A federal judge revived the possibility of an $8.2 million fraud award to Peter M. Roberts yesterday -- 24 years after his invention of a quick-release socket wrench that made tens of millions of dollars in profits for Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Roberts was a Sears employe in Gardner, Mass., in 1963 when he discovered a simple way to let a person change sockets quickly and easily with just one hand.

Sears, the world's largest merchandiser, paid Roberts $10,000 for his patent. But he uncovered information that led him to sue Sears for fraud.

Roberts was 18 years old when he made the wrench. For 17 1/2 years -- almost half his lifetime -- the litigation has twisted and torqued through trial and appeals courts in Chicago and Washington.

Yesterday, in a defeat for Sears, U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras in Chicago ruled that the company had failed to sustain its claim of judicial error in the original trial, conducted by Judge Nicholas J. Bua in 1984.

Sears attorney James G. Hunter did not respond to a request for comment on whether the company will pay the $8.2 million or return to the courts to try to prevent reinstatement of the award, which would be enlarged by at least $1 million for lost interest.

Roberts' lawyer, John B. Davidson, said: "Well, perhaps matters have turned a corner, if Judge Kocoras' ruling is upheld... . We believe the decision is an important one."

One of the pieces of information that led Roberts to sue Sears concerned Charles Fay, the lawyer he had hired to file a patent application.

While Fay "was purportedly working for Roberts," and without the inventor's knowledge, Federal Judge George N. Leighton said in a 1979 opinion, Fay was retained by Sears. Relying on Fay, Roberts signed an agreement -- in 1965, when he was 20 -- under which Sears limited his royalties to $10,000. "Its content and meaning were never explained to him," Leighton wrote. Within nine months, Sears sold enough of the new wrenches to pay the $10,000 in full.

"It is an absolute lie," Fay, now in his 80s, said in a phone interview a year ago from his home in Sterling, Mass. "I have never done any legal matters at all for Sears.

"I've never been approached to do anything for them, and I never approached them to do anything for them," Fay said. "That judge {Leighton} is really up a tree, believe me."

Fay also said he had "considered suing {Leighton} for libel," commenting, "It didn't help my reputation any."

In the trials, however, Davidson had produced evidence that Sears had asked Fay if he'd be interested in working for the company, and that Sears and Fay had discussed the wrench patent and the rates he would be paid. Davidson also produced bills Fay sent to Sears.

Roberts lives in Red Bank, Tenn., where he has two full-time jobs while his wife holds down a third. His original lead counsel was Davidson's father, Louis, who died in 1985.