Our Chicago trade secrets litigation attorneys were interested to see that a trade secrets and breach of restrictive covenant case was responsible for clarifying a point of procedure at the trial level. In Vision Point of Sale v. Haas et al., No. 103140 (Ill. Sup. Co. Sept. 20, 2007), the Cook County trial court certified a question of law having to do with unintentional noncompliance with a procedural requirement. In such a case, the court asked, may courts consider information of record that goes beyond the reasons for the noncompliance? The First District Court of Appeal said yes, but the Illinois Supreme Court reverse that decision.
The case arises from a Trade Secrets Act, breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference and unjust enrichment claim filed by Vision Point of Sale, Inc. against Ginger Haas and Legacy Inc. Haas was an executive assistant at Vision before resigning and immediately taking a job at Legacy. Vision contended that Haas, at Legacy’s direction, stole confidential and proprietary information as she left, with the goal of soliciting Vision’s customers. Both companies refurbish and sell used point-of-sale equipment. Vision requested and received a preliminary injunction as well as a permanent injunction. Discovery on the permanent injunction included a request for admissions from defendants. When Vision returned its responses, the final page was signed by its attorney, but the final page of the document was signed by Vision CEO Frank Muscarello. This violated the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, which required Muscarello’s signature on the final page of responses as well.
The defendants immediately moved to strike the document as defective and deem all of its facts admitted because of the missing signature. The trial court granted that motion. Vision moved for more time to file a set of amended responses. That motion argued that a good-faith reading of the rules was enough “good cause” to allow the amendment. It was denied, but after the case proceeded and the court became frustrated with the defendants’ noncompliance with the preliminary injunction, it vacated that denial and allowed Vision to amend its responses. Not surprisingly, the defendants objected and asked the court to certify the question in the instant appeal. The appellate court found that courts may consider information in the record beyond the reasons for the noncompliance, writing that in this situation, the circuit court may consider any facts that “strike a balance between diligence in litigation and the interests of justice.” The defendants appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
In considering this appeal, the high court said it was considering Supreme Court Rule 183, and to a lesser extent, Rule 216. Rule 183 says that courts may extend deadlines if one party makes a motion requesting the extension and shows good cause. The relevant parts of Rule 216, which deals with requests for admissions, say that recipients must respond within 28 days with a sworn statement denying the objections or a written statement saying they are improper in some way. Otherwise, every fact in the document is deemed admitted. The court started with a detailed discussion of Bright v. Dicke, 166 Ill. 2d 204 (1995), the last Illinois Supreme Court case interpreting the good-cause requirement. In that case, the high court found that circuit courts have the discretion to extend the 28-day deadline for responses to requests to admit.
However, the Bright court upheld the trial court’s decision to deny an extension in that particular case, because the movant had failed to show good cause. That court said the “mere absence of inconvenience or prejudice to the opposing party is not sufficient to establish good cause under Rule 183,” and that the burden of establishing good cause should be on the movant. Thus, the rule established by Bright says that trial courts may extend deadlines for responses to requests for admissions if the movant can show good cause. The defendants argue that this is inconsistent with the appellate court’s ruling in the instant case — and the Supreme Court agreed. The appellate court’s analysis focused on issues other than why the plaintiffs failed to meet their deadline, the high court wrote, making it at odds with Bright. Allowing courts to consider the totality of the circumstances, the court wrote, would allow too many irrelevant issues to enter into the analysis.
However, the court did agree with plaintiffs that the cases subsequently arising from Bright created an unduly harsh discovery rule. Cases like Hammond v. SBC Communications, Inc. (SBC), 365 Ill. App. 3d 879, 893 (2006) expanded the rule in Bright to create “a second, broader, harsher, and apparently inflexible standard that ‘mistake, inadvertence, or attorney neglect’ on the part of the moving party can never serve as the sole basis for establishing good cause[.]” This can be fatal to cases and is unnecessarily severe, the high court said, but the appellate court’s decision is not the answer. Rather, the Supreme Court clarified that it never intended such a result in Bright and overruled cases creating that result. This analysis was enough for the Supreme Court to overrule the trial court’s ruling on the discovery motion in this case. However, the high court also found that the plaintiffs’ response was not deficient because the appellate ruling on which it is based, Moy v. Ng, 341 Ill. App. 3d 984 (2003), has no basis in Rule 216 or the Code of Civil Procedure. Thus, the appellate court was reversed and the case was remanded.
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