Appeal from Circuit Court of Sangamon County No. 11MR307 Honorable John Schmidt, Judge Presiding.
JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justice Holder White concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 Effective August 26, 2010, the Illinois Department of Corrections (Department) discharged Mariah Welch for cause. Following a March 2011 hearing on the merits of Welch's discharge, the administrative law judge (ALJ) found that Welch had violated the Department's rules but proposed a 60-day suspension was appropriate in lieu of discharge. In May 2011, the Illinois Civil Service Commission (Commission) adopted the ALJ's proposal but reduced the suspension period to 14 days. In January 2012, the circuit court affirmed.
¶ 2 The Department appeals, arguing (1) the Commission lacked jurisdiction to consider Welch's administrative appeal because she was not a "certified employee" when she was discharged; and (2) if the Commission had jurisdiction, this court should find Welch was properly discharged for cause and should reverse the Commission's decision on the merits or, in the alternative, should reinstate the ALJ's 60-day suspension recommendation because the Commission's decision to reduce Welch's suspension from 60 to a 14 days was arbitrary, unreasonable, and unrelated to the requirements of service. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand with directions.
¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND
¶ 4 On January 4, 2010, Welch began her employment with the Department as a correctional officer trainee. During the first six weeks of her employment, she attended the Department's academy, where she received training regarding the Department's rules of conduct for correctional officers. On February 15, 2010, Welch began working at Robinson Correctional Center as a correctional officer in training. On March 29, 2010, she was officially appointed as a probationary correctional officer and was given a certification date (the date on which she would become a certified employee of the Department) of August 12, 2010.
¶ 5 In June 2010, an internal affairs officer for the Department questioned Welch, at which time she admitted she had (1) transported an inmate from one wing of the prison to another so he could deliver a burrito to another prisoner, (2) gave an inmate chewing gum—which inmates are not allowed to have—on three or four occasions, and (3) ate a nacho prepared by an inmate. On July 2, 2010, Welch was placed on "administrative leave" as a result of these actions. While on administrative leave, the Department continued to pay Welch her salary, but she was not allowed inside the facility. Following an employee review hearing later that month, (1) Welch was found to have violated the Department's policies and (2) the assistant warden, acting as hearing officer, recommended a 30-day suspension without pay pending discharge. The warden agreed with this recommendation. The Department returned Welch to work on August 11, 2010, but immediately placed her on "suspension pending discharge" with a September 12, 2010, date of return.
¶ 6 Effective August 26, 2010, the Department discharged Welch for cause after finding that she violated the Department's policies against (1) allowing trading and trafficking between offenders, (2) bringing contraband into the facility and trafficking it to an inmate, and (3) socializing with inmates. However, the Department also issued a probationary discharge notice with an effective date of September 10, 2010. Both the discharge for cause and the probationary discharge were approved on August 4, 2010, by agency head Michael Randle. On that same date, Randle also signed the suspension pending discharge document of which Welch was notified on August 10, 2010, by certified mail.
¶ 7 In September 2010, Welch requested a hearing before the Commission on her discharge. In October 2010, the Department filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that the Commission lacked jurisdiction over the claim because Welch was discharged during her probationary period and was not a "certified employee" entitled to a hearing. Specifically, the Department asserted that because Welch was placed on "administrative leave" for 40 days during the probationary period and later suspended pending discharge for 16 days, Welch's certification date was pushed back to October 6, 2010. As a result, the Department contended that Welch never reached certified employee status—a necessary designation to invoke the Commission's jurisdiction.
¶ 8 Following oral argument on the Department's motion to dismiss, the ALJ determined that the Commission had jurisdiction and denied the motion. Specifically, the ALJ found the Department's arguments unpersuasive that the 40-day "administrative leave" and 16-day "suspension pending discharge" extended Welch's probationary period because neither "administrative leave" nor "suspension pending discharge" is specified in section 302.300(e) of title 80 of the Illinois Administrative Code (Administrative Code) (80 Ill. Adm. Code 302.300(e) (2010)) as one of the many types of leave listed that may extend an employee's probationary period. The ALJ also noted as follows: (1) the Department failed to provide any authority to support its contention that "administrative leave" and a "leave of absence" are the same thing; (2) it was disingenuous for the Department to claim a probationary period extension was necessary to monitor Welch's job performance when the Department purposely took action to prevent itself from monitoring Welch by placing her on involuntary administrative leave; and (3) contrary to the Department's assertion, "suspension pending discharge" and a "disciplinary suspension" are not the same thing. Thus, the ALJ concluded Welch became a certified employee on August 12, 2010—prior to her August 26, 2010, discharge—and therefore the Commission had jurisdiction over her appeal.
¶ 9 In March 2011, the ALJ held a hearing on the merits of Welch's discharge appeal. The ALJ found that Welch had violated the Department's rules but proposed a 60-day suspension without pay in lieu of discharge.
¶ 10 In May 2011, the Commission adopted the ALJ's proposal as modified, finding Welch's rule violations warranted a 14-day suspension in lieu of discharge because the preponderance of the evidence indicated the violations she committed were minimal within the context of Robinson's past practices.
¶ 11 In June 2011, the Department filed a complaint in the circuit court seeking administrative review of the Commission's order. The Department alleged that the Commission lacked jurisdiction to consider Welch's discharge appeal, and its decision was otherwise arbitrary and capricious, against the manifest weight of the evidence, contrary to mandatory Department policies, and contrary to sound public policy. In January 2012, the circuit court affirmed the Commission's decision without a written opinion.
¶ 12 This appeal followed.
¶ 13 II. ANALYSIS
¶ 14 On appeal, the Department argues (1) that the Commission lacked jurisdiction to consider Welch's administrative appeal because she was not a certified employee when she was discharged; and (2) if the Commission had jurisdiction, its decision to reduce Welch's discipline from discharge to a 14-day suspension was arbitrary, unreasonable, and unrelated to the requirements of service. Welch responds that (1) she was a certified employee at the time of discharge and, thus, the Commission properly exercised its jurisdiction to hear her appeal; and (2) the Commission's decision to reduce the level of discipline was proper ...