Argument Report: Does Voluntarily Dismissing a Custody Petition Mean You Get Hit With The Psychologist's Fees?
In our detailed summary of the underlying facts and lower court opinions in In re Marriage of Tiballi, we wrote that the question presented was whether a parent who voluntarily dismisses a custody petition can be hit with the full amount of the fees of a court-appointed child psychologist. Based upon the lively oral argument before the Illinois Supreme Court in the January term, it appears that the Court may hold that the prerequisite for that issue is missing because Tiballi doesn't involve a voluntary dismissal. All told, the court asked the parties 57 questions in slightly less than 40 minutes.
The parties divorced in 2005. In 2010, the father petitioned for a change in their child's residential custodian. The court appointed a psychologist, as authorized by the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, to submit a recommendation on custody. Not long after, the mother moved to dismiss, claiming that the father had decided he didn't want to proceed. After an order of dismissal was entered, the mother moved to amend the order to permit her to seek an award of costs. She then filed a petition for an award of slightly less than $5,000 -- her share of the psychologist's costs (the original order of appointment had provided that the fees would be split). The trial court granted the petition. The Second District affirmed, holding that the psychologist's fees qualified as "costs" under 735 ILCS 5/2-1009, which provides that a plaintiff may voluntarily dismiss an action "upon payment of costs." The court found that the fees were analogous to court costs because the court retained the expert, not the parties, and the psychologist's fees were not subject to negotiation by the parties. Justice Kathryn E. Zenoff dismissed, concluding that the case hadn't been "voluntarily dismissed" in the first place, so Section 1009 was irrelevant.
Counsel for the father began by arguing that the issue was whether costs of an expert can be taxed upon voluntary dismissal. Justice Theis asked how this case could be characterized as a voluntary dismissal. Counsel responded that once the psychologist's report was completed, counsel for the father had told counsel for the mother that he would voluntarily dismiss. Justice Theis asked whether the exchange was in the record, and counsel answered that the order assessing costs was entered pursuant to Section 1009, the voluntary dismissal statute. Justice Theis asked whether it was a voluntary dismissal where a motion to dismiss was filed, the court entered it, and the plaintiff later objected to the dismissal. Counsel answered that both parties agreed that the case involved a voluntary dismissal. Justice Thomas asked whether, in fact, the court had the authority -- and indeed, the responsibility, to allocate fees. Yes, counsel answered, but that's not what the trial court did here. Justice Thomas asked whether the cause should be remanded for the court to consider allocation of the psychologist's fees pursuant to the standards set forth in Section 604(b) of the Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act. Counsel answered that the court's action had foreclosed the parties' right to a hearing under Section 604(b) determining reasonableness and allocation of the fees. Justice Thomas asked whether the father was okay with a remand for allocation under Section 604(b). Counsel answered yes, that the trial court's action had greatly expanded taxable costs to a voluntarily dismissing litigants. Counsel argued that there were three bases for reversal: (1) the ruling was directly contrary to Illinois law; (2) the ruling was a strong deterrent for litigants to voluntarily dismiss; and (3) there were too many distinctions between routine costs and these fees to lump them together as taxable to a voluntarily dismissing litigant. Justice Freeman asked what the distinction was between court costs and litigation costs. Counsel responded that the Second District's opinion laid out several: court costs are fixed and mandatory; litigation costs are not imposed by court. No judgment or court order is needed to impose court costs. Justice Freeman asked how the fact that the psychologist's report was never used factored in. Counsel responded that the fees were analogous to a Supreme Court case distinguished by the Appellate Court below, Galowich v. Beech Aircraft Corp., which permitted the recovery of only a limited share of expenses for depositions necessarily used at trial. Justice Kilbride asked how the evaluation came about. Counsel responded that a guardian ad litem was appointed, and the guardian suggested a 604(b) custody evaluation. The court then appointed the examiner on its own motion. Justice Kilbride asked whether it mattered that the court had decided to make the appointment, rather than a litigant requesting the appointment. Counsel responded that by definition the examiner is appointed by the court. Justice Theis pointed out that it was several steps down the road to dismissal that the parties first spoke in terms of voluntary dismissal. Counsel