SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Supreme Court has upheld a Lake County judge's decision to clear the name of a local school teacher accused of abusing her own child, saying the lower court judge was correct to allow her to have her day in court to challenge a state agency's finding against her.
Christine Grimm filed suit in Lake County Circuit Court soon after receiving a letter from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in late July 2013 informing her the department was denying her request to have the matter in question expunged from her record. DCFS based its decision on the assertion that her request was untimely in that it exceeded, by one day, the 35 days given to file for an administrative review on such matters.
In his decision, Lake County Judge Christopher C. Starck cited the “interests of justice" in backing the teacher's contention she should have been allowed to file her challenge to the DCFS action, despite the technical violation. The trial court also sided with Grimm, finding the DCFS' decision to be "clearly erroneous," prompting DCFS to appeal.
The Illinois Second District Appellate Court affirmed the circuit court ruling, saying the case should have been heard to uphold Grimm's rights to due process.
The state Supreme Court, in its 5-2 decision, highlighted the DCFS director’s failure in the letter to Grimm to clearly tell her the date her jurisdictional review period was to begin. This, the majority said deprived her of a fair opportunity to file all her needed paperwork to challenge the department's decision within the time frame allowed.
Justice Mary Jane Theis authored the majority opinion. Justices Charles E. Freeman, Thomas L. Kilbride, Rita B. Garman and Anne M. Burke concurred.
The state Supreme Court justices also noted the letter was confusing in its nature, particularly when it came to the issue of the mailing date, thus robbing Grimm of at least a measure of her ability to clearly decipher the date and accurately plot a legal course of action.
"Certainly, an administrative agency like the Department has no constitutional duty to inform a party affected by one of its decisions of the statutory right to judicial review or the jurisdictional window in which to exercise that right," Theis wrote for the majority. " When an agency chooses to do so, however, its information must not be misleading."
Justice Robert R. Thomas. joined by Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier, authored a dissenting opinion, contending the case could have been summarily dismissed on the grounds Grimm failed to precisely comply with the guidelines set forth in the Review Law. This would have left the circuit court unauthorized to take the kind of special statutory measures needed to find in her favor.
In their dissent, they also argued Grimm’s rights to due process were met when she was notified of the administrative finding, sought an administrative appeal, participated in a hearing before an administrative law judge and received a final administrative decision by the director.
They added that efforts not even required by law had been made to assure that Grimm was made aware of her right to seek judicial review and all the guidelines associated with the process.
"I would say that, like the majority, I sympathize with plaintiff’s plight," wrote Thomas. "It is truly unfortunate that she could not find an attorney before the jurisdictional deadline had run. Her plight, however, had nothing at all to do with a violation of her constitutional rights by the Department."
According to Illinois court records, attorney Eric F. Rinehart, of the firm of Malia & Rinehart, of Waukegan, represented Grimm.
DCFS was represented by the Illinois Attorney General's office.