Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Whether Child Psychologist's Fees Taxable as Costs in Custody Battle

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Our previews of the latest additions to the Illinois Supreme Court's civil docket continue with In re Marriage of Tiballi. Tiballi poses the following issue: when a parent voluntarily dismisses a petition to change custody, can he or she be hit with the fees of a court-appointed child psychologist as costs?

The parties in Tiballi divorced in 2005. Five years later, the father petitioned for a change in their child's residential custodian. The court appointed a psychologist to speak to the parents and the child, as authorized by the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act; the psychologist ultimately submitted a report recommending that the child stay with its mother. Not long after, the mother filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the father had decided not to proceed with his petition. The court's order originally said nothing about costs, but later, the wife successfully 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, representing her share of the psychologist's costs. The trial court granted the petition.

The Second District affirmed. The case turned on the interpretation of Section 2-1009(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure, which permits a plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss an action "upon payment of costs." (735 ILCS 5/2-1009). The court distinguished "costs" from "litigation expenses" -- the difference being that court costs are mandatory and nonnegotiable, the price of having your case heard. The fees of a psychologist in a custody proceeding were not within the control of the parties, the court found; whether or not to retain him or her was up to the court, and the parties had no say in negotiating the psychologist's fees. Thus, the court found that the psychologist's fees were analogous to court costs. The court distinguished an earlier Supreme Court case, Galowich v. Beech Aircraft Corp., which permitted the recovery of only a limited share of expenses for depositions necessarily used at trial, distinguishing deposition expenses, a tool for trial preparation, from the trial court's decision as to whether or not to retain a psychologist to advise it.

Justice Kathryn E. Zenoff dissented. The majority had erred at the outset, Justice Zenoff argued -- the wife had moved to have the custody challenge dismissed, and how could a litigation opponent "voluntarily dismiss" her adversary's proceeding? So Section 2-1009(a) had nothing to do with the issue. But even if it were a voluntary dismissal, Justice Zenoff rejected equating the psychologist's fees with costs for a long list of reasons: (1) court costs are paid directly to the clerk of the court; (2) no judgment or court order is required to incur liability for court costs; (3) court costs are fixed and -- unlike the psychologist's fees - not subject to review for reasonableness; (4) court costs are not subject to allocation between parties based on ability to pay; (5) court costs are incurred regardless of the type of litigation involved; and (6) court costs have nothing to do with specific merits-based or policy-based issues. Since, in Justice Zenoff's view, the psychologist's fees were not "costs," the judgment should have been reversed.

We expect Tiballi to be decided within six to eight months.