City of Rock Falls v. Aims Industrial Services, LLC, 2024 IL 129164

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred when it denied a city’s petition for injunctive relief authorized by municipal ordinance because doing so stepped into the realm of legislative determinations.

The traditional elements of injunctive relief, i.e., a clearly ascertainable right, an inadequate remedy at law, and irreparable harm if no relief is granted, are well-known to municipalities seeking injunctive relief. Once the three elements are satisfied, the courts end the injunctive relief analysis by determining whether the balance of equities between the parties fall heavily to one side or the other.

For municipalities, the equitable balance often tips in their favor when a public safety, health, or nuisance is in play. Often, municipalities can seek injunctive relief pursuant to statutory authority and, based on prior Illinois Supreme Court (“Court”) opinions, are thus relieved from proving the “traditional” elements required for an injunction. See City of Rock Falls, 2024 IL 129164, ¶ 15 (citing Sherman v. Cryns, 203 Ill.2d 264, 277 – 78 (2003)).

It is under this authority that the City of Rock Falls (“City”) filed its petition for injunctive relief based on ongoing municipal code violations. At the trial court level, the petition was denied due to the undue hardship it posed for the property owner. At the appellate level, the analysis found that the trial court erred by considering how the equities would balance.

Upon reaching the Court, two important findings led to affirmation of the appellate court and reversal of the trial court’s ruling.

A New Owner, A New Problem

In March 2017, Aims Industrial Services, LLC (“Aims”) purchased 2103 Industrial Park Road (“Property”), a commercial property within the City of Rock Falls (“City”). The Property utilized private sewage disposal, rather than the City’s public sewage disposal system.

The City notified Aims that it would need to connect with the City’s public sewage disposal system pursuant to the Rock Falls Municipal Code (“Code”).

At the time, the Code provided that a sale or transfer of property would require connection with the City’s sewer system “when available” under sections 32-186 and 32-190. Rock Falls Municipal Code, §§ 32-189(g), 32-186, 32-190.

A property is “available” for connection under Section 32-186 “whenever the sewer mains of the sewerage system of the city are adjacent to his property.” Rock Falls Municipal Code, § 32-186. Section 32-190 lists criteria for determining availability and imposes a sixty (60) day window for connection upon notice.

Despite the notification, Aims did not connect to the public sewage disposal system. On August 5, 2019 City filed a verified petition for injunctive relief under Section 1-41(n) of the Code, which authorizes “injunctive or other equitable relief” to abate Code violations deemed a public nuisance because they are “continuous with respect to time.” Rock Falls Municipal Code, § 1-41(n).

The Trial Court Weighs In

At a bench trial, the trial court found that (1) Section 32-189(g) applied to the Property; (2) Aims violated the Code by not connecting; but (3) injunctive relief in favor of the City was outweighed by the hardship to Aims to comply with Section 32-189(g). In other words, the equities between the parties tipped in favor of Aims and injunctive relief was denied.

Testimony at trial estimated connection would cost around $150,000. The City’s administrator also testified that in 2020, the City had excused another business from connection because of undue hardship and prohibitive expense in 2020.

The trial court emphasized this decision was out of fairness to the parties and noted that the City did not show the private sewage system was a threat to public health. City of Rock Falls, 2024 IL 129164, ¶ 12.

Appellate Court Reversal

The City appealed, arguing that the trial court should not have balanced the equities. The appellate court recognized that injunctive relief generally requires balancing the equities between the parties but cited the express exception to the traditional equitable elements when the governmental agency is authorized to seek injunctive relief by statute. Id. at ¶ 15.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s denial, reaffirming that there is a presumption of public harm when an ordinance is violated and that, when authorized by statute to seek injunctive relief, the party need not prove all the traditional elements of an injunction.

Distinguishing Between Inherent Equitable Authority and Statutory Relief

On appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, Aims challenged the appellate court’s finding that the trial court lacked the authority to weigh the equities when reviewing the City’s petition for injunctive relief.

The issue boils down to a difference between a suit in equity versus one based on statutory authority. Aims pushed for an analysis under the equitable lens, which requires the traditional elements of a mandatory injunction. Id. at ¶ 19. The City advanced the court rule created in Cryns, 203 Ill.2d, at 277-78. There, the Court stated that, where injunctive relief is authorized by statute, the petitioner need only show the statute was violated and that the relied-upon statute allows for injunctive relief. Id.

In the present case, the Court explained where injunctive relief is authorized by statute, the court presumes “the equities have, in effect, already been balanced by the legislative body.” City of Rock Falls, 2024 IL 129164, ¶ 21. When that happens, the reviewing court cannot disregard or “rebalance” the legislative body’s policy determinations. Id. Thus, a continuous violation of statutory law renders the trial court with “no discretion or authority to balance the equities so as to permit that violation to continue.” Id. at 21 (quoting Zygmunt J.B. Plater, Statutory Violations and Equitable Discretion, 70 Cal. L. Rev. 524, 527 (1982)).

A “Statute” Includes Municipal Ordinances

Aims attacked the reliance on the standard set forth in Cryns by arguing that the present case involved injunctive relief authorized by a municipal ordinance, not a statute. However, the Court quickly disposed of this argument because it is well settled that, a “municipal ordinance has the force of law over the community in which it is adopted and, within the corporate limits, operates as effectively as a law passed by the legislature.” City of Rock Falls, 2024 IL 129164, ¶ 22 (quoting City of Chicago v. Roman, 184 Ill.2d 504, 511 (1998)).

In the City, the relevant sewage ordinances hold the same full force of law as a state statute. There was no indication of an improper or unconstitutional use of municipal powers that would otherwise invalidate the ordinances.

Aims Misses the Mark in Case Law Interpretation

Relying on County of Kendall v. Rosenwinkel, Aims interpreted the Cryns standard as relief from the “three traditional elements” for an injunction, but not from balancing the equities before granting relief. 353 Ill.App.3d, 539 -40 (2004). Rosenwinkel concluded that the trial court must still balance the equities, even if the law expressly permits injunctive relief. City of Rock Falls, 2024 IL 129164, ¶ 24.

But the Rosenwinkel interpretation “would effectively permit a trial court to second-guess the legislative body as to whether a particular regulatory scheme was equitable or otherwise in the best interests of the public.” Id. This directly contradicts the Cryns Court holding that “no discretion is vested in the circuit court to refuse to grant the injunctive relief authorized by that statute” once a violation is established. 203 Ill.2d, at 278 (emphasis added).

To that end, the Court overruled Rosenwinkel to the extent it conflicted with Cryns. City of Rock Falls, 2024 IL 129164, ¶ 25.

Affirmed and Reversed

Because the Code authorized the City to seek injunctive relief, the only question for the trial court was whether the City demonstrated a continuous violation of the applicable Code provisions. Here, the trial court acknowledge that Aims violated the applicable municipal code provisions. Therefore, the trial court could not balance the equities as it did. There was no discretion to balance the equities. With this in mind, the Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision and reversed the circuit court judgment.

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