The Illinois Supreme Court issued three opinions on January 22. In In re J.M.A., the Supreme Court was equally divided and dismissed the appeal. In Steed v. Rezin Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, S.C., the Supreme Court unanimously reversed an unpublished order issued by an appellate court that reversed a jury verdict in favor of an institutional defendant. In Board of Education of the City of Chicago v. Moore, the court addressed whether the School Code authorized the Board of Education of the City of Chicago to opt for suspension rather than either dismissal or reinstatement of a tenured teacher.

In re J.M.M.

In this case, the Supreme Court was equally divided and dismissed the appeal.

Steed v. Rezin Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, S.C., 2021 IL 125150

By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde & O’Meara LLP

In this wrongful death and survival action, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed an unpublished order issued by the appellate court that reversed a jury verdict in favor of institutional defendant, Rezin Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, S.C. (Rezin Orthopedics). In doing so, the Supreme Court emphasized the deference accorded jury verdicts.

A brief discussion of the evidence is necessary. The decedent suffered a partial tear of his Achilles tendon on January 29, 2009 and first sought treatment on February 17, 2009. The treatment plan was to set his leg in a cast and for him to return in two weeks for a follow-up appointment. The treating physician memorialized his recommendation about the follow-up appointment. The receptionist scheduled the decedent’s casting appointment for February 19, 2009 but did not schedule the follow-up appointment.

The decedent’s follow-up appointment was scheduled for March 13, 2009 by another receptionist on February 19, 2009, the day the cast was applied. On February 25, 2009, the decedent spoke to another receptionist and requested a change in his follow-up appointment to March 12, 2009. The decedent’s wife testified that he experienced discomfort and achiness in his leg; and on the evening of March 7, he experienced pain in his thigh for the first time. He planned to call Rezin Orthopedics on Monday but suffered a DVT and resulting pulmonary embolism on Sunday, March 8, 2009, and died.

The negligence claim brought against Rezin Orthopedics centered on its failure to timely schedule a follow-up appointment within two weeks of the casting of the decedent’s leg pursuant to the physician’s order. The plaintiff claimed that, as a direct and proximate result of that failure, the DVT and resulting pulmonary embolism were not discovered, diagnosed, and/or treated, resulting in the decedent’s death. Plaintiff’s expert testified that the risk of developing a DVT is low, that a blood clot in the leg is not life threatening, and that had the decedent been examined and diagnosed within two weeks, he likely would have survived.

Rezin Orthopedics presented expert testimony that whether the decedent’s follow-up appointment was scheduled within two weeks or three weeks was inconsequential. It also presented expert testimony that the decedent was not high risk for the development of a DVT; that the incidence of DVT formation following an Achilles tendon rupture is very low, less than 3%, probably less than 1%; and that virtually none of those incidents result in a fatal pulmonary embolism.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the treating physician and Rezin Orthopedics. The plaintiff moved for judgment n.o.v. and a new trial only against Rezin Orthopedics, which was denied. The appellate court reversed, concluding that the evidence overwhelmingly favored the plaintiff and showed that Rezin Orthopedics breached the standard of care by failing to follow the written order that instructed the receptionists to schedule the follow-up appointment within two weeks of February 19, 2009. The appellate court also concluded that the failure to schedule a follow-up appointment within two weeks was a proximate cause of death. The court remanded the case for entry of judgment against Rezin Orthopedics and for a trial on damages only.

Reversing the appellate court, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Overstreet, reiterated the Pedrick standard, which provides that judgment n.o.v. should be granted only when “all of the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors [a] movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand.” Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co., 37 Ill. 2d 494, 510 (1967). It then reiterated the principles on proximate cause and the requirement for cause in fact and legal cause, noting that legal cause is not established where the injury is so highly extraordinary that imposing liability is not justified.

The Supreme Court found that the evidence on proximate cause did not overwhelmingly favor the plaintiff and that the appellate court ignored evidence supporting a reasonable conclusion that the DVT formed after March 3, 2009, not within the two-week time frame for the prescribed follow-up appointment. It also criticized the appellate court for failing to address legal cause, i.e., whether the decedent’s injury was the natural, and not merely a remote, consequence of Rezin Orthopedics’ failure to schedule his follow-up appointment within two weeks of his initial appointment. According to the Supreme Court, expert testimony on that point showed that the decedent’s development of a DVT and subsequent fatal pulmonary embolism were medically unforeseen.

As to plaintiff’s alternative request for a new trial, the Supreme Court held that she did not meet her burden. The evidence supported the jury’s conclusion that Rezin Orthopedics’ alleged failures were not the proximate cause of the fatal pulmonary embolism. The court repeated well-established law that a reviewing court may not simply reweigh the evidence and substitute its judgment for that of the jury. It also rejected plaintiff’s allegations of error involving the admission of evidence and closing argument on the standard of care and breach, noting that they were not essential to the disposition of this case. As to closing argument, it found that the circuit court’s curative instruction was sufficient.

Board of Education of the City of Chicago v. Moore, 2021 IL 125785

By Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC

In this action arising from disciplinary proceedings to terminate the employment of a tenured Chicago school teacher, the Supreme Court addressed whether the School Code authorized the Board of Education of the City of Chicago to opt for suspension rather than either dismissal or reinstatement. In a unanimous decision, the court interpreted the applicable statutory provisions in the School Code to provide the board with the implied power and authority to issue alternative sanctions when a teacher’s conduct is determined to be negligent but remediable.

The CEO of the Chicago Public Schools approved dismissal charges against the teacher, Daphne Moore, following an incident in which she allegedly did not respond appropriately to a student’s overdose on medication in the classroom. Moore was suspended without pay pending the outcome of a dismissal hearing. Finding that Moore had alerted the administration of the incident and that, contrary to the charges, she did not lie during the investigation, a hearing officer concluded that the board did not establish cause for the teacher’s dismissal. The board partially rejected the hearing officer’s findings; it found that Moore should have taken additional steps to meet the standard of satisfactory conduct. In the board’s view, the circumstances called for a suspension and a reduction in the back pay Moore would receive, but not dismissal.

Moore challenged the authority of the board to impose discipline short of dismissal where the board commenced termination proceedings; Moore contended that the proceedings could end only in dismissal or reinstatement. Administrative review led to an appellate decision reversing the board’s decision; the appellate court concluded that no provision in the School Code empowered the board, after exercising its statutory power to seek termination, to act other than to dismiss or to reinstate the Moore with full back pay.

The Supreme Court reached the opposite conclusion and found that the School Code, 105 ILCS 5/34-85, provided the board with the implied authority to suspend tenured teachers with less than full back pay at the conclusion of a disciplinary action seeking dismissal. The court rejected the notion that the legislature required a second, separate action. The court found no conflict in two other sections of the School Code addressing different sanctions—dismissals and suspensions. A harmonious reading of the cited sections of the statute, rather than a reading of portions of the Code in isolation, supported the board’s authority to manage its school system by protecting both the safety of students and the rights of tenured teachers. The Supreme Court also found satisfactory the board’s articulation of its findings and no statutory prohibition of the board’s reduction of back pay.