Last week, in a case which had attracted nationwide interest in the workers' compensation bar, a divided Illinois Supreme Court extended the mailbox rule to the process of initiating judicial review of decisions of the Workers' Compensation Commission. Justice Robert R. Thomas wrote the opinion for the five-Justice majority in Gruszeczka v. The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, with Justice Charles E. Freeman dissenting for himself and Justice Anne M. Burke. Our detailed preview of the facts and lower court opinions in Gruszeczka is here. Our report on the oral argument is here. Watch the video of the oral argument here.
The claimant in Gruszeczka filed a claim for benefits in connection with an injury he allegedly suffered on the job in 2004. The arbitrator denied the claim, and the Commission unanimously affirmed.
In Illinois, judicial review of a decision of the Workers' Compensation Commission is initiated by filing a request for the issuance of summons and an attorney's affidavit of payment of the probable cost of the record with the Circuit Court clerk. The governing provision of the Act provides that a proceeding for judicial review must be "commenced" within 20 days of receipt of notice of the decision. 820 ILCS 305/19(f)(1). Counsel for the worker allegedly mailed the request and counsel affidavit fourteen days after receiving notice. But for whatever reason, it wasn't received in the court clerk's office until twenty-four days after notice. So -- which act "commenced" the proceeding -- mailing or receipt? A divided six-Justice panel of the Workers' Compensation Commission Division of the Appellate Court found that the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction over the administrative appeal, holding that since the issue was governed by a statute rather than a court rule, the courts had no authority to extend the mailbox rule to "commencing" judicial review.
The Supreme Court reversed. The court began by acknowledging that the usual presumption of jurisdiction in the Circuit Courts isn't available in workers' comp -- there, the steps set forth in the statutory had to be strictly adhered to in order to vest the Circuit Court with jurisdiction over the appeal. However, unlike the Appellate Court, the Supreme Court majority found the word "commence" in the statute ambiguous. The next step after the plain language, of course, is the legislative history. There was nothing in the legislative history suggesting an intent to apply the mailbox rule; but then again, there was nothing suggesting an intent to disallow it either.
So the Court turned to the earliest decisions applying the mailbox rule and contrasted them with cases refusing to apply the rule. The court concluded that the cases were explained by a simple distinction: when an act began an entirely new proceeding, the mailbox rule never applied. When it merely continued a proceeding, the mailbox rule did apply. That rule resolved the problem at hand: judicial review of a workers' compensation decision was clearly the continuation of an ongoing proceeding, not the beginning of a new one. So - particularly given that there was no issue of lack of notice of the claim, given that it had already passed through the arbitrator and the Commission -- there was no reason the mailbox rule couldn't apply, just as it did at the first step (appeal of the arbitrator's decision to the Commission) and third step (appeal from the Circuit Court to the Appellate Court) of the process. The fact that a statute governed the issue made no difference; the majority observed that courts had made no distinction between statutes and rules in determining when the rule did and didn't apply. The majority conceded that the legislature had not expressly imposed the mailbox rule in Section 19(f)(1), but observed that the legislature hadn't disallowed its application either.
The problem with the majority's analysis, Justice Freeman wrote, was that it entirely rested on cases which did not concern the Workers' Compensation Act. Although there were no cases under the Act directly on point, Justice Freeman discussed several cases applying the former requirement that a party exhibit proof of payment of the probable cost of the record within twenty days of receiving notice in order to vest the Circuit Court with jurisdiction over the appeal. Given that the courts had dismissed several appeals where this step was not timely completed, Justice Freeman concluded that judicial review of a Commission decision is commenced when the request for issuance of summons and attorney's affidavit is actually received and file-stamped by the clerk, and that the mailbox rule should therefore not apply.