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Quick Takes on Illinois Supreme Court opinions issued Friday, Feb. 17

Leading appellate attorneys review the Illinois Supreme Court opinions handed down Friday, February 17. The cases are Stone Street Partners, LLC v. City of Chicago Dept. of Administrative HearingsWardwell v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.Grimm v. Calica, and, from the criminal docket, People v. Fort, People v. Ayres, and People v. Shinaul.


Stone Street Partners, LLC v. City of Chicago Dept. of Administrative Hearings

By Michael T. Reagan, Law Offices of Michael T. Reagan

In Stone Street Partners, LLC v. City of Chicago Dept. of Administrative Hearings, a limited scope Armageddon was expected to occur concerning a claim of unauthorized practice of law, but by a vote of 4 to 3 that battle was called off.  Stone Street Partners, LLC brought this action in the circuit court to obtain administrative review and other relief after discovering that a judgment had been recorded against one of its properties for failure to pay $1,050 in fines and costs imposed by Chicago’s department of administrative hearings for alleged violations of the city’s building code, such as installation of carbon monoxide detectors, removal of garbage and debris, and the installation of lighting and exit signage.

Notice of an administrative hearing in 1999 was not sent to the proper parties as mandated by the Chicago Municipal Code. However, a lay person appeared at the administrative hearing on behalf of the corporation.  That person was a caregiver for the elderly father of an attorney who was one of the members of Stone Street. Approximately 10 years after a finding adverse to Stone Street, the city recorded a judgment against the property. When Stone Street learned of that action, the city was contacted and asked to release the judgment and clear title to the property. Upon the city’s refusal, Stone Street sought relief from the city’s department of administrative hearings. That department declined to act, saying it no longer had jurisdiction.

Stone Street then brought suit in the circuit court, seeking administrative review of the motion to set aside the 1999 administrative judgment. Three additional counts were pled, for declaratory judgment (asserting among other contentions that the administrative judgment was the product of proceedings involving the unauthorized practice of law), for slander of title, and asserting that the administrative complaint was neither drafted nor prosecuted by a licensed attorney. The details of the proceedings matter, but they are so convoluted as to be beyond fair description in this short summary. A separate opinion in the appellate court offered the characterization that “[t]his case is, to be blunt, a civil procedure disaster.”

The appellate court concluded that Stone Street had not been afforded the necessary notice and opportunity to be heard prior to the entry of the administrative judgment. The appellate court further concluded that Stone Street could not be deemed to have waived its objection to proper notice based upon the non-attorney caregiver’s participation in the administrative hearing. The supreme court characterized the main reason for that last conclusion as being the appellate court’s reliance on the fact that the caregiver was not a licensed attorney, and its conclusion that nonattorneys cannot represent corporations at administrative hearings of the type involved here.

The grant of the city’s petition for leave to appeal, with the appellate court having denied the City’s request for the issuance of an SCR 316 Certificate of Importance, drew amicus briefs from the ISBA (supporting Stone Street) and the Attorney General, the American Automotive Association, and a group including the Society for Human Resource Management (supporting the city).

The city asserted error in the appellate court’s conclusion that the caregiver’s appearance did not operate as a waiver of the city’s failure to provide Stone Street with prior notice because the caregiver violated the prohibition against the unauthorized practice of law. The city also asked in the alternative that the supreme court invoke its authority to regulate the practice of law to hold that lay representation of corporations in administrative proceedings of this type was permissible.

The supreme court embarked on its analysis by agreeing with the city that the caregiver’s status was central to the liability of the claims asserted by Stone Street in one of the counts of the complaint. However, the court disagreed with the city as to the effect of that caregiver’s status. The majority stated that whether the caregiver’s representation violated the ban on the practice of law by laypersons was unnecessary to resolution of the case. The court stated that the caregiver “did not represent Stone Street in any capacity,” because there was no showing of any authorization to act, even if that caregiver had been an attorney. The court further held additionally that there was no indicia of apparent authority on the part of the caregiver and accordingly, that person’s participation in the proceedings could not constitute a waiver of inadequate notice. 

The court next concluded that compliance with the notice requirements was a jurisdictional prerequisite for the city department to have authority to hear the case. Because of the failure of proper notice, the department never had personal jurisdiction over Stone Street, and accordingly the 1999 administrative judgment was void ab initio.

