RECEIVING A $0 VERDICT AND STILL BEING DEEMED THE PREVAILING PARTY FOR PURPOSES OF ATTORNEY’S FEES

shutterstock_336450779Low 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). 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

AMBIGUITY IN INSURANCE POLICY WILL BE INTERPRETED IN FAVOR OF INSURANCE COVERAGE

shutterstock_389538880An ambiguity in an insurance policy–after reading and interpreting the policy as a whole–will be construed against an insurerThis means an ambiguity will be construed in favor of insurance coverage (for the benefit of the insured) as opposed to against insurance coverage.  This does not mean that every insurance policy contains an ambiguity.  This also does not mean a court will interpret plain and ordinary words contrary to their conventional meaning or definition.  But, as we all know, insurance policies are not the easiest of documents to decipher and ambiguities do exist relating to a particular issue or circumstance to the benefit of an insured.  An insured that is dealing with specific insurance coverage issues should make sure they are working with counsel that looks to maximize insurance coverage, even if that means exploring ambiguities that will benefit an insured based on a particular issue or circumstance.

 

An example of an ambiguity in an insurance policy relating to a particular issue that benefitted an insured can be found in the Florida Supreme Court decision of Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Macedo, 42 Fla. L. Weekly S731a (Fla. 2017).  This case involved an automobile accident and the interpretation of an automobile liability policy. 

 

In this case, after an accident, a plaintiff sued the defendant that caused the accident. The defendant’s insurer GEICO provided a defense in accordance with the defendant’s automobile liability policy.  During the litigation, the plaintiff served a proposal for settlement for $50,000, which is a procedural vehicle to create the argument for attorney’s fees if the defendant does not accept the proposal.  The defendant—again, being defended by its insurer GEICO—did not accept the proposal.  The case proceeded to trial and the plaintiff obtained a jury verdict of approximately $243,000.  This meant the plaintiff had a basis to recover attorney’s fees since the defendant did not accept the proposal for settlement.   The plaintiff moved to bind GEICO to a judgment, and the underlying issue was whether the defendant’s insurer GEICO was liable under the policy for attorney’s fees.  If GEICO was not liable, then that meant the defendant was individually liable for the plaintiff’s incurred attorney’s fees. 

 

This is a significant issue because by the defendant’s counsel not accepting the proposal for settlement, the defendant, individually, was exposed to substantial attorney’s fees incurred by the plaintiff.   The defendant’s counsel was hired by GEICO and GEICO controlled any settlement of the case and the defendant was required to cooperate with GEICO.

 

The applicable language of the insurance policy as relied upon by the Florida Supreme Court was as follows:

 

ADDITIONAL PAYMENTS WE WILL MAKE UNDER THE LIABILITY COVERAGES

1. All investigative and legal costs incurred by us.

. . . .

4. We will upon request by an insured, provide reimbursement for the following items:

. . . .

(c) All reasonable costs incurred by an insured at our request.

. . . .

Additionally, the index of the policy lists “Legal Expenses And Court Costs” as items that are covered under the Additional Payments section.

 

The Florida Supreme Court, interpreting the policy as a whole, found this language to be ambiguous relating to the insurer’s obligation to cover attorney’s fees incurred by the plaintiff due to GEICO’s defense counsel not accepting the proposal for settlement.  This ambiguity was a big “W” for both the defendant-insured and the plaintiff because it meant that GEICO was liable for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.

 

First, the Court explained that the terms “Legal Expenses” and “Court Courts” signify that legal expenses in addition to court costs would be covered under the policy; otherwise, there would have been no reason to separately include the language “Legal Expenses” in the index of the policy.

 

Second, the Court explained that there are numerous reasonable interpretations that attorney’s fees are encompassed by the terms “costs” and expenses” as used in the policy. 

 

And, third, the Court explained that the legal expenses (attorney’s fees) incurred by the insured were the product of GEICO electing not to accept the proposal for settlement, and thus, were incurred by the defendant-insured at GEICO’s direct request.  GEICO had complete discretion under the policy to settle the case with the insured being required to cooperate with its insurer.   “It follows that any cost or fee incurred as a result of GEICO exercising its authority and control is something that it intended to pay.”  See Macedo, supra

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

APPELLATE ATTORNEY’S FEES AND THE SIGNIFICANT ISSUES TEST

shutterstock_379140319The significant issues test to determine the prevailing party in construction lien actions (which, by the way, also applies to breach of contract actions) applies to appellate attorney’s fees too!  Under this test, the trial court has discretion to determine which party prevailed on the significant issues of the case for purposes of attorney’s fees.  The trial court also has discretion to determine that neither party was the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees

 

In a recent decision, Bauer v. Ready Windows Sales & Service Corp., 42 Fla. L. Weekly D1417a (Fla. 3d DCA 2017), there were competing motions for appellate attorney’s fees.   Both parties believed they should be deemed the prevailing party under Florida Statute s. 713.29 (statute that authorizes prevailing party attorney’s fees under Florida’s Construction Lien Law).    The appellate court held that neither party was the prevailing party under the significant issues test:  “[W]e conclude that each party lost on their appeal, while each party successfully defended that part of the judgment in their favor on the other party’s cross-appeal. Because both parties prevailed on significant issues, this Court finds that appellate fees are not warranted for either party.” Bauer, supra

 

Attorney’s fees can very easily drive construction lien and bond disputes.  Just remember, the significant issues test to determine the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees applies to fees incurred at the trial court and appellate court levels.  This test has a subjective component that gives a court an easy out—determine that neither party prevailed on the significant issues or, as in the above case, both parties prevailed on the significant issues, meaning neither party is entitled to attorney’s fees. 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

NEW EBOOK: INNOVATIVE ATTORNEY’S FEE ARRANGEMENTS

41b5ksdWluL._AC_US436_QL65_The traditional attorney’s fee model for business disputes including construction disputes is hourly billing.   There is certainly nothing wrong with this model.  But…it is NOT the only model and there are other models that can actually be perceived as value-added to your business.  There is nothing wrong with innovation and creativity.  This new ebook discusses Innovative Attorney’s Fee Arrangements.  It can be obtained from Amazon, iTunes, or Nook.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.