The Illinois Administrative Review Law provides that a complaint for judicial review of an administrative decision must be filed within 35 days from the date that a copy of the decision to be reviewed was served upon an aggrieved party. In Grimm v. Calica, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the date in the heading of a business letter was not sufficient to constitute service for purposes of the statute. Our detailed summary of the underlying facts and lower court rulings is here.

Grimm began in 2012 when the Department of Children and Family Services investigated and indicated a finding of child abuse against the plaintiff. The plaintiff, a teacher, argued that the finding was incorrect and requested that it be expunged. In 2013, an administrative law judge conducted a hearing on the request, ultimately recommending that the plaintiff’s request be denied. The Department adopted the ALJ’s decision.

The Department announced its decision in a letter to the attorney who had represented the plaintiff at the hearing. There was no affidavit of service included with the letter, or even any unsworn representation as to whether it had been mailed on the day the letter was dated, or later.

The plaintiff filed her complaint for administrative review thirty-six days after the date of the letter. The Department moved to dismiss the complaint, alleging that it was untimely. The plaintiff countered that the statute required service on her, not on her attorney, and that the date on the business letter was not sufficient notice of service to satisfy due process. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss and reversed the decision on the merits.

The Department appealed the finding of timeliness. The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court, holding that the date on the business letter stated only the date of the letter, not necessarily the date of mailing. In an opinion by Justice Theis, the Supreme Court affirmed.

Before the Supreme Court, the Department argued that the plaintiff’s due process challenge failed because due process neither required that judicial review be available at all, or imposed any requirements on the Department about telling the plaintiff of the option, or the timing for exercising it. True, the Court said, but due process does require that the agency decision provide clear notice to affected parties. The majority applied the due process balancing test provided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Mathews v. Eldridge: (1) the magnitude of the private interest at stake; (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest and the probable value of additional safeguards; and (3) the potential burden on the government from additional procedures.

The private interest at stake was considerable, according to the majority – the plaintiff’s prospects for future employment as a teacher. Similarly, the risk of an erroneous deprivation was real. The majority agreed with the Appellate Court’s view that there was something counterintuitive about the notion that – if the date on the letter triggered the 35-day clock – notice was deemed given before it was received. Finally, the burden on the Department of making the situation perfectly clear by expressly stating the date of mailing was insignificant.

Justice Thomas dissented, joined by Chief Justice Karmeier. The dissenters argued that because judicial review of administrative decisions is not required by the due process clause, it follows that parties need not be told of the thirty-five day time limit to file their complaint, or how the thirty-five days is calculated. According to the dissenters, even if it was true that the date on the letter was the date of the decision rather than the date of mailing, there was a rebuttable presumption in the law that the date on an agency decision is the mailing date, and plaintiff offered nothing to challenge that presumption. The dissenters further noted that the plaintiff never testified that she was confused as to the correct service date – instead, it appeared that the one-day delay in filing was actually the result of plaintiff being unable to find a lawyer.

Ironically, the take-away from holdings like Grimm is limited as a practical matter. Lawyers should always default to initiating appellate proceedings at the earliest arguable deadline, since in many cases the untimely filing of the initiating document – a notice of appeal, petition for review, or administrative review complaint – can’t be fixed.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Mick Taylor (no changes).