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Springfield Coal Co., LLC v. Illinois Workers Compensation Commission

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District, Workers' Compensation Commission Division

October 31, 2016

SPRINGFIELD COAL COMPANY, LLC, Appellant,
v.
THE ILLINOIS WORKERS COMPENSATION COMMISSION, et al., Thomas Hoff and Michael W. Frerichs, State Treasurer and Ex Officio Custodian of the Rate Adjustment Fund, Appellees.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County. No. 14-MR-1323 Honorable Leslie J. Graves, Judge, Presiding.

          JUSTICE HUDSON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Holdridge, and Justices Hoffman, Harris, and Stewart concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          HUDSON JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Respondent, Springfield Coal Company, LLC, appeals from the judgment of the circuit court of Sangamon County, which confirmed in part and set aside in part the decision of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission (Commission) awarding benefits to claimant, Thomas Hoff, pursuant to the Workers' Occupational Diseases Act (Act) (820 ILCS 310/1 et seq. (West 2008)). We find that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to review the Commission's decision where claimant's written request for summons was file-stamped after the 20-day filing period set forth in section 19(f)(1) of the Act (820 ILCS 310/19(f)(1) (West 2014)), and he failed to file proof of mailing the written request for summons in the circuit court within 20 days after he received the Commission's decision. For this reason, we vacate the decision of the circuit court and dismiss the appeal.

         ¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 The facts necessary to the resolution of this case are not in dispute. Claimant began working as a coal miner in the late 1970s. Claimant's last mining shift was in January 2008, at respondent's Crown III mine. On April 27, 2009, claimant filed an application for adjustment of claim, seeking benefits under the Act for injuries allegedly resulting from the inhalation of coal mine dust while working for respondent. Following a hearing, an arbitrator concluded that claimant established that he suffers from coal workers' pneumoconiosis and that his disablement occurred within two years of the date of last exposure to the hazards of the disease. See 820 ILCS 310/1(f) (West 2008). Although the arbitrator rejected claimant's request for a wage-differential (820 ILCS 305/8(d)(1) (West 2008); see also 820 ILCS 310/7 (West 2008) (providing that the Act incorporates the recovery provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (West 2008)), he awarded claimant 50 weeks of permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits, representing a 10% loss of the person as a whole (820 ILCS 310/7, 8(d)(2) (West 2008)).

         ¶ 4 Both parties sought review of the arbitrator's decision before the Commission. In a unanimous decision, the Commission affirmed and adopted the arbitrator's decision. A copy of the Commission's decision was received in the office of claimant's attorney on October 20, 2014. Claimant then sought judicial review of the Commission's decision in the circuit court of Sangamon County pursuant to section 19(f) of the Act (820 ILCS 310/19(f) (West 2014)). To this end, on October 21, 2014, claimant mailed to the Commission a notice of intent to file for review in the circuit court. The notice of intent was file-stamped by the Commission on October 24, 2014. Claimant also submitted a written request for summons to the clerk of the circuit court, which was file-stamped on November 12, 2014.

         ¶ 5 On December 5, 2014, respondent filed in the circuit court a motion to quash the summons. In the motion, respondent argued that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to entertain claimant's action for judicial review because it was filed more than 20 days after the Commission's decision was received by claimant's attorney. See 820 ILCS 310/19(f)(1) (West 2014). Claimant responded to the motion, arguing that he fulfilled the jurisdictional requirement for filing an action for judicial review of a decision of the Commission by mailing all of the necessary documents to the clerk of the court within 20 days of his attorney's receipt of the decision. Claimant attached several exhibits to his response, including a cover letter executed by claimant's attorney and the affidavit of Amy Edwards, an administrative assistant in claimant's attorney's office. The cover letter, dated November 5, 2014, is directed to the clerk of the circuit court. In the cover letter, claimant's attorney states that he enclosed the original and one copy of the request for summons, the original and six copies of the summons, and payment to cover the filing costs. Edwards' affidavit was notarized on December 30, 2014. In the affidavit, Edwards states that on November 5, 2014, she mailed to the clerk of the circuit court claimant's written request for summons and summons "with prepaid postage by placing same in the post office box located at 101 W. Church Street, Harrisburg, IL 62946 at approximately 4:25 p.m." Claimant also filed with the circuit court a "Motion for Leave to File Out of Time, " in which he asked to supplement the record with Edwards' affidavit.

