In re Tekela

Decision Date29 August 2002
Docket NumberNo. 91577.,91577.
Citation269 Ill.Dec. 119,780 N.E.2d 304,202 Ill.2d 282
PartiesIn re TEKELA et al., Minors, Appellants (The People of the State of Illinois, Appellee, v. Wanda Cooper, Appellee).
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

Patrick T. Murphy, Charles P. Colbert, Kristin N. Wuerffel, Office of the Cook County Public Guardian, Chicago, for appellants.

James E. Ryan, Attorney General, Springfield, Richard A. Devine, State's Attorney, Chicago (William L. Browers, Assistant Attorney General, Chicago, Renee Goldfarb, Kenneth T. McCurry, Nancy Grauer Kisicki, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People.

Rita A. Fry, Public Defender, Chicago (Emily Eisner, Assistant Public Defender, of counsel), for appellee.

Justice KILBRIDE delivered the opinion of the court:

This case arises from the termination of Wanda Cooper's parental rights over her three children: Ira J., born September 23, 1990; Kaylon J., born November 25, 1989; and Tekela J., born December 26, 1988. The circuit court of Cook County issued a summary judgment order terminating Wanda's parental rights. Wanda did not request a stay pending appeal. The appellate court reversed, finding that unresolved questions of fact made summary judgment inappropriate. 319 Ill.App.3d 661, 253 Ill.Dec. 485, 745 N.E.2d 608. Unbeknownst to the appellate court, Tekela and Ira had already been adopted. The public guardian informed the appellate court of this development and filed a motion to vacate the appellate court's opinion as moot. The appellate court denied the public guardian's motion. We granted leave to appeal. 177 Ill.2d R. 315.

We reverse and find that the adoption rendered Wanda's appeal moot as to her rights over Tekela and Ira and that the appellate court should have vacated its order as to Tekela and Ira on that basis.

I. BACKGROUND

In March 1993, Ira and Tekela were placed in the foster care system following allegations of abuse. Since that approximate time, they have lived with the same foster parents.

On August 13, 1997, the State petitioned the circuit court to deem Wanda an unfit parent, terminate her parental rights, and appoint a guardian (the Department of Children and Family Services) with the power to consent to adoption of her three children. In support of its petition, the State alleged in part that Wanda was unable to discharge her parental responsibilities due to a mental illness.

On December 7, 1998, the State filed a motion for summary judgment. The motion incorporated earlier judicial findings, an adjudication of wardship, a psychological evaluation, and a parental assessment. Wanda filed a written objection and attached supporting affidavits from her husband, David, and a psychiatrist.

On April 30, 1999, on summary judgment, the circuit court issued a multipart order that, among other things, terminated Wanda's parental rights and appointed a guardian with the power to consent to adoption. A stay was never requested or issued. The circuit court also terminated the parental rights of the children's father. He did not appeal that order.

On May 7, 1999, Wanda filed a timely notice of appeal, arguing primarily that summary judgment was inappropriate because disputed issues of material fact existed.

On February 20, 2001, the appellate court reversed. 319 Ill.App.3d 661, 253 Ill.Dec. 485, 745 N.E.2d 608. The appellate court's opinion thoroughly details the factual background and evidence adduced in the parental fitness and termination proceedings. The substantive findings on those issues have not been appealed to this court and therefore that information need not be repeated here. See 319 Ill.App.3d at 663-69, 253 Ill.Dec. 485, 745 N.E.2d 608.

Initially, the appellate court noted that summary judgment and termination of parental rights are both drastic measures and must be closely scrutinized. The court observed that few cases exist upholding a summary determination of parental rights. Of those cases, none involved a termination based upon mental illness. 319 Ill.App.3d at 671, 253 Ill.Dec. 485, 745 N.E.2d 608. The court noted that:

"Summary judgment may be more or less useful depending on the subject matter of the dispute. [Citation.] We do not wish to suggest that there are no cases in which summary findings of parental unfitness on grounds of mental illness or impairment would be appropriate. However, we believe that the question of whether a parent has a mental illness or impairment that prevents her from discharging her parental duties, unlike the question of whether a parent has a conviction for a particular crime, is a nuanced, fact-intensive question that does not readily lend itself to summary determination." 319 Ill.App.3d at 672, 253 Ill.Dec. 485, 745 N.E.2d 608. The court noted the existence of unresolved questions of material fact and found that the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment.

