Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.
Honorable Lester A. Bonaguro, Judge Presiding.
PRESIDING JUSTICE McNULTY delivered the opinion of the court:
Plaintiff Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Inc. (CEDA), appeals from a circuit court order affirming a decision of the Board of Review of the State of Illinois Department of Employment Security (board of review). The board of review found that Annie Wells and Mary Henderson, employees in CEDA's Head Start program, were eligible to receive unemployment compensation benefits during the summer months when they do not receive compensation from CEDA, since the Head Start program does not qualify as an educational institution. We affirm.
Prior to the summer of 1986, Wells and Henderson, worked at the Head Start program throughout the entire year, without summer breaks. Due to a cut in federal funding, the program was changed to run from September through May. In the summer of 1987, Wells and Henderson filed claims for unemployment insurance for the 1summer months for which they were not working and not being paid by CEDA. The claims adjusters denied both Wells' and Henderson's claims for benefits based on section 612(B)(2) of the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act (ACT) (820 ILCS 405/612(B)(2)(West 1996)), which provides:
"2. An individual shall be ineligible for benefits on the basis of wages for service in employment in any capacity *** performed for an educational institution, *** during a period between two successive academic years or terms, if the individual performed such service in the first of such academic years or terms and there is a reasonable assurance that the individual will perform such service in the second of such academic years or terms." 820 ILCS 405/612(B)(2) (West 1996).
The claims adjusters determined that CEDA's Head Start program was an educational institution within the meaning of section 612(B)(2) and that Wells and Henderson were expected to return to work in the fall.
Both Wells and Henderson appealed to the appeals division of the Department of Employment Security. The referees in both cases determined that Wells and Henderson were not disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation benefits because CEDA was a social agency and not an educational institution. CEDA appealed the referees' decisions to the board of review and the board of review affirmed the referees' decisions.
CEDA filed suit seeking judicial review and reversal of the board of review's decisions. The circuit court ordered the cases remanded to the board of review for the development of a more detailed factual record. The circuit court ordered the board of review to render decisions on Wells' and Henderson's claims after conducting a consolidated hearing where evidence was presented concerning: (1) the daily program at CEDA's Head Start; (2) the program's licensing; (3) a reference to Head Start as an educational institution in Wells' application for benefits; (4) what Wells taught; (5) what Henderson supervised; (6) what the children learned; (7) the significance of a certificate in child development; and (8) CEDA's explanation of an earlier board of review decision addressing the definition of educational institution.
A hearing was held and the referee set aside the claims adjuster's decisions on the ground that CEDA's Head Start program was a social agency and was not an educational institution within the meaning of section 612(B)(2) of the Act because it was not under the supervision or control of any board of education or school authority. CEDA appealed this decision to the board of review and the board of review affirmed the referee's decision that Wells and Henderson are entitled to apply for unemployment benefits since CEDA's Head Start program was not an educational institution.
Wells then filed another claim for unemployment benefits and the claims adjuster determined that section 612(B)(2) of the Act did not disqualify Wells from receiving benefits. CEDA appealed and the referee affirmed the decision, and after an appeal to the board of review, the board of review also affirmed. CEDA then filed a complaint seeking judicial review of the board of review's decisions. The circuit court affirmed the board of review's decisions, finding that CEDA's Head Start Program was not an educational institution within the meaning of section 612(B)(2) of the ACT. CEDA appeals.
The findings and conclusions of the board on questions of fact are considered prima facie true and correct, and, therefore, a reviewing court's determination is limited to whether those findings are against the manifest weight of the evidence. Abrahamson v. Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, 153 Ill. 2d 76, 606 N.E.2d 1111 (1992); Jack Bradley, Inc. v. Department of Employment Security, 146 Ill. 2d 61, 585 N.E.2d 123 (1991). An administrative decision is not against the manifest weight of the evidence unless the opposite conclusion is clearly apparent. Abrahamson, 153 Ill. 2d at 88. The mere fact that an opposite conclusion is reasonable or that the reviewing court might have ruled differently does not justify reversal of the administrative findings. Abrahamson, 153 Ill. 2d at 88. If the record contains evidence supporting the agency's decision, it must be affirmed. Abrahamson, 153 Ill. 2d at 88.
Moreover, when courts review an agency's interpretation of a statute that the agency is empowered to administer, courts accord the agency's interpretation deference. Abrahamson, 153 Ill. 2d at 91. An agency's interpretation of a statute will be overturned only if it is clearly erroneous. Bailey & Associates, Inc. v. Department of Employment Security, 289 Ill. App. 3d 310, 316, 683 N.E.2d 1204 (1997).
The purpose of the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act is to provide compensation benefits to an unemployed individual in order to relieve economic distress caused by involuntary unemployment. Kelley v. Department of Labor, 160 Ill. App. 3d 958, 513 N.E.2d 988 (1987). The Act is to be liberally construed in favor of providing benefits. Jack Bradley, 146 Ill. 2d at 75.
The Act does not define educational institution and the issue of what constitutes an educational institution under section 612(B)(2) has not been addressed in Illinois. The term "educational institution" is, however, defined in Illinois Department of Employment Security administrative regulations. The benefit rules provide: "'Educational Institution' under section 211.1 or 211.2 of the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 48, pars. 321.1 and 321.2) has for its primary function the presentation of formal instruction and normally maintains a regular facility and curriculum and normally has a regularly enrolled body of pupils or students in attendance at the place where its educational activities are regularly carried on." 56 Ill. Adm. Code 2915.1 (1996).