In Florida, a party can recover attorney’s fees if it has a contractual or statutory basis. If a party has neither a contractual or statutory basis to recover attorney’s fees, another vehicle is to serve an Offer of Judgment (also known as a Proposal for Settlement). Whether there is an argument to recover attorney’s fees is an important consideration.
A. Attorney’s Fees Under The Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act
The Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (“FDUTPA”) is a consumer-protection related law designed to allow parties to sue other parties for deceptive and unfair trade or business practices. FDUTPA is discussed in more detail in http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/actual-damages-under-floridas-deceptive-and-unfair-trade-practices-act/. There are certain circumstances when asserting a FDUTPA claim is worthwhile and should be explored such as when a party is looking for a statutory basis to recover attorney’s fees.
FDUTPA contains a statutory basis to recover attorney’s fees. Section 501.2105 of FDUTPA provides in relevant part:
“(1) In any civil litigation resulting from an act or practice involving a violation of this part, except as provided in subsection (5), the prevailing party, after judgment in the trial court and exhaustion of all appeals, if any, may receive his or her reasonable attorney’s fees and costs from the nonprevailing party.”
The reason the word “may” is highlighted is because this is permissive, not mandatory, language. In other words, it is not automatic or mandatory that attorney’s have to be awarded to the prevailing party, but they could (i.e., may) be awarded. This is an important distinction. However, recently, Florida decisions have indicated that attorney fees should be mandatorily awarded to the prevailing party in a FDUTPA action.
Recently, in Bull Motors, LLC v. Alicia Borders, 39 Fla. L. Weekly D28a (Fla. 3d DCA 2013), the Third District stated:
“FDUTPA’s attorneys’ fees provision recognizes the policy of protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive trade practices and the need to attract private attorneys to take such cases by assuring them of a legal fee proportionate to their effects if their clients prevail. Such an award requires that the client prevail by recovering a judgment and, if there are counterclaims, by recovering a net judgment in the entire case. There is no express requirement of proportionality between the amount of the FDUTPA judgment and the attorney’s fees and costs incurred in obtaining the judgment.”
Bull Motors, supra (internal quotations omitted).
Bull Motors relied on the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Diamond Aircraft Indus., Inc. v. Horowitch, 107 So.3d 362 (Fla. 2013). In Diamond Aircraft, a plaintiff asserted a FDUTPA claim against a defendant. However, it was determined that FDUTPA did not apply because Arizona law, not Florida law, governed the case. Thus, the defendant prevailed under the plaintiff’s FDUTPA claim. A question certified to the Florida Supreme Court to answer was whether FDUTPA entitled a prevailing party to attorney’s fees if the court determines that FDUTPA does not apply to the case because the substantive law of another state (in this case, Arizona) applied. The Court stated that it did (or answered the question in the affirmative) holding that by a plaintiff asserting a FDUTPA claim, it exposes itself to both the benefits and potential consequences of the statute. Further, the Court expressed: “Under FDUTPA, a prevailing party is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees and costs in civil litigation arising from a violation of that act ‘after judgment in the trial court and exhaustion of all appeals.’” Diamond Aircraft, supra, at 370 quoting Fla.Stat. s. 501.2105.
Hence, even though the statute contains permissive language, there is strong legal authority that would mandatorily entitle a prevailing party to recover attorney’s fees. This cuts both ways. This means that a plaintiff could expose itself to attorney’s fees by improperly asserting a FDUTPA claim without facts to support a deceptive or unfair trade practice or without evidence to support actual damages as provided under the statute. Plaintiffs need to be cognizant of this before asserting a FDUTPA claim.
B. Attorney’s Fees By Serving Offers of Judgment
Moreover, Bull Motors discussed the vehicle to create an argument for the recoverability of attorney’s fees known as offers of judgment or proposals for settlement (“Offer of Judgment”). The Offer for Judgment statute in Florida Statute 768.79 provides in material portion:
“In any civil action for damages filed in the courts of this state, if a defendant files an offer of judgment which is not accepted by the plaintiff within 30 days, the defendant shall be entitled to recover reasonable costs and attorney’s fees incurred by her or him or on the defendant’s behalf pursuant to a policy of liability insurance or other contract from the date of filing of the offer if the judgment is one of no liability or the judgment obtained by the plaintiff is at least 25 percent less than such offer….If a plaintiff files a demand for judgment which is not accepted by the defendant within 30 days and the plaintiff recovers a judgment in an amount at least 25 percent greater than the offer, she or he shall be entitled to recover reasonable costs and attorney’s fees incurred from the date of the filing of the demand.”
In a nutshell, a defendant can recover its attorney’s fees if it serves an Offer of Judgment and the plaintiff gets a $0 judgment against the defendant or the plaintiff gets a judgment of at least 25% less than the offer. For example, and using simple math, let’s say the defendant serves an Offer of Judgment for $100,000 and the plaintiff obtains a net judgment against the defendant for $50,000. In this situation, the defendant could be entitled to its attorney’s fees from the date of the Offer of Judgment and forward since the plaintiff obtained a judgment of at least 25% less than its $100,000 Offer.
And, if a plaintiff serves an Offer of Judgment, it can recover its attorney’s fees if gets a net judgment of at least 25% greater than the Offer. Let’s say the plaintiff serves a $100,000 Offer of Judgment and recovers a net judgment against the defendant for $150,000. In this situation, the plaintiff could be entitled to its attorney’s fees from the date of the Offer of Judgment and forward since the plaintiff obtained a judgment of at least 25% greater than its $100,000 Offer.
However, serving Offers of Judgment are not sure-things under Florida law that will guarantee a party to attorney’s fees even if the math (shown above) works. There are numerous Florida decisions that find defects in Offers of Judgment (including technical defects) that ultimately prevent a party from recovering its attorney’s fees. Both Bulls Motor and Diamond Aircraft are examples of decisions whereby the Courts found flaws in the Offers of Judgment. Offers of Judgment do not apply to claims for equitable relief, only claims for damages. Thus, parties need to be crystal clear that the Offers only apply to claims for damages. But it is unfortunately not that simple. The Florida Supreme Court in Diamond Aircraft stated:
“Courts have also held that when a plaintiff seeks both monetary and nonmonetary relief, and a party makes a general offer of settlement, section 768.79 is not applicable. The reasoning adopted in those decisions is that strict construction of the phrase “any civil action for damages” in the offer of judgment statute does not include a claim for equitable relief, or one that involves claims for both monetary and nonmonetary relief.
We hold that section 768.79 does not apply to an action in which a plaintiff seeks both damages and equitable relief, and in which the defendant has served a general offer of judgment that seeks release of all claims.”
Diamond Aircraft, 107 So.3d at 373-74 (internal citations omitted); accord Bull Motors, supra (“The offer of judgment statute, section 768.79…does not apply to cases that, as here, involve a general offer seeking release of all claims in the case, both equitable and monetary.”).
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.