses of personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction can be used to attack the judgment even more than two years after the entry of the judgment. It also underscores the importance of raising other defenses to a judgment within two years of the judgment, at the very latest. Of course whenever possible, it’s better practice to avoid the entry of a default judgment to avoid the need for such analysis in the first place.

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Kerri Forsythe

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