argued that the father's only recourse, once the examiner's report came back, was to voluntarily dismiss, since it was clear he would not prevail. Justice Theis pointed out that the father didn't file a motion to voluntarily dismiss. Counsel responded that the motion to dismiss from the mother had been the result of the telephone conversation in which counsel for the father made it clear he was dropping the petition. Chief Justice Garman noted that in her experience, a litigant wishing to voluntarily dismiss brings a motion reciting that the party had already tendered payment of costs to the other side. Counsel responded that the father didn't know what the costs were until the mother brought her motion, so he had no chance to tender costs. The Chief asked whether the mother brought up the matter of the psychologist's fees or the court did. Counsel answered that the mother had brought a motion for reimbursement of costs under Section 2-1009, the voluntary dismissal statute. The mother did not ask for a Section 604(b) hearing on allocation and reasonableness. Justice Burke suggested that this case was different from deposition fees under Galowich. Counsel answered that certainly there was a distinction between deposition fees and this examiner's fees, but Galowich offered guidance. Justice Theis pointed out that Section 604(b) says that the court may seek the advice of professionals relating to custody. Counsel answered that further down, the statute provides for a hearing on reasonableness and allocation of fees. Justice Theis asked whether, when the court began considering fees under the voluntary dismissal statute, counsel had objected and demanded a Section 604(b) hearing. Counsel responded that trial counsel had done so.
Before counsel for the mother began, Justice Thomas asked why the court shouldn't remand for allocation under Section 604(b). Counsel answered that the case posed an important issue, and was a good vehicle to resolve the issue. Justice Thomas asked how the court could allow a determination under Section 2-1009 to stand if it found there was no voluntary dismissal in the first place. He noted that the guardian had recommended a custody evaluation. Counsel answered that the guardian had advised the court that the custody issues were unlikely to be resolved without an evaluation. Justice Thomas noted that the original order of appointment had provided that costs should be shared without prejudice to ultimate allocation. But then, dismissal had been entered less than twenty-four hours after a motion was filed, without objection by either side. So why should the court not reverse and remand for a Section 604(b) allocation? Counsel responded that the parties had a trial date, and that counsel for the father had informed her that he wasn't going to trial. She had been authorized to let the court know immediately. Justice Theis asked whether any of that was in the record. Counsel responded that it was in the briefs. Justice Theis pointed out that the order of dismissal had been entered in response to the mother's motion, and asked how one party could "voluntarily" dismiss another's action. Counsel responded that she had moved in order to take the case out of limbo. The father had sought to modify or vacate the order of dismissal so that he could be heard. The court had entertained that motion, and the result was to modify the dismissal to be without prejudice. At that point, the parties had started to talk in terms of voluntary dismissal, and the mother had become entitled to costs under Section 2-1009. Justice Karmeier pointed out that the matter didn't belong under Section 2-1009 if the court found that it wasn't a voluntary dismissal. Counsel responded that it was a voluntary dismissal. Justice Karmeier suggested that the words "without prejudice" didn't make it voluntary, and the parties' concern seemed to be just with whether or not dismissal was with prejudice. Counsel responded that the idea of with or without prejudice means little in custody law, where a court always looks to the best interests of the child. Justice Thomas noted that counsel had said the mother would prevail in an allocation, but the issue was too important not to answer now. Was the issue whether psychologist's fees could be allocated in a nonsuit? Counsel agreed it was. Then didn't counsel see the problem if the court didn't think it was a nonsuit? Counsel responded that both sides had presented the matter as a voluntary nonsuit below. Justice Thomas suggested that the court had an obligation to send the case back if the costs were decided under the wrong statute. Counsel argued that the case presented an important issue for counsel in the area. Justice Burke asked whether the lower court's ruling would open up a lot of items to be called costs and taxed to a dismissing plaintiff. Counsel disagreed, arguing that the amount involved here was non-negotiable. Justice Burke asked how the psychologist's fees were distinguished from guardian ad litem fees. Counsel responded that in her view, the guardian's fees should have been awarded as well.
We expect Tiballi to be decided in 3-4 months.