In a case that has potentially far-reaching implications for fee petitions, the Illinois Third District appellate court formally adopted a framework for considering such petitions laid out by the Supreme Court nearly four decades ago. Perhaps just as important, the Third District rebuffed the trial court’s reduction of attorney fees awarded to a successful plaintiff without explaining the reasoning for the reduction. The Court ultimately reversed the trial court’s award and remanded the case for further consideration of the plaintiff’s fee petition.
The plaintiff in the case, Austin Casey III, bought a used vehicle from the defendant, Rides Unlimited Chicago, Inc. The vehicle broke down two hours into Casey’s return trip to his home in Michigan. Casey had the vehicle towed back to Rides Unlimited the same day and requested a refund of the purchase price. Rides Unlimited refused. Casey then sued Rides Unlimited alleging violations of the various statutes including the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (Consumer Fraud Act). After discovery, Casey filed a motion for summary judgment on his claim that Rides Unlimited violated Section 2L of the Consumer Fraud Act.
Section 2L prohibits a vehicle dealership from “exclud[ing], modify[ing], or disclaim[ing] the implied warranty of merchantability . . . before midnight of the 15th calendar day after delivery of a used motor vehicle or until a used motor vehicle is driven 500 miles after delivery, whichever is earlier.” It further provides that any “attempt to exclude, modify, or disclaim the implied warranty of merchantability or to limit the remedies for a breach of the warranty in violation of this Section renders a purchase agreement voidable at the option of the purchaser.”
The trial court granted Casey’s motion for summary judgment, awarded Casey the purchase price, and dismissed Casey’s other claims. Casey then filed a petition for attorney fees under Section 10a(c) of the Consumer Fraud Act, which provides that a court “may award, in addition to the relief provided in this Section, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party.” Casey sought $10,640 in attorney fees and $454.52 in costs, for a total of $11,094.52. The trial court held a hearing on the fee petition and ultimately granted the petition but reduced the fee award to only $2,500. Casey appealed the trial court’s reduced fee award.
The Third District court of appeals granted leave to the National Association of Consumer Advocates and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association to file an amicus curiae brief in support of Casey’s position that the trial court erred in reducing the attorney fee award. Our own Patrick Austermuehle authored the amicus brief that ultimately resulted in the Third District’s reversal and remand of the case back to the trial court to reconsider Casey’s petition for attorney fees.
In the amicus brief, we urged the Third District to join the other districts in the state and issue an opinion formally adopting the framework for awarding attorney fees set out by the Supreme Court in Hensley v. Eckerhart, which recognized the importance of statutory fee-shifting (i.e. awarding attorney fees to successful litigants) in individual consumer claims. In its decision, the Court acknowledged that the third district is the only appellate district in Illinois that has not yet expressly adopted the Hensley framework. The Court then proceeded to examine the Hensley framework and cite decisions from the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth Districts adopting or employing the Hensley framework. Then, as we urged the Court to do in the brief, the Court formally adopted the Hensley’s framework to bring the Third District “in alignment with the other appellate court districts that have employed the Hensley framework.”
We also argued in the amicus brief that the Court should reverse and remand the case because the trial court arbitrarily reduced the attorney fee award without explaining its reasoning for the reduction. We explained to the Court that permitting trial courts to take an ad hoc approach to fee petitions would undermine the twin goals of uniformity and fairness of outcomes across the state and increased access to justice for Illinois consumers.
In short, we argued that absent a unified methodology for considering fee petitions fewer attorneys will be willing to take on complicated consumer matters where the attorney’s only compensation will come from the fees awarded by the trial courts. Fewer consumer attorneys hurts consumers, who may find that the complexities of litigation act as an effective bar to justice. Requiring courts to explain the reasoning behind reducing fee awards, we argued and the Court agreed, “would eliminate the common issues of circuit courts applying an unreasoned ‘proportionality’ test, or worse, simply ‘eyeballing’ a fee request and arbitrarily determining it is excessive.”
The Court’s full opinion is available here.
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