Illinois Supreme Court to Debate Constitutionality of Labor Department Fines

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Tomorrow morning in Chicago, the Illinois Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Bartlow v. Costigan. Bartlow isa facial constitutional challenge to the system of administrative fines administered by the Illinois Department of Labor in connection with allegedly misclassifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees for purposes of minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. Our detailed summary of the facts and underlying court decisions in Bartlow is here.

The plaintiffs in Bartlow operate a roofing business which installs siding, windows, seamless gutters and roofs. In September 2008, the Labor Department sent the plaintiffs a “notice of investigation and request for documents,” stating that the department was investigating whether several individuals working with the plaintiffs had been misclassified. Eighteen months later, the Department sent the plaintiffs a “Notice of Preliminary Investigative Findings,” stating that a preliminary determination had been made that the plaintiffs had misclassified ten subcontractors. The notice said that the plaintiffs might be assessed a fine of $1.68 million, requested a response, and promised “a written decision informing the parties of the final determination in the matter.” When the plaintiffs were notified of a second investigation less than a month later, they sued the Department, seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, arguing that the Employee Classification Act and assorted regulations promulgated under it violated a variety of state and Federal constitutional provisions – largely on the grounds that it deprived persons of property without an opportunity for hearing. The plaintiffs lost at the trial court, and the Fifth District – with some apparent reluctance – affirmed.

The Appellate Court concluded that the Department functions solely as an investigator in connection with the Act, and accepted the Department’s view that a contractor could disregard a notice of a fine without suffering any consequences. The plaintiffs are likely to challenge that conclusion tomorrow by emphasizing the breadth and gravity of the steps available to the Department: a cease and desist order, orders to pay lost wages, salary and/or benefits, possible debarment from state contracts, and an administrative fine – here, for a considerable sum. The plaintiffs will likely argue that a party suffers a tangible deprivation when it receives a notice of such a fine from the Department, whether or not consequences can immediately flow from failing to pay. The plaintiffs also seem likely to point out the wide sweep of businesses which come under the classification of “construction” under the Act, and to emphasize the uncertainty that can be created by a Department finding.

The Department, on the other hand, is likely to argue that points which succeeded at the Appellate Court. The Department will heavily emphasize that the plaintiffs are making a facial constitutional challenge, the most difficult challenge to win: if there are any circumstances in which the statute is constitutional, the Department must prevail. The Department is also likely to point out that its finding of a violation is not considered a “final administrative determination” within the meaning of the Administrative Review Law; any finding of the Department has to be enforced through a complaint in court, where the Department has the burden of proof and its administrative findings are inadmissible. The Department will likely also point out the opportunities a contractor is given to respond in the course of an investigation, including a chance to present written information and (at the option of the Department), a fact-finding conference which the contractor’s lawyer is permitted to attend.

Bartlow should be decided within the next two to four months.