The First District appeals court recently nixed a plaintiff’s constitutional challenge to a local rule’s arbitration rejection deadline. The opinion’s upshot is clear: when a supreme court rule conflicts with a statute, the rule wins.
The plaintiff in McBreen v. Mercedes-Benz, USA, LLC argued her equal protection and due process rights were violated when a trial court denied her attempt to tardily reject an arbitration award. The case was decided by a single arbitrator under the auspices of the Cook County Law Division Mandatory Arbitration Program (MAP), a two-year pilot program that sends commercial cases with damage claims between $50,000 and $75,00 to mandatory arbitration.
Among other things, the Law Division MAP provides for hearings before a single arbitrator and requires a losing party to reject the award within seven business days. Cook County Cir. Ct. R. 25.1, 25.5, 25.11.
After an arbitrator found for defendants, the plaintiff didn’t reject the award until 30 days later – 23 days too late. The trial court then granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s case and denied plaintiff’s motion to void the arbitration award or extend the rejection deadline. The trial court entered judgment on the arbitration award for defendant.
Plaintiff argued on appeal that Rule 25’s compressed rejection period violated her constitutional rights since it conflicted with the 30-day rejection deadline for Municipal Department arbitrations. (The Cook County Municipal Department hears personal injury cases and breach of contract suits where the damage claim is $30,000 or less.) The plaintiff also claimed the Law Division MAP was unconstitutional since it clashed with the “panel of three” arbitrators rule prevailing in Municipal Department arbitrations.
Affirming the trial court, the Court first considered whether the Illinois Supreme Court had power to establish the Law Division MAP program with its seven-day rejection rule.
The Law Division MAP rejection period conflicts with Cook County’s Municipal Department arbitration scheme – which has a 30-day rejection rule. (The Municipal arbitration rules, codified in Supreme Court Rules 86-95, were legislatively implemented via Code Sections 2-1001A and 1003A which, respectively, authorize the establishment of an arbitration program where a panel of three arbitrators hears cases involving less than $50,000 in damages. Rule 93(a) contains the 30-day rejection cut-off.)
The First District noted that while the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection period clashes with the Municipal Department’s 30-day period, Illinois courts through the decades consistently recognize the Illinois Supreme Court’s constitutional authority to make rules governing practice and procedure in the lower courts and that where a supreme court rule conflicts with a statute on a judicial procedure matter, the rule wins.
The court also notes the Illinois legislature echoed this inherent power for the Supreme Court to establish court rules in Code Section 1-104(a). In the end, the Court found that In view of the Illinois Supreme Court’s expansive power in the area of pleadings, practice and procedure, the Law Division MAP’s abbreviated rejection period trumped any conflicting, longer rejection period found in other statutes or rules. (¶¶ 17-18, 22-23).
The Court also rejected plaintiff’s equal protection argument – that the Law Division MAP program infringed the rights of Municipal court participants by shortening the rejection time span from 30 to seven days. While allowing that Law Division and Municipal litigants in the arbitration setting share the same objective of taking part in a less-costly alternative to litigation, the Court found the two Programs “qualitatively different:” the Law Division MAP is geared to those seeking damages of between $50,000 and $75,000 while the Municipal plaintiff’s damages are capped at $30,000.
According to the Court, the different damage ceilings involved in Law Division and Municipal cases meant that plaintiffs in the two court systems aren’t similarly situated under the Equal Protection clause. (¶¶ 34-35).
Plaintiff’s final argument, that the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection period violated her due process rights also failed. Due process requires an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful matter.
The plaintiff argued that the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection cut-off failed to give her a meaningful opportunity to challenge the award. The Court thought otherwise. It noted that statutes are presumed constitutional and someone challenging a statute’s constitutionality bears a heavy burden. It then cited to multiple cases across a wide strata of facts which have upheld time limits of less than 30 days.
McBreen offers a thorough, triangulated analysis of what happens when a Supreme Court Rule, a county’s local court rule and legislative enactments all speak to the same issue and appear to contradict each other. The case solidifies the proposition that the Supreme Court’s primacy in the realm of lower court procedure and pleading extends to mandatory arbitration regimes, too. While the case is silent on what constitutes a sufficient basis to extend the Law Division MAP’s seven-day rejection deadline, McBreen makes clear that a constitutional challenge will likely ring hollow.