Low and behold, a party can be the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees even if that party is awarded $0. That’s right, even if the party is awarded a big fat zero, they can still be the prevailing party for purposes of being entitled to attorney’s fees. This is because a party is the prevailing party if they prevail on the significant issues in the case. A party can prevail on the significant issues even if that party is awarded $0. Whoa!
For example, in Coconut Key Homeowner’s Association, Inc. v. Gonzalez, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D1045a (Fla. 4th DCA 2018), a homeowner sued her homeowner’s association claiming the association breached its governing documents. There was a basis for fees under Florida’s homeowner’s association law (and there likely was a basis under the governing documents). At trial, the jury held that the association breached its governing documents, but awarded the homeowner nothing ($0). The trial court also issued injunctive relief in favor of the homeowner. The homeowner claimed she should be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees; however, this was denied by the trial court based on the $0 verdict and no fees were awarded to the homeowner.
On appeal, however, the Fourth District took a different stance. The Court, relying on other Florida appellate decisions, maintained that the homeowner could be deemed the prevailing party despite receiving no monetary award:
While the prevailing party determination does not depend solely on the magnitude of relief Gonzalez [homeowner] obtained, she was required, at the least, to secure some relief on the merits of her claim to achieve such status. “ ‘[P]laintiffs may be considered a ‘prevailing party’ for attorney’s fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.’ ” Although there is ongoing debate in the courts on whether a plaintiff who recovers no money damages can be a prevailing party, a party who receives affirmative judicial or equitable relief is clearly considered a prevailing party under the law. Gonzalez was indisputably a prevailing party on her injunctive claim in equity, regardless of her marginal victory on the breach count. Thus, prevailing party attorney fees should be awarded to Gonzalez in this dispute.
Gonzalez, supra (internal citations omitted).
The Fourth District justified declaring the homeowner the prevailing party because an injunction was also issued in her favor. Hence, she did receive some benefit by bringing the suit even if she recovered no monetary damages. However, even if the homeowner did not bring a claim for injunctive relief, it is highly likely the same result would have been reached by the Fourth District. Since the jury found that the association breached the governing documents, the homeowner would have achieved some benefit in bringing the suit and, therefore, prevailed on the significant issues. Gonzalez, supra (“When there is a prevailing party statute or contract, reasonable attorney fees must be awarded.”).
As of now, it is uncertain how this would be reconciled with the significant issues test to determine the prevailing party in a construction lien action. Case law has held that a court has discretion to determine no party is the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees in a construction lien action. Putting this aside, however, this holding should apply to breach of contract cases and to other potential statutory claims that afford a basis for attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. Despite a party receiving no monetary award, they may still be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees if they prevail on the significant issues in the case (e.g., the jury determined the other party committed a breach).
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