Our preview of the September term of the Illinois Supreme Court continues with Rodriquez v. Department of Financial and Professional Regulation [pdf]. Rodriquez is the third case on the Court’s docket this month that turns on res judicata, following Hernandez v. Bernstein and Cooney v. Rossiter.

A great many statutes allow successful plaintiffs to collect attorneys fees on the theory that they’ve conferred a benefit on the general public — they’re called "private attorney general" statutes.

But do you have to couple your fees request with your challenge? Or is your request unripe until you’ve won?

The defendant filed disciplinary charges against the plaintiff under the Medical Practice Act of 1987. The parties agreed to stay the proceedings while the plaintiff pursued two circuit court actions seeking to clarify the discovery and evidence rules applicable to such administrative disciplinary hearings.

First, plaintiff filed suit seeking deposition subpoenas. He lost, and the Appellate Court affirmed. But the second time around, he had better luck; plaintiff challenged one of the Department’s rules for contested cases in administrative hearings on the grounds that it conflicted with the enabling statute. The trial court agreed, as did the Appellate Court.

Not long after, following a settlement meeting, the Department issued a letter concluding that no violation of the Medical Practice Act had occurred, and closing its file without prejudice. The Department refused to dismiss its case with prejudice pursuant to "long-standing practice."

Six months later, the plaintiff sued the Department again, arguing under Section 1-55(c) of the Illinois Administrative Procedure Act, 5 ILCS 100/10-55(c) that he was entitled to attorneys fees incurred in getting the administrative rule struck down. But the trial court tossed the plaintiff’s case out, holding that he should have brought his fees claim in the original action challenging the rule, and his claim was now barred by res judicata.

The Appellate Court reversed. Section 1-55(c) contained no time limit or specific filing requirement, the Court pointed out; if the legislature had wanted to require that a fees claim be bundled with the underlying challenge, it would have said so. Allowing collateral litigation would have little impact on judicial efficiency, according to the Court, and the plaintiff had little choice anyway: his claim for fees didn’t accrue until he won his underlying challenge.

Rodriquez will be argued at the 9:30 am session of the Court on Wednesday, September 19, 2012. Join us back here tomorrow for a preview of the argument in Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad Company.