On March 1, 2001, the public guardian filed a motion to vacate the appellate court's decision as moot or, in the alternative, for further directions. For the first time, the public guardian informed the appellate court that on September 27, 1999, Tekela and Ira had been adopted by their foster parents.

On March 16, 2001, the appellate court ordered the parties to file, within 14 days, a "detailed legal memorandum addressing all jurisdictional issues arising from the adoption proceeding going forward" while the appeal was pending. The appellate court's order further requested legal authority for the guardian's reference to the "seem[ing] * * * mootness" of Wanda's appeal. Finally, the court requested the State to explain its position and Wanda to advise the court of the relief she was seeking in light of the adoption proceeding.

On April 25, 2001, the appellate court heard oral arguments on the public guardian's motion. At oral argument, the court expressed doubts as to the validity of the adoptions in light of the court's decision vacating the termination order. On April 30, 2001, the appellate court issued a written order rejecting the public guardian's requests. The order simply denied the public guardian's motion and did not address the implications of the recently discovered adoption. The appellate court issued its mandate on May 14, 2001.

The public guardian filed a petition for leave to appeal on behalf of Tekela and Ira. On May 29, 2001, we directed the appellate court to recall its mandate. We subsequently allowed the public guardian's petition for leave to appeal. We also granted the State's motion to appear as an appellant.

On appeal before this court, neither the State nor the public guardian challenge the substance of the appellate court's February 20, 2001, ruling that summary judgment was inappropriate in this case. Instead, the public guardian and State simply challenge the appellate court's order denying the motion to vacate the February 20, 2001, opinion as moot.

II. ANALYSIS

The public guardian and State argue that Wanda's failure to request a stay pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 305 (155 Ill.2d R. 305) allowed the adoption to proceed legally. This failure, the State and public guardian argue, rendered Wanda's appeal of the termination order moot.

Initially, Wanda counters that a stay was unnecessary because she filed a notice of appeal. Wanda states in her brief that "stays are discretionary, whereas the right to an appeal is absolute" and therefore "an appellant need not secure a stay of trial proceedings to pursue his [or her] right to appeal." Wanda also implies that stay requests are a waste of time in this context because they "are seldom granted."

We disagree with Wanda's contention that a notice of appeal acts as a substitute for a stay. Wanda correctly notes that Illinois law provides her with a right to appellate review. Ill. Const.1970, art. VI, § 6; Jack Spring, Inc. v. Little, 50 Ill.2d 351, 355, 280 N.E.2d 208 (1972). Nonetheless, Wanda fails to cite any direct authority indicating that a notice of appeal necessarily operates to stay a judgment. In fact, Illinois courts have reached the opposite conclusion. In Steinbrecher v. Steinbrecher, 197 Ill.2d 514, 259 Ill.Dec. 729, 759 N.E.2d 509 (2001), this court noted the distinction between a notice of appeal and a stay pending appeal. We stated in pertinent part as follows:

"A notice of appeal is not an application of stay within the meaning of this court's rules. Rather, our rules clearly distinguish between a notice of appeal and motion to stay. Compare 155 Ill.2d R. 303(b) with 155 Ill.2d R. 305. Further, the mere nature and effect of the notice of appeal and motion to stay illustrate that they are not synonymous. A notice of appeal is a procedural device filed with the trial court, that when timely filed vests jurisdiction in the appellate court in order to permit review of the judgment such that it may be affirmed, reversed, or modified. [Citation.] A motion to stay impacts the enforcement and effect of the judgment, but does not challenge the sufficiency of that judgment." Steinbrecher, 197 Ill.2d at 527 n. 4,259 Ill.Dec. 729,759 N.E.2d 509.

While the applicable stay provision in Steinbrecher was Supreme Court Rule 305(j) (155 Ill.2d R. 305(j)), our holding was broad and unequivocal: absent a contrary statutory provision or supreme court rule, an appeal by itself does not operate as a stay.1 We see no reason to depart from Steinbrecher here. See also Graff v. Graff, 71 Ill.App.3d 496, 503, 27 Ill.Dec. 798, 389 N.E.2d 1206 (1979); accord Lawrence v. St. Louis-San Francisco Ry. Co., 278 U.S. 228, 232, 49 S.Ct. 106, 107, 73 L.Ed. 282, 286 (1929) (finding that an appeal to the United States Supreme Court does not act as a stay); 5 Am.Jur.2d Appellate Review § 437, at 179 (1995).

Further, without restricting the circuit court's discretion in ruling on a stay in a termination proceeding, we disagree with Wanda's contention that a stay request would have been a waste of time. To the contrary,...

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