Chicago associations are all too familiar with the City of Chicago’s ability to enforce the provisions of its building, sanitation and fire code. Violations of the City’s municipal code can carry substantial fines and, in some circumstances, injunctive relief compelling a condominium association to perform work immediately. Since the financial consequences of a cited failure to comply with City’s municipal code can be substantial, it is prudent for all Chicago associations to be aware of the violation process and the value counsel can provide.
Associations should be aware that the method of service in code violation cases differs from that in civil lawsuits. As many are aware, most lawsuits are typically initiated by the personal service of papers by a Sherriff or private process server. On the other hand, when the City prosecutes violations of the municipal code, the notice will often be sent through the mail. Simply mailing the notice is sufficient for a condominium association to be subject to the jurisdiction of a Chicago administrative court and the City’s enforcement of the provisions of the municipal code.
Once an association receives a notice of violation through the mail, it is important to move quickly to remedy the alleged violations. For many violations, it will be a defense to the assessment of fines if the defect has been corrected by the initial hearing date. With that being said, the City will not take this position in certain instances, often, when the violation is deemed severe or can carry large fines. Attempting to correct a violation is imperative even if the work cannot be completed by the first court date. Entering into a work contract or obtaining bids from contractors will at least inform the City that the violation is being taken seriously and efforts are being made to correct the violation. If an association is especially slow in completing required work and numerous court appearances become necessary, the risk of fines only increases, as well as the amount of those fines.
Also, upon receipt of a violation notice, it is essential to contact counsel to discuss the potential fines that an association can be subject to as well as the defenses that can potentially be asserted. For example, counsel can provide guidance on whether an association is liable for the alleged violations, as associations are somewhat frequently cited for violations for which they should not be held liable. Additionally, many of the building and fire code violation cases are prosecuted by the City’s Corporation Counsel. Corporation Counsel is vigilant in its attempts to obtain fines. Defense counsel is crucial in protecting the rights of an association against a prosecutor that will try to capitalize on a party’s unfamiliarity with the law and the administrative process.
The City of Chicago will prosecute the vast majority of municipal code violation cases at the City’s administrative hearing building, which is located at 400 West Superior Street. These proceedings will be held in front of an administrative law judge, who works for the City of Chicago. An administrative law judge only has the ability to assess fines, and the City cannot obtain injunctive relief if it brings a case at 400 West Superior Street. Therefore, if a condominium association receives a notice for a hearing at 400 West Superior Street, it should be aware that its potential liability is solely monetary.
The City will pursue what it deems to be its most severe violations in Cook County Circuit Court. These violations often involve infractions of the City’s fire code. Due to the City’s concerns that these violations present immediate health and safety concerns, the City will pursue these cases in a setting where injunctive relief can be obtained. As previously stated, injunctive relief will allow the City to obtain an order mandating an association to perform specific work or take specific action. In the event that an association cannot afford to or simply fails to perform ordered work, the City may move for the appointment of a receiver. The receiver will assure that the work is performed and; subsequently, a lien will be filed against the association’s property for the cost of the work performed by the receiver. The use of a receiver is a drastic remedy. Moreover, the imposition of a receiver can have severe consequences as the lien will constitute a cloud on a unit owner’s title. This lien can deflate the market value of a unit and make it difficult to eventually sell a unit. The potential remedy of a receiver once again demonstrates why it is important for a condominium association to move quickly in correcting code violations.
It is important to point out what I believe is the most commonly cited for violation by the City of Chicago. The City will habitually enforce its permit application requirements. As many are aware, certain work requires a permit from the City prior to beginning that work. The City views its permit requirements seriously, as the permit process is a substantial revenue generator. The frequent enforcement of permits highlights the fact that associations should be diligent and should assure that contractors are applying for permits prior to performing work.
Always keep in mind that municipal code citations, and the resulting fines, are a revenue stream for the City. Therefore, the City will be aggressive in its attempts to assess fines, often regardless of the reason or defense to the alleged violation. However, through the assistance of counsel, an association can assure that it avoids maximum fines and unwarranted liability.
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