As we wrote in our preview of Rodriquez v. Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, private attorney general statutes are not uncommon in the law. Such statutes provide that if a private plaintiff provides, by his or her suit, what the legislature regards as a public service, the plaintiff gets his or her attorney's fees back.
But do you have to bring your fees claim with -- or at minimum, just after -- your initial lawsuit? With respect to one such statute, Section 10-55(c) of the Illinois Administrative Procedure Act, the Illinois Supreme Court held last week that the answer was "yes," unanimously reversing the Appellate Court.
Rodriquez began when the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation opened an investigation of the plaintiff, filing a complaint under section 22 of the Medical Practice Act. The administrative action was stayed while the plaintiff pursued various challenges. First, the plaintiff unsuccessfully sought an order compelling issuance of deposition subpoenas. The following year, the plaintiff challenged the administrative rule governing hearsay in the Department's administrative hearings.
The Circuit Court initially granted summary judgment, striking down the rule. But the Department filed a motion for relief from the judgment, and the Circuit Court vacated its own order. On appeal, the Appellate Court reversed, reinstating the original order striking down the rule. More than a year later, the plaintiff filed a petition for an award of attorney's fees under Section 10-55(c) (5 ILCS 100/10-55(c)):
In any case in which a party has any administrative rule invalidated by a court for any reason . . . the court shall award the party bringing the action the reasonable expenses of the litigation, including reasonable attorney's fees.
The Circuit Court entered summary judgment against the plaintiff, holding that the attorney's fees action was barred by res judicata. The Appellate Court reversed, holding that the right to attorney's fees was a separate action, and that the right to fees only ripened after the initial action ended.
In an opinion by Justice Rita B. Garman, the Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that the words "the court" in the statute referred to the court which invalidated the administrative rule at issue. Therefore, the Court reasoned, a plaintiff must bring a fees claim before the court which heard the rule challenge while it still maintained jurisdiction over the action.
The plaintiff argued that there was no express time limit in the statute, and the Court was not free to import one. But the Court found that in fact the plain language of the statute did include a time limitation -- the requirement that an action for fees be brought before the court which heard the original substantive action. The parties disputed exactly when the underlying administrative rule had been overturned -- at the time of the original order, or when the Appellate Court reversed the Circuit Court's order reconsidering its original order -- but the Supreme Court held that it didn't matter: the Circuit Court had lost jurisdiction over the case by the time the plaintiff filed his fees request pursuant to either date.
The Court quickly disposed of two further alternative arguments made by the plaintiff, holding that a fees claim could be brought either with the original rules challenge, or immediately after the rule was struck down, and that a fees claim was not a "collateral" matter over which the court retained jurisdiction indefinitely.
Of course, every statute has to be interpreted in light of its own particular language, case law and legislative history. But the lesson from Rodriquez seems fairly clear: a fees claim which is delayed for any significant period after the original action may well be time-barred.