Jackie Robinson West Little League attorney Victor P. Henderson makes reference to Little League International’s rule book during a news conference last month. Henderson has filed a petition for limited discovery in Cook County Circuit Court hoping to gather information from Little League on how and why it stripped the team of its 2014 national title.
Jackie Robinson West Little League attorney Victor P. Henderson makes reference to Little League International’s rule book during a news conference last month. Henderson has filed a petition for limited discovery in Cook County Circuit Court hoping to gather information from Little League on how and why it stripped the team of its 2014 national title. — AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Jackie Robinson West Little League has not sued Little League International — yet.

When Victor P. Henderson of Henderson, Adam LLC held a press conference last month to announce legal action his firm is taking on behalf of the Little League players whose U.S. title was revoked, he released a petition filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

The front page of the Law Division filing reads “Jackie Robinson West Little League, Inc., v. Little League International and State of Illinois,” just like a complaint.

The notable difference is that the parties are not cited as plaintiff and defendant, but rather as petitioner and respondent.

That’s because Henderson filed a petition pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 224, a tool used before filing a lawsuit to determine the identity of any parties who may be liable.

Why use 224?

“Because it’s going to lead me to the information, that I need, to decide how to move further,” Henderson said.

Created in 1989, the rule is meant for limited discovery, not for so-called fishing expeditions.

It is seen most frequently in personal-injury matters and medical-malpractice cases. It’s also used in cases involving defamation from anonymous Internet posters.

The idea is that if you know you’ve been wronged but you are missing crucial information that will allow you to accurately sue a wrongdoer, filing a 224 petition can help.

This usually means getting names of people who fall under a vague umbrella of wrongdoing, like when you know the hospital that harmed your client but not the specific doctors, nurses or other staff members.

It can also mean asking for entities — such as records or videos — that will provide you with more information that can narrow the defendants for your eventual suit.

“I do think that it is a very underutilized method in all litigation,” said plaintiff attorney G. Grant Dixon III, adding that the purpose of the rule is to reduce litigation because the Rule 224 petition may reveal insufficient grounds for a suit.

Dixon, who runs the Dixon Law Office in La Grange, said he uses Rule 224 petitions once or twice a year. He last used it in a nursing home abuse case in which he needed the names of all personnel involved in his client’s alleged abuse — some of whom are not nursing home employees and hence do not appear in the nursing home’s records.

“You have to have some fairly specific things you’re looking for, and I think that’s one of the biggest challenges of the 224 petition,” Dixon said.

“By definition, you don’t know what’s out there. But you have to ask for it.”

After asking, the petition must survive a motion to dismiss.

“If you don’t allege enough facts to show that at least there’s an allegation of facts to support a claim, then the court can dismiss it,” said William T. McGrath of Davis, McGrath LLC.

What the 224 seeks

According to Jackie Robinson West’s petition, the organization has tried since February “to learn what information Little League used to reach its decision” to strip the team of the 2014 U.S. Little League World Series title.

In last summer’s nationally celebrated run to the championship, the South Side squad became the first all-black team to win the U.S. Little League World Series.

The boys were the city’s bright spot in a summer dominated by headlines of gun violence. They were the main sports story in town.

The city honored them with a parade. They were media celebrities. They met President Barack Obama.

Then in September, a month after the team won the U.S. title and lost the world title to South Korea, a coach from Evergreen Park contacted Little League International alleging that some Jackie Robinson West players violated residency rules.

Henderson’s petition includes e-mail exchanges between representatives from Jackie Robinson West and Little League, including one from Sept. 18, in which Little League officials tell Jackie Robinson West that two of the 13 players live outside the required boundaries.

Some of this information, the petition alleges, was obtained “improperly and even illegally” from Illinois State Police vehicle registration data and forwarded to Little League.

These residency questions went public in December in a news report by DNAinfo. In February, Little League stripped the team of its title.

That same month, Jackie Robinson West hired Henderson.

“I wanted the documents they looked at in order to reach their decision,” Henderson said. “I wanted to see the justification for their decision on behalf of Jackie Robinson West.”

Specifically, Henderson’s petition asks for information on four general groups of people, many that overlap:

  • Those involved in the initial investigation in September 2014
  • Those involved in the subsequent investigations in December 2014
  • Those involved in the decision to rescind the championship
  • Any members of the Illinois State Police “who obtained information about JRW team parents” along with “the identity of Illinois State Police personnel who provided information to anyone, including (Evergreen Park coach) Chris Janes, about JRW team parents.”

The petition alleges Little League had all the players’ residency information and boundary maps before the start of the playoff tournament and allowed the team to play.

“So,” the petition says, “in this case one of three things must have happened: first, Little League failed to review the information submitted by JRW; or, two, Little League reviewed the information submitted at the tournament and determined that there were no ineligible players; or, three, Little League determined that there were ineligible players and allowed the team to play anyway.”

Henderson’s petition cites a written correspondence between JRW and Little League from Feb. 17 to April 9 in which Jackie Robinson West requested the information the team seeks via Rule 224.

“That’s a perfect example of this 224 petition and what I’m trying to find out,” Henderson said, adding that he wants to know “who’s involved so I can get names and file suit.”

Little League International is represented in this case by Chicago attorney Scott T. Schutte of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Thomas Marshall of McNerney, Page, Vanderlin & Hall in Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League headquarters.

Schutte declined to comment, and Marshall could not be reached.

An Illinois State Police spokesman also declined to comment.

“From my perspective, if they were completely confident in their decision-making process, there would be no reason not to be transparent,” Henderson said. “And they’ve been anything but.”

‘Unique’ circumstances

Several plaintiff attorneys well-versed in Rule 224 described Henderson’s use of the rule in this case as unusual compared to other uses of the rule — but not unfounded.

Larry R. Rogers Jr. of Power, Rogers & Smith P.C. called the 224 “an appropriate tool given the league’s unwillingness to release information” that could reveal the parties to be held liable.

“The circumstances surrounding what happened to the team are unique in and of themselves,” Rogers said. “I think it is precisely the type of situation that lends itself to use of a Rule 224 petition, as opposed to just filing a suit without the detail and specifics.”

Bruce R. Pfaff of Pfaff, Gill & Ports Ltd. described the use as “unusual” but added that Henderson “has earned a very good legal reputation.”

“But the rule itself talks about discovery to help ascertain who might be responsible in damages,” Pfaff said.

“Having a Little League title taken away — that’s not the traditional damages that personal-injury and wrongful-death attorneys like me think of.”

Henderson won’t say what tort he would cite or anything more specific about the nature of a potential lawsuit filed against Little League.

He only added that regardless of the rules of any particular private entity, “there still has to be an element of due process.”

By filing the 224, Henderson hopes to jump-start that process. The next step will be for a Cook County judge to decide the merit of the petition; it has not yet been assigned to a courtroom.

If it is approved, Henderson can enter limited discovery for the information he seeks and make a decision on whether or not to sue.

“My expectation is that Little League will answer the questions,” Henderson said.

“They are straight-forward questions with presumably simple answers. Why would they not want to tell the truth?