In its sixth and final unanimous civil decision of the morning, the Illinois Supreme Court adopted a narrow construction of the exemption for public utilities provided under the Prevailing Wage Act. Reversing a decision of the Fourth District in The People of the State of Illinois ex rel. Illinois Department of Labor v. E.R.H. Enterprises, Inc., the Court held that a contractor who is largely responsible for the water facility and infrastructure in the Village of Bement (and various other towns around Illinois) is not an exempt “public utility” under the Act. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court rulings in E.R.H. Enterprises is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

The defendant has a five-year contract with the Village to perform certain duties in connection with the Village water system. Although the contract recognizes that the Village is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the facility and infrastructure, it states that the defendant “has agreed to fulfill all requirements set forth under the applicable laws and regulations for the operation of such facility.” For example, the defendant maintains the storm and sanitary sewer system, as well as repairing smaller water main breaks. The Village is responsible for “repairs of a greater magnitude” to the system, as well as the “maintenance, repair, upkeep and expense” of its water tower. The Village purchases parts and materials for water taps, but the defendant installs them. The defendant maintains fire hydrants, but the Village is responsible for replacing them when necessary.

In 2008, the Department of Labor sent a subpoena to the defendant’s attorney, seeking certain employment records related to the defendant’s repair of water main leaks on the Village’s behalf. The subpoena stated that the Department was attempting to determine whether the defendant was in compliance with the Prevailing Wage Act. Several months later, the Department filed its complaint seeking an order enforcing the subpoena. The defendant answered the complaint, taking the position that it was a “public utility company” under the Act, and therefore exempt from the requirement to pay prevailing wages. The circuit court entered an order in August 2010 holding that the defendant was not a public utility and the subpoena was therefore enforceable. In response to the defendant’s motion for reconsideration, the court entered an amended order in February 2011. The defendant moved once again for reconsideration, and the circuit court responded with a lengthy memorandum, addressing the defendant’s objections and further explaining its conclusions. The Appellate Court reversed, finding that the defendant was indeed a public utility and therefore exempt from the Act.

In an opinion by Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier, the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court. The Court began by noting a curious point: that there was no good evidence as to exactly why “public utilities” had been exempted from the Prevailing Wage Act in the first place. The Court noted that since the Act offers no definition of a public utility, the Appellate Court had imported the definition found in the Utilities Act. But the broad definition in that statute had a very specific purpose – to designate “a wide range of persons and entities” that would be subject to the regulatory jurisdiction of the Illinois Commerce Commission. Since it wasn’t clear why the exemption from the Prevailing Wage Act had been enacted, it was equally unclear whether it was appropriate to borrow the definition in the Utilities Act in construing its breadth.

Instead, the Court turned to Black’s Law Dictionary. The Court found Black’s definition of a “public utility” significant for two reasons: first, it specified that “most” utilities are subject to government regulation, and second, the Dictionary states that typically, the “utility” owns the facilities providing the public service. Neither of these conditions applied to the defendant, the Court found.

The Court noted that whatever the reason, public utilities had been exempt from the Prevailing Wage Act ever since it was enacted. In the original version of the Act, the exemption applied to work “done directly by any public utility company pursuant to order of the commerce commission or other public authority.” The italicized language had been removed in 1961, and the Court speculated that perhaps the legislature had concluded that any work done by a public utility, whether pursuant to a direct order by the commerce commission, would eventually be scrutinized by regulators as a result of a rate case.

The Court adopted the totality of the factors listed by the circuit court to conclude that the defendant is a contractor, not a public utility: (1) the Village retained ownership of the water facility and infrastructure; (2) the Village had been recognized by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for its compliance with the Fluoridation Act; (3) the Village has not contracted all of its responsibilities to the defendant; (4) the defendant does not directly charge the public for its services; and (5) the defendant is not directly regulated by any government agency. Since the public utility exemption did not apply, the Court held that the circuit court had properly enforced the subpoena.