Do You Need an Attorney To Sign Your Fill-in-the-Blank Form Complaint?

more+
less-

[author: Kirk Jenkins]

Tomorrow morning, the Illinois Supreme Court will file its opinion in Downtown Disposal Services, Inc. v. The City of Chicago [pdf]. Tonight we'll preview the case. Tomorrow we'll bring you our summary and analysis of the Court's opinion.

Downtown Disposal began when the City Department of Transportation issued the company four administrative violation notices in connection with City ordinances relating to dumpsters. When the company failed to appear for any of the scheduled hearings before the Department of Administrative Hearings, default judgments were entered. At a later hearing on the company's motion to set aside the defaults, the Administrative Law Officer told that company's president that "you" have a right to appeal the decision. Shortly thereafter, the president did so, signing and filing four fill-in-the-blank pro se complaints for administrative review.

But there was a problem: the president of the company wasn't an attorney. The City noticed the problem when the company moved for leave to file amended complaints signed by counsel. Did the president's signature invalidate the plaintiff's complaints for administrative review? The City moved to dismiss the company's complaints, arguing that since a corporation couldn't represent itself, the president's signatures rendered the proceeding void per se.

The company opposed the motion to dismiss, arguing that the nullity rule was not, in fact, per se. Filling in a fill-in-the-blank form hardly constituted rendering legal advice or doing anything requiring legal skill, the company argued. Besides, dismissal would violate the company's due process rights given that the preprinted form didn't say anything about an attorney's signature being required, and it was patently unfair to inform the company of its right to appeal without mentioning the attorney requirement.

And besides, the company added in a subsequent motion for summary judgment, as long as we're casting aspersions on the pleadings here, the City's complaints weren't signed by a lawyer either, so the administrative proceeding had been void from the beginning.

The trial court reluctantly granted the City's motion to dismiss, commenting that the law appeared to require that pleadings signed by a non-lawyer were automatically void, requiring dismissal. The court further held that the issue of the City's apparent incapacity to bring its complaint in the first place was a separate matter which required resolution in the administrative hearing (had there been one).

The Appellate Court unanimously reversed.

The Court began by clearing away the underbrush, rejecting several of the company's preliminary arguments. The City hadn't waived its argument by failing to point out that the president had represented the company before the Department of Administrative Hearings, since the company failed to identify any act the president took before the agency which amounted to unauthorized practice of law. Nor did the trial court consider new evidence in finding that the president was not a lawyer, in violation of the Administrative Review Law, 735 ILCS 5/3-110. The statute applied to a merits determination, and the court never made one. There was no basis for questioning the trial court's finding that filling in the blanks in a simple form complaint was the unauthorized practice of law, the court held.

The crux of the problem, the court found, was whether the rule that a pleading signed by a non-attorney was void required automatic or discretionary dismissal. The court recognized conflicting pronouncements on both sides of the question, but ultimately followed Applebaum v. Rush University Medical Center, where the Supreme Court held that dismissal was permitted rather than required, and only then when dismissal fulfilled the purposes of the rule, protecting the public and the integrity of the court system, and where no alternative remedy is possible.

Having decided that dismissal was not mandatory, the court ordered remand. The record suggested that the trial court likely would not have dismissed had it understood that it had discretion about the penalty, and the court concluded that the company had not acted unreasonably in believing that the president could sign the administrative review complaints. Furthermore, given that the City hadn't complained about the matter until the motions for leave to amend were filed, the court found itself unable to perceive any prejudice from the signatures on the administrative complaints. Accordingly, the court instructed the trial court to allow leave to amend.

The Supreme Court's decision in Downtown Disposal will be filed at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Join us back here for review and analysis.