Justice Freeman dissented at length, joined in his opinion by Justices Burke and Theis. While the entire reasoning of the dissent cannot be recounted here, the principal ground was that the dissenters were of the opinion that the court should have decided the unauthorized practice of law issue and then decided that the representation of a corporation in this type of proceedings does not constitute the practice of law. The dissent stated that the hearing at issue did not require a “trained legal mind.” The court distinguished the type of legal work in Downtown Disposal Services, Inc. v. City of Chicago, 2012 IL 112040, which involved the filing of a complaint for administrative review in the circuit court, from the introduction of several exhibits in this case.

In many years, the supreme court decides a case or two which have in common with Stone Street a principal issue which was not reached. In most of those other cases, the separate opinions in the case identify the issue for which the court took the case and then express disappointment that the issue was not reached. Here, Justice Freeman wrote that “We granted the City’s petition for leave to appeal in this case to address the appellate court’s holding and the conflict it created regarding the representation of corporations in administrative proceedings.” The dissent further stated that the unauthorized practice of law issue was squarely before the supreme court, was adjudicated in the appellate court, and had been fully briefed in the supreme court. “Not only is it appropriate for this court to address, it is advisable.” The dissent said that the court will have to “revisit (the issue) in the future.” It is likely that the numerous briefs of amici here will be repurposed in the future.

Wardwell v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde Law Offices LLP

In a negligence action brought under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (2006)) (“FELA”), an injured railroad worker can recover 100 percent of his damages from the railroad if its negligence caused any part of the worker’s injury, no matter how slight. This case presents the issue of whether the railroad is barred from arguing to the jury that a third party was the only person whose negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries when the plaintiff presents slight evidence to create a fact question on whether the railroad was a cause of the plaintiff’s injury. The Illinois Supreme Court held that a railroad was not barred and could present a sole-cause defense.

The plaintiff, a railroad worker, was being transported in a van driven by the railroad’s agent when the van was rear-ended by a vehicle operated by an intoxicated  driver who admitted she had “blacked out” or had fallen asleep immediately prior the collision. The plaintiff put forth evidence that the driver of the van failed to check the rearview mirror and to check her blind spot before changing lanes. Questions of fact existed as to how long the van was in the right lane before the collision occurred and whether the van driver had cut in front of the other driver to be a cause of the collision.

The trial court allowed the jury to consider the railroad’s defense that the intoxicated driver was the sole cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, and the jury returned a verdict for the railroad. The appellate court, in 2-1 decision, reversed, holding that when there is any evidence of causation by the railroad in a FELA action, the railroad is barred from presenting a sole-cause defense. The dissent disagreed, stating that the majority misread key federal cases and eviscerated the causation standard in FELA.

Explaining that the causation test in FELA cases requires the railroad’s negligence to have played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury, the Illinois Supreme Court reasoned that a jury could not make that factual determination if not allowed to consider all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, including whether another party’s negligent conduct was the only negligent conduct that caused the injury. The court found that to deny the railroad the right to present a sole-cause defense would be inconsistent with case law (e.g., Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R. Co., 325 U.S. 500, 504-05 (1957)) that prohibits a FELA plaintiff from recovering if his own negligence was the sole cause of his injury.

In a special concurrence, Justice Kilbride addressed the jury instruction on the standard for causation given by the circuit court, which the majority upheld. While agreeing that the jury instruction was accurate in requiring the defendant’s negligence to be “a cause of [the] injury in whole or in part to the plaintiff,” Justice Kilbride advocated for an instruction that tracks with the language in Rogers – that the plaintiff may recover if the railroad’s negligence played any part, even the slightest, in bringing about the injury.

Grimm v. Calica

By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde Law Offices LLP

When the date of service of a final administrative decision is unclear to the recipient, does the circuit court have authority on due process grounds to review that decision even though the complaint for administrative review is filed beyond the 35-day jurisdictional filing period set forth in the Administrative Review Law (735 ILCS 5/3-103 (West 2010))? The Illinois Supreme Court held that the circuit court had jurisdiction, with two justices dissenting. 

On July 30, 2013, Richard Calica, the director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, denied Christine Grimm’s request to expunge an “indicated” child-abuse finding that impacted her ability to be employed as a teacher. The denial was made in a letter with a heading of “certified mail” and the date of July 30, 2013. Grimm filed a complaint for administrative review on September 4, 2013, which was the 36th day after July 30, 2013. The Director moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely.

