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.

 

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.

SIGNIFICANT ISSUES TEST APPLIES TO FRAUDULENT LIEN CLAIMS TO DETERMINE ATTORNEY’S FEES

imagesConstruction lienors need to appreciate on the frontend that recovering statutory attorney’s fees in a construction lien action is NOT automatic—far from it.  This is because the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees in a construction lien action is determined by the significant issues test,”subjective test with no bright line standards based on who the trial court finds prevailed on the significant issues in the case.  If you want to talk about the subjective and convoluted nature of recovering attorney’s fees in a construction lien action under the significant issues test, a recent opinion by the Fourth District Court of Appeal is unfortunately another nail in the coffin.   

 

In Newman v. Guerra, 2017 WL 33702 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017), a contractor recorded a construction lien on a residential renovation project and filed a lien foreclosure lawsuit.  The homeowner countersued the contractor and asserted a fraudulent lien claim pursuant to Florida Statute s. 713.31.  An evidentiary hearing was held on whether the lien was a fraudulent lien and the trial court held that the lien was fraudulent (therefore unenforceable) because it included amounts that were not lienable under the law.  The remaining claims including both parties’ breach of contract claims proceeded to trial.  There was no attorney’s fees provision in the contract.  At the conclusion of the trial, the court found that the contractor was entitled a monetary judgment on its breach of contract claim. 

 

Question:  If the owner prevailed in the contractor’s construction lien claim and established that the lien was in fact fraudulent, is the owner entitled to his statutory attorney’s fees? 

 

While equity may suggest “yes” as the answer, the answer is not necessarily.  This is because of the significant issues test where the court is going to look at the outcome of the entire litigation to determine the party that prevailed on the significant issues in the entire case.   Since the contractor ultimately recovered a money judgment, the court held the owner was not the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees under the significant issues test.  The contractor was not either, but this is beside the point since the owner established the lien was fraudulent and the contractor recovered a money judgment under a breach of contract claim that did not provide for attorney’s fees.  Nonetheless, the court maintained:

 

In sum, the trial court properly applied the “significant issues” test…in denying the homeowner’s claim for attorney’s fees under section 713.31 [fraudulent lien statute]. Even if a party prevails on a fraudulent lien claim, the party must be the prevailing party in the case as a whole to be entitled to attorney’s fees under section 713.31.

Newman, supra, at *4.

 

 

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.

 

QUICK NOTE: ATTORNEY’S FEES AND THE SIGNIFICANT ISSUES TEST

imagesAttorney’s fees become a component of damages that parties seek to recover whenever there is a contractual or statutory basis for them to recover their fees.  Parties want to be able to recover all or substantially most of the attorney’s fees they incurred in pursuing their claim. (In my experience, recovering all of the fees incurred is very challenging.)  But, to be entitled to attorney’s fees, a party has to be deemed the prevailing party.  There is the sentiment that as long as you recover a positive net judgment (even if it is for $100 when your claim was for $50,000) then you will be able to recover your attorney’s fees which will likely exceed the amount that was ever in dispute.  With this sentiment, certain disputes become solely driven by attorney’s fees.  Now, there is a trend for the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees for certain disputes such as construction lien actions and breach of contract actions to be determined by the significant issues test.  While recovering a net judgment is important, there are other equitable considerations a court or arbitrator can consider to determine the party that prevailed on the significant issues for purposes of awarding attorney’s fees.  This article explains more.  

 

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.

FURTHER CONFUSION TO RECOVERING ATTORNEYS’ FEES IN A LIEN ACTION

feesRecovering 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.

 

 

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.

DO NOT BANK ON RECOVERING YOUR ATTORNEYS’ FEES IN A CONSTRUCTION LIEN FORECLOSURE ACTION

untitledA party should never bank on recovering their attorneys’ fees when prosecuting or defending a construction lien foreclosure action.

 

In a construction lien action, the prevailing party has been statutorily entitled to recover their reasonable attorneys’ fees. Fla.Stat. §713.29.   This is important since a party can only recover their attorneys’ fees if there is a statutory or contractual basis to do so.

