Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. James
C. Murray, Judge, presiding.
JUSTICE JOHNSON DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Plaintiffs, Socorro Hernandez, Ubaldo Carreonn, and Laverene Hope Chambers, filed a complaint on September 28, 1981, against defendant, former Attorney General Tyrone Fahner, seeking a declaratory judgment that the term "person" as used in the Crime Victims Compensation Act applies to all applicants and that defendant's policy of requiring applicants to submit documentation to prove the victim's citizenship or status as a legal alien is unlawful. On April 26, 1983, the trial court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. On May 26, 1983, plaintiffs moved to vacate that portion of the court's April 26, 1983, order denying them attorney fees. On January 31, 1984, the trial court issued its final order and awarded plaintiffs attorney fees. Defendant now appeals the court's summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs and its order granting plaintiffs attorney fees.
On appeal, defendant argues that (1) the Illinois Court of Claims has exclusive jurisdiction over plaintiffs' action; (2) the trial court erred in finding the Attorney General was not authorized to require applicants to submit proof of the victim's immigration status; and (3) the court erred in granting plaintiffs' request for attorney fees. Conversely, plaintiffs argue that the action of the Attorney General has rendered the merits of this case moot and defendant failed to timely file this appeal.
The record indicates that plaintiffs applied for benefits under the Illinois Crime Victims Compensation Act (the Act) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 70, par. 71 et seq.). The Act provides compensation for crime victims who incur financial hardship as a result of being criminally victimized and for families of crime victims who incur additional expenses or financial hardship due to the death of the crime victim. (See Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 70, par. 71 et seq.) Plaintiffs were denied benefits because they failed to submit documents verifying citizenship or legal alien status of the victims.
The Attorney General, acting in his capacity as administrator of the Act, informed plaintiffs that their claims would be denied because they failed to produce evidence that the crime victims were "legal" aliens or "citizens." The Attorney General, through his crime victim division, prepares the information forms sent to claimants, furnishes claimants with all the necessary forms to file a claim, processes all claims for benefits under the Act, prepares investigation reports recommending to the Illinois Court of Claims that the application be approved or denied, and prepares the Illinois Court of Claims' opinions that are sent to claimants. The Illinois Court of Claims, although not required to, has always followed the Attorney General's recommendation as to claims under the Act.
Plaintiffs claim that the court no longer has jurisdiction over the merits of the case because defendant's action had rendered the merits moot. Plaintiffs state that although the trial court's decision did not require the Attorney General to change his policy, he has done so and no longer inquires into the victim's immigration status in processing claims under the Act. Even assuming, arguendo, that the Attorney General's action has rendered the merits of this case moot, the primary issue in this case is of sufficient public interest to warrant the court's consideration.
• 1, 2 In ascertaining whether the public interest exception to the mootness rule applies, three criteria must be considered: (1) the public nature of the question; (2) the desirability of an authoritative determination for the purpose of guiding public officers; and (3) the likelihood the issue will recur. (People ex rel. Wallace v. Labrenz (1952), 411 Ill. 618, 622, 104 N.E.2d 769, 772; Environmental Protection Agency v. Pollution Control Board (1980), 88 Ill. App.3d 71, 76, 410 N.E.2d 98, 103, rev'd on other grounds (1981), 86 Ill.2d 390.) The central issue before the court is whether the Attorney General, a public officer, has exceeded his statutory authority in requiring applicants for compensation under the Act to submit documents to prove the victim was or is a citizen or legal alien. This issue is public in nature; its outcome will impact upon many future applicants for compensation under the Act. As plaintiffs indicate, this policy primarily affects the hispanic community. Hispanics represent a significant percentage of applicants for compensation under the Act. Second, an authoritative determination is needed so that the Attorney General will understand the limits of his discretion and duty in implementing the Act. Lastly, the Attorney General no longer inquires into a victim's immigration status in processing applicants' claims, although the trial court's decision did not require him to do so. Thus, he is free to change his policy and inquire into the victim's immigration status. Therefore, it is likely the issue will recur in the future. Accordingly, we hold this case is justiciable under the public interest exception to the mootness doctrine.
• 3 Plaintiffs next contend that this court is without jurisdiction to entertain the merits of this case on appeal because defendant failed to timely file this appeal. They argue that defendant's failure to file an appeal within 30 days of the trial court's April 26, 1983, order leaves the appeals court without jurisdiction to hear the case on its merits. The trial court, in its April 26, 1983, order, granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and found that (1) the word "person" as used in the Crime Victims Compensation Act meant every human being regardless of the person's immigration status; (2) the defendant's practice of inquiring into or otherwise requiring proof of the victim's citizenship or legal alien status as a condition of eligibility for compensation violates the Act; and (3) plaintiffs were not entitled to attorney fees.
Where the circuit court enters a final order or judgment, a party to the action has 30 days within which to file an appeal (87 Ill.2d R. 303(a)), and, for purposes of Supreme Court Rule 303, an order is final if it "terminate[s] the litigation between the parties on the merits of the cause," or "disposes of the rights of the parties, either upon the entire controversy or upon some definite and separate part thereof." (Village of Niles v. Szczesny (1958), 13 Ill.2d 45, 48, 147 N.E.2d 371, 372.) If the order determines "the ultimate rights of the parties with respect to distinct matters which have no bearing on other matters left for further consideration or if the matters left for future determination are merely incidental to the ultimate rights which have been adjudicated," it must be considered final. (Barnhart v. Barnhart (1953), 415 Ill. 303, 308-09, 114 N.E.2d 378, 381.) However, as long as any party's timely post-trial motion remains undisposed, the underlying judgment is not final, and complete jurisdiction remains in the circuit court. In re Marriage of Uphoff (1983), 99 Ill.2d 90, 95, 457 N.E.2d 426, 428.
The record shows that on May 26, 1983, plaintiffs filed a timely post-trial motion requesting the trial court to vacate that portion of its April 26 order denying them attorney fees and for an award of such fees. The court, on October 27, 1983, vacated the portion of its April 26 order denying plaintiffs attorney fees. On January 31, 1984, the court issued its final order, which awarded plaintiffs $14,300 in attorney fees. Defendant, on February 23, 1984, filed a notice of appeal of the trial court's April 26, 1983, order and its January 31, 1984, order.
Plaintiffs assert that their post-trial motion on May 26, 1983, extended only the trial court's jurisdiction as to the issue of attorney fees and not as to the merits of the case. This is so, they argue, because the issue of attorney fees is incidental to the merits of the case. Plaintiffs cite no case holding that the issue of attorney fees is incidental to the merits of the case, nor did our research reveal any case so holding.
• 4 Supreme Court Rules 303(a) and 304(a) (87 Ill.2d Rules 303(a), 304(a)) are dispositive of plaintiffs' argument. Plaintiffs' request for attorney fees is a "claim" as that term is used in Rule ...