The circuit court denied the motion to dismiss in the “interests of justice,” and the appellate court affirmed, but on due process grounds, holding that the director’s decision letter did not apprise Grimm that her 35 days to file for administrative review began to run on July 30, 2013. The supreme court held there was no constitutional duty to inform a party affected by an administrative decision of the statutory right to seek judicial review or of the jurisdictional window in which to exercise that right, but if the agency undertook that task it could not do so in a misleading manner.

In determining whether the director’s letter was fair and adequate on due process grounds, the court applied the three-factor balancing test set forth in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976). It found that: (1) Grimm had a private interest that would be affected by the DCFS’s official conduct – her interest in employment as a public school teacher; (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest was present; and (3) the value of the substitute procedure of telling her that the date on the letter was both the mailing date and the service date was obvious in comparison to the insignificant burden on DCFS to change the boilerplate language in the letter. Balancing these factors, the court held that Grimm did not receive the process she was due because the decision letter was confusing as to the mailing date and, thus, her failure to timely file her complaint for judicial review did not deprive the trial court of jurisdiction.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas, joined by Chief Justice Karmeier, found that this case could have been summarily dismissed simply on the ground that Grimm failed to strictly comply with the procedures set forth in the Review Law and, thus, the circuit court lacked the special statutory jurisdiction created by that Law. Citing Carver v. Nall, 186 Ill. 2d 554, 563 (1999), the dissent stated that the due process clause does not require judicial review of administrative decisions, nor does it require notice of the right to seek judicial review or notice of the 35-day time limit for seeking that review.  According to the dissent, Grimm obtained her due process rights when she was notified of the administrative finding, sought an administrative appeal, participated in a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) and received a final administrative decision by the director adopting the ALJ’s recommendation. That decision was clear as to its merits and, although not required, notified Grimm of her right to seek judicial review, tracking the language in section 3-103 of the Review Law. 

The dissent disagreed with the majority’s reliance on Mathews, stating that the test in that case was designed to ensure that a party receives the minimum amount of process necessary to satisfy the due process clause. Here, the notice at issue is not required by the due process clause and Grimm already received due process. The dissent predicted that the majority’s employment of the Mathews test and its balancing of a party’s substantial interest in her employment against the burden on DCFS to rewrite its notice will lead to the requirement that the government provide the maximum information possible to spell out a party’s legal rights and to guarantee that a party is not confused about the law.


People v. Fort

By Jay Wiegman, Office of the State Appellate Defender

The Juvenile Court Act prohibits a juvenile from being prosecuted as an adult except where certain charges and “all other charges arising out of the same incident” are involved. Once a charge is brought in the criminal courts, a minor who is found guilty of the transferrable charge may be sentenced as an adult. Conversely, if after a plea or a trial the court finds that the minor committed an offense that is not subject to automatic transfer, then the defendant minor must be sentenced under the Juvenile Court Act, unless the state requests a hearing to sentence the minor as an adult. At issue in People v. Fort, 2017 IL 118966, was whether a minor who was tried in adult court on charges subject to automatic transfer but who was convicted on different, non-transferrable charges is subject to mandatory adult sentencing.

In 2009, then 16-year-old Cameron Fort was charged with first degree murder, attempted first degree murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm. Because one of the charges was first degree murder, an offense specified in the “automatic transfer” provision of the Juvenile Court Act, Fort was tried as an adult. Ultimately, Fort was convicted of second degree murder, meaning that the state had met the burden of proving the defendant guilty of first degree murder but that the trier of fact considered the offense to have been mitigated. Sentencing proceeded as if the defendant were an adult, and the defendant was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment.

On direct appeal, the defendant argued, among other things, that he should not have been sentenced as an adult because second degree murder was not subject to automatic transfer. The appellate court held that a minor charged with first degree murder but convicted of second degree murder is subject to mandatory adult sentencing.

A sharply divided supreme court reversed. Writing for the majority, Justice Burke noted that the offense of second degree murder is not subject to automatic transfer. The majority then determined that second degree murder does not arise out of first degree murder. The minor’s trial was proper because a minor may be tried on all counts arising out of the same incident, but “the same logic does not apply to sentencing when a defendant is not convicted of the charges that brought him into adult court and ultimately convicted of a less serious, uncharged offense.” Fort, 2017 IL 118966, ¶29. As a result, Fort should have been sentenced as a juvenile. The matter was remanded to the circuit court to afford the state an opportunity to petition for a hearing for adult sentencing, if the state so chooses.

