Recovering attorneys’ fees in a lien action is becoming more and more convoluted. Recent caselaw has made it more challenging for a party prevailing in a lien action to recover their attorneys’ fees. Now, the test to recover attorneys’ fees is the “significant issues test,” i.e., which party prevailed on the significant issues in the case. In other words, a party could win the lien action yet still not be entitled to recover their attorneys’ fees. Plus, the determination of the significant issues is in the discretion of the judge, meaning it is very difficult to predict whether a party will recover any attorney fees even if they prevail on the lien action.
The case of GMPF Framing, LLC v. Villages at Lake Lily Associates, LLC, 100 So.3d 243 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012), illustrates the challenges in recovering attorneys’ fees. In this case, a lienor recorded a claim of lien and filed a lien foreclosure action. However, instead of just suing to foreclose the lien, the lienor also sued for unjust enrichment and for an equitable lien (both counts which are difficult counts for a lienor / contractor to prevail on against an owner). The owner prevailed on the lien claim and the trial court awarded the owner attorneys’ fees. However, on appeal, the Fifth District Court of appeal reversed because it was undetermined which party won on the significant issues because the equitable lien and unjust enrichment claims remained pending even though the trial court discharged the lien. In particular, the Fifth District found that it is possible that the lienor could prevail on these remaining counts and be deemed the prevailing party by prevailing on the significant issues in the case.
This decision complicates how attorneys’ fees are awarded in a lien action and, to that end, which party will be deemed the prevailing party. A lien action is a statutory action that statutorily entitles a party to prevailing party attorneys‘ fees. See Fla.Stat. s. 713.29. The other counts in this lawsuit (unjust enrichment and equitable lien) have no statutory or contractual basis for attorneys‘ fees. Thus, they really should not factor in as to which party won on the significant issues of the lien action–the action that entitles a party to attorneys‘ fees. Unfortunately, this is not how the GMPF Framing Court ruled (nor does it appear to be how other Florida appellate courts will rule), which may have the undesirable effect of motivating lienors to sue on otherwise improper liens by simply coupling their lien claim with another claim and hope they are still able to prevail on the significant issues even if the lien claim is discharged.
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