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Goral v. Dart

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

June 19, 2019

MATTHEW GORAL, KEVIN BADON, MICHAEL MENDEZ, MILAN STOJKOVIC, DAVID EVANS III, FRANK DONIS, and LASHON SHAFFER, on behalf of themselves and others similarly-situated, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
THOMAS J. DART (Official and Individual Capacity); COOK COUNTY, ILLINOIS; the COOK COUNTY SHERIFF'S MERIT BOARD; and TONI PRECKWINCKLE (Official and Individual Capacity), Defendants-Appellees

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 17 CH 15546 Honorable Sophia H. Hall, Judge Presiding.

          ELLIS, JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Fitzgerald Smith and Justice Cobbs concurred in the judgment and opinion.


          ELLIS, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Plaintiffs here are employees of the Cook County Sheriff, whom the Sheriff has charged with disciplinary infractions. From the outset of their administrative cases before the Cook County Sheriff's Merit Board (Board), almost all of which remain pending, plaintiffs have challenged the authority of the Board to hear their cases, based on claims that the Board is illegally constituted. They also filed a separate lawsuit-the one before us-likewise challenging the Board's authority to adjudicate their cases.

         ¶ 2 The trial court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, reasoning that plaintiffs were required to first exhaust their administrative remedies before proceeding with this claim.

         ¶ 3 In addition to urging us to affirm on this basis, the Sheriff principally argues that the complaint's challenge to the Board's authority is barred by the "de facto officer" doctrine, which this court has employed to reject several similar challenges by Sheriff's employees to the Board's authority in the last two years.

         ¶ 4 We hold that plaintiffs may proceed with nearly all of their claims in this lawsuit, notwithstanding their failure to exhaust administrative remedies. And we find the "de facto officer" doctrine inapplicable to this matter. We affirm in part as modified, reverse in part, and remand with instructions.

         ¶ 5 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 6 The sequence of events is critical to our analysis. Some of the facts are subject to judicial notice. See Thurman v. Department of Public Aid, 25 Ill.App.3d 367, 370 (1977). Others come from allegations in the complaint, which we accept as true, as the complaint was dismissed at the pleading stage. Callaghan v. Village of Clarendon Hills, 401 Ill.App.3d 287, 290 (2010).

         ¶ 7 On February 3, 2016, Sheriff Dart filed charges against one of the plaintiffs in this case, Frank Donis, and referred him to the Board for termination proceedings. Seven months later, in September 2016, Sheriff Dart filed individual complaints against four other plaintiffs in this case-Matthew Goral, Kevin Badon, Michael Mendez, and Milan Stojkovic-seeking to terminate each employee.

         ¶ 8 Five days after Goral, Badon, Mendez and Stojkovic were charged, on September 23, 2016, we issued our first decision in Taylor v. Dart, 2016 IL App (1st) 143684, vacated, 77 N.E.3d 86 (Ill. 2017). Taylor, a Sheriff's employee who was terminated by the Board in a final administrative decision, argued in court that the Board's actions were void because the Board's composition violated state law. He argued that one of the Board members, Mr. Rosales, had been appointed on an interim basis, but state law did not provide for interim appointments.

         ¶ 9 We agreed. We held that the interim appointment of Rosales violated state law. Id. ¶ 36. And we held that the illegal composition fatally compromised the Board's authority to act, rendering its final decision against Taylor void. Id. ¶ 47.

         ¶ 10 The Sheriff appealed. On January 25, 2017, the supreme court denied review but, in a supervisory order, directed this court to vacate our judgment and decide an issue we had declined to consider regarding Cook County's home-rule authority.

         ¶ 11 On February 21, 2017, the Sheriff suspended plaintiff David Evans III. The next day, the Sheriff filed a complaint against Evans with the Board, seeking his termination.

         ¶ 12 Our second decision in Taylor, 2017 IL App (1st) 143684-B, was issued on May 12, 2017.Our holding was the same: the interim appointment of Rosales violated state law, and the Board's final decision terminating Taylor was void, because the Board lacked statutory authority to issue the decision. Id. ¶¶ 37, 46.

         ¶ 13 On July 20, 2017, Sheriff Dart suspended without pay the last of our plaintiffs, Lashon Shaffer, and filed a complaint with the Board seeking Shaffer's termination.

         ¶ 14 During the preliminary stages of their administrative proceedings before the Board, plaintiffs raised arguments challenging the Board's statutory authority to hear their cases, based in part but not entirely on Taylor. The Board thus far has declined to consider those arguments.

         ¶ 15 More importantly, in November 2017, plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit by filing a verified complaint for declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief against the Sheriff. At least in part, the complaint challenged the legal composition of the Board, and thus the Board's authority to enter final decisions against them.

         ¶ 16 On December 8, 2017, the General Assembly, in response to our decision in Taylor, amended the state law governing Board appointments. See Pub. Act 100-562, § 5 (eff. Dec. 8, 2017) (amending 55 ILCS 5/3-7002). The amendment worked three changes: (1) it permitted the Sheriff to make interim appointments to the Board, (2) it abolished all existing terms of each member of the Board, and (3) it created a new schedule for staggering terms. Id.

