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Gruszeczka v. The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission

Supreme Court of Illinois

August 1, 2013

MARK GRUSZECZKA, Appellant,
v.
THE ILLINOIS WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION (Alliance Contractors, Appellee).

Held [*]

Where a workers’ compensation claimant’s request for circuit court review of an Industrial Commission decision was mailed within the 20 days called for by statute, but was not received by the clerk of circuit court until the twenty-fourth day, the statute’s ambiguity was resolved by applying the “mailbox” rule to hold that the filing was timely and that subject matter jurisdiction in the circuit court was not lacking; if this construction is not what the legislature intended, it needs to clearly so set forth.

Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Second District; heard in that Review court on appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County, the Hon., Thomas Meyer, Judge, presiding. Judgment Reversed and remanded.

Jane M. Ryan and Thomas M. Strow, of the Law Offices of Peter F. Ferracuti, P.C., of Ottawa, for appellant.

Daniel R. Egan, of Rusin, Maciorowski & Friedman, Ltd., of Chicago, for appellee Alliance Contractors.

Justices JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Garman, Karmeier, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

THOMAS, JUSTICE

¶ 1 Claimant, Mark Gruszeczka, sought benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act for accidental injuries allegedly arising out of and in the course of his employment. After a hearing, an arbitrator denied the claim. The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission (Commission) upheld the arbitrator's decision, and the circuit court of McHenry County confirmed the Commission's decision. On appeal, a divided panel of the appellate court vacated the judgment of the circuit court as having been entered without subject matter jurisdiction, and dismissed Gruszeczka's appeal. 2012 IL App (2d) 101049WC. We allowed Gruszeczka's petition for leave to appeal (Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010)), and now reverse the judgment of the appellate court.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 Gruszeczka filed an application for adjustment of claim alleging accidental injuries sustained on July 21, 2004, while he was working for defendant Alliance Contractors (Alliance). In March 2008 an arbitrator for the Commission found that Gruszeczka did not sustain accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of his employment with Alliance. The arbitrator also found that, "[e]ven assuming an accident did in fact occur, " Gruszeczka failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his condition of ill-being was causally related to that accident. On April 15, 2009, the Commission affirmed and adopted the arbitrator's decision denying benefits. Gruszeczka's attorney received a copy of the Commission's decision on April 20, 2009.

¶ 4 Gruszeczka sought judicial review of the Commission's decision in the circuit court of De Kalb County, where the alleged accident occurred. Pursuant to section 19(f)(1) of the Workers' Compensation Act (Act) (820 ILCS 305/19(f)(1) (West 2008)), Gruszeczka submitted to the clerk of the circuit court (1) a request for the issuance of summons, and (2) his attorney's affidavit of payment of the probable cost of the record. The clerk's office file-stamped these documents on May 14, 2009, which was 24 days after Gruszeczka's attorney received the Commission's decision.

¶ 5 Alliance filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to entertain Gruszeczka's action for judicial review because it was filed more than 20 days after Gruszeczka's attorney received the Commission's decision. Alliance argued, in addition, that venue was improper in the circuit court of De Kalb County because Alliance, a party defendant, was located in McHenry County. In his response, Gruszeczka argued that he fulfilled the jurisdictional requirements for filing an action for judicial review by mailing all of the necessary documents to the clerk of the circuit court within 20 days of his attorney's receipt of the Commission's decision. Attached to Gruszeczka's response were affidavits of his attorney and of Coreen Berg, a clerk in the attorney's office. In her affidavit, Berg stated that on May 4, 2009, she mailed the following to the clerk of the circuit court: Gruszeczka's request for the issuance of summons, summons to defendants, a certificate of mailing, the attorney's affidavit of payment of the probable cost of the record, and checks for the filing fee and for the certified mailing of the summons. As to the issue of venue, Gruszeczka argued venue was appropriate in De Kalb County because he was injured while working in Sycamore, which is in De Kalb County.

¶ 6 The circuit court of De Kalb County denied Alliance's motion to dismiss Gruszeczka's action for want of jurisdiction, but granted the motion to transfer venue to the circuit court of McHenry County. After the matter was transferred to McHenry County, Alliance filed a motion to reconsider the denial of its motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The circuit court denied the motion to reconsider. On the merits of Gruszeczka's action for judicial review, the circuit court of McHenry County confirmed the Commission's decision denying Gruszeczka benefits under the Act.

