SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Supreme Court is considering arguments in a Rock Falls case that could have wide-ranging enforcement implications for other government agencies and municipalities statewide.
At issue is a legal principal called balancing the equities, which is when a judge is allowed to consider factors such as the hardship to the parties involved when determining the fairness of granting or denying an injunction (a judicial order compelling or restraining an action).
As much as nature abhors a vacuum, the courts abhor contradictory precedents, and thanks to an Oct. 31, 2022, ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeals, such a contradiction now exists.
The 4th District ruled that Whiteside Circuit Court Judge Stanley Steines erred when he balanced the equities involved and ruled against the city of Rock Falls and for the owner of Aims Industrial Services, a metal fabrication company.
Essentially, the 4th District court ruled that all the city needed to prove was that Aims violated a city ordinance. Once that was proved, the decision was out of the court’s hands. It had to issue the injunction forcing Aims to connect to the city sewer system.
It cited a 2003 case, Sherman v. Cryns, as its precedent.
In a 2004 case, Kendall County v. Rosenwinkel, however, the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled that judges should balance the equities – they should take into account the hardships involved and consider what’s fair – when deciding whether to grant an injunction.
Wednesday’s case – argued before the state high court by Rock Falls City Attorney Matt Cole of Ward, Murray, Pace & Johnson and by James Mertes of Mertes & Mertes – will determine which precedent will stand.
On March 3, 2017, William W. Stickel Jr., owner of Aims Industrial, paid $245,000 for the site at 2103 Industrial Park Road in Rock Falls, which had a functioning, private sewer system.
Rock Falls ordinance requires that, upon purchase, property owners within city limits hook into the city’s sewer system and abandon their private systems.
Aims declined to do so because there were no lateral hookups, or infrastructure typically needed to connect to the city sewage system. To connect would cost Aims about $160,000.
The city filed a petition with Whiteside County court Aug. 25, 2019, requesting fines and an injunction ordering Aims to connect.
Aims’ response was that $157,000 to hook up was cost-prohibitive; that when the property was bought, the Rock Falls building inspector said the site would be “grandfathered in” and would not be required to connect to the city system; and that the city’s ordinance required only that upon the sale of property, a connection be made to the public sanitary system ”when available.”
Because the city failed to install lateral hookups, no connection was available, Aims argued.
It had sought a waiver for the requirement to hook up, but the city denied it.
The city then sought a summary judgment – a ruling on the case in its favor, based on what is perceived as a lack of evidence on Aims’ part – but Steines ruled that there was a genuine issue as to whether it was feasible for Aims to hook into the city sewer system given the cost.
A bench trial on the matter was held Aug. 20, 2021.
At trial, testimony included that the city’s sewer department superintendent told Stickel that Aims had to connect to the city, and that the city’s utility committee met with him a few times to discuss options for connecting.
Aims hired a civil engineer who estimated that it would cost $157,000 to connect to the city’s sewer main via a gravity-feed system.
At the city’s request, the engineer also estimated that it would cost about $51,500 plus electrical work to employ an alternative method, using pumps flowing to a manhole box just outside of the property, to connect to the city system.
Also at trial, City Administrator Robbin Blackert testified that in 2020, while suing Aims, the City Council waived the same requirement that Carry On Gun Range, 1406 First Ave./Route 40, connect with the city sewer system.
Carry On’s owner requested a waiver saying that the estimated cost of $36,000 was prohibitive and that there were no feasible alternatives.
The city granted the gun range a waiver until the property is sold or its private sewage system fails.
After balancing the equities, Steines ruled against the city, noting that Aims was being treated differently than the previous owner of the property, who never was required to hook into the city system, and that had Stickel known of the requirement and the cost ahead of time, he might not have bought the site.
Also, by granting the gun range a waiver, the council already made cost a consideration, and it wasn’t fair to give that consideration to one business but not the other, Steines said.
He also said it was the city’s responsibility to either have lateral hookups installed or work with Aims to have them installed.
The city appealed the ruling, and the 4th District Appellate Court reversed Steines’ decision and sided with the city.
Essentially, the appeals court ruled that the city was required to prove only that Aims violated the city ordinance by not connecting. Neither the cost to connect or Carry On’s waiver should have been part of Steines’ consideration because it’s the court’s job to follow the plain language of the ordinance and not read exceptions or conditions into it, the justices ruled.
That ruling was the subject of Wednesday’s state Supreme Court hearing.
The code reads, in part: “Upon sale or transfer of property, all private sewage disposal systems within the city limits shall connect to the public sanitary sewer when available ... a direct connection shall be made to the public sewer, and the private sewage disposal system shall be abandoned ...
“No person having his residence or place of business within the territorial limits of the city shall be permitted to dispose of sewage of such residence or place of business located in the city otherwise than through the sewer mains of the city whenever the sewer mains of the sewerage system of the city are adjacent to his property, without the written permission of the council.
“Violations of this code that are continuous with respect to time are a public nuisance and may be abated by injunctive or other equitable relief. The imposition of a penalty does not prevent injunctive relief.”
As in Cryns, the 4th District was correct to overturn Steines’ decision because “the judiciary is prohibited from denying an injunction after a statutory violation has been demonstrated, when the statute itself expressly provides for injunctive relief as a remedy.”
“The focus of the actual issues here on appeal really are, strictly, whether or not a court – when it is confronted with a specific statutory violation and a specific statutory provision that provides for injunctive relief – can still weigh the equities,” Cole said.
“That should be answered in the negative.”
What it comes down to, Cole argued, is that when a governmental agency seeks injunctive relief, it’s for an irreparable harm that’s been done to the public – in this case, the risk to the public’s health if a business cannot be compelled to adhere to the ordinance requiring a connection to the public sanitary system simply by instead paying a fine, which, essentially, is buying a waiver.
The municipality’s right to an injunction is a decision made by the Legislature, and it’s up to the judiciary to uphold that law, not to consider other factors, Cole said.
Again citing Cryns, Cole noted that the Supreme Court said that “once it has been established that the statute has been violated, no discretion is vested in the circuit court to refuse to grant the injunctive relief.
“I think that’s absolutely crystal clear.”
The 4th District misconstrued the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Cryns, Mertes said.
Cryns does not apply because all the court was deciding in that case was whether someone was providing nursing services without a license, not whether balancing the equities was appropriate, as was decided in Rosenwinkel.
“It is entirely permissible for a court sitting in equity [determining a remedy other than monetary] to consider equity,” Mertes said. “To hold otherwise would permit a municipality to wrest from our courts the fulfillment of their fundamental responsibility.”
The trial court in this matter “properly balanced the hardships” in denying the city an injunction to force Aims to comply, Mertes said.
It took into consideration the cost to Aims to connect, that the city had not installed the necessary lateral hookups required by its own ordinance, and the fact that the public was not at risk because the existing private sewer system worked.
That the city granted the gun range a waiver under the same circumstances in which Aims was denied also was a proper consideration, he said.
“The trial court’s ruling held that the city should be held to its very logic, logic it expressly adopted for itself in the cost analysis it performed in the enforcement of its ordinance, which invited equitable consideration,” Mertes said.
‘In the end, the trial court’s ruling comported with its obligations to balance the equities and do justice.”
The high court justices took the arguments under advisement and will release their opinion sometime in the next several months.
The arguments on video
Go to https://tinyurl.com/2y3f77km to watch Cole and Mertes make their arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court.