Earlier today, we previewed Bjork v. O’Meara, a case about the perils of challenging a will too late. Now we preview a case about timing your claim for attorneys fees: Rodriquez v. Department of Financial and Professional Regulation [pdf].

The defendant Department sued Rodriquez for violating the Medical Practice Act. The parties agreed to stay all proceedings while the defendant argued about the rules of game: he believed that the discovery and evidence rules were unlawful. In the end, he had some success: the courts refused to grant him deposition subpoenas, but struck down section 1110.220 of the Department’s rules for administrative proceedings. The Department closed the file, but the plaintiff wasn’t finished — he sued for his legal fees incurred in killing off section 1110.220.

The case turns on Section 55(c) of the Administrative Procedure Act: "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 attorneys’ fees."

But when can such a claim be brought, the Attorney General asked — usually, attorneys’ fees claims are coupled with the underlying action. Since the administrative claim was over when the attorneys’ fees claim started, had the plaintiff waited too long?

No, the Appellate Court held. The statute said nothing about a time limit, and the claim for fees didn’t accrue until the rule was struck down anyway.  The court followed the decision in Town of Libertyville v. Bank of Waukegan, 152 Ill.App.3d 1066, 1073 (1987), holding that a claim for fees was collateral to the underlying action when it was outside the issues in the case and the authorizing statute set no time limit for the claim.

Is a claim for fees lost if it’s not coupled with a challenge to administrative rules? One can imagine an efficiency argument for answering the question "yes," despite the lack of limitations in the statute. We should learn the answer late this year or sometime in 2013 from the Illinois Supreme Court.