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Williams v. The Department of Human Services Division of Rehabilitation Services

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

November 6, 2019

TODD WILLIAMS, Plaintiff-Appellant,

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County 2016-CH-0011386 Honorable Diane Joan Larsen, Judge Presiding

          Attorneys for Appellant: Todd Williams, of Park Forest, appellant pro se.

          Attorneys for Appellee: Kwame Raoul, Attorney General, of Chicago (David L. Franklin, Solicitor General, and Caleb Rush, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel), for appellees.

          JUSTICE McBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Howse and Cobbs concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 Plaintiff, Todd Williams, pro se, who has a disability that qualifies him for vocational rehabilitation services from defendant, Division of Rehabilitation Services of the Department of Human Services, requested $81, 138 in 2016 in order to start a home-based instructional video business. The agency denied Williams's request. When Williams appealed, an administrative hearing officer affirmed the agency's denial, and when he further appealed, the circuit court affirmed the final administrative decision. The circuit court also denied Williams's motion to be appointed with legal counsel. Now in the appellate court, Williams asks that we reverse the hearing officer's decision, "repeal about 18" sections of the Illinois Administrative Code as inconsistent with his federal rights, and order that an attorney come to his assistance on remand. The agency responds that Williams did not meet the requirements of the vocational rehabilitation program and that there are no grounds to grant his request for legal representation.

         ¶ 2 Williams, of Park Forest, Illinois, is in his mid-fifties, has an undergraduate degree in math, and has a graduate degree in business administration. Williams has been a client of the division "on and off since year 1990" due to an impairment that interferes with his ability to obtain or retain employment. The record does not disclose the nature of the disability. The agency provides vocational rehabilitation services to eligible persons pursuant to the Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities Act (20 ILCS 2405/0.01 et seq. (West 2016)), state regulations for implementing the program, and the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. (2012)).

         ¶ 3 The federal provisions indicate that when a person is eligible for services, the person and his or her rehabilitation counselor are to create a written plan known as an "individualized plan for employment" or "IPE" which outlines the person's vocational goal and the services to be provided to reach that goal. 29 U.S.C. § 722(b)(4) (2012); 34 C.F.R. § 361.48 (2016). The IPE must be consistent with the client's "unique strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, capabilities, interests, and informed choice" and must be "approved" by a qualified vocational rehabilitation counselor and "agreed to" by the client. 29 U.S.C. §§ 722(b)(4), 722(b)(3)(C) (2012).

         ¶ 4 Consistent with the federal statutes and regulations, Illinois requires that individuals must establish an IPE before the agency can provide vocational rehabilitation services (89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.20 (2012)) and that persons who are interested in self-employment meet additional requirements in order to become eligible for that program. Interested individuals must complete a questionnaire that aids in determining whether self-employment is viable. 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.20, 590.315(b) (2012). Individuals interested in self-employment must also provide "evidence that the proposed business has a reasonable chance of success (i.e., provide net income to meet a majority of the customer's living expenses)." 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.320(a) (2012). Another requirement is the creation of a detailed business plan that includes financial estimates of the total capital needed to establish the business. 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.320(a) (2012). The applicant must provide evidence of his or her cash or credit resources, "i.e., personal account statements [and] verification of loan availability," that demonstrate the person's ability to cover costs that will not be paid by the agency. 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.320(a)(3) (2012). The applicant's evidence must show that he or she can pay 50% of eligible costs and pay all costs beyond the agency's maximum contribution of $10, 000. 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.315(b)(4), (b)(5) (2012); see also 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.320(c) (2012). The bureau chief may, but is not required to, grant exceptions to the agency's contribution limit. 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.320(c) (2012). Once all of the preliminaries are met and "the customer, counselor and the Supervisor" have determined "that self-employment is a realistic employment goal for the individual," the agency may provide "[t]ools, equipment, supplies and initial stock necessary to begin a specific business." 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.320(b) (2012). The agency, however, can never provide "cash for establishing a business." 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.330(a) (2012).