¶ 7 A divided appellate court held that Gruszeczka failed to commence his action for judicial review within the 20-day period mandated in section 19(f)(1) of the Act. 2012 IL App (2d) 101049WC. The appellate court majority acknowledged that a party is entitled to rely on the mailbox rule when he seeks review of an arbitrator's decision before the Commission (Norris v. Industrial Comm'n, 313 Ill.App.3d 993 (2000)), and when he seeks review of the circuit court's decision in the appellate court (Harrisburg-Raleigh Airport Authority v. Department of Revenue, 126 Ill.2d 326 (1989)), but held that he may not do so at the middle stage of review when he seeks review of the Commission's decision in the circuit court. The majority stated that it "decline[d] to follow Norris, " and that Harrisburg-Raleigh Airport Authority was distinguishable because in that case this court was interpreting one of its rules and exercising its rulemaking authority. 2012 IL App (2d) 101049WC, ¶¶ 11, 12. The majority held that a court could not interpret a statute as providing for a mailbox rule and said that it was aware of no authority that would allow it to do so. Id. ¶ 12. Instead, the majority found guidance in cases that declined to apply the mailbox rule to the filing of a civil complaint (Kelly v. Mazzie, 207 Ill.App.3d 251 (1990)), and a section 2-1401petition (Wilkins v. Dellenback, 149 Ill.App.3d 549 (1986)). The majority noted that section 19(f)(1) requires that a proceeding for judicial review be "commenced" within 20 days of the receipt of the decision, and held that the same rule that applies to the commencement of civil complaints and section 2-1401 proceedings should also apply here. 2012 IL App (2d) 101049WC, ¶ 13. The majority cited Webster's for the proposition that "commence" means "to begin or to start, " and stated that it was "at a loss to understand how one can begin or start any action in the circuit court before the necessary documentation is presented to the clerk of the court." Id. ¶ 15. The appellate court vacated the judgment of the circuit court as having been entered without subject matter jurisdiction and dismissed Gruszeczka's appeal.

¶ 8 Justices Stewart and Holdridge dissented. The dissent noted that the mailbox rule has already been held to apply to the other two steps in the workers' compensation appeal process, and argued that it is illogical to apply a different rule at the middle stage. Id. ¶ 20 (Stewart, J., dissenting, joined by Holdridge, J.). The dissent argued that Kelly and Wilkins were distinguishable because they involved original actions in the circuit court. Moreover, the dissent pointed out that Kelly and Wilkins specifically distinguished cases adopting the mailbox rule for the very reason that those cases involved jurisdictional steps in the appeal process rather than the filing of original actions. Id. ¶ 24.

¶ 9 ANALYSIS

¶ 10 Gruszeczka argues that the circuit court acquired subject matter jurisdiction when Berg mailed all of the necessary documents to the clerk of the circuit court of De Kalb County on May 4, 2009, which was within 20 days of the receipt of the Commission's decision. Gruszeczka argues that the mailbox rule should apply when a party seeks judicial review of a Commission decision under section 19(f)(1). Under the mailbox rule, Gruszeczka asserts, the time of the mailing of the necessary documents to the clerk of the circuit court is the time of filing for jurisdictional purposes. See Black's Law Dictionary 964 (7th ed. 1999) (defining "mailbox rule" as "[t]he principle that when a pleading or other document is filed or served by mail, filing or service is deemed to have occurred on the date of mailing").

¶ 11 Alliance responds that there is nothing in section 19(f) of the Act "which allows for the initiation of the Circuit Court [review] process by mail." Alliance notes that Gruszeczka's request to the circuit court for issuance of summons was file-stamped on May 14, 2009, more than 20 days after receipt of the Commission's decision. In Alliance's view, the circuit court therefore lacked jurisdiction to consider Gruszeczka's action for judicial review.

¶ 12 The interpretation of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. Branson v.Department of Revenue, 168 Ill.2d 247, 253-54 (1995). The primary rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. Phoenix Bond & Indemnity Co. v. Pappas, 194 Ill.2d 99, 106 (2000). The language used in the statute is normally the best indicator of what the legislature intended. Id. Each undefined word in the statute must be given its ordinary and popularly understood meaning. Texaco-Cities Service Pipeline Co. v. McGaw, 182 Ill.2d 262, 270 (1998). Words and phrases must not be viewed in isolation but must be considered in light of other relevant provisions of the statute. Midstate Siding & Window Co. v. Rogers, 204 Ill.2d 314, 320 (2003). In ascertaining the legislature's intent, if the meaning of an enactment is unclear from the statutory language itself, the court may look beyond the language employed and consider the purpose behind the law and the evils the law was designed to remedy (Kunkel v. Walton, 179 Ill.2d 519, 533-34 (1997)), as well as other sources such as legislative history (People v. Jameson, 162 Ill.2d 282, 288 (1994)). However, where the statutory language is clear, it will be given effect without resort to other aids for construction. Kunkel, 179 Ill.2d at 534.

¶ 13 Circuit courts are courts of general jurisdiction and enjoy a presumption of subject matter jurisdiction, but such a presumption is not available in workers' compensation proceedings, where the court exercises special statutory jurisdiction, and strict compliance with the statute is required to vest the court with subject matter jurisdiction. Kavonius v. Industrial Comm'n, 314 Ill.App.3d 166, 169 (2000). This court has consistently held that the timely filing of a request for issuance of summons and the timely exhibition of proof of payment for the probable cost of the record (both of which are necessary for commencement of a judicial review action under section 19(f)(1)) are jurisdictional requirements that must be strictly adhered to in order to vest the circuit court with jurisdiction. Jones v. Industrial Comm'n, 188 Ill.2d 314, 320 (1999).[1]

¶ 14 Section 19(f)(1) of the Act, which deals with actions for judicial review of Commission decisions, provides, in pertinent part:

"(1) Except in cases of claims against the State of Illinois, in which case the decision of the Commission shall not be subject to judicial review, the Circuit Court of the county where any of the parties defendant may be found, or if none of the parties defendant can be found in this State then the Circuit Court of the county where the accident occurred, shall by summons to ...

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