On Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court handed down its decision in In re Marriage of Tiballi, answering a question of potential importance to domestic relations practitioners: are the fees of a court-appointed psychologist “costs” which must be fully paid when one party decides to drop a custody dispute? A unanimous court found that the answer was “no.”

Tiballi began when the parties divorced in 2005. The judgment of dissolution awarded the parties joint legal custody of their daughter, but placed residential custody with the mother. In 2010, the father petitioned for modification of custody, asking that he be named residential custodian. In the petition, the father alleged that the mother had been verbally and physically abusive towards the daughter, who had expressed a desire to live with the father. In her response, the mother demanded sanctions under Supreme Court Rule 137, alleging that the father had charged her with abuse knowing that the allegations were false.

Shortly thereafter, a guardian ad litem was appointed on the father’s motion. Several months after that, the court appointed a psychologist to act as custody evaluator pursuant to Section 604(b) of the Marriage Act. In the order of appointment, the court ordered that the parties split the cost of the evaluation “without prejudice to ultimate allocation.”

After a six month investigation, the evaluator filed his report. The evaluator concluded that there was no evidence of the alleged abuse. He further concluded that it would be in the child’s best interest for the father’s parenting time to be increased.

Not long after the report was filed, the mother filed a motion to dismiss the petition to modify custody. The motion stated that counsel for the father had advised counsel for the mother that he was dropping the petition. The motion was granted.

A month later, the father filed a motion to vacate, arguing that the order dismissing the action did not conform with the parties’ agreement. The court amended the order of dismissal to specify that dismissal was without prejudice.

The mother then filed a petition for costs, seeking to have both the costs of the evaluator and the guardian ad litem’s fees entirely assessed against the father. The trial court granted the motion in part, granting recovery of the evaluator’s fees, but not the guardian’s fees. The Appellate Court affirmed.

In an opinion by Justice Robert R. Thomas, the Supreme Court reversed.

Because both the trial and the Appellate Court had viewed the mother’s motion as a “voluntary” dismissal, the case had turned on Section 2-1009(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure, 735 ILCS 5/2-1009(a), which provides that a matter may be voluntarily dismissed upon payment of “costs.” However, the Court agreed with the dissenter from the Appellate Court that it was difficult to see how a motion by a litigation opponent could be a “voluntary” dismissal, even if it supposedly was triggered by the father’s decision not to proceed.   Instead, the Court concluded that the dismissal was more in the nature of one for want of prosecution. The distinction made no difference in Tiballi though, since the failure-to-prosecute statute required assessment of “costs” too.

So the Court arrived at the central question: were the evaluator’s fees “court costs”? Citing the narrow definition of court costs adopted in Vicencio v. Lincoln-Way Builders, Inc.: “charges or fees taxed by the court, such as filing fees, jury fees, courthouse fees and reporter fees,” the Court held that they were not. For one thing, court fees are nearly always set by statute, and for another, court fees are paid to the court, where the evaluator’s fees are paid directly to the evaluator.

Besides, the Marriage Act specifically spoke to the fees of the evaluator, providing that the court should allocate the fees “between the parties based upon the financial ability of each party and any other criteria the court considers appropriate.” 750 ILCS 5/604(b). The allocation provision of Section 604(b) was determinative, the Court found.

The Court accordingly held that a party dismissing his or her custody petition “for non-abusive reasons” was not required to bear the full cost of any court-appointed custody evaluators. The Court remanded the matter to the Circuit Court for allocation of the evaluator’s fees under Section 604(b).

Image courtesy of Flickr by Clyde Robinson (no changes).