The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Garman
Docket No. 95643-Agenda 11-November 2003.
Defendant Department of Children and Family Services (the Department) indicated a report of abuse against plaintiff, Mark Lyon, which was entered into the Department's State Central Register pursuant to the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act (the Act) (325 ILCS 5/1 et seq. (West 1998)). Lyon sought reversal of the indicated report and expungement of the report from the central register through the administrative appellate process established by the Act, arguing that procedural violations by the Department violated his due process rights and that the indicated finding was against the manifest weight of the evidence.
When his administrative appeal was denied in part, Lyon sought judicial review pursuant to the Administrative Review Law (735 ILCS 5/3-101 (West 2002)) as permitted by the Act. 325 ILCS 5/7.16 (West 1998). The circuit court set aside the remaining indicated findings because Lyon's due process rights were violated by discovery deficiencies. The appellate court affirmed the circuit court judgment, but the appellate court instead found a due process violation in the combination of the standard of proof used during early stages of the administrative process and the delays in processing the appeal. 335 Ill. App. 3d 376, 390. We granted the Department's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315) and allowed the filing of an amicus brief by the Chicago Teachers Union, Local 1, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, in support of Lyon (155 Ill. 2d R. 345(a)). For the following reasons, we affirm the appellate court.
The State Central Register records all cases of suspected child abuse or neglect processed by the Department under the Act. 325 ILCS 5/7.7 (West 1998). The Department investigates all reports and finds them to be "indicated," "unfounded," or "undetermined." 325 ILCS 5/7.12 (West 1998). An "indicated report" is a report of abuse or neglect that investigation reveals is supported by credible evidence. 325 ILCS 5/3 (West 1998); 89 Ill. Adm. Code §300.20 (2002). "Credible evidence" means that "the available facts, when viewed in light of the surrounding circumstances, would cause a reasonable person to believe that a child was abused or neglected." 89 Ill. Adm. Code §300.20 (2002).
The Department appeals the appellate court's holding that when the Department uses the credible-evidence standard to support an indicated finding, then it must strictly comply with applicable statutory and regulatory deadlines in adjudicating the subject's administrative appeal to provide the subject due process. Lyon answers by alleging that several actions by the Department violated his due process rights, including: (1) the use of the credible-evidence standard of proof to support the indicated finding and the denial of his first-stage appeal; (2) the failure to provide timely disclosure of the investigative file and the failure to turn over the complete file; and (3) the violation of statutory and regulatory deadlines concerning the investigation, the indicated finding, the hearing, and the issuance of the Director's decision. Lyon also argues that the indicated findings were against the manifest weight of the evidence. We affirm the appellate court's judgment affirming the expungement of the indicated findings because Lyon's due process rights were violated by the standard of proof used and the delays in the administrative appeal, so we do not reach the additional constitutional issues raised by Lyon. See People ex rel. Waller v. 1990 Ford Bronco, 158 Ill. 2d 460, 464 (1994). We summarize the facts that are relevant to our analysis.
Lyon was employed as a choral director at Gibson City-Melvin High School. On February 9, 2000, the Department received a report that Lyon had abused two students, H.B. and J.N. On April 11, the Department completed its investigation and determined that the report of abuse was indicated. On April 17, the indicated report was recorded on the official investigation form; following supervisor approval and transmission to Springfield, it was entered into the central register shortly thereafter. Specifically, the Department found three claims to be indicated: sexual exploitation of H.B., sexual molestation of H.B., and substantial risk of physical injury (sexual) of J.N.
On July 19, 2000, the Department sent to Lyon official notice that it had entered the indicated report in the central register and explained his appellate rights. Lyon appealed the indicated report and requested expungement of the report from the central register on August 29. On September 13, the Department denied Lyon's expungement request, concluding that the indicated finding was supported by credible evidence. Two days later, Lyon requested the second stage of administrative appeal, a hearing before an administrative law judge.
The hearing began on November 1, 2000. The hearing was not completed on that day, so the hearing was scheduled to proceed on November 13. However, the parties agreed to a continuance until December 19, because of a scheduling conflict. The hearing again was continued because the administrative law judge was in an automobile accident on the way to the hearing. The hearing concluded as scheduled by the second continuance, on January 24, 2001.
The administrative law judge issued her recommendation and opinion on February 9, 2001. After making several findings of fact, she found that the Department had not met its burden of showing that the indicated finding of substantial risk of physical injury (sexual) of J.N. was supported by a preponderance of the evidence, so she ordered that indicated finding be expunged from the central register. However, the judge affirmed the indicated finding of sexual exploitation and sexual molestation of H.B. under the preponderance standard. On March 23, the Director of the Department issued his decision adopting the conclusions of the administrative law judge, which constituted the final administrative decision.
Lyon filed a complaint for administrative review in the Champaign County circuit court on April 9, 2001. Lyon alleged that several actions by the Department violated his due process rights and that the findings of the administrative law judge were against the manifest weight of the evidence. Following briefing and argument, the circuit court set aside the decision of the Department because "[t]he Department's refusal to provide full and complete discovery to the Plaintiff in a timely manner violated his due process rights."
A divided appellate court affirmed the circuit court judgment, but on different grounds. The appellate court noted that Lyon did not allege that the Department failed to produce any documents. The court concluded that there was no due process violation in the lateness of the Department's transmission of the investigative file because Lyon did not show that it prejudiced him. Similarly, Lyon did not show he suffered any prejudice because the Department delayed the sending of the indicated report to the central register. In addition, the investigation was completed within statutory and regulatory deadlines. However, the Department did violate deadlines regarding the issuance of the final decision. 335 Ill. App. 3d at 385-87.
The appellate court next evaluated the credible-evidence standard of proof that the Department used in finding the report indicated. The court discussed cases from different jurisdictions. After noting that being entered into the State Central Register implicates a liberty interest, the court applied the test from Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335, 47 L. Ed. 2d 18, 33, 96 S. Ct. 893, 903 (1976), to determine whether this low standard of proof was adequate. 335 Ill. App. 3d at 389, citing Cavarretta v. Department of Children & Family Services, 277 Ill. App. 3d 16, 28 (1996). In light of the Mathews factors, the court explained, "The credible-evidence standard is fair only if the alleged perpetrator soon receives a hearing under the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard and, soon after the hearing, the Department issues a final decision." 335 Ill. App. 3d at 390. Thus, the court held that Lyon's due process rights were violated by the combination of the Department's use of the credible-evidence standard of proof with its failure to strictly comply with its statutory and regulatory deadlines in processing the administrative appeal. The court signaled that strict statutory and regulatory compliance is not required when the Department uses the more stringent preponderance- of-the-evidence standard of proof. 335 Ill. App. 3d at 390.
The dissenting opinion noted that the discovery was timely provided, and the entire appeals process was completed in approximately eight months. The delays that occurred were reasonable because they were much shorter than those found unconstitutional in Stull v. Department of Children & Family Services, 239 Ill. App. 3d 325, 334-35 (1992), and Cavarretta, 277 Ill. App. 3d at 26-27, and were also shorter than those found acceptable in S.W. v. Department of ...