Just because you are suing to foreclose your construction lien does NOT mean you will automatically recover your attorney’s fees as the prevailing party. There does NOT have to be a prevailing party for purposes of recovering attorney’s fees. This means a court or arbitrator could rule that neither party was the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees; thus, neither party can recover their attorney’s fees from the other (or presumed losing) party. This is an important consideration because it is impossible to predict on the frontend whether a court or arbitrator will deem you the prevailing party for purposes of recovering your attorney’s fees. This is because a court or arbitrator is to employ the significant issues test to determine which party prevailed on the significant issues to be deemed the prevailing party; and, again, a court or arbitrator could find neither party prevailed on the significant issues, hence there is no prevailing party.
This issue was clarified the hard way in Wells v. Halmac Development, Inc., 41 Fla.L.Weekly D924a (Fla. 3d DCA 2016) when an arbitrator ruled that neither party was the prevailing party for purposes of awarding attorney’s fees. (Check here for a history of this dispute.) The attorney’s fees incurred in the arbitration were probably significant so a party believed it should have been declared the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees and continued to fight this issue in court when the arbitration award was trying to be confirmed and enforced. The fight turned acrimonious–there were motions for sanctions served and two appeals.
Of applicability here, one of the appeals dealt with whether the trial court should have granted attorney’s fees pursuant to a motion for sanctions due to the opposing party continuing to try to declare itself as the prevailing party after (a) the arbitrator determined there would be no prevailing party and (b) the arbitrator’s determination corresponded with the law. The Third District held that the motion for sanctions should have been granted awarding the party attorney’s fees because the continuous fight to be declared the prevailing party was not colorable under the law—the law was clear that there did NOT have to be a prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees in a construction lien action. On this point, the Third District stated:
In fact, at the time Castro filed his motion requesting the trial court to declare him the prevailing party, the Florida Supreme Court had already weighed in on this issue and had explicitly “reject[ed] the notion that in every construction lien case the trial court is compelled to find a prevailing party.” Trytek, 3 So. 3d at 1204 n. 13. The Trytek court further emphasized that there might not always be a “prevailing party” in these types of suits and held that “the possibility that neither party is a ‘prevailing party’ is consistent with an application of the ‘significant issues’ test of Moritz and .” Id. at 1203. Most notably for our analysis, Trytek made it clear that Hollub and similar cases should not be read to mean that a prevailing party must be declared in a construction lien action:
We do not construe any of the appellate cases concerning prevailing party attorneys’ fees to mandate that there be a prevailing party, only that where a “prevailing party” is determined, the entitlement to attorneys’ fees is mandatory. See Pennington & Assocs., Inc. v. Evans, 932 So.2d 1253, 1254 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006); Hollub Constr. Co. v. Narula, 704 So.2d 689, 690 (Fla. 3d DCA 1997); Grant v. Wester, 679 So.2d 1301, 1308 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996); Sanfilippo v. Larry Giacin Tile Co., 390 So.2d 413, 414 (Fla. 4th DCA 1980). We reject the notion that in every construction lien case the trial court is compelled to find a prevailing party. See Kenmark Constr., Inc. v. Cronin, 765 So.2d 129 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000) (declining to announce a bright-line rule that a trial court must find a prevailing party in every construction lien action).
Id. at 1204 n. 13.
The Trytek decision — issued in 2009 — represented the settled law in Florida well before the arbitration proceedings in this case, and the arbitrator specifically relied upon and cited to Trytek in its determination that “there is no prevailing party for the purposes of an award of attorney’s fees.” Therefore, Castro’s counsel knew or should have known that any claim that Castro was entitled to be declared the prevailing party, after the arbitrator clearly determined there was no prevailing party, “[w]ould not be supported by the application of then-existing law to those material facts.” § 57.105(1)(b), Fla. Stat. (2012). This court has already and necessarily made this very determination when we held (in the prior appeal) that the trial court had no legal basis upon which to overturn the arbitrator’s determination (that there was no prevailing party) and to declare that Castro was the prevailing party.
If you extract anything from this case, it is that a court or arbitrator does NOT have to deem a party the prevailing party in a construction lien case. The court or arbitrator will do this by finding that neither party prevailed on the significant issues of the case (as determined by the court or arbitrator). As such, neither party is the prevailing party and neither party is entitled to attorney’s fees from the opposing party.
Please contact David Adelstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.