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Supreme Court to Consider 'Mailbox Rule'

  • State: Illinois
Our preview of the civil cases to be heard by the Illinois Supreme Court during the upcoming January term concludes with Gruszeczka v. The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission. Gruszeczka poses an important question: Does the mailbox rule apply to initiating judicial review of decisions of the Workers' Compensation Commission?

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 unanimously affirmed. The claimant's attorney received a copy of the Commission's decision on April 20, 2009.

The claimant sought judicial review, which is initiated in Illinois workers' comp practice 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 claimant's request and affidavit were file stamped by the clerk on May 14, 2009, 24 days after receiving the decision.

The employer moved to dismiss, arguing that the action was filed more than 20 days after counsel received the decision. The claimant responded with an affidavit of his attorney's office clerk, who testified that she had mailed the request and counsel affidavit on May 4, 14 days after receiving the decision. The Circuit Court denied the motion to dismiss, but affirmed the Commission's decision on the merits.

A divided six-justice panel of the Workers' Compensation Commission Division of the Appellate Court reversed in part, finding that the Circuit Court lacked jurisdiction over the administrative appeal. 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).

The Court acknowledged that the Supreme Court had applied the mailbox rule to the filing of a notice of appeal from the circuit court to the Appellate Court in Harrisburg-Raleigh Airport Authority v. Dept. of Revenue. However, the majority read Harrisburg-Raleigh as a material change rather than a construction of a judicial rule. But the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court wasn't governed by judicial rule, it was governed by a statute that the Court had no authority to modify in order to align it with the drift of modern practice. The Legislature "certainly knows how to provide" for application of the mailbox rule when it chose to do so, the majority wrote, and the Legislature had not done so in Section 19(f)(1).

Justice Bruce D. Stewart dissented. Justice Stewart pointed out that the mailbox rule applied to the final step in a workers' comp appeal, the filing of a notice of appeal from the Circuit to the Appellate Court under Harrisburg-Raleigh, and to appeals from the arbitrator to the Commission under Norris v. Industrial Commission. According to Justice Stewart, the majority's attempt to distinguish Harrisburg-Raleigh was unavailing because the distinction between a statute and Court rule was without a difference, since Court rules are interpreted in Illinois pursuant to the same standards that govern statutes.

Justice William E. Holdridge and the author of Norris joined in Justice Stewart's dissent and filed his own separate dissent. Justice Holdridge concluded that how an action was "commenced" within the meaning of Section 19(f)(1) was ambiguous, and the term should have been interpreted consistently with the mailbox rule set forth in Harrisburg-Raleigh and Norris, as well as other contexts.

Gruszeczka will be argued during the 9:00 a.m. session of the Court on Thursday, Jan. 24.

Kirk Jenkins is a partner with the Sedgwick Law firm in Chicago whose practice focuses entirely on appeals. This column was reprinted with his permission from the firm's blog, The Appellate Strategist.

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