         ¶ 17 On December 13, 2017, the Sheriff appointed a new Board (many of whom had been on the previous Board as well).

         ¶ 18 On January 23, 2018, the Sheriff filed, and the new Board received, "amended" complaints against each of the plaintiffs.

         ¶ 19 On February 26, 2018, plaintiffs filed a second amended verified complaint against the Sheriff, the one before this court now, to which we will refer simply as the "complaint." The complaint, among other things, challenged the legal composition of the Board-both the previous Board before which their charges were originally brought and the new Board hearing the "amended" charges against them.

         ¶ 20 The complaint's allegations involving the previous Board were that (a) some members were illegal interim appointees, essentially a Taylor objection; (b) the Board had only five members, not the required seven; (c) some of the members' terms were not staggered as required by state law; and (d) the Board's chairperson and secretary held their positions longer than permitted under state law.

         ¶ 21 The complaint's allegations against the new Board were (a) the Board's previous lack of authority could not be "cured" by filing "amended" charges with a new Board; (b) the Board's political composition violates state law; (c) the Board's chairperson and secretary continue to hold their positions longer than permitted under state law; (d) the Board created "fatal due process problems" by now requiring plaintiffs to pay the costs of their own hearing transcripts; and (e) the Board is biased, in "lockstep" with the Sheriff's wishes.

         ¶ 22 On the Sheriff's motion, the circuit court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court ruled that plaintiffs were required to exhaust their administrative remedies before raising these claims outside the context of administrative review.

         ¶ 23 Since that ruling and while this appeal was pending, the Board decided Evans's case. The Board found in favor of Evans and ordered him reinstated effective February 22, 2017. The Sheriff has appealed that decision, but that decision is not before us.

         ¶ 24 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 25 The trial court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to section 2-619(a)(1) of the Code of Civil Procedure. See 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(1) (West 2018). A section 2-619 motion admits the legal sufficiency of the complaint; we accept as true the complaint's allegations and interpret them in the light most favorable to plaintiffs. American Family Mutual Insurance Co. v. Krop, 2018 IL 122556, ¶ 13; In re Appointment of Special Prosecutor, 2019 IL 122949, ¶ 28. Our review is de novo. Krop, 2018 IL 122556, ¶ 13.

         ¶ 26 The basis for the trial court's ruling was that each plaintiff had pending an administrative hearing that had not been completed, and that plaintiffs were required to exhaust their administrative remedies before they could challenge the agency's statutory authority before a court. The Sheriff defends that ruling but adds other bases for affirmance as well, as we may affirm on any basis in the record. McDonald v. Lipov, 2014 IL App (2d) 130401, ¶ 14. We will begin with the basis articulated by the trial court, lack of subject-matter jurisdiction based on plaintiffs' failure to exhaust administrative remedies, because the question of the court's jurisdiction should be resolved as a threshold question. People v. Shinaul, 2017 IL 120162, ¶ 7.

         ¶ 27 I

         ¶ 28 The court's subject-matter jurisdiction refers to its power to hear and resolve cases. In re Luis R., 239 Ill.2d 295, 300 (2010). Generally, the constitution gives the court original subject-matter jurisdiction over all "justiciable matters." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, § 9. One exception, however, is the review of administrative actions, which is governed by statute. Id.; see Belleville Toyota, Inc. v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., 199 Ill.2d 325, 334 (2002).

         ¶ 29 The Administrative Review Law governs judicial review of most final administrative decisions, including final decisions of the Board here. See 735 ILCS 5/3-101 et seq. (West 2018). More to the point, the Administrative Review Law is "the sole and exclusive method to obtain judicial review of a final administrative decision" by the Board. Stykel v. City of Freeport, 318 Ill.App.3d 839, 843 (2001).

         ¶ 30 Thus, generally speaking, a party aggrieved by agency action cannot involve the courts until the administrative process has run its course-that is, until the plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies. Castaneda v. Illinois Human Rights Commission, 132 Ill.2d 304, 308 (1989). But the exhaustion requirement is subject to six exceptions. Id. at 309. Two are relevant here. First, a party need not exhaust when "the agency's jurisdiction is attacked because it is not authorized by statute." Id. Second, exhaustion is excused when "the agency cannot provide an adequate remedy or where it is patently futile to seek relief before the agency." Id.

         ¶ 31 A

         ¶ 32 We first consider whether the exhaustion exception for challenges to an agency's authority applies to this case. In the context of administrative agencies, the term "jurisdiction" refers to an agency's statutory authority to act. Van Dyke v. White, 2019 IL 121452, ¶ 43 n.4; Business & Professional People for the Public Interest v. Illinois Commerce Commission, 136 Ill.2d 192, 243 (1989); Mercury Sightseeing Boats, Inc. v. County of Cook, 2019 IL App (1st) 180439, ΒΆ 54 ("When we speak of an administrative agency's 'jurisdiction,' we mean its authority to act."). Agencies have no inherent or common-law authority; their power is limited to that given them by the legislative body that created them. ...

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