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Consolidated Freightways Corp. v. Human Rights Commission

June 09, 1999


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 96 CH 10798 Honorable Aaron Jaffe Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Cahill

We review the dismissal of a complaint for injunctive relief that seeks to compel the Illinois Human Rights Commission (Commission) and the Department of Human Rights (the Department) to honor a settlement agreement between plaintiff and one of its employees. The complaint further seeks to enjoin the Commission and the Department from further consideration of the charges filed with the Department by the employee. The Commission and the Department filed a motion to dismiss under section 2-619(a)(1) of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, alleging that plaintiff, Consolidated Freightways Corporation (Consolidated), failed to exhaust administrative remedies. 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(1) (West 1996). We agree and affirm.

The facts are undisputed. Consolidated employee Ronald E. Sessler was involved in a dispute with a fellow employee. Sessler filed a discrimination charge against Consolidated with the Department of Human Rights. Sessler alleged sexual harassment by the fellow employee and charged that Consolidated failed to take remedial action, violating the Human Rights Act. 775 ILCS 1/1-101 et seq. (West 1996). Sessler later abandoned the charge against his fellow employee in the course of settlement Discussions.

The Department held a fact-finding conference. Consolidated signed a settlement agreement with Sessler on February 7, 1996. The Department approved the settlement agreement and submitted it to the Human Rights Commission for approval on February 16, 1996.

Sessler sent a letter to the Department on February 29, 1996, before the Commission acted on the settlement. He alleged that he signed the agreement under duress. The Department responded by withdrawing the agreement from Commission consideration. The file was then returned to an investigator for further investigation.

Consolidated did not learn of these developments until June 10, 1996. Consolidated immediately objected to further proceedings. In response, the Department retendered the agreement to the Commission, along with Sessler's claim that he had signed under duress. The Commission rejected the agreement in an order dated September 6, 1996, and remanded the matter to the Department for further proceedings.

Consolidated responded by filing the complaint that is the subject of this appeal. Consolidated argues that we must reverse the trial court because: (1) Consolidated is not required to exhaust administrative remedies in this case; and (2) this case is analogous to On-Line Financial Services, Inc v. Department of Human Rights, 228 Ill. App. 3d 99, 103, 592 N.E.2d 509 (1992), where we held that the exhaustion doctrine does not apply where the challenge is to an agency's authority to act. Consolidated claims that the Commission exceeded its authority when it remanded the matter after the settlement agreement was signed. Consolidated also argues that seeking further administrative review would be futile and would cause irreparable harm.

Defendants respond, as they did in the trial court, that the complaint does not plead facts to show the Commission exceeded its authority. Defendants maintain the complaint is an attack on the discretionary authority of the Commission to reject a settlement agreement under certain conditions. They go on to argue, for the first time on appeal, that the Human Rights Act vests exclusive authority to review a decision of the Commission in the appellate court under Supreme Court Rule 335. 134 Ill. 2d R. 335. This latter argument introduces a jurisdictional wrinkle into an otherwise straightforward case. Since we must always examine our jurisdiction, we address this issue first.

The parties to this appeal agree that the order of the Commission was interlocutory. Before January 1, 1996, section 8-111(A)(1) of the Human Rights Act only allowed for direct review of final orders of the Commission by this court. 775 ILCS 1/8-111(A)(1) (West 1996). A pair of amendments to the Act, effective January 1, 1996, created a procedure analogous to Supreme Court Rule 308. We may now review questions of law certified by the Commission. But as Consolidated points out in its reply brief, the amendments were prospective only and could not apply to Sessler's charges filed in 1995, even if the Commission had certified the question.

Under the circumstances of this case, Consolidated argues, a party aggrieved by an interlocutory order of an administrative agency must seek relief in the circuit court if it believes the agency exceeded its authority, the party will suffer irreparable harm, or further pursuit of administrative relief is futile. We agree.

An action for injunctive relief implicates the original jurisdiction of the circuit court. Marsh v. Illinois Racing Board, 179 Ill. 2d 488, 689 N.E.2d 1113 (1997). See, e.g., Village of Maywood Board of Fire & Police Commissioners v. Department of Human Rights, 296 Ill. App. 3d 570, 695 N.E.2d 873 (1998); Christ Hospital & Medical Center v. Human Rights Comm'n, 271 Ill. App. 3d 133, 648 N.E.2d 201 (1995); Office of the Lake County State's Attorney v. Human Rights Comm'n, 235 Ill. App. 3d 1036, 601 N.E.2d 1294 (1992); Luckett v. Human Rights Comm'n, 210 Ill. App. 3d 169, 569 N.E.2d 6 (1989); Office of the Lake County State's Attorney v. Human Rights Comm'n, 200 Ill. App. 3d 151, 558 N.E.2d 668 (1990).

No court has yet suggested that Supreme Court Rule 335 vests the appellate court with original jurisdiction over complaints for injunctive or declaratory relief from interlocutory orders of administrative agencies whose final orders are directly reviewable by this court. Supreme Court Rule 335 provides a "procedure for a statutory direct review of orders of an administrative agency." 134 Ill. 2d R. 335. But the scope of "statutory direct review" under Supreme Court Rule 335, as we read the rule, is limited by the underlying statutory scheme that creates direct appellate review. Under the Human Rights Act and the Administrative Review Law (735 ILCS 5/3-101 et seq. (West 1996)), this means only final orders (see Marsh, 179 Ill. 2d at 1117), and now, those interlocutory orders made reviewable by the 1996 amendments to the Human Rights Act. See Niles Township High School District 219 Board of Education v. Niles Township Federation of Teachers, Local 1274, IFT/AFT, AFL/CIO, 295 Ill. App. 3d 510, 512-13, 692 N.E.2d 700, 702 (1998). We believe the circuit court retains traditional jurisdiction to entertain complaints for injunctive and declaratory relief when the threshold question before the court is whether administrative remedies must be exhausted. That was the question in this case, and the question the trial court answered. So we have jurisdiction to review the court's order under Supreme Court Rule 303. 155 Ill. 2d R. 303.

Consolidated relies on County of Kane v. Carlson, 116 Ill. 2d 186, 199, 507 N.E.2d 482 (1987), for the four circumstances where a party is not required to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit: (1) the authority of the agency to act is challenged; (2) administrative review would be futile; (3) no question of fact is presented and agency expertise is not involved; and (4) irreparable harm would result from the further pursuit of administrative remedies. Consolidated then asserts that its complaint falls within each of these exceptions to the exhaustion requirement.

We review a section 2-619(a)(1) dismissal de novo. Kedzie & 103rd Currency Exchange, Inc. v. Hodge, 156 Ill. 2d 112, 115-16, 619 N.E.2d 732 (1993). There are no disputed issues of material fact in this case that would preclude dismissal, so our review is confined to whether dismissal was precluded as a matter of law. Kedzie, 156 Ill. 2d at 116. Consolidated's theory that the Commission exceeded its authority to act in this case is based on ...

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