I like reading Rule 23 orders. In Illinois, Rule 23 orders are decisions by the Appellate Court that can’t be used as precedent except in very limited circumstances. They often fall within two categories. The first category consists of scenarios that happen so often, it would be silly to publish all of them. It’s the same issues over, and over, and over again. Even though it can get boring reading these particular decisions, they are excellent if you are looking for the most recent analysis of a common issue. It can do wonders for your brief writing, and can significantly reduce your research time.

The second category, what I refer to as the “fun stuff”, deals with black swan events and fact scenarios that are so off the rails that publishing those opinions would do more harm than good. These are the diamonds in the rough. These Rule 23 orders can help you out of a tough spot, or even better yet, help you avoid nasty problems before they happen. I strongly recommend that attorneys read through Rule 23 orders on a regular basis. It will prepare them for those times when they find themselves in a situation that “only happens to them.” We all know that feeling, don’t we?

Here is a procedural nightmare that I found to be very instructive for those of us who are inclined to avoid getting our cases stuck in procedural purgatory:

Carlinville United School District No. 1 v. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2020 IL App (4th) 190548WC-U (Rule 23)

On April 3, 2017, the Commission found that petitioner had failed to prove she sustained accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of her employment. The Commission denied the claim for benefits. The Petitioner appealed to the Circuit Court, and on December 8, 2017, the circuit court made the following docket entry: “Ruling – The Commission decision is AGAINST the manifest weight of the evidence. Clerk to forward docket entry to attorneys of record.” Petitioner appealed the docket entry and Respondent moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that an order reversing an award and remanding the case to the Commission was interlocutory and not appealable. Attached to Respondent’s motion was a printout from the Commission representing that on December 8, 2017, the circuit court remanded the case to the Commission – although the court’s docket entry of that date contains no mention of a reversal or remand. The Appellate court agreed that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction and dismissed the appeal.

The Commission issued its second decision on November 30, 2018 awarding Petitioner $31,556.50 in medical benefits, 10% loss of use of the right hand, 10% loss of use of the left hand, 10% loss of use of the right arm, and 10% loss of use of the left arm. Respondent filed for circuit court review of the Commission’s second decision. The Circuit Court confirmed the decision, the the cases again came before the Appellate Court.

Look at what the Appellate Court had to say about this matter:

That the Commission’s first decision contradicts the manifest weight of the evidence is, as we said, a finding by the circuit court, and we express no opinion about the finding. But we wish to point out the distinction between a finding and a disposition based on a finding. There is a difference between a finding by the circuit court, e.g., that the Commission’s decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence, and what the circuit court decides to do about the finding. Findings should result in a stated disposition. 

The Appellate Court cited to Section 19(f)(2) of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, which  gives the circuit court 3 options when it comes to dispositions:

  1. The circuit court may confirm the Commission’s decision, or
  2. The circuit court may set aside the Commission’s decision, and if the record is factually sufficient, enter a decision that is legally justified, or
  3. The circuit court may set aside the Commission’s decision and remand the case to the Commission for further proceedings with directions tot he Commission, if necessary.

In the Carlinville case, the circuit court did none of those things. The Appellate Court determined that the docket entry of December 8, 2017 contained no disposition, and therefore, the Commission’s first decision was still pending in the circuit court. The Appellate court found that the manifest weight finding in the docket entry of December 8, 2017 to be interlocutory, and to the date of THIS decision by the Appellate Court, the circuit court remains free to rescind that finding and make the opposite finding.

Then how did the Commission come up with the second decision, you may ask?

The Appellate Court answered by stating that the Commission assumed that on December 8, 2017, the circuit court remanded the case to the Commission. But the Appellate Court explained that there was no judicial order to that effect, and could find no statute that authorizes the Commission to change its final decision denying workers’ compensation benefits into a final decision awarding such benefits. And since any action taken by the Commission outside its statutory authority is void, and the courts have an independent duty to vacate void orders, the Appellate Court did just that.

So how did it all end up?

The Appellate Court vacated the Commission’s second decision. The Appellate Court also vacated the Circuit Court’s 2nd judgment based on the Commission’s second decision. This means that the Circuit Court’s first administrative review action, the one from way back in 2017, remains pending and awaiting a disposition pursuant to Section 19(f)(2) of the Act, and the Appellate Court remanded the case to the Circuit Court with directions to enter a disposition. That’s right. Almost two and a half years of work down the tubes.

How can this be avoided?

Here are a couple of ideas for avoiding this problem:

  1. When you brief the circuit court, make sure you address Section 19(f)(2) in your prayer for relief. Not all circuit court judges are as familiar with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act as the Appellate Court’s Workers’ Compensation Division judges.
  2. If for any reason you get a decision from a circuit court judge that does not include a disposition, file a motion to reconsider and emphasize the need for a proper disposition. Maybe you even go so far as to provide a copy of this Rule 23 order to both the court and your opponent. Even though Rule 23 orders are only supposed to be cited in support of contentions of double jeopardy, res judicata, collateral estoppel or law of the case, I’m sure that both your opponent and the court will be grateful for the “heads up”, especially when they realize it could save everybody involved years of wasted time and effort.

Are you trying to navigate a workers’ compensation claim on your own and find yourself stuck in no-man’s land? Or maybe you’re a new attorney who is stuck and doesn’t know what to do next? Feel free to contact me. I just might have a Rule 23 order tucked away in my archives that directly addresses your particular procedural nightmare.