A unanimous Illinois Supreme Court recently decided Slepicka v. The Illinois Department of Public HealthThe Court defined proper venue for an action under state law for judicial review of an administrative decision, and rejected a claim that improper venue was a jurisdictional defect necessitating dismissal. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court opinions in Slepicka is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

Slepicka arose from a nursing home’s notice of involuntary transfer or discharge, sent to a resident based upon nonpayment. The plaintiff exercised her right to an administrative hearing, and the hearing was conducted at the defendant nursing home in Cook County. Some time later, an administrative decision approving the transfer or discharge was issued from the Department’s office in Springfield. The plaintiff filed a complaint for administrative review in the Circuit Court for Sangamon County – where Springfield is – rather than in Cook County. The Circuit Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss for improper venue, but ultimately upheld the transfer/discharge order. On appeal, the Appellate Court held that Sangamon County was not a proper venue, but that the defect was not jurisdictional. The Court transferred the matter to Cook County Circuit Court for a do-over.

In an opinion by Justice Freeman, the Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part. The Court noted that complaints for judicial review under the Administrative Review Law must be filed in the Circuit Court for the county where: (1) “any part of the hearing or proceeding culminating in the administrative decision was held,” (2) any part of the subject matter involved is situated, or (3) any part of the transaction which gave rise to the proceedings occurred. The second and third factor clearly pointed towards Cook County. The plaintiff argued that venue was proper in Sangamon County under the first test because “part of the hearing or proceeding” – the final decision – had been reached in Sangamon County.

The Court disagreed. Carefully parsing the language of the statute using the settled rules of statutory construction, the Court concluded that the writing and mailing of the administrative decision did not constitute “part of the hearing or proceeding.” In addition, the Court noted that acceptance of the plaintiff’s argument could easily lead to forum shopping, since venue could vest in a particular county based on purely ministerial acts such as mailing an administrative decision.

The Court then addressed the question of what impact the improper venue should have on the case. The defendant argued that because administrative review is performed pursuant to special statutory jurisdiction – and strict compliance with the statutory rules is required – improper venue was a jurisdictional defect. The Court disagreed. The Court noted Section 2-104(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure provides that improper venue is never grounds for dismissal, and nothing in the Administrative Review Law exempts proceedings under that statute from Section 2-104(a). The Court noted that it had decided nearly fifty years ago, in Merit Chevrolet, Inc. v. Department of Revenue, that administrative actions could be transferred on grounds of improper venue.

Ultimately – and not surprisingly – the Court reached a pragmatic result. Although the Sangamon County Circuit Court would have been justified in immediately transferring the matter to Cook County, that did not mean that the Court lacked jurisdiction to proceed. Since the Sangamon County court had reached a decision, appeal at the Appellate Court was a matter of right, and the Appellate Court should have reached the merits. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the transfer order and remanded the matter to the Appellate Court for review of the merits of the Department’s decision.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Brad Clinesmith (no changes).