State law could put the squeeze on venue shopping

Ann Knef Mar. 1, 2005, 9:56am

State Sen. Kirk Dillard

If legal reform initiatives are allowed to march on in Springfield, venue shopping—which helped Madison County achieve national notoriety—may become a thing of the past.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) has introduced a class action reform bill (SB1459) which would tighten certification requirements on suits filed in state court. The bill is scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing March 8.

“At a minimum, the legislation is put in to keep the focus and heat on our civil justice system, especially in southwest Illinois, for its reputation as a class action haven,” Dillard said.

Under the measure, at least one of three standards would have to be met for certification: the plurality of class members would have to be from Illinois, the alleged wrong-doing would have to have occurred in state or the alleged wrong-doers must do business in Illinois.

“It follows on the heels of federal class action reform,” Dillard said. “I don’t know what the prospects of the reform bill passing will be. It’s kind of hard to predict.

“The Democrats will likely stall the legislation using the federal changes as its excuse. But I put this bill in before the federal bill was signed.”

The Illinois Civil Justice League is backing the legislation.

“It will eliminate forum shopping,” said Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL). “It’s not an inconvenience if the plurality of class members is from the state.”

A similar measure was introduced two years ago but never made it out of the Senate Rules Committee.

“This will not deny anyone participation in class action lawsuits,” Murnane said. “It is to control the appropriate jurisdiction.”

The Class Action Fairness Act signed into law by President Bush on Feb. 18 primarily moves class action filings seeking more than $5 million from state to federal court. The president's decision to quickly enact the law was largely due to a frenzy of class action lawsuits filed in Madison County the week of Feb. 14.

While Dillard's bill also includes what he considers common sense provisions, such as communication to class members written in “plain English,” and judicial scrutiny over attorneys’ fees, there will be opposition in a Democratic-controlled legislature.

“Trial attorneys don’t want a change and will fight to prevent this,” Murnane said. “They’d like to have a couple friendly venues.”

Bustling venues
A review of other state courts in Illinois—outside of Cook County and its collar counties—reveals that Madison and St. Clair counties are the busiest courts in the state and the jurisdiction of choice for plaintiffs filing class action lawsuits.

In searching for class action cases filed in 2003 and 2004 at 12 other Illinois state courts, a reporter verified that there were no class action suits filed in eight of those counties. (See chart). In some instances, circuit clerk employees provided anecdotal information and some said an in-person search would have to be conducted to determine whether there were any class action lawsuits filed there.

“I’ve never seen a class action case filed here,” said a clerk in the Sangamon County Circuit Clerk’s office. “Those usually go to Madison County.”

In 2003, in Madison County--population 261,689--there were 2,102 lawsuits filed in the civil court’s Law Division, where plaintiffs seek damages in excess of $50,000. Among those cases, 106 were class action lawsuits—the most for any one venue in the nation, let alone the state.

In 2004, the load lightened in Madison County. There were 1,436 lawsuits filed in the county’s Law Division; 82 were class action suits.

Close in proximity and population--at 258,606, neighbor St. Clair County had 831 suits filed in its law division in 2003. There were two class action lawsuits that year. In 2004, there were 771 suits filed in the law division; 24 were class action suits.

By comparison, in Winnebago County, population 284,313 and home of Rockford, there were 487 cases filed in the county’s civil court law division in 2003 and 452 suits filed there in 2004. The county circuit clerk’s office spokesperson said he did not know if any were class action lawsuits.

In McLean County, population 156,879, there were 211 lawsuits filed in the civil division in 2003. In 2004, there were 226.

“It’s just not that common here,” a circuit clerk spokesperson said. “Years ago there was a State Farm class action suit. They (class actions) are filed more in Madison County. That’s a more plaintiff-friendly environment.”

Status call for Madison County
An examination of class action lawsuits filed in Madison County through the end of 2004 shows that 104 of 347 are still open.

Of those that are open, 34 cases are moving to the point of class certification. Among that subsection, 11 have been certified and await trial; 10 are in briefing on class certification; six are in evidence or scheduling phases; four have been heard but have not been decided; and three are set for hearing.

Other findings of class action cased filed through 2004 include:

  • 95 have been settled or are being settled

  • 90 are open but not moving

  • 29 have been removed to federal court

  • 16 are under appeal in state and federal court

  • eight transferred to other state courts

  • four await bankruptcy orders

  • one stayed by a federal court in Florida

    Editor's note: Heather Anderson and Steve Korris contributed to this story.

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