 

 

The Florida Supreme Court in Trytek v. Gale Indus., Inc., 3 So.3d 1194 (Fla. 2009), analyzed what it meant to be a prevailing party for purposes of attorneys’ fees in a construction lien action and held that that the significant issues test is the test to determine the prevailing party. Under this test, the prevailing party is not necessarily the party that wins a sum of money at trial, but, rather, the party that wins the significant issues in the case. Hence, it is more than possible that the party that wins the significant issues based on the circumstances of the case is not the party that wins money. The Florida Supreme Court further held that a court can rule that no party is the prevailing party in this case.

 

The decision in Trytek has led to confusion, as well as consternation, because there is no objective or qualitative standard to determine the prevailing party for purposes of attorneys’ fees under the significant issues test. Instead, a pure subjective standard is used to determine the prevailing party that is not necessarily tied to the outcome of the case; and, importantly, this decision permits the trial court to find no prevailing party. This is noteworthy because the recovery of attorneys’ fees oftentimes drives the outcome of a case because the fees can be more than the amount in controversy.   Now, with a subjective test used to determine whether a party can recover their attorneys’ fees, a party must consider that they may not be entitled to their attorneys’ fees when deciding how to pursue or defend a construction lien foreclosure action.

 

The recent case of Sheppard v. M&R Plumbing, Inc., 36 Fla. L. Weekly D1697b (Fla. 1st DCA 2011), elaborates on the confusion of the significant issues test and the reason why a party should not bank on recovering their attorneys’ fees in a construction lien foreclosure action. In this case, a plumber installed a water treatment system in a house. Apparently, there was no written contract and there was no meeting of minds with respect to the costs to install this water treatment system. The plumber recorded a construction lien and foreclosed the lien and, as an alternative cause of action, sued the owner for quantum meruit (unjust enrichment) for the reasonable value of labor, services, and materials it provided to the owner.

 

The reason the plumber sued the owner to foreclose a construction lien and for quantum meruit is because there was uncertainty as to whether a contract existed between the owner and the plumber. A construction lien, however, can only arise if there is a contract (oral or written)—no contract means no lien rights. Under a quantum meruit action, there is an acknowledgment that a contract does not exist, but because value was allegedly provided, the party should be entitled to the reasonable cost of that value.

 

Whether the plumber prevailed on its construction lien action or alternative quantum meruit action should have been crucial for a determination of which party should be deemed a prevailing party for purposes of recovering its attorney fees. The reason being that a party does not have any legal basis to recover their attorneys’ fees in a quantum meruit action since there is no statutory or contractual basis to recover fees in this type of action.

 

At trial, a jury decided that a contract did not exist between the plumber and the owner. Because a contract did not exist, the plumber could not prevail on its construction lien action. However, the jury did decide that the plumber did provide value to the owner of approximately $13,000 and ruled in favor of the plumber on its alternative quantum meruit action.

 

The issue on appeal to the First District was whether the owner or the plumber should be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of fees. From a practical standpoint, it would make sense that the owner prevailed on the significant issues test because the owner prevailed in entirety on the construction lien foreclosure action, importantly, the only count that entitled a party to recover attorneys’ fees. But, this rationale is not the rationale employed by the First District. Instead, the First District maintained:

 

“While we agree the Shephards [owner] must now be deemed the prevailing parties on the lien foreclosure count, entry of the money judgment in favor of M&R [plumber] on the quantum meruit count made M&R, not the Shephards, the prevailing party in the litigation, viewing the entire ‘action brought’ as a whole.”

 

Neither party was deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorneys’ fees. This ruling, unfortunately, leads to further confusion and frustration on when a party will be deemed the prevailing party in a construction lien action. Here, the plumber lost in entirety its lien action despite being awarded some money in its quantum meruit action (again, an equity action that does not afford the prevailing party to attorneys’ fees). This was overlooked by the First District leaving an owner that prevailed on the significant issues of the lien action to bear all of its attorneys’ fees. The only conclusion that can be reached from this decision is that, again, there is no objective or qualitative way to determine the prevailing party in a construction lien foreclosure action, especially given the ruling in this case where a party can win the lien action but lose an alternative equity action and still not be deemed the prevailing party.

 

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.