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Civil lawsuit against R. Kelly goes before Illinois state appellate court

On the same day that R. Kelly was criminally sentenced in a New York federal court, his attorney was appealing his case in a civil lawsuit before an Illinois appellate court

CHICAGO (CN) — Singer and now-convicted sex offender R. Kelly's attorney Mark Zito went before the First District of the Illinois State Appellate Court on Wednesday afternoon, hoping to appeal a default judgment entered against Kelly by the Cook County Circuit Court in February 2020.

Unlike the federal, criminal cases against Kelly in New York and Chicago, the case before the Appellate Court on Wednesday was a civil lawsuit. Heather Williams, one of the women who accused Kelly of sexually abusing her as a minor, initially brought the suit in February 2019 under the Illinois Childhood Sexual Abuse Act. In it, she alleged that she met Kelly in 1998 when she was 16 years old, and that he offered to include her in a music video he was making. The suit further says that while Williams was initially "star struck" by Kelly, the abusive nature of their relationship haunted her into adulthood.

"As a result of the sexual abuse... Heather Williams developed psychological coping mechanisms and symptoms of psychological distress, including great shame, guilt, self-blame, confusion, depression, repression and dissociation," the 2019 complaint read.

The Cook County District Court has granted Williams a default judgment on the case on two separate occasions: once in April 2019 after Kelly failed to respond to the suit, and again in February 2020. After the first dismissal, attorney Zaid Abdallah of the law firm Abdallah Law successfully argued that the case should be re-instated. He said Kelly did not respond to the suit due to his effective illiteracy and the fact that when he was served in March 2019, he was in the custody of the Cook County Department of Corrections.

The second default judgment came after the Abdallah Law team withdrew as Kelly's counsel in January 2020, and he failed to appoint a new legal team by the court-mandated deadline of Feb. 25. In their motion to be removed as counsel, the attorneys said "circumstances have evolved that prevent the counsels from zealously advocating on behalf of the defendant.”

Following the February 2020 judgment, Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Lipscomb ordered Kelly to pay Williams $4 million, including $2 million for Williams' pain and suffering, and $2 million in punitive damages. The case coincided with another unrelated suit against Kelly brought by the commercial landlord Midwest Commercial Funding, LLC. As with Williams, MCF won a default judgment against Kelly in the order of $3.5 million.

As the disgraced singer no longer had that kind of money to his name, both Williams and MCF were to be paid out from the song royalties Kelly would otherwise be receiving from Sony Music. A separate legal battle between Williams and MCF ensued over who would get priority in receiving Kelly's royalties, with Williams coming out on top in February 2022.

It mattered little. On Feb. 17, the same day that the First District of the Illinois State Appellate Court found Williams' lien took priority over MCF's, Cook County Associate Judge Patrick Heneghan ordered Sony to hold on to all the money in Kelly's royalties account until further court order. Kelly's new legal team, Jordan & Zito, had successfully filed for an appeal of the 2020 default judgment in July 2021.

At oral arguments for the appeal on Wednesday, Zito argued that Kelly should be relieved from the default judgment under Section 2-1401 of the Illinois law code. This section allows a petitioner to be relieved of a judgment provided they can provide a "meritorious" defense showing the judgment was somehow defective. Zito claimed the extenuating circumstances in which the suit has thus far taken place — Kelly has difficulty reading, he was incarcerated during some of proceedings, the Covid-19 pandemic happened and he was also fighting simultaneous criminal suits — warranted 2-1401 relief.

"The court should have, in this case, used its equitable powers to not enforce the judgment by granting the petition," Zito said.

Appellate Judge Michael Hyman was almost immediately skeptical of this argument, particularly as it regarded Kelly's incarceration during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

"Following that logic, every case of somebody who was in the federal jail would be able to make that argument... If we came down and agreed with you, we'd be opening the floodgates to anybody who was incarcerated during the period of Covid actions closing the courts," Hyman said.

Zito responded by saying that may well be the case.

"I do think that, depending on certain factual circumstances... they may have that argument as well," he said.

Failing that, Zito also suggested that the case should be vacated and remanded so that it could be decided on the merits. Both judgments in the case had been defaults, meaning little substantive examination of Williams' claims had been examined.

"We felt that if the court were to reverse, that... would allow the court to hear the case on the merits. Adjudicate it on the merits instead of on a default judgment," Zito said.

Williams' attorney Jeff Deutschman, in his own arguments, claimed Kelly's attorneys were playing legal games to elide the fact that they and their client had multiple opportunities to address Williams' accusations substantively.

"Mr. Zito never asked for an evidentiary hearing. If he had asked for one, maybe the judge would have given him one. But he never asked for one," Deutschman said.

Following that logic, he went on to question if Kelly's attorneys even had standing to pursue 2-1401 relief.

"All you have to decide is whether there was a meritorious defense and whether they had due diligence, and they lacked both," Deutschman said.

All three of the appellate judges, which besides Hyman also included Judge Mary Ellen Coghlan, took the issue under advisement.

"You gave us a lot to think about," Hyman said. "You both did an excellent job with your oral arguments."

The judges did not say when they would issue a ruling.

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