         ¶ 5 In addition to these resources, the agency will pay "up to 100% of any Program for Self-Employment cost associated with accommodating the customer's disability." 89 Ill. Adm. Code 590.320(d) (2012). See, e.g., Jones v. Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services, 689 F.2d 724 (7th Cir. 1982) (deaf student who qualified for financial assistance with college tuition, books, and room and board was entitled to 100% of the costs of the interpreter services needed to accommodate his hearing disability).

         ¶ 6 In early 2016, Williams filed a new application with the Illinois vocational rehabilitation program in which he asked for resources to start a business creating and marketing instructional DVDs. Although Williams does not have a law degree, he proposed giving advice on "how to do your own divorce" and "how to file bankruptcy." His third instructional topic was "how to do your own auto repairs." Williams's request for $81, 138 in cash included $3067 for the purchase of a "Camcorder," camera tripod, and related equipment; $36, 000 for a "TV commercial;" $5000 for a "Call Center;" and $22, 000 for a vehicle to be used as his transportation (not as the subject of his automobile repair video). Williams made clear that he had no resources to contribute to his proposed enterprise.

         ¶ 7 The agency denied the application, citing the agency regulations requiring Williams to contribute some of the funding and prohibiting the agency from providing cash to establish a business or more than $10, 000 in resources. The agency advised Williams that in order to support his proposal to begin a business that required $81, 138, "You must provide evidence of $71, 138 in resources to cover the expense over the $10, 000 [limit]," or that he could submit a scaled back plan that nevertheless indicated he could cover 50% of the eligible costs and that the agency would contribute no more than $10, 000 in resources.

         ¶ 8 Williams asked for an exception to the state regulations, which the bureau chief denied.

         ¶ 9 Williams then administratively appealed in mid-2016. He and his rehabilitation counselor submitted written exhibits to the administrative hearing officer and testified during a hearing convened in October 2016. The agency's written submissions included Williams's application and the agency's internal e-mails about the request. In his written submissions to the hearing officer, Williams contended that his 2016 application corrected defects that a hearing officer identified in Williams's previous application for resources to start an instructional video enterprise. Williams contended that the various state regulations, which capped the agency's contribution towards a self-employment plan at $10, 000, required that he pay 50% of the costs, and imposed other terms, were inconsistent with federal requirements for vocational rehabilitation services.

         ¶ 10 At the start of the telephonic hearing, the hearing officer reminded Williams that as the petitioning party, he bore the burden of proving that the defendant agency had erroneously denied his application:

"ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING OFFICER: Let me explain how the hearing will proceed. Mr. Williams you have the responsibility to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that the action or inaction by DRS [(Division of Rehabilitation Services)] was not in accordance with federal or state laws or regulations[, ] against DRS policy, not in accordance with your plan[, ] or inappropriate for you.
TODD WILLIAMS: Okay, I want to add that I received from the bureau of administrative hearings in the mail *** your procedures and it states in there a set of regulations, 29 U.S.C. 722, and within that federal regulation that they said that the [agency] is supposed to *** only consider state policies and regulations that are consistent with federal requirements.
ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING OFFICER: Okay, so do you have a question?
TODD WILLIAMS: No, no, no, no, I just wanted to bring that up for the record.
ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING OFFICER: Okay, then did you have a point?
TODD WILLIAMS: Well, *** it says that *** most of the burden of proof is on me but, one of the federal requirements is that the [agency] cannot arbitrarily put any limitations on the nature or scope of rehabilitation services. And *** it says whatever reason they give cannot be arbitrary.
TODD WILLIAMS: So, would that not kind of like shift part of the burden over to them?
ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING OFFICER: No, because it's your burden to prove that their action was incorrect.
TODD WILLIAMS: Okay, but, what if they don't have a reason to *** not provide [or] put any limitations on *** the scope of my services?
ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING OFFICER: Then you have to show that that was incorrect.
ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING OFFICER: They don't have to show that it was correct, you have to show ...

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