Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Whether Improper Venue in an Administrative Review Case Deprives the Circuit Court of Jurisdiction

Our previews of the new review grants from the Illinois Supreme Court’s January term continue with Slepicka v. State of Illinois, a case from the Fourth District of the Appellate Court. Slepicka poses a question of general importance for administrative law: what’s the proper venue for a petition for administrative review?

The plaintiff in Slepicka resides in a nursing home located in Cook County. In January 2012, the defendant served plaintiff with a notice of involuntary transfer or discharge on grounds of nonpayment. Plaintiff exercised her right to demand a hearing from the Department of Public Health. An administrative law judge from the Department held both a prehearing conference and an administrative hearing at the nursing home. Several months later, the ALJ issued a written decision recommending approval of the transfer/discharge. The assistant director of the Department confirmed the ALJ’s decision. The plaintiff filed a complaint seeking administrative review, but filed it in Sangamon County – where Department is – rather than in Cook County. The defendant moved to dismiss or in the alternative to transfer the matter to Cook County. The Circuit Court denied the motion, but ultimately upheld the Department’s decision. The Fourth District reversed.

The Administrative Review Law applies to any agency whose enabling Act expressly adopts the Law. The Nursing Home Care Act clearly does so, so decisions such as the one at issue in Slepicka are reviewed pursuant to the Administrative Review Law. The Illinois courts have long held that in order for a court to obtain subject matter jurisdiction over an agency action, the procedures set forth in the Administrative Review Law must be strictly followed.

So it sounds on the face of it as if filing in the wrong venue might deprive the court of jurisdiction. The problem is, that theory runs smack into Sections 2-104(a) and 2-106(b) of the Code of Civil Procedure, which expressly say that “no action” can be dismissed for improper venue when there’s a proper one available. The Fourth District held that because the Administrative Review Law doesn’t expressly state that improper venue is a fatal defect – where the Code of Civil Procedure expressly says it isn’t – the CCP prevails, and improper venue is grounds for transfer, not dismissal.

So was the venue in Slepicka improper? The statute says that a petition for judicial review may be filed in any of three places: (1) where “any part of the hearing or proceeding culminating in the decision of the administrative agency” was held; (2) where any part of the subject matter involved is situated; or (3) where any part of the transaction which gave rise to the proceedings is located. 735 ILCS 5/3-104.

The plaintiff argued that Sangamon County was a proper venue under (1) – the decision being reviewed came from the Assistant Director, and the Assistant Director’s decision had been issued from Springfield. The problem with that, the Appellate Court held, was that the statute didn’t say venue lies where the final decision is issued. It says venue lies where “any part of the hearing or proceeding culminating in the decision” was held. The only hearings in the case – the prehearing conference and the administrative hearing itself – were in Cook County. So the only permissible venue was Cook County. Accordingly, the Fourth District reversed and remanded with instructions that the matter be transferred to Cook County.

We expect Slepicka to be decided in six to eight months.

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