Argument Report: Will the Mailbox Rule Be Extended to Workers' Comp Administrative Review?

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The mailbox rule applies to filing an appeal from an arbitrator to the Workers Compensation Commission. Norris v. Industrial CommissionAnd it applies to filing an appeal from the Circuit Court's order on administrative review to the Appellate Court. Harrisburg-Raleigh Airport Authority v. Dept. of RevenueSo does it apply to the intermediate step - initiating an administrative review proceeding of the Commission's decision at the Circuit Court? Based on the oral argument last week before the Illinois Supreme Court in Gruszeczka v. The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, it appears that the Court will likely extend the mailbox rule to cover this intermediate step. Our preview of Gruszeczka is here. Watch the video of the oral argument here.

The claimant in Gruszeczka filed an application for adjustment of claim with the Commission, seeking workers' comp benefits in connection with an injury he allegedly sustained on the job in 2004. The arbitrator denied the claim, and the Commission affirmed.

Judicial review of a Commission decision is begun in Illinois by filing a request for issuance of summons and an attorney's affidavit of payment for the record with the Circuit Court clerk. The proceeding must be "commenced" within 20 days of receipt of notice of the decision. 820 ILCS 305/19(f)(1). The claimant's request and affidavit were mailed fourteen days after counsel received the decision, but file stamped by the clerk twenty-four days after receipt. So the filing was timely if the mailbox rule applied, and not if it didn't. The Circuit Court denied a motion to dismiss, but affirmed the Commission on the merits; the Workers' Compensation Commission Division of the Appellate Court reversed in part, finding that the filing was untimely and the Circuit Court therefore lacked jurisdiction.

Counsel for the claimant began by pointing out that the statute neither defines "commenced" nor says that documents have to be in the hands of the clerk on the twentieth day. Counsel argued that the courts had already applied the mailbox rule to the first step in the process - the appeal from arbitrator to Commission - and the last - from Circuit Court to Appellate Court, and it made no sense for the intermediate step to be handled differently. Justice Thomas noted that the Circuit Court action was technically a new case, but asked whether counsel argued it was akin to an appeal. Counsel responded that he didn't think it was a new case; the statute calls it a petition for review, and the standard of review is manifest weight of the evidence. Justice Thomas pointed out that the Circuit Court proceeding had a separate case number, and asked once again whether counsel's argument hinged on that not being a new action. Counsel responded that the new number was inconsequential: the case had already had five numbers in its progress to the Supreme Court. Counsel then argued that a reversal would be a matter of limited impact, not opening the floodgates to further loosening of filing standards, but Justice Karmeier wondered whether a reversal might necessarily impact other administrative review actions. Counsel conceded that it might. When Justice Karmeier asked whether the result might be different if review were initiated by a "complaint," rather than a request for issuance of summons. Counsel answered that the proceeding was an appeal regardless of what the pleading was called. Counsel insisted that having a "doughnut hole" with no mailbox rule in the middle of the progression from arbitrator to Appellate Court was irrational. Justice Karmeier asked counsel whether it was important how the Court characterized the Circuit Court decision in its opinion; counsel responded that calling the proceeding a "new action" was semantics. Justice Burke asked whether the Court should overrule Norris if it affirmed; counsel responded that an affirmance would necessarily call the previous cases into question. Only by reversing and applying the same rule to every step does everything make sense. Counsel concluded by arguing that both sides would benefit by applying the mailbox rule and giving counsel the full twenty days to prepare an appeal, given the number of steps which must be taken in a short time to initiate Circuit Court review.

Chief Justice Kilbride asked counsel for the employer to comment on opposing counsel's argument that reversal might benefit employers in future cases. Counsel agreed that a decision one way or the other would benefit both sides, but counsel said it was clear to him that the initiating documents must be in the Circuit clerk's hands in 20 days. Justice Garman asked why the legislature would be so strict in this limited instance when the mailbox rule applies in other instances. Counsel answered that there was nothing in the legislative history one way or the other, and speculated that perhaps the legislature wanted to discourage review filings at the Circuit Court. Justice Burke asked counsel whether the Circuit Court proceeding wasn't in substance an appeal from the Commission. Counsel responded that although in common parlance it might be so characterized, it was not technically an appeal. Counsel argued that an affirmance would not have to call earlier caselaw into question, and insisted that refusing to apply the mailbox rule gave parties certainty: that way, counsel could check with the clerk on the twenty-first day and know whether the case was over. Justice Thomas pointed out that the same argument could be made against application of the mailbox rule in every case. Counsel agreed that was so, but repeated his claim that refusing to apply the mailbox rule was simple and had the virtue of certainty.

In rebuttal, counsel for the employee asked again why the legislature would want to make the intermediate step in the process the hardest of all. Only one possible resolution, counsel insisted, would make sense and give workers' compensation practice predictability: reversal of the Appellate Court's decision and application of the mailbox rule to initiating the administrative review proceeding.