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Sherman West Court v. Damon T. Arnold

February 22, 2011

SHERMAN WEST COURT,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
DAMON T. ARNOLD, THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, WILLIAM A.BELL, AND ROSELLA D. FESSENDEN,
DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 09 L 50978 Honorable Mary K. Rochford, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Connors

JUSTICE CONNORS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Presiding Justice Cunningham and Justice Harris concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

Plaintiff Sherman West Court seeks judicial review of an administrative decision by defendant Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). The circuit court affirmed the decision of IDPH. We find that IDPH's decision is not subject to judicial review because it was not a final order under the Administrative Review Law (735 ILCS 5/3-101 et seq. (West 2008)). We vacate the circuit court's judgment and remand with directions to dismiss the complaint.

BACKGROUND

Defendant Rosella Fessenden's father was a resident at a nursing home operated by plaintiff Sherman West Court when he allegedly suffered a stroke. Fessenden filed a complaint against plaintiff with IDPH under the Nursing Home Care Act (210 ILCS 45/3-701 et seq. (West 2008)), alleging that plaintiff's employees did not adequately recognize the signs of the stroke or give her father adequate emergency care. IDPH investigated the complaint but determined that it was unfounded. Fessenden was dissatisfied with IDPH's initial determination, so she filed a request for an administrative hearing.

Plaintiff entered an appearance in front of the designated hearing officer, as is its right in such a situation. See 210 ILCS 45/3-702(g) (West 2008). Before the hearing occurred, however, plaintiff learned that IDPH and Fessenden had entered into a settlement agreement under which IDPH agreed to reinvestigate Fessenden's complaint against plaintiff and Fessenden agreed to withdraw her request for a hearing. Plaintiff noticed that the face of the order adopting the settlement agreement contained a material scrivener's error in the number identifying the complaint, so it filed a motion to vacate the order with the hearing officer.

The order was duly vacated, and at the following status conference, plaintiff objected to the settlement agreement. However, it was unclear whether plaintiff had standing to object to the agreement because it was not the complainant, so the hearing officer set a briefing schedule on the issue. Following full briefing and oral arguments, the hearing officer found that plaintiff did not have standing to object to the settlement agreement and recommended to the Director of IDPH that a new order be issued adopting the agreement. Defendant Bell, the acting Deputy Director of IDPH, accepted the hearing officer's recommendation and issued an order that stated in pertinent part: "[IDPH], by agreement, is to reinvestigat[e] Complaint #0773998[] and reconsider the determination in this case." The rest of the order contained boilerplate language reciting that the Director of IDPH had adopted the hearing officer's findings. Importantly, the order purported to be a "final administrative decision" within the meaning of the Nursing Home Care Act (210 ILCS 45/3-713 (West 2008)) and the Administrative Review Law (735 ILCS 5/3- (West 2008)).

In response, plaintiff filed a complaint with the circuit court of Cook County, seeking judicial review of IDPH's order adopting the settlement agreement and ordering reinvestigation of Fessenden's complaint. The circuit court affirmed the order, finding among other things that plaintiff did not have a right to object to the settlement agreement. Plaintiff timely filed a notice of appeal, and this case is now before us.

ANALYSIS

The primary question presented in this case is whether plaintiff has standing to object to the settlement agreement between Fessenden and IDPH, which required IDPH to reinvestigate Fessenden's complaint against plaintiff. Because this is an administrative order, however, we must first consider the threshold question of whether the order is subject to judicial review. See Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, § 9. Although this issue was not raised in the circuit court, lack of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised for the first time on appeal by any party or this court sua sponte. See In re M.W., 232 Ill. 2d 408, 417 (2009) ("[L]ack of subject matter jurisdiction is not subject to waiver ***.").

When a complaint against a facility is filed under the Nursing Home Care Act, IDPH is responsible for investigating the complaint and determining whether it is either an "invalid report," a "valid report," or an "undetermined report." (Internal quotation marks omitted) 210 ILCS 45/3-702(d) (West 2008). IDPH must notify the complainant of the outcome of its investigation and its findings, as well as any corrective action that IDPH plans to take against the facility. See 210 ILCS 45/3-702(e) (West 2008). If the complainant is not satisfied with the results of the investigation or IDPH's response, the complainant may request a hearing. See 210 ILCS 45/3-702(g) (West 2008). The hearing must be conducted by either the Director of IDPH or a designated hearing officer, who is responsible for taking evidence, hearing witnesses under oath, making findings of fact, and submitting a recommendation to the director of IDPH for a decision. See 210 ILCS 45/3-705, 3-707, 3-708 (West 2008).

The Director's decision following a hearing is "subject to judicial review exclusively as provided in the Administrative Review Law [(735 ILCS 5/3-101 et seq. (West 2008))]." 210 ILCS 45/3-713(a) (West 2008). Under the Administrative Review Law, courts may only judicially review an administrative decision that both (1) "affects the legal rights, duties or privileges of parties," and (2) "terminates the proceedings before the administrative agency." 735 ...


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