Illinois Supreme Court Declines to Decide Absolute Immunity Issue in Cooney

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Cooney v. Rossiter presented two questions: (1) was the plaintiffs' individual action barred by the dismissal of an earlier putative class action; and (2) is a court-appointed psychological evaluator in a child custody proceeding entitled to absolute immunity from suit by one of the parents in the action. This morning, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court with respect to res judicata, but declined to decide the broader absolute immunity issue.

Cooney arose from a contentious divorce. Plaintiff Deborah was awarded custody of her two children.  In 2001, plaintiff's ex-husband filed for a change of custody.  She sought appointment of a psychological evaluator in order to provide recommendations about the best interests of her children.  The trial court appointed defendant, pursuant to Section 5/605 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/605). The defendant concluded that plaintiff Deborah and her parents (the co-plaintiffs) suffered from Munchausen's by Proxy Syndrome and parental alienation syndrome. The defendant accordingly opined that Deborah's treatment of the child Christopher was child abuse.  According to the plaintiffs, the defendant deliberately made false statements to an investigator from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, resulting in a finding by the DCFS against plaintiff Deborah for child abuse.

The plaintiffs filed a federal class action civil rights suit against the defendant and 11 other defendants who had played a role in the child custody proceedings. The district court dismissed and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.  Cooney v. Rossiter, 583 F.3d 967 (7th Cir. 2009).  So the plaintiffs sued the defendant in state court, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress and false statements.  The state court dismissed based on absolute immunity and res judicata. The Appellate Court affirmed, holding that res judicata barred the plaintiffs' new suit. In the alternative, the Court found that the defendant was entitled to absolute immunity, relying upon the Seventh Circuit's decision in the earlier class action.

In an opinion by Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride, a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed, finding that all three requirements for application of res judicata were satisfied.

The first factor was satisfied when the federal court entered a final judgment on the plaintiffs' 1983 action.

The plaintiffs argued that the second factor - an identical cause of action - was not satisfied because the federal civil rights claim and the common law claim for intentional infliction were not the same. The Court pointed out that Illinois follows a "transactional test" for this factor -- two actions were the "same cause of action" whenever they arose from a single group of operative facts, which plaintiffs' Federal and state law claims certainly did. Plaintiffs argued that their intentional infliction of emotional distress claim could not have been brought as part of the class action, but the Court found that plaintiffs could have brought individual claims as part of the 1983 class action. The Court concluded that it would have made no difference even if the Federal court had refused to hear such an individual claim, since the plaintiffs had created the problem by filing an initial Federal class complaint.

The Court further found that the third res judicata factor, identity of parties, was met, since all of the plaintiffs were either parties to the Federal action, or privies to parties. Having found that res judicata justified dismissal of the plaintiffs' state court action, the Court vacated the Appellate Court's discussion of the absolute immunity issue as unnecessary to the result.

This last step brought a special concurrence from Justice Anne M. Burke, joined by Justice Charles E. Freeman and Justice Mary Jane Theis. Justice Burke argued that the issue of absolute immunity, not the "fact-specific" issue of res judicata, was the reason why the Court allowed the petition for leave to appeal. Because that issue was one of public importance, Justices Burke, Freeman and Theis concluded that the Court should have resolved it.