February 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 2 • Page 12
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Removing hypertechnicality from administrative review
Proposed amendments to administrative law would allow lawyers to correct their minor procedural missteps and avoid costly damage to their clients.
At first glance, challenging an administrative ruling may seem very similar to appealing the ruling of a trial court. However, Illinois' Administrative Review Law contains procedural pitfalls that can doom a challenge before it even begins.
This is dangerous for both clients and their attorneys. The Illinois State Bar Association's Administrative Law Section Council has proposed amendments to the Administrative Procedure Act and the Administrative Review Law that would allow parties to correct their procedural missteps.
A harsh name game
As statutory and case law currently stand, an inadvertent failure to name all of the necessary parties in an administrative review action can be fatal. For a process that is akin to a civil appeal, this seems counterintuitive.
If parties to a lawsuit in an Illinois circuit court want the court's ruling reviewed, they file a direct appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court. On the other hand, parties to an administrative law ruling must file a separate action in an Illinois circuit court. Because a new action must be filed, inadvertent errors are much more likely. To make matters even more confusing, it is often difficult for parties seeking administrative review to know the identity and proper name of each necessary party.
For example, in 2007, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a ruling in Ultsch v. Ill. Municipal Retirement Fund, 226 Ill. 2d 169 (2007). In Ultsch, a member of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund was not allowed to preserve an action for administrative review because the only party named was the "Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund." The proper name of the entity that oversees the IMRF is the Board of Trustees of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. The Illinois Supreme Court held that the Administrative Review Law requires strict compliance and the case was dismissed.
Carl R. Draper, a partner at Feldman Wasser in Springfield, says that these "hypertechnical processes" are a serious risk for attorneys and their clients. "The process is so convoluted, you can have your case dismissed on a technicality." Draper points out that the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure has a misnomer section for mistakes made in civil pleadings that are identical to those in Ultsch.
In the wake of Ultsch, legislation was passed that was supposed to alleviate the problem. It provided that if the agency was properly named, litigants had 35 days to name any other necessary parties, he says. However, this has not been enough.
Last year, the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District, reviewed a case essentially identical to Ultsch. In Mannheim School Dist. No. 83 v. Teachers' Retirement System of Illinois, 2015 IL App (4th) 140531, the plaintiff named the Teacher's Retirement System of Illinois instead of its Board of Trustees. The Mannheim court held that, because the plaintiff failed to properly name the administrative agency, the claim must be dismissed.
Draper, who helped draft the proposed amendments, mentions that while the final decision in Mannheim was issued by an administrative law judge, the final order was contained in a cover letter attached to the ALJ's decision. The letterhead named the retirement system, not its board.
A proposed legislative fix
Draper believes there is a workable solution to this problem; the proposed amendments require that all final administrative orders name all of the necessary parties of record, as well as providing the proper name and address of the entity issuing the decision. This helps avoid inadvertent failures to comply with the Act.
The amendments go further than that. As long as the complaint is timely filed and the entity is served at the proper address, then the filing is proper even if the administrative entity is misnamed.
Draper emphasizes that the amendments do more than cure the issues raised by Ultsch and Mannheim. For example, another issue that has confounded parties seeking administrative review is that some agencies require certain steps be taken after the issuing of a final order. These conditions precedent, if not met, are also fatal to a claim.
The bill requires that the order state whether it is final and subject to the Act. It also requires that the order cite any rules that establish additional conditions precedent, helping the unwary avoid another potential trap. The bill also contains a provision that relaxes the strict construction of the current rules. This approach mirrors the Illinois Constitution's mandate of an orderly process for administrative review.
While this may seem like a niche issue, any attorney or individual that deals with administrative agencies is affected by the Act's hypertechnical review requirements, says Draper. Lawyers whose practice areas involve pensions, family law, disciplinary cases with professional licenses, public health, insurance, and the civil service commission will benefit from the bill. Individuals who want to challenge the City of Chicago's administrative law rulings also follow this process. The bill ensures that claims are decided on their merits, not procedural technicalities, Draper says.