SPRINGFIELD – Defendants who apparently win lawsuits must obtain final orders or the suits can start up again, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on May 19.
The Justices validated a suit against dairy cooperative Prairie Farms similar to one that lay idle in Madison County court from 2007 to 2012.
They found plaintiffs Michael and Denise Richter properly dismissed the first suit and filed the second within a year as the statute of limitations required.
Unlike the first, the second will proceed in Macoupin County court.
Attorney Paul Marks, who represents the Richters, reacted positively to the court's decision.
"We are grateful for the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court and look forward to further proceedings,” he said.
The Richters sued Prairie Farms in 2006, alleging improper cancellation of their milk marketing agreement and their membership in the cooperative.
Their original lawyer, David Antognoli of Edwardsville, sought shareholder remedies and alleged fraud under state law and common law.
Prairie Farms moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim.
Former circuit judge Daniel Stack denied the motion to dismiss the shareholder claim in 2007, and he dismissed the fraud counts without prejudice.
He gave the Richters 30 days to amend the complaint.
They moved for an extension, and he gave them four months.
In 2010, Stack retired and the case passed to Circuit Judge Dave Hylla.
Antognoli withdrew from representation of the Richters in 2011.
In 2012, Marks and Todd Sivia of Edwardsville appeared as counsel for the Richters and moved to extend a deadline for disclosing experts.
Hylla granted 30 days, and in 30 days they asked for two more weeks.
They moved to continue the case, and Hylla denied the motion on Sept. 7, 2012.
They moved to dismiss the complaint voluntarily, without prejudice, and Hylla signed an order on the spot.
Marks and Sivia filed the second suit a day less than a year later, seeking shareholder remedies and fraud under common law but not state law.
They added claims of misrepresentation and breach of fiduciary duty.
Prairie Farms moved to transfer the suit to Macoupin County, home of the plaintiffs, and Circuit Judge Andy Matoesian granted the motion.
After transfer, Prairie Farms moved to dismiss complaint as “res judicata,” a matter already adjudicated.
In 2014, Circuit Judge Patrick Londrigan reviewed Madison County docket entries and dismissed the complaint.
Fourth District appellate judges in Springfield reversed Londrigan last June, finding Prairie Farms should have put a definite end to the action.
The Supreme Court granted review and heard argument this January.
All seven Justices agreed with the Fourth District decision.
Justice Thomas Freeman wrote that the dismissal order in the first suit did not automatically become final when plaintiffs failed to amend the complaint.
“Although nearly five years elapsed between the time plaintiffs were granted leave to file an amended complaint and their voluntary dismissal, defendant did not seek a final order dismissing Richter I with prejudice, definitively ending the action,” Freeman wrote.
He wrote that an order dismissing the counts of a complaint but granting leave to amend is not final because it does not terminate the litigation between the parties.
The Justices did not hand Prairie Farms a complete defeat, for they ruled that it is free to assert a defense under the doctrine of laches.
The doctrine bars recovery by a litigant whose unreasonable delay in bringing an action prejudices the rights of the other party.
Londrigan did not rule on a laches defense, and the Fourth District declined to address the issue.
“We agree and do likewise,” Freeman wrote.
“The circuit court is in the best position to make the relevant factual findings based on the totality of the circumstances of this particular case.”