Penalty Under Landlord Tenant Ordinance Is Statutory, Illinois Supreme Court Finds


A recent ruling clarifying how Illinois state law applies to city ordinances caught the attention of our Chicago consumer protection attorneys. In Landis et al v. Marc Realty et al, Ill. Sup. Co. No. 105568 (May 21, 2009), tenants Ana and Ken Landis signed a lease for a Chicago apartment, starting June 1, 2001. They paid a security deposit of $8,400. However, they found a persistent leak in the apartment that the defendants, Marc Realty LLC and Elliott Weiner, were not able to fix. They came to a mutual agreement to vacate in exchange for being released from the lease and left in November of 2001. In April of 2006, they filed suit under Chicago’s Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance, alleging that the defendants never paid back their security deposit.

Under the RLTO, landlords must repay security deposits, or the balance of such deposits, within 45 days of the date tenants move out or within seven days after the tenant gives notice. If they hold on to the deposits for more than six months, they must pay interest that accrues from the day the rental term began. If they fail to make either payment, tenants are entitled to sue for twice the security deposit plus interest. Neither party in this case disputed this. Instead, Marc Realty moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely under the two-year statute of limitations for a statutory penalty in Illinois. The plaintiffs argued that the RLTO did not provide a statutory penalty, but instead was governed by the five-year miscellaneous statute of limitations or the ten-year statute of limitations applied to contracts. The trial and appellate courts sided with defendants, and plaintiffs appealed.

The majority started by noting that the case rests on the proper interpretation of the phrase “statutory penalty.” It first took up the question of whether a city ordinance qualifies as a statute, which the plaintiffs argued that it did not. The appeals courts are split on this question, the Supreme Court wrote, and prior Supreme Court cases don’t quite apply. The court assumed that the Legislature intended the word “statutory” to take its ordinary dictionary definition, but found that dictionaries are also split on the issue. Applying the general principle that courts should give statutes their broadest possible meaning, the Supreme Court found that the Legislature intended “statutory” to encompass municipal ordinances as well as state law. It noted that this is most fair because it gives all claims for statutory penalties in Illinois the same statute of limitations.

The court next disposed of the plaintiffs’ arguments about the word “penalty.” Under McDonald’s Corp. v. Levine, 108 Ill. App. 3d 732 (1982), statutory penalties must impose automatic liability for violation; set forth a predetermined amount of damages; and impose damages without regard to actual damages. The plaintiffs concede that the RLTO meets the first test, but said the damages are not predetermined because a dollar amount isn’t specified. It doesn’t need to, the court wrote; the formula provided by the statute is sufficient to be counted as “predetermined.” It also dismissed the plaintiffs’ argument that they are seeking actual damages, noting that other areas of the RLTO specify actual damages, but this one does not. The ordinance also says nothing about the contractual obligations between landlords and tenants, the court said, despite plaintiffs’ argument that they were seeking to enforce contractual rights. Thus, the RLTO does impose a “statutory penalty” — and the lower courts’ judgments were affirmed.

In a dissent, Justices Kilbride and Karmeier disagreed with the majority on the question of whether the Legislature intended to include municipal ordinances in the definition of “statutory penalty.” Saying that courts must interpret laws according to the intent of drafters at the time, the justices wrote that “statutory” took only the state-law meaning in 1874, when the law was written. Furthermore, several Illinois Supreme Court precedents show that this interpretation was in use by courts of the time as well: “This court’s precedent could not be more clear.” And the result in this case contradicts a more recent ruling in Clare v. Bell, 378 Ill. 128 (1941), they wrote, which the majority mentioned but failed to adequately distinguish, leaving an inconsistent ruling. The justices also dissented from the majority’s denial of a rehearing.

Based in Chicago and Oak Brook, Lubin Austermuehle has experience handling landlord-tenant disputes under Chicago’s RLTO and other municipal ordinances, as well as state law. Our Illinois consumer protection attorneys are dedicated to protecting consumers’ rights. We have won many thousands of dollars for consumers hit with bills for services they never requested or received; fees they didn’t agree to; excessive fees; and unusable products. With more than two decades of experience, our Chicago consumer fraud lawyers have the legal skills and courtroom experience necessary to get clients the recovery they are entitled to and send a strong message to companies that exploit their customers.

If you believe an unscrupulous company has taken advantage of you and you’d like to learn more about fighting back, don’t hesitate to call Lubin Austermuehle. To set up a free consultation, you can reach us through our Web site or call toll-free at 630-333-0333.

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