A commercial lease dispute sets the backdrop for an appeals court’s nuanced discussion of statutory holdover damages and when res judicata and claim-splitting defeat a second lawsuit involving similar facts to and subject matter of an earlier case.
For many years, the tenant in Degrazia v. Levato operated “Jimbo’s” – a sports bar set in the shadow of U.S. Cellular Field (nka Guaranteed Rate Field) and perennial favorite watering hole for Chicago White Sox fans.
Lawsuit 1 – the 2006 Eviction Case
In 2006, plaintiff filed an eviction lawsuit when the lease expired and defendants refused to leave. In addition to possession of the premises, the plaintiffs also sought to recover use and occupancy damages equal to double the monthly rent due under the lease through the eviction date.
The trial court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment motion in the 2006 eviction suit and struck defendant’s affirmative defense that plaintiff went back on an oral promise to renew the lease. Defendant appealed and the trial court’s eviction order was affirmed.
Lawsuit 2 – the 2007 Damages Case
Plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit in 2007; this time for breach of lease. In this second action, plaintiffs sought to recover statutory holdover damages under Section 9-202 of the Forcible Entry and Detainer Act (the “FED Act”). The court granted defendant’s summary judgment motion on the basis that plaintiff’s second lawsuit was barred by res judicata and the policy against claim-splitting. The plaintiffs appealed.
Rules and Reasoning
For res judicata to foreclose a second lawsuit, three elements must be present: (1) a final judgment on the merits rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) an identity of
causes of action; and (3) an identity of the parties or their privies.
Illinois courts also hew to the rule against splitting claims or causes of action. Under the claim-splitting rule, where a cause of action is entire and indivisible, a plaintiff cannot divide it by bringing separate lawsuits. A plaintiff cannot sue for part of a claim in one action and then sue for the rest of the claim in a second suit. Like res judicata, the claim-splitting rule aims to foster finality and protect litigants from multiple lawsuits.
The First District held that the trial court’s order in the 2006 lawsuit granting plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment was a final order only on the issue of possession but not on plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees since the court expressly granted plaintiffs leave to file a fee petition. And since there was no final order entered on plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees in the 2006 case, plaintiffs could seek the same fees in the 2007 lawsuit.
The Court did, however, affirm summary judgment for the tenants on plaintiffs’ statutory holdover claim. FED Act Section 9-202 provides that a tenant who willfully holds over after a lease expires is liable for double rent. 735 ILCS 5/9-202.
The Plaintiffs sought the same double rent in both the 2006 (eviction) and 2007 (damages) lawsuit and requested these damages in their summary judgment motion filed in the 2006 case. The eviction judge in that 2006 case only allowed plaintiffs to recover statutory use and occupancy instead of statutory holdover rent. The First District held that the use and occupancy order was final. And since plaintiffs never appealed or challenged the use and occupancy order in the 2006 case, plaintiff’s 2007 Lawsuit was defeated by res judicata.
The Court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the forcible court (in the 2006 Lawsuit) was limited to ordering possession and unable to award statutory holdover damages. It found that FED Act Section 9-106 expressly allows a landlord to join a rent claim and FED Sections 9-201 and 9-202 respectively allow a plaintiff to recover use and occupancy and holdover damages. As a result, the First District found there was nothing that prevented the 2006 eviction case judge from awarding holdover rent if plaintiffs were able to show that defendants willfully held over after the lease expired.
There is scant case law on Illinois’ holdover statute. While an action for possession under the FED Act is, in theory, a limited, summary proceeding directed solely to the question of possession, the FED Act sections that allow a plaintiff to join a rent claim, to recover use and occupancy payments in addition to double holdover rent give shrewd lessee lawyer’s enough of an opening to argue issue or claim preclusion.
This case demonstrates that the best pleadings practice is for the landlord to join its double-rent claims in the eviction case and put the burden on the tenant to argue the holdover damages claim is beyond the scope of a FED action. Otherwise, there is a real risk that the failure to join a holdover claim in the possession action will prevent holdover damages in a later lawsuit.