Illinois’ highest state court has sidestepped delivering a definitive answer to the question of whether non-lawyers can represent corporations in administrative law proceedings. 

But justices of the Illinois Supreme Court have let stand an appellate court’s finding that the city of Chicago can’t sidestep the need to properly send ordinance violation notices by citing the appearance at an administrative hearing by just anyone purportedly on behalf of a company the city may be seeking to fine.   

Illinois Supreme Court justices
Illinois Supreme Court justices

In a 4-3 opinion filed Feb. 17, the state high court ruled the city of Chicago did not give a business sufficient notice of pending ordinance violation charges. 

At issue was an appeal of the dismissal of a lawsuit brought against the city by property management firm Stone Street Partners. 

The litigation stems from a 1999 order entered by the city against the business over code violations at some of its buildings in Chicago. According to court documents, notice of the violations was sent to the property address, rather than to the business’ registered agent or business address, as city ordinance requires. However, at the scheduled administrative proceedings over the alleged violations, a man who was not an attorney appeared, purportedly on behalf of Stone Street, and entered some written evidence, again supposedly on behalf of the company. 

The company was found guilty, and ordered to pay a $1,050 fine. The fine went unpaid, however, as Stone Street later asserted it had no knowledge of the administrative enforcement action against it, until the city moved to register the judgment in Cook County court in 2009. 

Stone Street challenged the ruling, but a Cook County judge granted the city’s motion to dismiss. A state appellate panel affirmed portions of the dismissal, but also overturned one count, saying Supreme Court rules allowing non-lawyers to represent corporations in certain civil actions in which damages of less than $10,000 are sought cannot be applied to city administrative actions, because the administrative actions are not based on either contracts or tort. Therefore, the appellate justices said, the corporation must be represented by a lawyer in the proceedings, under the court’s rules. 

Affirming the appellate court’s judgment were Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier, who wrote the opinion, as well as Justices Robert R. Thomas, Thomas L. Kilbride and Rita B. Garman. Dissenting were Justices Charles E. Freeman, who wrote an opinion, as well as Anne M. Burke and Mary Jane Theis. 

In arguing the appeal, the city continued to maintain its administrative proceedings do not require specialized legal background, but also suggested the Supreme Court has the “inherent authority to regulate the practice of law” and find the lay representation admissible, per Karmeier. 

However, the majority determined it did not need to consider the appropriateness of a layman representing Stone Street because the person, identified as Keith Johnson, “did not represent Stone Street in any capacity.” His only connection, per the opinion, was through Philip Farley, the now deceased elderly father of Brian Farley, Stone Street’s lawyer and one of its members. The elder Farley, having suffered a stroke, was not involved with Stone Street management. 

While Johnson, also now deceased, did complete a form indicating he was appearing on behalf of the corporation, he did not check any of the four options for indicating his relationship to Stone Street. 

“Even if one agreed with the city that the proceedings were so rudimentary that no ‘trained legal mind’ was required,” Karmeier wrote, “the bar for adequate representation is not so low that we will deem it satisfied by someone who cannot make a check mark on the simplest of forms.” 

The case is remanded to circuit court for future proceedings. 

Freeman’s dissent noted the majority did not address the issue of unauthorized practicing of law — and had it, he would have held corporate representation in this matter does not constitute practicing law — and also that its opinion effectively negates the original fine. 

The latter is problematic because although the city has destroyed “most” of the administrative record relating to the fine, in accordance with the Local Records Act, some records remain, enough that it is not clearly established that Stone Street’s jurisdiction was not waived. Johnson’s appearance at the Sept. 9, 1999, hearing is one thing, but Freeman said the events of an Aug. 12, 1999, hearing also should be factored in determining the merits of the original complaint. 

“The majority’s conclusion is based on an incomplete record, which requires the majority to engage in speculation, conjecture and assumptions to arrive at its conclusion,” Freeman wrote. “Frankly, the minimal record we do have raises more questions than it answers.”

According to court records, Stone Street was represented in the action by attorney Richard F. Linden, of Chicago. 

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City of Chicago Cook County Circuit Court Illinois First District Appellate Court Illinois Supreme Court Law Offices of Richard Linden

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