Our reports on the civil arguments during last month’s term of the Illinois Supreme Court begin with Slepicka v. State of Illinois, a decision from the Fourth District which poses two important and closely related issues for administrative law: what is the proper venue when challenging an administrative agency’s decision, and what happens if the challenger gets it wrong? Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court rulings in Slepicka is here.

In January 2012, the defendant in Slepicka served plaintiff, a resident in its nursing home, with a notice of involuntary transfer or discharge on grounds of nonpayment. The plaintiff demanded a hearing from the Department of Public Health. An administrative law judge held both a prehearing conference and an administrative hearing at the nursing home in Cook County. 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 in Sangamon County – where the Department is – rather than in Cook County, where the prehearing conference and administrative hearing were. The defendant moved to dismiss or transfer for improper venue, but the Circuit Court denied the motion. The Circuit Court ultimately upheld the decision on the merits, but when it went up to the Fourth District, the Court reversed, holding that venue was improper, but the case should be transferred to Cook County rather than dismissed outright.

The plaintiff began by arguing that the venue provision of the Administrative Review law, 735 ILCS 5/3-104, is broadly written to encompass any county where any part of the proceeding or hearing was held. Counsel argued that when the Assistant Director retired to her office in Springfield to deliberate and write an opinion, that was part of the “proceeding” for purposes of the venue statute. Justice Burke asked whether, if venue isn’t a jurisdictional matter, the error had to be prejudicial to justify reversal. Counsel responded yes, but that the court had transferred the matter. Justice Burke asked what the prejudice was from the apparent error. Counsel answered that it was only the delay, and that one of the reasons to file in Sangamon County was to reduce delays. Chief Justice Garman asked whether counsel’s contention that the decision was written in Sangamon County was essential to his theory – if the hearing officer happened to be in another county when she mailed the decision, would venue be proper there? Counsel answered that Sangamon County is a relatively commonplace venue for administrative review cases. The Chief Justice asked whether mailing the decision is part of the process. Counsel answered yes, since the hearing officer’s office is in Sangamon County. Justice Burke pointed out that the hearing was in Palos Park, and counsel responded that the decision emanated from Springfield. Counsel concluded by arguing that his theory was consistent with the plain and ordinary meaning of the statute.

Counsel for the State followed. Counsel argued that the consequence of improper venue was not properly dismissal. Justice Thomas asked whether the State would argue that the Appellate Court should have addressed the merits after finding that venue was improper, and counsel answered yes. Counsel argued that it doesn’t serve judicial economy to allow a case to be heard to its conclusion first in the Circuit Court, then in the Appellate Court, and then have to start over again because of improper venue. The better course would be for a party to seek leave to appeal under Rule 306(a) or 308 and have the Appellate Court resolve the issue of venue then and there, while the action in the trial court is stayed. Some cases have multiple agency personnel involved, some in Chicago and others in Springfield, according to counsel – that made for an uncertain basis for venue. Retiring to an office and writing a decision is not conducting a proceeding within the meaning of the venue provision, according to counsel. Nevertheless, counsel concluded, the proper result would have been for the Appellate Court to determine venue and then proceed to the merits, resolving the case once and for all.

Counsel for the nursing home followed. Counsel argued that proper venue is jurisdictional in administrative review cases, and accordingly, the case had to be dismissed. Administrative proceedings are not subject to the Circuit Court’s original jurisdiction, counsel pointed out; several steps are set out by statute, and all must be strictly followed to confer jurisdiction. Therefore, the plaintiff’s failure to file in Cook County was fatal, since the Administrative Review law provides no remedy for improper venue. Justice Karmeier pointed out that the first sentence of Section 3-104 says that jurisdiction is vested “in the Circuit Court” – a specific Circuit Court is identified only with respect to venue. Counsel again reiterated that the statute provides no mechanism for correcting improper venue; rather, the statute specifically says that once the Circuit Court acquires jurisdiction, it must retain it. Justice Burke pointed out that the Code of Civil Procedure provides that actions are not dismissed for improper venue if a proper venue exists. Counsel answered that the Administrative Review law has no similar language. Justice Burke asked if any language in the law specifically barred transfer. Counsel responded that the closest was the requirement that the Court “shall have and retain” jurisdiction. Counsel argued that the plaintiff had made a strategic decision to file in Springfield, which it was now trying to retrospectively justify. If the location of the Department’s offices was sufficient grounds for venue, then the entire administrative review docket statewide would be heard in Sangamon County. Justice Thomas asked whether dismissal wasn’t a bit harsh, given that the statute isn’t exactly the epitome of clarity. Counsel answered that dismissal for jurisdictional faults is always a harsh remedy. Counsel again argued that filing in Springfield was a strategic decision, not a varying interpretation of the statute.

Counsel for the plaintiff argued in rebuttal that the Administrative Review law doesn’t stop at where the “hearing” took place – it refers to the “hearing or proceeding.” The statute is thus phrased about as broadly as it could be. According to counsel, if improper venue is grounds for dismissal, every proceeding would begin with skirmishes as to where the center of gravity of a proceeding was. Counsel argued that even if the venue was improper, the statute grants jurisdiction to “the Circuit Court” – not the Court of any particular county. Justice Thomas asked whether counsel was proposing in the alternative what the State had asked for – a decision on the merits even if venue was improper. Counsel answered no, that there is nothing to remand. The Court of Appeal vacated the Circuit Court decision, so if the case is moved to Cook County, it must start over.

We expect Slepicka to be decided in four to five months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Ulrich Joho (no changes).