In dissent, Chief Justice Karmeier, joined by Justices Thomas and Kilbride, determined that “a charge of second degree murder is incorporated into every charge of first degree murder” because the elements are the same; a defendant convicted of second degree murder has been proved guilty of each element of first degree murder, but has additionally been able to prove a mitigating factor. Fort, 2017 IL 118966, ¶46 (Karmeier, Chief Justice, dissenting). Thus, the dissent concluded that Fort was convicted of a charge arising out of the automatic transfer provisions of the Juvenile Court Act.

People v. Ayres

By Jay Wiegman, Office of the State Appellate Defender

In People v. Ayres, 2017 IL 120071, the Illinois Supreme Court addressed a split of authority, in which some appellate courts have held that a bare claim that trial counsel in a criminal case is ineffective is sufficient to trigger an inquiry into the defendant’s claims under People v. Krankel, 102 Ill.2d 181 (1984), while others have held that a defendant must meet minimal requirements by asserting supporting facts or claims. In Ayres, the defendant filed a pro se petition to withdraw guilty plea and vacate sentence in which he alleged “ineffective assistance of counsel.” Ayres, 2017 IL 120071, ¶ 6. In a 4-3 decision, the supreme court held: “when a defendant brings a clear claim asserting ineffective assistance of counsel, either orally or in writing, this is sufficient to trigger the trial court’s duty to conduct a Krankel inquiry.” Ayres, 2017 IL 120071, ¶ 18.

Justice Thomas, joined by Chief Justice Karmeier and Justice Garman, dissented. The dissent considered the majority’s conclusion to be contrary to the weight of authority. The dissent also expressed concern that trial judges will need to carefully scrutinize pro se submissions for complaints about counsel.

People v. Shinaul

By Jay Wiegman, Office of the State Appellate Defender

In People v. Shinaul, 2017 IL 120162, the Illinois Supreme Court considered whether, following a successful collateral attack on a conviction, the state can reinstate the charges that were nol-prossed as part of the plea agreement entered into with the defendant.

Shinaul was charged with 8 counts of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm. In exchange for his plea of guilty to one Class 4 count of AUUW, the state agree to nolle prossequi the remaining charges. The defendant was sentenced to a two-year term of probation, which he successfully completed.

In 2013, the supreme court held that the offense to which the defendant had pled guilty was unconstitutional in People v. Aguilar, 2013 IL 112116. Shinaul then filed a 2-1401 petition in which he sought to vacate his conviction. In response, the state sought to re-instate the charges that had been nol-prossed. The circuit court granted the defendant’s motion and denied the state’s. On appeal by the state, the appellate court determined it lacked jurisdiction to hear the cause because the state’s request to reinstate charges was not a final and appealable order.

Thus, the threshold question for the supreme court was whether the appellate court erred in dismissing the state’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Writing for a 6-1 majority, Chief Justice Karmeier held that it had. The court considered the state’s motion to re-instate charges to be similar to a counterclaim that became pertinent to the outcome of the judgment once the circuit court granted the relief sought by the defendant. When the circuit court denied the state’s motion, the matter became final and appealable.

The court then addressed whether charges that had been nol-prossed could be reinstated, and determined that they could not. Chief Justice Karmeier noted that the defendant had essentially pled guilty to something that was never a crime. People v. Shinaul, 2017 IL 120162, ¶ 14. When the circuit court vacated the judgment, the case returned to the status in which it had been before the judgment was entered. Shinaul, 2017 IL 120162, ¶ 14. While further proceedings might be in order in many circumstances, further proceedings were inappropriate in this case because the statute of limitations had run. Shinaul, 2017 IL 120162, ¶ 15.

In dissent, Justice Theis disagreed with the majority’s holding that the statute of limitations serves as an absolute bar to the state’s motion to reinstate charges that were nol-prossed as part of a plea-agreement. In Justice Theis’ view, the issue was whether the state’s obligation to dismiss certain charges under the negotiated plea agreement was discharged when the defendant successfully vacated his conviction. Shinaul, 2017 IL 120162, ¶ 32, (Theis, J., dissenting). In the dissent’s view, the state’s unilateral dismissal of the charges left it in the same position as when the  prosecution began; given that the circuit court’s vacatur of the defendant’s conviction restored the parties to the positions they were in after the charges were filed but before entry of the plea agreement, the defendant could not claim that statute of limitations had expired. Shinaul, 2017 IL 120162, ¶ 40, (Theis, J., dissenting).

Posted on February 19, 2017 by Mark S. Mathewson
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Member Comments (1)

Thank you! Clear and concise coverage. Keep them coming.