Illinois Capitol, seen from steps of Illinois Supreme Court, Springfield | Jonathan Bilyk
A new ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court finds that state courts can delay judicial proceedings while awaiting a decision from a state agency, but cannot delay agency proceedings while related cases are pending in court.
The court reached its unanimous decision after considering West Bend Mutual Insurance Company v. TRRS Corporation, which involved a complicated back-and-forth of motions to stay and vacate judgments.
Gary Bernardino was injured while working for TRRS and Commercial Tire Services Inc., which were insured by West Bend. According to the insurance company, Bernardino’s employers paid for his lost wages and medical expenses out of pocket without filing a worker’s compensation insurance claim. It was almost a year later when West Bend learned of Bernardino’s on-the-job injury, after he filed a claim with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (IWCC). Bernardino also sued his employers seeking recovery for his injury.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride
West Bend asked the court for a declaratory judgment stating that it had no duty to defend or indemnify TRRS and Commercial Tire in the lawsuit or against the worker’s compensation claim because the companies had not filed timely notice of Bernardino’s injury. The insurer also asked the court to put a hold on an IWCC proceeding on Bernardino’s claim until its liability had been decided.
The court granted the motion to stay, and Bernardino promptly filed his own motion asking it to vacate that order. Bernardino argued the issues of fact were best decided by the IWCC, and it should be West Bend’s request for declaratory judgment that should be put on hold.
The circuit court denied Bernardino’s motion and stayed the pending IWCC proceeding. Bernardino again asked the court to vacate that order, introducing a new argument that he did not believe West Bend’s insurance policy even covered the worksite where his injury occurred. He later filed an interlocutory appeal - essentially, seeking to ask an appellate court to answer the question of law now gripping the matters.
The appellate court found the circuit judge incorrectly applied the doctrine of primary jurisdiction in staying the administrative proceeding and allowing the judicial one. The Supreme Court agreed that the doctrine only allows the circuit court to stay its own judicial proceedings pending the decision of an administrative agency – it does not permit the court to stay an agency’s proceedings pending judicial review.
The primary jurisdiction doctrine potentially applies to the dispute over West Bend’s declaratory judgment action, Justice Thomas L. Kilbride wrote in the court’s opinion, but the insurance company did not ask the court for the relief the doctrine provides – the stay of a judicial proceeding pending a resolution by an administrative agency. Instead, Kilbride wrote, West Bend asked for the opposite – that the doctrine be used to stay an IWCC review pending a judicial decision.
“The rationale underlying the primary jurisdiction doctrine is inconsistent with an order staying an administrative proceeding,” Kilbride wrote. “The doctrine operates to facilitate, not delay or otherwise hinder, an administrative agency’s resolution of a technical or specialized issue.”
In agreeing with the appellate court, the Supreme Court overturned its 2012 decision in Hastings Mutual Insurance Co. v. Ultimate Backyard LLC to the extent that it relied on the doctrine to stay a workers’ compensation proceeding. The West Bend case was remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings.