This morning, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Schultz v. Performance Lighting, Inc. Schultz presented a question relating to domestic relations and child support cases: is a notice to withhold salary under the Income Withholding for Support Act invalid if it substantially – but not strictly – complies with the requirements of the Act? In an opinion by Justice Robert R. Thomas, the Court held that strict compliance was required for the notice to be effective.

The plaintiff and her former husband divorced in 2009. An order was entered requiring the ex-husband to pay $600 every two weeks in child support. The plaintiff served a notice to withhold income on the former husband’s employer as well as the ex-husband’s attorney, but the notice failed to comply with the Act in two respects: it included neither the ex-husband’s Social Security number nor the date on which the obligation terminated (plaintiff’s service only on the ex-husband’s attorney was insufficient as well).

The ex-husband left the defendant’s employ seven months after the notice to withhold was filed. Nevertheless, the plaintiff waited another eighteen months – almost exactly two years after the notice to withhold was filed – to sue the defendant. Plaintiff alleged that defendant had knowingly failed to pay the State Disbursement Unit the support due and sought an award of the statutory penalty of $100 per day for each day the payments were delinquent. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the omissions from the plaintiff’s notice to withhold rendered the notice ineffective. The circuit court agreed and granted the motion, and the Appellate Court affirmed.

The Supreme Court affirmed as well. A requirement of strict compliance was clear on the face of the statute, the Court found. The Act provided that the “income withholding notice shall: . . . (9) include the Social Security number of the obligor; and (10) include the date that withholding for current support terminates . . . and (11) contain the signature of the obligee . . . except that the failure to contain the signature of the obligee . . . shall not affect the validity of the income withholding notice.” The Court drew two conclusions from this language. First, the use of the word “shall” generally indicates a mandatory duty. Second, the legislature’s provision that omitting the obligee’s signature is not a fatal defect necessarily implied that omitting the other requirements was fatal.

The immunity clause of the Act further supported the Court’s view, the Court found. Section 35(c) of the Act provides that a payor who complies with a withholding notice “that is regular on its face” is immune from liability for its conduct. Since a notice which is missing some of the required information was not, in the Court’s view, “regular on its face,” what is the recipient of such a notice to do, if errors don’t render the notice invalid? If a faulty notice is binding, then the employer must choose between disregarding it and incurring the statutory penalty, or complying with it and risking liability to the ex-spouse (or any other aggrieved party). Such a patently unjust result was to be avoided, the Court concluded.

Although the proper interpretation of the Act was clear, the Court commented that it found the conduct of both sides in the dispute troubling. The defendant had apparently received the notice to withhold and never bothered to simply telephone the plaintiff’s attorney and make it clear that it regarded the notice as invalid (although the Court conceded that the statute as it existed at the time imposed no duty to do so). Nor did the plaintiff follow up on the matter when it became clear that the defendant wasn’t paying, instead “wait[ing] silently for nearly two years before filing the instant complaint.”

The Court concluded by noting that the statute has been significantly reformed since the events at issue. Effective in 2012, an obligee is required to notify the employer in writing when a payment is not received. The employer is then required to either explain its non-payment or make the payment with interest within a limited time. If the employer fails to do that, the statutory penalties – which are now capped – begin to accrue. The Court found that it was unnecessary to determine whether the 2012 amendments applied retroactively since the plaintiff had never given the employer written notice of its non-receipt of the payments, the essential prerequisite to triggering penalties.