Is the date on a business letter sufficient notice of service of an administrative decision to start the clock ticking on a party’s deadline to file for administrative review?  The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to decide that question, granting leave to appeal in Grimm v. Calica, a decision of the Second District Appellate Court.

In the summer of 2013, an Administrative Law Judge of the Department of Children and Family Services recommended that the Department not expunge an “indicated” child-abuse finding against the plaintiff.  Nine days later, the Department sent the plaintiff’s attorney its decision accepting the ALJ’s recommendation.  The decision was in the form of a business letter.  It apparently contained no formal certificate of service; it simply contained a heading with the words “certified mail,” below that the date, and then the address of plaintiff’s attorney.

The plaintiff filed a complaint for administrative review thirty-six days after the date on the letter.  Under Illinois law, a circuit court is vested with jurisdiction to consider a complaint for administrative review only if the plaintiff files within thirty-five days.  The court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss on timeliness grounds and subsequently reversed the Department’s decision on the merits.

The Second District affirmed that decision.  Due process prevented strict enforcement of the thirty-five day filing limit, the Court noted, when the agency had failed to fairly inform the potential plaintiff of its decision.  The plaintiff argued that the notice she received was too confusing and misleading to satisfy due process requirements.  The defendant responded that the date of mailing was clearly reflected in the heading of the letter, and further, the plaintiff could have determined the date of mailing by simply calling the Department.

The Court sided with the plaintiff, holding that the notice was “unnecessarily confusing.”  The date, the Court found, was in the traditional position for the date of a business letter.  There was nothing about it which clearly indicated that the date of the letter was also the date of mailing.  True, business letters are typically mailed within a day or two of the date on the letter, but after all, if the Department’s decision had been mailed even one day after the date on the letter, the plaintiff’s complaint was timely.  As for the option of calling the Department to determine service, the Court found “the idea of a service date that is known only to the one doing the serving to be troublingly counterintuitive.”

Ultimately, the administrative review process was one “in which a potential administrative-review plaintiff can afford few missteps,” the Court wrote.  Given that the Department could have removed all possible confusion “by a change as simple as stating the mailing date and stating that the mailing date was the service date,” the Court declined to strictly enforce the filing deadline on due process grounds.

The defendant did not challenge the Circuit Court’s decision on the merits holding that the underlying decision not to expunge was not supported by the evidence.  Since the complaint was timely, the decision of the Circuit Court was affirmed.

We expect Grimm to be decided this winter.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Mark Morgan (no changes)