A divided Illinois Supreme Court has overturned a split appellate decision, with the majority saying the appellate panel had no business referring a question about the Illinois Human Rights Act to the state high court, and dissenting justices said the ruling has the potential to limit appeal rights.
The Oct. 19 decision was issued by Justice Rita Garman, with concurrence from Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Thomas Kilbride and Mary Jane Theis. Justice Anne Burke dissented, joined by Justices Robert Thomas and Charles Freeman.
The court addressed a matter arising from a lawsuit filed in 2014 in Kane County Circuit Court by Patricia Rozsayolgyi against the west suburban city of Aurora, Illinois’ second largest city. The city had filed an interlocutory appeal to clear up uncertainty regarding the Illinois Human Rights Act and the Illinois Tort Immunity Act.
Rozsavolgyi had worked 20 years as a property maintenance compliance officer with the city. She alleged her fellow workers harassed and abused her, because she suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks, as well as partial hearing loss. She said the alleged harassment and abuse worsened her mental condition. Rozsavolgyi said she complained to two supervisors and her union representative, but to no avail.
Then, in 2012, she was fired, purportedly because she used the word “idiots” in a remark to a coworker. Appellate court documents do not indicate whom she called idiots. The city had previously expressed concern to the union that Rozsavolgyi could become violent, according to court documents.
Rozsavolgyi then sued, saying the city violated the Illinois Human Rights Act by failing to make accommodations for her mental condition, treating her differently than other employees, firing her in retaliation and allowing for a hostile work environment. After Kane County Judge Thomas Mueller struck down four of the city’s six affirmative defenses, the city filed its appeal, seeking clarity on certain legal questions.
The clarifications were delivered in 2016 by a three-justice panel of the Illinois Second District Appellate Court in Elgin. The court’s opinion was delivered by Justice Ann Jorgensen, with concurrence from Justice Kathryn Zenoff. Justice Robert McLaren partially dissented.
The city asked the appeals court to determine whether the city could claim immunity under the state’s Tort Immunity Act, which can be used to shield governments and officials from lawsuits. Jorgensen, representing the majority view, ruled the city can assert immunity for damages, but not for the equitable relief sought by Rozsavolgyi. In taking this position, Jorgensen said the Second District had held otherwise in previous cases, but the Illinois Supreme Court has rejected those holdings. As consequence, Jorgensen said she would not “stick” to those holdings.
McLaren dissented on this issue, countering the state high court neither rejected the Second District’s reasoning on the reach of tort immunity nor overruled any cases. Rather, the high court simply “declined to adopt or approve” the appellate court’s rulings on the subject.
Rozsavolgyi challenged the appellate ruling and asked the appellate court to allow this question to be forwarded to the state high court, because it was important enough to warrant that court's attention. The appellate court agreed.
Rozsavolgyi argued the appellate court should not have answered the question and the majority’s answer should be vacated because the circuit court improperly certified the question for appellate review. Rozsavolgyi asked alternatively that if the question was properly certified, the high court should answer it in the negative.
Justice Garman, writing for the majority view, found the question was “improperly overbroad” and “does not warrant our review,” as the question “ignores the breadth of the Illinois Human Rights Act.” The court also said that answering the question will not help bring Rozsavolgyi's case to an end, which the justices said is a requirement for answering such questions.
The court further gave notice to litigants and lower courts that “appellate review of interlocutory orders is not favored.”
Justice Burke dissented, saying the majority's view was “perplexing,” because the question was not too broad. If it was, she saud, the court could have reformulated it. She also said the law in question needed clarification, because it was “uncertain and lacking in clear direction.”
Burke maintained Rozsavolgyi was right to ask the appellate panel to send her question to the state supreme court, and the appellate panel was right to agree.
Burke further asserted it isn't the high court's place to “prevent future litigants from availing themselves of a right of appeal written into our state constitution.”
Rozsavolgyi has been represented by Gaffney & Gaffney, of Glendale Heights. Aurora has been defended by the Chicago firm of Rosenthal, Murphey, Coblentz & Donahue.