CHICAGO — A state appeals panel has ruled the Markham Park District owes law firm Tressler LLP money for work the firm performed as the district geared up to defeat a 2011 referendum that would have disbanded the district.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Dennis McGuire had awarded Tressler $24,941 in damages and $399 in court costs. The park district appealed both the award and McGuire’s pretrial denial of its summary judgment motion.
However, on Sept. 24, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court backed the lower court. Justice James Fitzgerald Smith wrote the decision. Justices David Ellis and Nathaniel Howse concurred. The order was issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, which restricts its use as precedent, except under very limited circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court rule.
Illinois First District Appellate Court Judge James G. Fitzgerald Smith | news.jmls.uic.edu
On appeal, the district argued it was entitled to summary judgment because the Illinois Election Code bars it from using public money for political purposes. It also said the damage award is improper because the district never approved that amount as the Illinois Park District Code requires.
Tressler argued the judges could not review the portion of the appeal concerning the summary judgment motion because the park district did not list it in its notice of appeal. The panel disagreed, with Smith writing: “An appeal from a final judgment order entails review of not only the final judgment order, but also any interlocutory orders [as part of the procedural history leafing to the judgment]."
However, the panel disagreed with the park district’s underlying argument, both reviewing evidence of public meetings where district trustees agreed to retain Tressler, and also by examining the code to determine if it barred such an agreement.
“There is nothing in the language of this section that bars the park district from paying for legal advice regarding its legal options with respect to a ballot referendum,” Smith wrote. “The park district does not cite to any authority to support its position that it does.”
The appellate panel pointed to a 1987 Illinois Third District Appellate Court opinion in Ryan v. Warren Township High School District in which the school district did not violate the election code by hiring a public relations consultant to manage a proposal to demolish and replace a school, “even though the district claimed that the consultant was hired as a propagandist to market the district’s decision within days of the election involving board members who hired the consultant,” Smith wrote.
The distinction, according to Smith, was “the consultant was only promoting the board’s idea which was to build a new school rather than promoting the candidates themselves.”
According to the panel, the park district had no evidence the money it owed Tressler was used to urge voters to back or oppose any candidate or proposition, whereas Tressler attorney Charlene Holtz filed an affidavit stating she was aware of the restrictions and said the firm abided by those limitations.
As to whether the district had the authority to pay anything to the firm, Holtz contradicted the argument the firm was working on a pro bono basis with evidence of a Feb. 28, 2011, special meeting in which trustees voted to retain the firm in exchange for payment. That dispute warranted denial of the motion for summary judgment in favor of letting things play out in the bench trial.
The panel also said the district failed to mount a sustainable argument the awarded fees were improper or excessive. Although it had the burden of proof, the district did not provide court transcripts, including from the bench trial, or any other document showing how the fees should be calculated differently.
“When presented with such an incomplete record on appeal, we must indulge every reasonable presumption in favor of the judgment appealed from,” Smith wrote.