         ¶ 6 On January 20, 2015, the parties appeared before the circuit court regarding the parties' motions. At the conclusion of the proceeding, the circuit court entered an order denying respondent's motion to quash and allowing claimant's motion for leave to file out of time. On the merits of claimant's action for judicial review, the circuit court set aside the Commission's PPD award and substituted a wage-differential in its stead, but otherwise confirmed the decision of the Commission. Thereafter, respondent initiated the instant appeal.

         ¶ 7 II. ANALYSIS

         ¶ 8 On appeal, respondent first argues that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to review the Commission's decision where claimant failed to file proof of mailing the written request for summons in the circuit court within 20 days after he received the decision. Claimant responds that he fulfilled the jurisdictional requirement for filing an action for judicial review of a decision of the Commission 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.

         ¶ 9 While Illinois courts are courts of general jurisdiction and are presumed to have subject-matter jurisdiction, this presumption does not apply to workers' compensation proceedings. See Residential Carpentry, Inc. v. Kennedy, 377 Ill.App.3d 499, 502 (2007); Sprinkman & Sons Corp. of Illinois v. Industrial Comm'n, 160 Ill.App.3d 599, 601 (1987). Rather, on appeal from a decision of the Commission, the circuit court obtains subject-matter jurisdiction only if the appellant complies with the statutorily-mandated procedures set forth in the Act. See Residential Carpentry, Inc., 377 Ill.App.3d at 502. "[T]o vest the courts with jurisdiction to review Commission decisions, strict compliance with the provisions of the Act is necessary and must affirmatively appear in the record." Illinois State Treasurer v. Workers' Compensation Comm'n, 2015 IL 117418, ¶ 15; see also Jones v. Industrial Comm'n, 188 Ill.2d 314, 320 (1999).

         ¶ 10 Before proceeding further, we note that the parties disagree as to the appropriate standard of review. Respondent asserts that the inquiry regarding whether the circuit court has subject-matter jurisdiction to review an administrative decision presents a question of law subject to de novo review. Illinois State Treasurer, 2015 IL 117418, ¶ 13. Claimant contends that the appropriate standard of review depends on whether the circuit court held an evidentiary hearing as to its jurisdiction. Citing Household Finance Corp. III v. Volpert, 227 Ill.App.3d 453, 456 (1992), claimant maintains that where an evidentiary hearing is conducted, the circuit court's determination is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Conversely, claimant asserts that when the circuit court determines jurisdiction solely on the basis of documentary evidence, a de novo standard of review is applied. Equity Residential Properties Management Corp. v. Nasolo, 364 Ill.App.3d 26, 31 (2006). According to claimant, the standard of review in this case is abuse of discretion, since the circuit court held an evidentiary hearing on January 20, 2015.

         ¶ 11 It is well established that issues involving questions of subject-matter jurisdiction under the Act are reviewed de novo. See, e.g., Illinois State Treasurer, 2015 IL 117418, ¶ 13 (addressing whether Illinois State Treasurer was required to file an appeal bond to obtain judicial review of a decision of the Commission); Farris v. Illinois Workers' Compensation Comm'n, 2014 IL App (4th) 130767WC, ¶ 46 (noting that the jurisdictional requirements set forth in the Workers' Compensation Act are questions of law subject to de novo review). Despite this authority, claimant insists that an abuse-of-discretion standard of review applies in this case. As noted above, in support ...


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