While individuals can represent themselves pro se, pursuant to English common law as far back as the 1600s, business entities must be represented by an attorney in court. However, as many property owners know, this rule has never really been enforced by the Chicago Department of Administrative Hearings. Whether it was a Streets and Sanitation Violation for an overflowing dumpster, or a more significant building violation, a company representative could simply appear on the hearing date and present evidence or otherwise attempt to resolve the matter without an attorney. However, following the recent appellate court opinion in Stone St. Partners, LLC v. City of Chicago Dep't of Admin. Hearings, all entities must now be represented by counsel in administrative matters, no matter how big or small the case.
In Stone Street, the City of Chicago sued Stone Street Partners, LLC for certain building code violations for a property it owned. A person claiming to be an agent of the company appeared at the hearing on the company’s behalf. Despite not being an attorney, this agent presented evidence in defense of the violation, but ultimately lost the argument and the City entered judgment against the company.
Stone Street later moved to vacate the judgment claiming this agent never had authority to appear on the company’s behalf. The City of Chicago argued that its Administrative Rules specifically allowed non-attorneys to appear on behalf of entities because these hearings were not complicated and did not require specific legal knowledge or skills. The First District Appellate Court disagreed, and noted that legal expertise is required in cases that involve “testimony from sworn witnesses, interpretation of laws and ordinances, and can result in the imposition of punitive fines.” The court believed that the case at hand involved these matters and the court invalidated whatever rules the City of Chicago had created because only the Illinois Supreme Court can regulate the practice of law. The City of Chicago also argued that pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 282(b), corporations may defend against small claims cases through a non-attorney officer or manager. However, the court noted that small claims are defined in Illinois Supreme Court Rule 281 as “civil action[s] based on either tort or contract for money not in excess of $10,000...” The court therefore held that Rule 282(b) was inapplicable as these administrative claims are based on city ordinances, rather than tort or contract.
While the City of Chicago is currently appealing Stone Street, it is taking the ruling seriously and following the courts instructions. As such, if a representative of a corporation or LLC appears at a hearing without an attorney, the administrative judge will grant a continuance to allow the defendant to obtain counsel. Failure to obtain counsel by this continued date will likely result in a default judgment.
 Stone St. Partners, LLC v. City of Chicago Dep't of Admin. Hearings, 2014 IL App (1st) 123654, appeal pending (Sept. 2014),